Satoru Iwata is perhaps best remembered for leading Nintendo through the development of the DS and Wii, two wildly successful systems which undeniably helped bring gaming to a wider and more mainstream audience. But decades before becoming the company’s President in 2002, he got his start in the industry as a developer working on many early console and computer games. [Robin Harbron] recently decided to dig into one of the Iwata’s earliest projects, Star Battle for the VIC-20.
It’s been known for some time that Iwata, then just 22 years old, had hidden his name and a message in the game’s source code. But [Robin] wondered if there was more to the story. Looking at the text in memory, he noticed the lines were actually null-terminated. Realizing the message was likely intended to get printed on the screen at one point during the game’s development, he started hunting for a way to trigger the nearly 40 year old Easter Egg.
As it turns out, it’s hidden behind a single flag in the code. Just change it from 0 to 1, and the game will display Iwata’s long-hidden credit screen. That proved the message was originally intended to be visible to players, but it still didn’t explain how they were supposed to trigger it during normal game play.
That’s where things really get interesting. As [Robin] gives us a guided tour through Star Battle’s inner workings, he explains that Iwata originally intended the player to hit a special combination of keys to tick over the Easter Egg’s enable flag. All of the code is still there in the commercial release of the game, but it’s been disabled. As Iwata’s life was tragically cut short in 2015 due to complications from cancer, we’ll perhaps never know the reason he commented out the code in question before the game was released. But at least we can now finally see this hidden message from one of gaming’s true luminaries.
Right up front, let us stipulate that we are not making fun of this project. Even its maker admits that it has no practical purpose. But this 3D-printed Commodore-style rotary dial keypad fails to be practical on so many levels that it’s worth celebrating.
And indeed, celebrating deprecated technology appears to be what [Jan Derogee] had in mind with this build. Rotary dials were not long ago the only way to place a call, and the last time we checked, pulse dialing was still supported by some telephone central office switchgear. Which brings us to the first failure: with millions of rotary dial phones available, why build one from scratch? [Jan] chalks it up to respect for the old tech, but in any case, the 3D-printed dial is a pretty good replica of the real thing. Granted, no real dial used a servo motor to return the dial to the resting state, but the 3D-printed springs [Jan] tried all returned the dial instantly, instead of the stately spin back that resulted in 10 pulses per second. And why this has been done up VIC-20 style and used as a keypad for Commodore computers? Beats us. It had to be used for something. That the software for the C-64 generates DTMF tones corresponding to the number dialed only adds to the wonderful weirdness of this. Check out the video below.
No matter which platform you’re into, retrocomputing is usually a labor of love. The obsolete, the unpopular, the downright weird – old computers of every stripe are found, restored to something like their former glory, and given a new lease on life. It’s heartwarming, in a way. But when a computer has obviously been abused, it takes a little extra effort, of a lot in the case of this oil-submerged VIC-20 restoration.
In the two-part video below, [The 8-Bit Guy] goes through the gory details of bringing this classic Commodore back from the grave. The first video shows the cosmetic rebuild, which given the filthy state of the machine was no mean feat. Cracked open, the guts were found to be filled with an oily residue; [The 8-Bit Guy] chalks that up to a past life in some kind of industrial setting, but we see it more as flood damage. Whatever the sad circumstances on the machine’s demise, the case required a workout to clean up, and it came out remarkably fresh looking. The guts needed quite a bit of cleaning too, mainly with brake cleaner to cut through the gunk.
Part two focuses on getting the machine running again, and here [The 8-Bit Guy] had his work cut out as well. With a logic probe, signal injector, and some good old-fashioned chip swapping, he was able to eliminate most of the potential problems before settling in on some RAM chips as culprits for the video problems he saw at power-up. It all worked out in the end, and the machine looks and acts like new. We’re impressed.
Maybe we shouldn’t question [The 8-Bit Guy]’s call on the VIC-20 being from an industrial setting, though. After all, the “little Amiga that could” ran a school’s HVAC system for over 30 years.
What is it about a computer that was introduced 36 years ago by a company that would be defunct 12 years later that engenders such passion that people still collect it to this day? We’re talking about the Commodore 64, of course, the iconic 8-bit wonder that along with the other offerings from Commodore International served as the first real computer to millions of us.
There’s more to the passion that Commodore aficionados exhibit than just plain nostalgia, though, and a new documentary film, The Commodore Story, seeks to explore both the meteoric rise and fall of Commodore International. Judging from the official trailer below, this is a film anyone with the slightest interest in Commodore is not going to want to miss.
It will of course dive into the story of how the C64 came to be the best selling computer in history. But Commodore was far from a one-trick pony. The film traces the history of all the Commodore machines, from the PET computers right through to the Amiga. There are interviews with the key players, too, including our own Bil Herd. Bil was a hardware engineer at Commodore, designing several machines while there. He has shared some of these stories here on Hackaday, including the development of the C128 (successor to the C64) and making the C64 speak.
We can’t wait to watch this new documentary and luckily we won’t have to. It’s set to start streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes today, so pop up some popcorn and settle in for a two-hour ride through computer history but right now we’re unable to get firm dates on when. However, those of you in the Mountain View area have an even better opportunity this evening.
The Commodore Story will be premiered live at 6:30pm PST at the Computer History Museum. Grab your tickets to the premiere and a Q&A session with Bil Herd, Leonard Tramiel, and Hedley Davis.
The VicPi can be used as a standalone computer or a USB keyboard for an external computer. As you’ve probably guessed, there’s a Raspberry Pi involved. There is also a Keyrah board, which is arguably the easiest way to convert Commodore (and Amiga) keystrokes to USB without breaking a sweat.
There are a lot of nice touches that really make this project. A toggle switch on the back selects between VicPi mode and keyboard mode, and the distinction is made with a two-color LED in place of the VIC-20’s power LED. [Jagged-path] used panel mount cables to extend the HDMI, 3.5mm, and USB ports and ran them out to a custom metal panel that’s treated with rubberized black paint. Another nice touch: the dedicated keyboard port is USB-B, so it’s easy to differentiate from the Pi inputs.
History and [Bil Herd] teaches us that Commodore begged, borrowed, or stole the engineers responsible for the Speak & Spell to add voice synthesis to a few of the computers that came after the C64. This didn’t quite work out in practice, but speech synthesis was something that was part of the Commodore scene for a long time. The Votrax Type ‘n Talk was a stand-alone speech synthesizer that plugged into the expansion port of the VIC-20. It was expensive, rare, but a few games supported it. [Jan] realized the state of speech synthesis has improved tremendously over the last 30 years, and decided to give his VIC a voice with the help of a cheap Android phone.
A few VIC-20 games, including [Scott Adams] adventure games, worked with the Votrax speech synthesizer by sending phonemes as text over the expansion port. From there, the Votrax would take care of assembling everything into something intelligible, requiring no overhead on the VIC-20. [Jan] realized since the VIC is just spitting out characters for each phoneme, he could redirect those words to a better, more modern voice synthesizer.
A small Bluetooth module was wired up to the user port on the VIC, and this module was paired with a cheap Android smartphone. The smartphone receives the serial stream from an adventure game, and speaks the descriptions of all the scenes in these classic adventure games.
It’s a unique experience judging from the video, but the same hardware and software can also be added to any program that will run on the VIC-20, C64, and C128. Video below.
[Petri]’s first computer was the venerable Commodore VIC-20, predecessor to the Commodore 64. With only 5kB of RAM, a very simple graphics chip, and BASIC, it’s a bare-bones system that’s perfect for a 7-year-old future programmer. [Petri] was trying to figure out something to do with this old computer, and realized the simple schematic would allow him to recreate those classic VIC-20 cartridges using modern hardware.
This project began by cracking open a few game cartridges to see what was inside. They’re very simple devices, consisting of a decoupling cap and a ROM chip wired directly to the data and address busses. [Petri] desoldered the ROM and replaced it with a ribbon cable that would give him a clean breadboard to VIC-20 expansion port interface.
Instead of finding a contemporary EEPROM chip to program, [Petri] decided on using a Flash chip. The original cartridge had a 16kB ROM chip, but the smallest parallel Flash chip he could find was 256k. No problem, then; just ignore a few address lines and everything worked out great.
After getting the VIC-20 reading the breadboarded Flash chip, [Petri] started work on a circuit that would program his Flash chip while still attached to the expansion port. With a few buffer chips and an ATMega32a loaded up with Arduino, he’s able to program the Flash chip and turn it over to the VIC-20.
A simple test that toggled the color of the screen as quickly as possible was all that was needed to test the new circuit. Now, [Petri] can finally start on programming some games for his first love.