Retro computing and retro games have had a renaissance. I love it. The community has never been so vibrant. As I write this, my friend Andy has won an award for his brand new Commodore Vic 20 computer game!
While I have enjoyed emulation for many years (as regular readers are no-doubt fully aware), and in recent times the FPGA recreations, I have also amassed a large collection of retro computers (accelerated due to the pandemic). My own computer museum if you will.
My goal with the collection was in part to learn more electronics – buying broken old computers and refurbishing them is an excellent education combined with preserving nerd history! But I have also for a long time had a bucket list of systems I wanted to program games for …
My plan for 2021 is to code a game, demo, something for each of my retro machines, and share what I learn with you.
I aim to run my own code on original hardware where possible, or a closest approximation where not. Of course as I go through this challenge, I am going to write a Retro Programming series to show you what I do, the languages and development tools I use, how these systems work, and how you can do similar retro programming projects yourself.
For context, though, first I want to show where we started, the foundations we came from, the stages we in the home computer and video games community went through, and how we got here today.
Caveats before we begin
My research might be wrong, though I did my best. Dates especially are mostly listed as when models were launched with widespread availability rather than when the machines were designed or first released in restricted numbers.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means – I only list the major platforms that had and have an impact on me personally and that I plan to cover in any detail. Apple Mac, Tandy CoCo and Dragon 32 fans can step down!
Home Computer and Console Timeline
Before home computers were dreamt of, before even single-user computers were commonplace, there were computer games.
Developed on fridge-sized “Mini” computers and teletype, students and researchers played and developed the seeds of everything we take for granted today.
You can read in-depth about the computing equivalent of the big-bang and up and through through to cretaceous period in the book Hackers by Steven Levy.
Pong, PDP, Adventure, Star Trek, Spacewar
Despite what many people believe, Pong wasn’t the first video game, or even the first arcade video game, but it certainly made a huge impact.
Before Pong there was Spacewar – a two-player space-shooter as the name suggests.
Before Spacewar there were a naughts and crosses/tic-tac-toe game called OXO and Tennis for Two (yes, even the gameplay of Pong wasn’t the first incarnation).
Spacewar wasn’t just a video game, though, it was a viral phenomenon. It spread from the MIT DEC PDP-1 in 1962 to everywhere nerds had the hardware and programming know-how.
In this inventive time period there were Sci-Fi strategy games, such as Star Trek, the first text adventures, computer chess, and even the first dungeon crawlers.
Hardware was either massive and mortgage-sized, or based on discrete logic.
What we were waiting for is the availability of affordable microprocessors …
The Dawn of the Micro Computer and the Beginning of Home Computers
Just having a computer all to yourself was amazing at this point of history, something most people couldn’t fathom wanting let alone getting past the hurdles in the way of achieving it. Despite that, a small group of dreamers in California invented the personal computer, and the rest is history.
The Altair wasn’t the only kit computer available to regular people, but outside of Wargames fans, it is the one most people think of first, due to promotion from the now-famous Popular Electronics magazine cover. In addition, it was probably the best-supported for games at the time, especially in the form of type-in listings for the BASIC implementation from a little brand new company called Micro-Soft. In fact one of the first things this new BASIC executed was a version of Lunar Lander.
MITS built the Altair around the Intel 8080. This was an expensive but respectable choice, and offered the hardware the ability to address a full 64KB of RAM.
Byte magazine published a version of Spacewar to type in and play … if you had an oscilloscope at least. With a connected terminal, you could play classic games such as Colossal Cave Adventure, Star Trek, and Zork.
The Atari, with their Video Computer System, sold over 30 million consoles, and essentially founded the home video games industry.
While the Fairchild Channel F was the first system to use swappable game cartridges, it is Atari who ran with the idea and made it a success. They also tanked the USA home console market in 1983, which didn’t recover until the NES arrived a few years later.
Unlike the Altair, the Atari used a cost-reduced version of the already aggressively priced MOS 6502, the 6507. This meant in todays eyes it was extremely limited for the eye-watering price ($855 in 2021 USD), but for the day the machine was obviously deemed affordable enough to make it a household-name success.
As the name suggests, this was a Video system, and while the graphical and sound output was primitive, for a little while it was sufficiently advanced to thrill gamers of all ages.
The PET was Commodore’s first mass-market computer, and their first major product to use their newly purchased microprocessor technology, the MOS 6502.
As mentioned with the Atari VCS, the 6502 was aggressively priced (a fraction of competitor’s prices), and was heavily inspired by the Motorola 6800 that Chuck Peddle and the rest of the MOS design team had worked on previously. Despite this price advantage, the PET was still an expensive business machine, though it did find its niche in education outside of the Apple II stronghold in the USA.
While the PET did not have any customizable bitmap graphics, many great games were produced using the built-in “PETSCII” characterset.
The two Steves (Woz and Jobs) really kicked off the home computer market. Their Apple kit was a big success with the “Homebrew” hobbyists, and their pre-built Apple II was even more of a win.
Like the PET, the Apple II went with the inexpensive but wonderful 6502 microprocessor. Unlike the PET, the Apple II was a consumer-friendly device (despite being remarkably more expensive than the PET!).
One of the major selling points of the Apple II over the PET was its ability to produce color bitmap graphics, on a regular TV no less! This meant the home computer games market was suddenly popular and hugely profitable, compounding the companies success.
Woz created a genius hardware design, but his obsession around reducing chip count doesn’t seem to have resulted in cost reduction, and ultimately causes hassles for programmers.
Atari 8-Bit Family
Atari, while dominating the home console market, had another success on their hands with their home computers, at least until the Commodore 64 came along.
Again, this machine featured the MOS 6502, but also a handful of innovative co-processor chips. In many ways the Atari was a more advanced machine than the C64, but for various reasons the Commodore machine won the hearts and minds of computer geeks in the end.
Between the PET and the Commodore 64 was the Vic 20. Although largely overshadowed by the success of the 64, it was the first computer to reach one million in unit sales.
The Vic 20 was based on a MicroPET design by Robert Yannes at MOS. His design was the foundation of Jack Tramiel’s vision of a colorful, compact, low-priced, friendly, machine for novices, to compete with market successes from Apple and Tandy.
Despite the price target, it came with a real keyboard, and had many professional accessories such as monitor, printer, and the first modem to reach one million sales. As well as having tape and disk storage, as with the Atari, the Vic accepted ROM-based cartridges to get around the Vic’s RAM deficient brains.
Considering the absolute dominance of the IBM PC compatible, and the here today gone tomorrow vanishing-act of almost every other machine on this list, it’s surprising how late IBM was to the party.
Many speculate that it was the sheer size and success of IBM that caused them to miss the microcomputer market initially, and then have to play catch-up. This delay then rush to market, along with a need for a ready-made repair and service network, meant they picked mostly off-the-shelf parts … opening up the system for “compatibles”. While IBM was a powerhouse of sales and marketing, there is no denying the role clones and the licensing of Microsoft DOS played in taking the premium IBM PC into the budget-conscious homes and small offices.
IBM engineers considered the Motorola 68000 for their design, but went with the 8-bit 8088 from Intel, partly because Motorola wasn’t going to be ready in time, and partly because IBM had experience with that architecture.
As we all know, IBM had a huge hit on their hands, so much so that “PC” has become the generic term for a desktop computer. That said, it was a while before the PC was truly competitive in the games arena – due to high price and limited graphics and sound – allowing other products to gain healthy marketshare.
8-Bit Golden Age: From Nerd-Niche to Mass-Market
It took a couple of years, but the early enthusiasm became a cultural and economic phenomenon. At the beginning of the 1980s, computers were intimidating, expensive, fragile, and more associated with automating people out of jobs than fun, accessible, leisure pursuits.
That all changed in a shift that brought increasingly sophisticated games that didn’t quite make computers “cool”, but certainly made them more attractive. Increasing awareness, press and popularity of the hardware and software created a virtuous circle that compounded the growth to explosive levels, and made tycoons out of teenaged bedroom coders.
Fearing the UK would be left behind in the computer revolution, the government and the British Broadcasting Corporation hatched a plan to expand computer literacy across the United Kingdom.
After pitches from a variety of companies, Acorn won the bid and the outcome was the BBC Micro.
Yet again, a MOS 6502, but the rugged tank-style construction hides some terrifically advanced innards. It was very expensive compared to the competition partly because it was built to resist the use and abuse it would face from thousands of school children, plus the technical rigors of broadcast television.
A triumph of British over-engineering, despite having no built-in sprite or scrolling capabilities, it went on to sell over 1.5 million units, along with the 250,000 units of the cost-reduced baby brother Beeb, the Electron, released in 1983.
Unlike the BBC, the C64 was perfectly placed to win the hearts and minds of the home and small office.
The MOS 6502 was combined with SID, the best sound chip of the era, plus hardware sprites and scrolling, and a limited but useful color palette.
Weaknesses such as super-slow (and expensive) disk drives were largely mitigated by the huge third party manufacturer and developer support, meaning the C64 was one of the best-selling computers of all time (as many as 17 million units sold), and lasted up to the mid 1990s, and still has a massive fanbase today.
Sinclair ZX Spectrum
The “Speccy” is a rare machine on this list, having a Zilog Z80 processor, and none of the additional hardware you would think necessary to make a successful games machine. Fortunately for Sinclair, their made-to-a-budget machine hit the sweet spot of having just enough capability at a very attractive price.
Sinclair had learned from their earlier ZX80 and ZX81, launching first a 16kb Spectrum then really hitting their stride with the 48kb version.
While the Spectrum loses every battle in terms of graphics, sound, and even keyboard, despite (or maybe because) all of that, it has a huge and treasured place in the history of home computing, selling 5 million units by 1992, despite never taking a significant hold in North America.
Before Amstrad purchased Sinclair, and before their successful Word Processors and IBM PC compatibles, there was the Amstrad CPC.
Despite arriving late to the party, and going the unusual route for the time of being an all-in-one bundle of keyboard, storage device and monitor, the Amstrad CPC was a success, selling over 2 million units.
While the Amstrad CPC line used the Z80 as in the Spectrum, it had more RAM than the Speccy, better color, and the AY-3-8912 sound chip used in many arcade systems and computers.
In the USA, the games market bubble had popped. Retailers were wary, and consumers were burned by disappointing shovel ware games exploiting the initial Atari gold rush. It took Nintendo with their Nintendo Entertainment System to turn the tide, and that tide turned into a flood.
The NES arrived two years after the Nintendo Famicom launch, and by that time 2.5m units had already been sold. Estimates place total combined NES and Famicom sales unit sales above 62 million worldwide, with the original Japanese Famicom brand still being sold right into the early 2000s.
Inside the NES you will find a Ricoh chip that is MOS 6502 compatible, other than the exclusion of the 6502 binary-coded decimal features, and the addition of sound, DMA and gamepad input. Ricoh also provided the graphics, offering up to 64 hardware sprites and 256×240 screen resolution in 25 colors (more via raster timing tricks) via the PPU (Picture Processing Unit). More hardware capabilities were available via the cartridges, while obviously increasing the cost of games.
Nintendo Game Boy
Really, due to the release of the Gameboy coming in 1989/1990, it should appear in the next section, but hardware-wise it is very much aligned with the 8-bit era.
Powering the Gameboy is a Z80 variant, sometimes referred to as the DMG chip (DMG standing for Dot Matrix Graphics, due to the Gameboy sporting a 160×144 grayscale LCD).
Although woefully underpowered for the time in terms of performance, this meant it was cheaper, more reliable, and had amazing battery life versus the competition. Possibly partially due to the well-known Z80 instruction set, the games were plentiful and remarkable.
During the roughly 14 year lifespan, the series of Gameboy models sold over 119 million units.
16-Bit and Beyond
The shift from 8-bit systems to 16-bit was an exciting time, and rejuvenated interest in home computing, but it was based on price-reductions and availability of technology from far earlier.
Key features of this era on the home computer side were high-capacity disk-based operating systems, utilizing mouse-controlled graphical user interfaces (GUI), an innovation from Xerox in the early to mid-1970s.
From the games perspective, the promise was bigger and better, plug and play, with arcade-quality graphics, effects and sound.
The Atari ST was first sub-$1,000 16-bit consumer computer to market, using the 6-year-old Motorola 68000 and the first color mass-market graphical user interface, GEM.
Strangely, in another parallel universe, the first could have been the Sinclair QL in 1984, except they went with the 8-Bit variant of the 68000, and released a buggy, deficient machine, then got swallowed by Amstrad.
Although many retrospectives point out Atari’s own bungled launch, and the bad reputation of Atari and the Tramiel family at the time, due to the first-mover advantage and competitive price, the Atari ST line was quite successful in the home and business across many niche markets, selling over 2.2 million units. In fact, the ST is often referred to as the “Jackintosh” because of comparisons to the far more expensive and less capable contemporary Apple Mac splashily launched a year earlier.
Initially intended to launch in 1985, various issues meant it only really became available almost a year later in 1986.
By that time the ST coming earlier and cheaper had found a foothold, and the Amiga was playing catch-up. Initial software releases were direct ports from ST titles, and did not take advantage of the Amigas additional graphics and sound capabilities. Hardly surprising then that budget-conscious families would choose the less expensive ST.
Eventually, in 1987, Commodore released the Amiga 500 to match the 520 ST form-factor, and aggressively dropped the price of the Amiga, which lead to them winning first the software industry loyalty, and then the home market. The Amiga lead the home computer gaming world until the rise of the VGA+Soundblaster equipped PC lead to Commodore’s bankruptcy in 1994.
Apple might have been pushing their new baby Macintosh hard, but the Apple II line was paying all their bills and by 1986 they realized they needed something to keep that gravy train alive. Enter the 8/16-bit, colour, graphical user interface, multimedia capable IIGS.
While the 6502-variant microprocessor was half as fast as the Amiga and ST variants, the rest of the features were pretty competitive for the time. If only Apple had not killed off the planned 8mhz + model.
The Archimedes (Archie to his friends) arrived late, but with some features that made it stand out, especially in education and research.
At launch, the 32-bit Acorn Archimedes (also initially called the BBC Archimedes) was touted as the fastest microcomputer in the world.
Rather than use a 68000, or even an Intel processor, Acorn had developed their own silicon, the Acorn RISC Machine, relatives of which are now found in over 160 billion devices, from your smartphone through to the fastest super computer in the world.
Sega Mega Drive
Sega’s third console, after their 8-bit Master System, first launched in 1988 but only found wide release in 1989. In the USA it was renamed Genesis.
It featured both a Motorola 68000 and a Z80. Part of the sound capability is provided by a Yamaha chip related to the AY-3-8910 found in the Amstrad, Spectrum 128+2 and the Atari ST.
For the first time, home consumers really did have a 2D sprite and scrolling experience comparable to the arcades.
Combined it is believed the Mega Drive line sold over 32 million units around the world.
Nintendo rolled out the Super Famicom, and outside Japan, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, between 1990 and 1993. It would go on to sell almost 50 million units worldwide.
Although the SNES uses a variation of the same slower 65C816 chip as the Apple IIgs, the additional co-processors make it have impressive 2D and pseudo-3D graphical performance capabilities.
Why does my timeline end there?
Once the VGA and sound card equipped PC clone prices had dropped down to accessible levels, with games such as Wing Commander and Doom showing what was possible, the jig was pretty much up for anything else in the home.
At this point the world of video games turned to a microprocessor, memory and GPU arms race, dominated by the IBM PC compatibles, with consoles closely following.
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