Automation For The NES

Old hardware might not be anywhere close to as powerful as modern technology, but it does have a few perks. Aesthetics can of course drive the popularity of things like retro gaming systems, but the ease of understanding the underpinnings of their inner workings is also critical. The Nintendo Entertainment System, now nearly four decades old, is a relatively simple machine by modern standards and this lends the system to plenty of modifications, like this controller that allows the system to be somewhat automated.

The original NES controller used a fairly simple shift register to send button presses to the system. The system outputted a latch signal to the controller, the shift register would take as input the current state of the buttons, and then would send them one-by-one to the system at a rate of around 1000 times per second. These signals can be sent without a controller easily enough, too. This build uses a CD4021 shift register, which is the same as the original controller, but instead of reading button states it accepts its inputs from a separate computer via a latching circuit. In this case, the separate computer is a custom design that came about through adapting cassette storage for a 6502-based computer, but it could come from anything else just as easily.

With this system in place, it’s possible to automate gameplay to some extent. Since the system can’t get feedback about the game in its current state, it requires some precise timing to get it to play the game well, and a lot of tuning needs to go into it. This isn’t just a one-off, either. Similar methods are how we get tool-assisted speedruns of games and although these are often done in emulators instead of on real hardware, they can result in some interesting exploits.

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