June 19, 2020

Raspberry Pi and Retro Arcade Adventures – Part 1 – Setting the scene …

I have loved computers since I was very young – if I recall correctly I got my first real computer when I was about seven or eight years old.

It was a Commodore Plus 4 and I loved it. My dad worked additional hours to get it for me (he was a master carpenter, so his work was not easy at the best of times, but he worked even harder to get me something that, little did I know at the time would end up being what I did for a living).

Commodore Plus 4
A much maligned, but incredible machine which never got the traction that it deserved.

I remember playing games for hours on the Plus 4 and I was fascinated and perplexed on how by pressing a key, or by using a joystick – how that would correlate to a movement of a “sprite” on the screen.

I was intrigued about things such as collision detection, parallax scrolling, multiplexing, and a whole raft of other 8 bit references that whilst some are still present in current technology vernacular – other have faded into the realms of time.

When I was around 10, my parents surprised me one Christmas with a Commodore 64. I was in heaven. Like many I loved this machine more than words can express – it was, and still is a marvel of computing.

Commodore 64
Probably the most iconic home computer of all time, and for good reason – it was simply amazing.

During my career I have worked with and built some amazing computers which use cutting edge technology – but the Commodore 64 was the pinnacle of any computer I have ever worked with or owned. I can’t remember any that inspired such inquisitiveness and dreams!

I grew up in the era of:

In my opinion some of the very best computer games arcade or home computer wise were release between 1989 and 1993 some of personal Commodore 64 favourites were:

Turrican was a ground breaking game on the Commodore 64. A multi-directional platform shoot em up which didn’t just push the C64 to its limits, but totally busted them. It was a truly massive game with superlative Parallax scrolling, amazing sound and addictive game play. I must have played this game hundreds of times even after I had completed it. Just when I thought that it wasn’t possible to top Turrican, Manfred Trenz released Turrican 2. Quite simply the best game ever released on the C64 technically. Part 2 added, in addition to the platforming shooting; three R-Type like levels – one of which played at break neck speeds. The game had an end boss (the Machine) that would not look out of place on modern day consoles.
Creatures was a quirky game by Apex Computer Productions. A side ways cartoon platform scroller with beautiful graphics and a epic soundtrack. The game had an interesting concept at the time of “Torture Chambers” where the cute fluffy lead character (Clyde) would have to save one of his equally cute friends from being obliterated in some horrible fashion by solving puzzles within a time limit. Rainbow Islands on the C64 was a class, near arcade perfect conversion by GraftGold. The graphics were faithful to the original and the soundtrack was arguably better. I played this game to death and found pretty much all of the bonuses and alternative endings.
X-Out (Cross Out) was a relatively unknown shoot em up that was released on a number of platforms. The C64 version had some impressive visuals, but a stonking sound track and didn’t lose too many features from the 16 bit versions. It was tough and unforgiving – but addictive. Perhaps not as good as Armalyte or R-Type – but technically very impressive. One of the few games that would play again and again purely for the music. Of course, it helped that it was one of the very best released for the C64 both graphically and game play wise. The puzzles were fiendish and the focal point of the game. Another that I would play again and again way after completing it.
Hawkeye was perhaps one of the most beautiful looking games on the Commodore 64. It was a side to side “shoot em up” where you played the part of a cyborg collecting puzzle pieces to complete the various levels. What made Hawkeye stand out was it’s beautifully animated main character and excellent parallax scrolling. The sound track was also a triumph thanks to the awesome talent of Jeroen Tel (from the Manics of Noise).

Anyhow, if you are about my age (e.g. a child of 1977 who in the late eighties and early 90’s was engrossed with computing) and can’t remember the folks mentioned were or any of the games  – have a click on the links (on the pictures) as they were absolute masters and examples of what the gaming / computing / tech industry became today!

Unsurprisingly my passion for computing also moved in the direction of Arcade machines and Consoles, which at the time to a young me were the very epitome of what I wanted to be part of and I longed for the day where owning something with the power that they possessed I could have.

I was a huge fan of SEGA, SNK (more on this later), TAITONAMCO arcade machines, and from the console perspective (at the time) I had a NES – but secretly wanted a SNES; but understood that the money involved just wasn’t an option.

In around 1991 SNK introduced a platform called the NeoGeo MVS (Multi Video System) – primarily it was a commercial arcade machine that had the ability to service six available games. The “game changing” idea is that SNK also provided a home version of the NeoGeo which were compatible with the arcade game boards so you could have a identical experience at home.

You could via a memory card, take your progress within a given game from the arcade to home and vice versa and pick up where you left off.

The problem was with cutting edge hardware and games (honestly, it was astonishing for the time) – the cost of the console and each game was totally prohibitive (you could be looking at £200 + for a game – and that was back in 1991!).

I was smitten with this machine, that and the Commodore Amiga A500 – but all I could do was read about them as I knew that they were never to be mine as they were understandably too expensive for my parents to afford.

Fast forward thirty or so years and we find ourselves in the 2020’s, emulators have been around for years and perhaps the most exciting thing is that modern day hardware has reached a point where it is powerful enough to be combined with an emulator at a ridiculously low price point where you can reproduce accurately the arcade experiences of yesteryear.

Furthermore a lot of the companies who manufactured these games are long gone

This is where the point of this post comes in. My son for quite a while now has expressed more than just a passing interest in exploring a career in technology.

He is a typical teenager in the context of loving “gaming” – but, like me all those years ago he wants to understand more about how “things happen” and has asked me several times to “Teach” him about all things IT.

“Of course it’s difficult to teach anyone everything that you have learned in a 25 year career, especially without some form of context or purpose to the teaching where knowledge can be applied, and, there is a motivation to learn”

I needed some 31415 Pi ….

So I had been wracking my brains for a while trying to think of something that he and I could start together that would be fun and represent some learning that he might find useful. I know that whatever I came up with could possible be based around the Raspberry Pi.

For those of you who have been living under a rock since 2006, or perhaps the Pi isn’t as popular where you live – the Raspberry Pi was the brain child of a chap called Eben Upton. Eben had an impressive academic and career CV (having studied at Cambridge and working for companies such as Broadcom, Intel and IBM).

Eben had grown up through the era of the the BBC micro and Acorn computers that were quite prevalent in UK schools during the 1980’s and they inspired a generation of some of the most gifted games programmers that the technology has ever known. Basically Eben wanted to create a small, affordable single board computer that could be used to further the education of computing in the UK like the BBC micro did.

He established the Raspberry Pi Foundation alongside a number of other like minded founders (one of which was David Braben – who co-created one of the greatest computer games of all time – “Elite“).

Anyhow – there is a long, and quite astonishing story which, in my view can only be called meteoric rise of the Raspberry Pi to the point where he and the foundation not only achieved a commercially viable learning aid for education, but he started a market for “home brew” computing for hobbyists and the device opened up staggering options for industrial / scientific / robotic …. in fact there are to many applications that the Pi can fit into.

The incredible thing about the Pi is that for as little as £34 you get a quad core, 2GB RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, WiFI, Dual HDMI output – which is upgradable to 8GB RAM which would still be under £100!

The Pi can also run many different flavours of Linux – which only adds to it versatility (and there is a compatible version of Windows 10 for IOT devices).

The Pi is equipped with amazing expansion capabilities and there is a huge market of “add on components” that allow for you to do all kinds of things like build weather stations, robots, cameras and more to the point of this post arcade machines!

The PiCADE

The Picade is a kit for the Raspberry Pi that is based around the PiCade HAT (Hardware Attached on Top). In essence the Picade HAT is plugged into the GPIO interface on the Raspberry Pi mainboard and then provides the functionality to attach traditional “Arcade style” components such as the joystick, buttons and if you have purchased the full arcade mini-unit with LCD flat panel there is a mini-HDMI driver board that interfaces with the Picade HAT.

The Raspberry Pi acts as the powerhouse of the operation – providing the compute that through the Linux derivative “RetroPi” emulates a vast number of the platforms of yesteryear when combined with the relevant ROMS that are available online (more in a later part about those).

So, you might be thinking what does all of this have to do with retro gaming and a fun educational project to do with my son? Well the idea that I came up with was to purchase the Picade with a Pi and work with him to build it, programme it and then play it – and hopefully give him a starting point that he and can build on.

In the next part of this series I will take you through the build that he and I did – as well as how to avoid some of the pitfalls. I will also go into the some of the detail around ROMS and the legalities of using them. I will also give you my views of the PiCade (I have  purchased both the console and full screen arcade versions) and will detail the differences between them that might help you inform your own buying choices.

SHARE:
Blog, Technical Musings 0 Replies to “Raspberry Pi and Retro Arcade Adventures – Part 1 – Setting the scene …”