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Each Graphics At As soon as: Nintendo’s Popeye

Each Graphics At As soon as: Nintendo’s Popeye

2023-02-26 11:33:28

I’ve made some modern games in retro style, and one factor folks will all the time let you know is, ensure that your pixels are the identical measurement. When your base decision is 1080p, it’s fairly simple to by accident embody sprites scaled otherwise or at totally different resolutions; and most retro methods just like the NES and Genesis solely had one doable pixel measurement. However all guidelines are made to be damaged– Nintendo introduced out a system with three pixel sizes. Powered by spinach.

A short historical past of graphics

The very first arcade sport with a CPU was Halfway’s 1975 port of Gun Combat. (Oddly, the Taito unique was a discrete-logic sport) It used a easy 260×224 decision, with every bit in video ram corresponding with a pixel on display screen. That is usually referred to as a framebuffer.

A screenshot of Gun Fight, a monochrome game

That was high quality for what it was, however suffered from a serious flaw: it used a whole lot of RAM, in an period the place RAM was very costly. 7.1kiB was barely achievable at arcade costs– discover that the 1983 Famicom would have lower than that in complete, whereas for the Halfway 8080 (additionally utilized by the megahit Area Invaders) that was solely the video RAM, and extra reminiscence was wanted for the sport state.

And bear in mind, that’s all one bit per pixel, no room for shade. Perhaps eventually RAM costs can be low-cost sufficient to have a real framebuffer system, however the realities of 1970’s funds would require different options. (Or extraordinarily low resolutions, just like the Channel F)

The oldest type of digital graphics might very nicely be “textual content mode”, utilized in early display screen terminals. The display screen is split right into a grid of identically-sized rectangles, every of which has what’s normally a monochrome picture. This dramatically reduces the quantity of RAM wanted; within the IBM PC textual content mode, a reasonably typical instance, every character can have totally different foreground and background colours. Video games like ZZT can truly be very colourful.

A screenshot of ZZT, a game running in VGA text mode

Now, it’s attention-grabbing that that is referred to as “textual content mode”, when in 2023, more often than not we learn textual content on the pc, it’s in a variable-width font. Textual content mode, bear in mind, is fixed-width; alternatively, because the PC instance exhibits, the tiles will be something, not simply letters. So that is truly very helpful for video video games.

In video video games, that is usually referred to as a tilemap slightly than textual content mode, and the tiles can usually be a number of colours. In arcade video games, or within the Nintendo Leisure System, they’re usually saved in ROMs, similar to a text-only graphics card may need its font in ROM.

It is a screenshot from the development of Aspect Star “N”. The whole lot you see on this display screen is a tile; it’s brilliant and colourful, and higher-resolution than Halfway’s 1977 system (which used extra RAM). It’s additionally random, however that’s simply because this occurs to be a screenshot of a glitch.

A screenshot of tiles

The limitation of tilemaps is that every tile must be moved as a complete. That is high quality in some instances, just like the enemies within the NES port of Gauntlet’s, however for those who play this sport it’s very clear that they’re mounted to a grid. (Word that the NES, like many methods, options the flexibility to scroll the tilemap, so the nook of the display screen doesn’t essentially correspond to the nook of a tile)

Gauntlet gameplay. Dungeon with lots of enemies

However in Gauntlet you’re not mounted to a grid. And that’s as a result of the NES doesn’t simply have a tilemap– it additionally has sprites. Sprites bridge the hole between tile mode and framebuffers– they’re a set of mounted graphics that may be positioned freely on display screen, topic to numerous system-dependent {hardware} limitations. In Facet Star “N”, the entire enemies, the participant, the bullets, and even a number of the bugs are all sprites.

An early development screen of Aspect Star N showing an unexpected fourth enemy

The mix of a tilemap with sprites within the arcades is normally attributed to Namco’s 1979 Galaxian, and in house methods with the TI TMS9918, which additionally debuted within the 1979 TI-99/4. {Hardware} like this rapidly turned the usual for 2D video video games of the 1980’s and past due to its flexibility. At the moment’s sport is not any exception. Besides when it’s.

Nintendo’s Popeye

Generally, media from one nation may be very common abroad, even moreso than its nation of origin. That’s the case with King Options Syndicate’s comedian character Popeye. As an American, I principally bear in mind it as an previous youngsters’s cartoon with an exceedingly catchy theme tune. It doesn’t appear to be as common at present whilst a lot as after I was a child, I’m unsure if younger folks would acknowledge him in any respect. Even in my era, I feel lots of people can be stunned to search out the Sunday comic remains to be ongoing.

Popeye title screen

In Japan, alternatively, Popeye was so common that he lent his identify to a pop magazine and his franchise is likely one of the highest-grossing pachinko machines. That is all on-going too, however it was additionally true– or much more so– within the early 1980’s.

Why did Popeye scratch the Japanese psyche? Was it a product of the post-war occupation of the nation by the US? Really, it appears to predate the battle– maybe the everyman sailor simply scratched the guts of the island nation regardless. In any case, Popeye the Sailor Man: he yam what he yam, he’s large in Japan, and Nintendo wished his license. For Sport & Watch, and arcade.

Now, you may discover one thing in regards to the screenshot I posted: It seems to be nice. No method that’s a 240p picture, proper? Properly, proper. Popeye runs on a standard 15kHz arcade monitor, although. So how are they doing it?

Successive lines being scanned on a television, then the next field offsets

Oh proper, interlacing. However nonetheless, this decision in 1982 is nothing to sneeze at. Let’s see what tradeoffs they made.

Three ranges

The title display screen is one factor. However right here’s the primary stage of Popeye. An in depth take a look at this display screen ought to begin to present how this sport works.

Popeye start of first level. Olive Oyl encourages Popeye to catch hearts. Bluto/Brutus isn't pleased.


The very high stage is the tilemap. MAME occurs to have a pleasant debug mode for this, since tilemaps are so widespread. In Popeye, although, the tilemap is fairly sparse, used for some surroundings and the HUD principally. Like several tilemap of the period, it’s made up of 8×8 tiles saved in ROM.

Popeye tilemap.

By the way in which, in case you had been questioning, right here’s what the title display screen tilemap seems to be like.

Popeye tilemap for titlescreen. Parts of his face and the copyright year are visible, the rest is blacked out.

What’s attention-grabbing right here is that the tilemap just isn’t truly interlaced. Properly, it’s to a level, because the entire picture will nonetheless be shifted, however it has no distinction between frames. This is identical model and backbone of tilemap you’d see in, say, Donkey Kong. It’d as nicely be 240p.


Up subsequent is the sprite layer. As you’ll be able to guess, that is the place we’ve got the good, detailed, interlacing. And so far as I can inform, the sprite layer is all the time drawn behind the tilemap layer. As a set tilemap all the time on high, this mainly means the Popeye {hardware} is identical factor because the Neo Geo.

Popeye behind the THRU sign, which is on the tilemap

Whereas Popeye’s sprites are increased decision than these in Donkey Kong or Galaxian, they’re truly extra restricted. For one factor, they don’t have any clipping. Clear pixels aren’t clear to different sprites, solely to the background.

Popeye overlaps Brutus and a square is cut out of him

Apparently, when the Sea Hag phases out and in of existence, the sprite phases in each different line. Have been the builders impressed by the interlaced nature of the graphics?

Every other line of the Sea Hag is drawn

The background

The background is likely one of the extra attention-grabbing parts, as I don’t assume this type of factor is seen fairly often in arcade video games. Right here’s an try I made to recreate the above scene, with solely the background.

The background layer, showing blocky houses and floors

The background layer is a 128×128 grid that’s freely addressable in RAM. Looking at the MAME source, 4 bits are attributed to every pixel on display screen, which might suggest 8kiB of RAM. It is a framebuffer! And the pliability of the framebuffer strategy permits for some very good selection between ranges.

The second level, with music notes and buildings

The tradeoff, although, is fairly clear: a 128×128 grid expanded to the complete decision of the display screen implies that the pixels are big. That is the type of factor I discover even enjoying the sport within the arcade, or on my little trinitron PVM.

Popeye on a trinitron. The level is very blocky

And there we’ve got it. Popeye does all of it, a tilemap, sprites, and a framebuffer; plus, it does every at a unique decision with a unique pixel measurement. How usually do you see that?

Do you actually have a board

Trinitron picture apart, one different factor you may discover about all these pictures: they’re screenshots, taken in MAME. Normally, I like to point out off actual {hardware} on this weblog. And I do have the actual factor:

Top of the Popeye PCB, plugged into an adapter

Popeye is a pretty big board, consisting of two separate connected circuit boards. It makes use of the identical pinout as Donkey Kong Jr., and so I can use the identical adapter, which amongst different issues, must reverse the video indicators and amplify the audio, making it a bit difficult.

That chip beneath the large gray heatsink is an AY-3-8910, by the way in which. I’m unsure why the AY-3 wanted such a large heatsink, as I’ve just about by no means seen it like that. It’s the identical soundchip used within the Apple ][ Mockingboard and in MSX computer systems.

Bottom of the PCB, mostly discrete logic with some EEPROMS and RAM

The second circuitboard is labeled TPP2-01-VIDEO, so I assume that that is the video circuitry. Maybe it’d be price making an attempt to tug out.

Fancy video indicators

So, why don’t I’ve any seize? Properly, the Framemeister, my common previous dependable for video seize, doesn’t lock onto its sign in any respect.

The GBS Control does slightly higher, however it nonetheless struggles so much. Very similar to I do whereas enjoying the sport.

A glitched screen of Popeye.

See Also

Really, trying nearer at this, it’s exhausting to inform if the errors are coming from the GBS Management, or from the VGA to HDMI adapter. In both case, I can’t get a great seize although. Let’s strive the RetroTINK-5X, taking it from its lounge location the place it nonetheless lives plugged into the LaserActive.

A glitched screen of popeye with stats on top of it

The RetroTINK-5X nonetheless had a tough time; its deinterlacer was unable to cope with it, and I received fixed movement and lack of sync all through. Not precisely playable, however I probably might’ve hacked collectively some screenshots from this.

What’s attention-grabbing is that the image didn’t load in any respect if I wasn’t within the RetroTINK-5X’s “Triple Buffer” mode. Which fits nicely with the stats we see: 61.40 Hz is, by video requirements, nicely out of the 59.94 Hz we’d count on. Let’s take an identical screenshot of a extra well-behaved 480i sign, the Atomiswave.

A not-glitched screen with different stats, described below

You may see that this can be a good 59.94Hz. Keep in mind after I regarded on the RetroUSB AVS? That ran at a clear 59.94Hz, however the NES ran a barely quick 60.10Hz. A 0.2% pace improve that nonetheless causes some points. Popeye is working 2.5% quick, and it seems to be prefer it’s additionally not following the spec for the variety of horizontal strains. In order that’s one thing digital upscalers aren’t outfitted to cope with.

I’d like to point out you some good oscilloscope plots right here, however I don’t even have a adequate oscilloscope to measure horizontal sync. I can a minimum of present the differing vertical sync charges, although. Discover how rapidly the 2 get out of sync with one another.

A plot of two signals. One is faster than the other

Who made Popeye

Once I talked in regards to the Sega Zaxxon hardware, I famous that originally, Nintendo didn’t truly design their very own arcade {hardware}. 1981’s Donkey Kong was made beneath contract by Ikegami Tsushinki, with Nintendo’s employees dealing with sport design and Ikegami offering the programmers and boards.

Nintendo determined to fabricate their very own boards from Ikegami’s design for later Donkey Kong releases, and cloned it wholesale for 1982’s sequel, Donkey Kong Jr. Ikegami didn’t take this nicely, and that’s seemingly one of many the explanation why we ended up with Sega’s isometric Congo Bongo, one other brainchild of Ikegami.

Congo Bongo gameplay. An explorer climbs a mountain to get back at an ape on the top of the screen

In any case, Nintendo from then on began creating their very own arcade {hardware}; early 1984’s Punch-Out!! was, so far as I do know, an in-house affair. (Or a minimum of, they received a extra ironclad contract than with Ikegami) It didn’t run in interlaced mode, however did have two screens and big sprites with scaling, so their {hardware} staff had been no slouches.

UPDATE 2/27/2023: RachelRetro let me know that the truth is, the arcade model of Punch-Out!! appears to make use of interlaced mode. The present model of MAME doesn’t have this applied, however there’s a bug report. The plot thickens?

Punch-Out arcade, showing a scaled sprite punching me in the face

Popeye got here out in November 1982, 4 months after Donkey Kong Jr., so that you may assume that it was a starter work for Nintendo’s new {hardware} staff. However there’s an issue. An issue by the identify of Mr. You.

Sky Skipper title screen

On the identical time Donkey Kong was in growth, Nintendo launched one other sport with that includes a villainous gorilla: Sky Skipper. This sport flopped extremely exhausting on launch testing. Nintendo wasn’t the hit-after-hit studio we all know and love at present.

Now, I don’t truly know if Ikegami Tsushinki did Sky Skipper. As we noticed with Donkey Kong and Zaxxon, they usually included little clues of their ROMs to point out they made it, and I couldn’t discover any textual content or pictures in Sky Skipper of that kind. Wikipedia credit them with it, based mostly off of a guide I don’t have. However one factor’s for certain, the {hardware} in Popeye is a direct spinoff of the {hardware} utilized in Sky Skipper. Actually, it makes much more sense right here.

Sky Skipper gameplay, scrolling around large blocky areas

The low decision backgrounds have {hardware} scrolling functionality as a result of they’re, the truth is, scrolling. They didn’t simply develop that for Brutus/Bluto (he has two names, for Advanced Historic Causes) hitting the facet of the display screen. And you’ll see all three layers.

I might argue Popeye seems to be so much higher, although, with the intelligent use of tiles to cowl up the pixelatedness of the background. In fact, it’s simpler to do methods like that on a single-screen sport that hardly ever scrolls– bear in mind, the scrolling solely applies to the background layer.

Toot toot

A protracted weblog put up! And to be trustworthy, I didn’t even say something in regards to the gameplay. It’s an attention-grabbing idea, a hero who can’t soar, and one main enemy who very a lot can soar, and breaks the foundations of platform video games. Truthfully, although, it’s not as enjoyable as Donkey Kong– had King Options Syndicate been keen to signal the license settlement earlier, they might’ve received the higher sport. But it surely’s nonetheless enjoyable, and appears to be a staple of retro sport arcades even at present– regardless of being exhausting to upscale on an LCD.

In any case, see you subsequent time– and till then, might all of your tilemaps be filled with stars!

Sky Skipper gameplay, the tilemap is full of stars

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