Just the signal, not the noise

Hello 8bit'ers,

Unfortunately, the fundamentally increasing entropy of our universe means that the arrow of time, at least for us, always points in only one direction – towards the future. And, equally unfortunate, it means we can't get the 80s back (I miss the hairstyles) nor resell any of the past editions as if they were new. And since it's Friday again, it's time for a new edition of 8bitnews.

This time, besides some interesting emulators, we have useful tools, a bit of reading material, and several Raspberry-based hardware projects that are really exciting. And we're not even sponsored. 😩

In any case, enjoy Issue #84.

[Note: We're taking a summer break ourselves, and the upcoming Issue #85 will not appear in 2 but only in 4 weeks. We'll be back on September 8th.]


Dockerized Past

Dockerized Past
Imagesource: https://8bitnews.io/

There are a few machines that, while not being our preferred 8-bit systems, some would have perhaps committed a crime just to have one stashed away in their basement. The DEC PDP-10 was one such mainframe computer from the 1960s and 1970s and was considered one of the most renowned systems from Digital Equipment Corporation. Introduced in the 1960s, the IBM S/370 revolutionized the computer industry with its family of compatible mainframes, spanning various price points and performance capabilities. These systems defined their respective eras and left an indelible mark on the history of computing. No question.

It's astonishing that today, one can run these systems on virtually any consumer hardware, whose ALU pulses a few billion times per second. 🤷

However, getting them to work isn't a straightforward task, as one has to set up the appropriate emulators on their chosen system. An unknown creator, tweeting as @retroprom, has recognized this pressing issue and provided a solution:

RetroProm/Docker is a collection of functioning Docker images that perfectly emulate the aforementioned machines. And not just those, but several more.

Thus, enthusiasts are only a docker run … command away from accessing a shell prompt that's 50 to 60 years old.


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Apple IIgs Emulator

Apple IIgs Emulator
Imagesource: https://github.com/samkusin/

The Apple IIgs, with gs standing for Graphics and Sound, represents a special milestone in the Apple II series. Serving as a bridge between 8-bit and 16-bit systems, it introduced remarkable color graphics and sound to the era. Its expandability and advanced operating system showed that Apple was keeping pace with the times. In short, it was a technological marvel of the 80s, which still captivates both retro enthusiasts and tech lovers today.

And even though one can occasionally stumble upon neat-looking units on eBay & Co., they either have price tags that can dramatically dent one's bank account, or there's uncertainty about what's actually inside the UPS package that arrives. Neither prospect is particularly appealing.

The solution? An emulator. And to be honest, given the technical advancements since the 80s, more than a few developers have successfully tackled creating one.

But why not do it again? That's what Samir Sinha aka @samsinx thought, and thus, he introduced his Clements IIgs to the fray.

Although it's still in alpha, it's impressively stable. All the software we tested ran seamlessly without any hitches. And even though features like serial communications, printer interfacing, and internationalization are still unchecked on the roadmap, this emulator could be intriguing for Mac, Windows 10, and Linux users.

Judge for yourself.

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Imagesource: https://pyra-handheld.com/boards/

Ah… PETSCII! Imagine ASCII attending a retro party, sipping on a few 8-bit drinks, and re-emerging as its much cooler and more colorful counterpart - PETSCII.

Originally developed for Commodore's PET, this character set is like ASCII's rebellious cousin that loves to show up in vibrant colors. Not just letters and numbers, but also charming little graphic symbols? PETSCII says: Why not?

However, anyone who's tried to quickly achieve high-quality results with a graphic character set, but without the right tool, knows... Vodka-Cola is your friend! 🍹

To save oneself from the headaches, it's essential to rely on a competent editor when working on screen and sprite design. And we came across one such editor just last week:

petscii.krissz.hu is among the best editors that operate exclusively in the browser. The project by Krisztián Tóth – who can be found here – is not only expertly executed but also offers all the functionality one would need. Besides offering a variety of palettes, the 4 CRT modes are particularly captivating, and in addition to screens, one can also define sprites.

Export and import features are available, and your artistic creations are saved directly in the browser's LocalStorage. No account, no sign-up, and no remote backend.

A fantastic tool for anyone working with PETSCII or perhaps considering it!

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Karateka History

Karateka History
Imagesourcd: Broederbund

Karateka! Who doesn't remember the hours-long attempts to navigate a pixelated Karateka with fluttering moves across hostile terrain, only to be smashed by a sneaky door at the end? 🚪

Developed by Jordan Mechner before he gifted us Prince of Persia, this game was the perfect blend of martial arts and drama - with a touch of comedy when you blundered unprepared into the next level. A solid side-scrolling adventure that showed it wasn't just about defeating the opponent, but also treating doors with due respect. 😄

And why, 39 years later, is this still relevant?

For starters, none other than Ernst Krogtoft aka @ErnstKrogtoft has delved into the fascinating historical details of the game. And what's more, Ernst has transferred his even more captivating thoughts (and a whole lot of fun facts) onto the digital paper of his website.

Those who know Ernst anticipate a retro-literary treat. For those who don't: You're welcome 😉.

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Infinite Mac Updates

Infinite Mac - Updates
Imagesource: https://infinitemac.org/

In April's Issue #75, we had a project called Infinite Mac that had the potential to cost one weeks of leisure, sleep, friendships, and potentially even a marriage. Mihai Parparita, publishing as @mihaip, cleverly wrapped almost all classic Mac operating system versions, from System 1.0 to Mac OS 9.0, in JavaScript in such a way that they are not only runnable but also efficient directly within a modern browser.

That's all well and good. But nothing is as old as yesterday's newspaper. What's a newspaper? And if yes, how many? 🤪

Mihai has recently rolled out several updates that make the emulators significantly more useful. Mihai aimed to streamline the process of loading external software for emulated Macs, which necessitated a revamp of existing disk abstractions. In the past, emulated Macs streamed disk images, leading to faster boot times but at the cost of substantial memory usage — this became especially problematic when integrating large CD-ROM images. The prior multi-layered abstraction process was inefficient, so he pared down these layers, improving both performance and RAM efficiency.

As a result, with CD-ROM emulation, one can now directly load a vast number of images from archive.org, and the previously required restarts during disk changes are no longer necessary. Mihai delves deeper into these details here.

One of the best options to emulate classic Macs. Test yourself!

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Imagesource: https://8bitnews.io/

An RGB and an HDMI signal walk into a bar. In a bar around the corner, a barstool falls over.

Makes sense? 🤔

Both protocols represent entirely different approaches to video transmission. RGB, an analog format, conveys images using separate red, green, and blue signals. Ahh… that feels like home.

On the other hand, HDMI is a digital standard that transmits both video and audio information over a single cable, offering additional features, such as higher resolutions and HDCP copy protection. (But who needs that?)

However, when one no longer has a CRT available, there's no avoiding the need to connect your beloved 8-bit hardware to an HDMI device. Bridging these two worlds are a variety of adapters available for purchase.

But if you happen to have an unused Raspberry Pi Pico on hand (I have them lying around everywhere), you can avoid buying yet another piece of munched together plastic, PCB, and metal. Marcelo Lorenzati, aka @darukur, has you covered. His RGB2HDMI is a genuine real-time converter that — as one might guess — transforms any RGB signal into HDMI.

The setup can be a bit challenging, but for those who approach it with patience and courage, they'll be rewarded with a crystal-clear output.

An excellent hardware project!

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USB for the Amiga

USB for the Amiga
Imagesource: https://github.com/borb/

Interestingly, one can also reverse the RGB2HDMI story above and not use the Raspberry Pi Pico for the output of the most magnificent machine. This tiny device is also superbly suitable as a concealed input device.

An individual going by the handle borb/nine has already done all the hard work for us. One PCB order and a soldering session later, one can use modern USB joysticks and keyboards directly on the Amiga. You can connect the device either to the internal keyboard connector, the rj11/din socket, or the controller ports.

For those interested, it's best to check out the development branch of AmigaHID-Pico and decide for yourself if the efforts, sweat, time, and money justify the result.

One thing is certain, though: The girlfriend is unkillable. Good thing! ❤️

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Atari ST Revival

ATARI ST Revival
Imagesource: Felix Winkelnkemper, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Atari ST: The dazzling rock legend of the computer world! (IMO, it's more like a little star of pop music). 😂

Imagine, it's the mid-80s. While most of us were still dreaming of mullet hairstyles and neon-colored aerobic outfits, Atari took to the stage with that very thing. With ST in its name, which supposedly stood for Sixteen/Thirty-two (referring to its 16-bit data bus and 32-bit internal architecture, not its ability to beat the high score in Space Invaders), this computer was ahead of its time. (Well, that's what the fans say – I just still think of pop music.)

Equipped with a MIDI interface straight out of the box, the Atari ST became the darling of many musicians – you could say it was the Elton John of computers! A real all-rounder, known for both its music and sometimes quite competitive games.

But what if your ST from the basement or attic breaks down, and/or you had an argument with the soldering iron just yesterday, leading to insurmountable differences?

Ben Everard writing for Raspberry Pi News has the solution. Simply retrofit a ... Raspberry PI ... into the casing. (Maybe it's time to rename our magazine to Pi-News.). The really cool thing about the project is that it's completely reversible. Using RetroPie and Hatari, the machine is quickly revived, and the original keyboard can be kickstarted without the help of the soldering iron.

It's a fun DIY project for anyone who just can't resist and wants to breathe new life into that quirky box. Everyone else, just buy an Amiga 😘.

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Iridis Alpha X-Ray

Iridis Alpha under the X-Ray
Imagesource: https://iridisalpha.com/

Iridis Alpha! This gem of a C64 game came out when games were still forged in garish colors and breathtakingly confusing game mechanics. Developed by the legendary Jeff Minter, a guy who apparently decided that regular space shooters were just too... well, regular.

So he took the genre, sprinkled in some psychedelic colors, added confusing two-level game mechanics, and Bam! – Iridis Alpha was born. A game where you sometimes wondered if you had stumbled into a pixel artwork or the dreams of an exhausted developer.

80s gaming in its most eccentric, brilliant form!

Rob Hogan aka @mwenge seems to be drawn to the game as well – this is the only way to explain how he could invest so much of his lifetime into reverse engineering and documenting what he found.

You can find the results on iridisalpha.com. A complete book about the game – or rather about the source code, which you can simply download. But to be fair, you should at least buy it on Amazon. In addition, there's the fully commented source code on GitHub, along with a ton of details that are easy to get lost in.

Caution: Time sink.

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Plug-Together 6502 Machine
Imagesource: https://youtu.be/4CjouKoCMUw

There's pretty much nothing that hasn't already been built with the MOS 6502 or its modern derivative W65C02 from Western Design Center. But in most cases, you either find yourself in front of breadboards, a whole lot of cables, and a wire stripper, or you need to rekindle the broken relationship with the soldering iron with chocolates, flowers, and a weekend at the SPA.

A creator tweeting as @Rumbledethumps thought: Nope. There's got to be another way.

What he documents in his video about the project, you can produce yourself at a reasonable price with the PCB manufacturer of your choice and have it immediately equipped. The advantage is that you only need to plug the 6502, RAM, the 6522, and – how could it be any other way – two(!) Raspberry Pi Picos onto the board of your dreams, and off you go.

The firmware ROM, emulated by one of the Picos, includes a version of WozMon. The second Pico generates the VGA signal, allowing you to get started right away with a monitor and USB keyboard connected.

It's a somewhat different approach – especially since just one of the Picos is worlds more powerful than the rest of the lovely chip combination. But who cares? 😜

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Double-CPU 8-Bit Machine

Double-CPU 8-Bit Machine
Imagesource: https://youtu.be/4LTMYocpE9M

In the early 80s, microcomputers began their final march into the living and children's rooms around the world. What's interesting is how fragmented the market was at that time. In the US, the Apple II was very successful, in the UK it was the BBC Micro, and in Germany, the Commodore 64 spread.

Why is this of interest? Especially since the education systems of some countries were given the means to introduce modern computing technology into classrooms. An example that probably very few will be familiar with is the Secoinsa FM-7 from Spain. This incarnation of an actually Japanese machine adapted for the Spanish market is quite a unique piece.

Not only does it have two CPUs installed – one of which serves as a GPU, but there's also a whole range of ROMs, separate RAM chips, microcontrollers, and special chips on the board, all of which are combined to form a really interesting and quite modern looking architecture.

Noel from noelsretrolab tweeting as @NoelsRetroLab got his hands on such a machine and provides a walkthrough of the details in his latest video.

As always, it's both interesting and entertaining.

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If all of that was a bit too much Raspberry for you... we feel you. But one can't ignore that these things are just a perfect fit when it comes to interfacing with 8-bit hardware.

Over the next 4 weeks, things will be a bit quieter for us – we're taking a summer vacation and will return on September 8th with Issue #85.

In the meantime, feel free to keep sharing the link to our magazine. Every new subscriber is always warmly welcomed here.

If you're in the process of finalizing an exciting project that would fit wonderfully in our upcoming issue, then please send us a message. We're always happy to receive new content!

See you in 4 weeks. Build something and speak about it.

Jan & Bastian

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