Analog console clones are a way to preserve gaming’s past


Things collapse, then they are forgotten. In video games, there was the famous Atari Landfill, in which the company buried thousands of cartridges of HEY and other games at a New Mexico landfill. There are more prosaic cases where the source codes of games are lost for annoying reasons. For example, Prince of Persia for the Apple II was presumed missing until the developer’s father found the code in a closet (stored on three floppy disks), after which the developer posted it on GitHub. Physical media, which constitute the bulk of the history of video games, tends to degrade, too much. This means that even when properly stored, the past is at risk of being lost. As journalist Heather Alexandra wrote in Kotaku in 2016: “The early years of video games often painted video games as children’s toys. Only die-hard collectors and enthusiasts have had the foresight to keep their games. Even now, games are treated largely like consumer goods.

The culture around games – magazines, merchandise, etc. – also disappears, which makes them less analyzable in their original context. The main problem with preservation is that it is not immediately obvious what is worth preserving. With video games, however, it gets a little more complicated: playing them as they were originally meant to be played is about as important as preserving their code. And that’s also what people think of when they think of emulation, which is a wonderful way to preserve code that might otherwise go missing. But they never think about the material.

That’s where Analogue, the company founded by Christopher Taber in 2011 while he was studying philosophy in Montana, comes in. Taber and his team have started cloning classic consoles that offer full cartridge support and current necessities like HD video output. (The first material they recreated was a Neo Geo system with an arcade stick.) Its latest console remake, the Sega Genesis-inspired Mega Sg, is both a faithful recreation of its predecessor and a tie-in to the game’s past. It’s a ridiculously difficult undertaking. It turns out that it is very difficult to reverse engineer proprietary and outdated hardware and software.

To clone a console, it’s useful to start with the processor, especially if you’re trying to clone a console you’ve never worked with before. “I didn’t know Genesis very well and literally didn’t know anything about the 68000 processor! Chief Engineer Kevin Horton wrote in an email. “It was my first foray into both things and it probably slowed the process down as I had to learn everything as I went.” The processor in question, the Motorola 68000, is the most complex part of the Sega Genesis because the whole system is based on it. This processor was designed by Motorola in 1979, and it had been used in many arcade machines by the time it found its place in the Genesis. Horton found a way to exactly mimic the performance of the 68000, until cycle and sub cycle of its processor. He looked at the actual semiconductor circuitry of the processor to design his emulated hardware board – a physical circuit board that exactly mimics that of the original Sega Genesis.

All Analogue products operate using field-programmable gate array (FPGA) emulation, which involves designing an actual chip that does what the original hardware was wired to do. “Custom hardware has been created to directly connect a 68000 processor to the FPGA to enable direct real-time comparison to ensure the highest level of accuracy,” continued Horton. In other words, Horton connected an original 68k processor to his emulated chip to test its relative accuracy, then left that test running for a week straight. (Any deviation would cause the test to fail.) The chip works the same as the original circuitry, which means you get the same features and performance as the hardware emulated by the FPGA. “When we recreate these chips on an FPGA, it’s like taking the original schematics at the transistor level and implementing them directly,” says Taber. “This translates into 100% accuracy. “

In other words: if you decide to take a mass-produced electronic product apart – like, say, a Sega Genesis – any chip you’ve seen on the green printed circuit board is what’s called a specific integrated circuit. application (ASIC), which is just a circuit designed specifically for the hardware it’s in. “It’s a cost effective way to produce millions of chips, basically, that are going to be used for mass-produced products,” Taber explains.

Horton said he spent nine months developing hardware and software for the Mega Sg, two and a half of which were dedicated to the single processor. (It took three months to get Sonic to work.) Another month went by for the audio to work, and it took a separate month for Sega’s Master System functionality to be correct. The rest of his time was spent debugging and implementing features. (Analog went through an equally exhaustive process to get their Super Nintendo console, the Super Nt, right.) The most satisfying part of recreating the Sega Genesis, Horton said, was getting it to work. Above all Overdrive 2, which is a demo released in 2017 that pushes the original Genesis material to its limits. As Horton puts it, it is “notoriously difficult to be correct for emulators (and only 1 emulator currently seems to be able to do that)”.

The main technical advantage of using hardware emulation is this precision. This means very low latency, which means it’s easier to play games that require fast reaction times – like most run ‘n gunners, fighting games, and platform games designed for the game. Genesis, released in the late 1980s. As Analogue has recreated consoles at the hardware level, the Mega Sg and the rest of Analogue products are more accurate than any software emulator. Sega has its own line of Genesis remake consoles, which come with many games preloaded. But they recreate the Genesis experience at the software level, which means they’re not as good as what Analogue has to offer. It is the only company to rebuild the hardware in order to give gamers the same experience they would have on a Sega Genesis made in the 1980s. The goal is to let modern gamers play old games the way they were meant to be. be played.

While that clarification comes at a cost: the Mega Sg costs $ 189.99, but you can find Sega’s Genesis Flashback for $ 59.98 on Amazon. “Our customers are definitely enthusiasts,” Taber says. “But this market, and the kind of people who are interested, is much, much bigger than I think most people expect.” This may be true, but it should also be noted that the people of Analogue are themselves passionate. The logic of spending nearly $ 200 on virtually extinct hardware only makes sense to those who have the time and money to enjoy it.

In emulation, what goes beyond the question of legality and piracy is preservation. Software has a half-life that can be measured by people’s weaknesses: code gets lost, business takeovers cause small businesses to explode, brains and spongy bodies fail. But what to do ?

In 2015, Jason Scott, curator at the Internet Archive, gave a talk at that year’s Game Developers Conference, urging employees to fly. “Workplace theft is the future of gaming history,” he said, meaning if people don’t take active steps to preserve what they’re working on, hell. company policies, then that work risks being lost forever. What is most interesting about Scott’s statement is his call to individual action. It is not the game and hardware manufacturers themselves that are acting; this is just a bunch of Taber enthusiasts. There are a few organizations dedicated to preserving the history of video games, such as Frank Cifaldi’s nonprofit, the Video Game History Foundation, founded two years ago.

“The majority of the games that have been created throughout history are no longer easily accessible for study and play” their website reads. “And even when we can play games, that playable code is only part of the story.” The foundation’s main work is its digital reference library, which it describes as “an online repository of artifacts related to video game history and video game culture”. The goal is to have a searchable database of material accessible to researchers and historians that is not just code.

While the source code is not as perishable as, say, a book, saving it presents its own special challenges. Emulation is a way to save obsolete hardware and software. “A lot of the time when you see people talking about preservation, they’re talking about games: finding or digging up lost games, or making permanent means available to be able to access pieces of that history,” says Taber. It’s just as important to emulate the consoles as it is to emulate the games themselves, because the console experience is just as worth preserving as the games.

For each of its consoles, Analogue has managed to convince developers to release hitherto unknown games exclusively for its products. “You know, games developed in the 90s, almost finished or canceled.” These games include the run ‘n gun Super Turricane had to be reduced by a third due to memory constraints, of which Analogue obtained the full version, or Ultracore, a canceled (and renamed, for copyright reasons) shooter from DICE that ships with the Mega Sg.

While saving two games doesn’t make a movement, it does suggest a way forward: Preserving games should be a priority for anyone interested in games as a cultural form. “Our goal is basically to elevate the medium to put video game history on a pedestal and say, ‘It’s worth preserving, it’s worth taking a close look, it’s worth keeping. ‘talk about it, “said Taber. Putting almost a year of work into creating a perfect replica of a defunct console isn’t something everyone does.

“There’s no one else doing what we’re doing,” Taber says. Horton, for his part, agrees: “It is important to preserve the history of the game so that these games can be played by future generations as they were meant to be played.”

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