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Oversimplified Historical past of Retro Sport Consoles for Programmers

Oversimplified Historical past of Retro Sport Consoles for Programmers

2023-08-13 13:07:45

It’s at all times helpful to have a look at the previous to grasp the present state of affairs. This text is a quick overview of the historical past of sport consoles from a programmer’s perspective. Let’s perceive the constraints and the driving forces that helped form the applied sciences we use right this moment in trendy sport growth.

Alright. That is going to be a enjoyable one!

We’re going to have a look at some actually cool outdated tech collectively, attempt to perceive their limitations, and put issues into historic perspective. This may hopefully assist us perceive why we needed to consistently provide you with fancier and smarter methods of creating video games from one technology to the subsequent.

However first, let me shortly clarify the motivations that made me write this text from the angle of an educator.

The Price of Abstraction

When college students arrive at a sport programming class, one of many first issues they do is to put in a bloated IDE that eats 10GB of their laborious disk and consumes ridiculous quantities of RAM from their laptops. On high of that, we’ve a number of hidden DLLs and dependencies that can change into a part of the ultimate executable with out their data, and we nonetheless add one other big layer of abstraction as we ask them to put in OpenGL or another graphics API to make the most of the GPU (which itself requires college students to jot down some form of vertex and pixel shaders to run).

Yikes! That is loads of layers of abstraction and tech jargon for college kids to digest. And all that simply to render a boring triangle on the display screen.

opengl triangle

There are loads of hidden components that have to work collectively for us to show a easy triangle on the display screen.

Do not get me improper; abstraction is a superb factor and it is one of the vital highly effective instruments we’ve as programmers. Nonetheless, on this case, abstraction does not come at zero price and overwhelms college students.

What actually is OpenGL and why do we want it? Why do we want a graphics API within the first place? What are inside all these DLLs, and what’s an working system API? Is our undertaking 32-bits or 64-bits? What’s a linker error, and the way is it completely different than a compiler error? And in the end, do we actually want all this to code one thing so small?

Most lecturers will merely let you know that you simply “need not perceive how any of this stuff work to proceed coding your undertaking.” Whereas that is technically true, it at all times leaves a bitter style in my mouth.

As programmers, we’re taught to maneuver quick and dwell with some unanswered questions. Personally, I like to return and perceive why issues are the best way they’re. For me, that normally occurs once I look again in time and be taught in regards to the motivations that prompted know-how to evolve the best way it did.

On this article, I will attempt to do precisely that! Let’s return in time and analyze the historical past of sport consoles to be taught why we develop video games the best way we do right this moment.

Video Sport Console Generations

Buckle up and prepare! Let’s discuss some cool stuff.

If you happen to ever learn something about video video games, you in all probability know that we divide consoles in generations. These generations sometimes happen roughly each 5 years, and this segmentation has to do with market competitors and know-how developments.

This division of consoles in generations is not an actual science, and it is questioned by lots of the gamedev connoisseurs on the market. That being mentioned, I will nonetheless use them to assist us make sense of the timeline after we talk about completely different consoles and their video games.

game console generations

A timeline of the 9 generations of residence sport consoles.

Let’s hit the bottom operating with a really brief abstract going backwards. After we’re accomplished with this fast overview, we’ll proceed to take a more in-depth have a look at the primary six generations and their essential applied sciences.

  • ninth Technology: We’ve got simply entered the ninth technology of residence sport consoles with the PS5 and the Xbox Sequence X/S slowly making their manner into individuals’s houses.
  • eighth Technology: We’re additionally in the course of an ongoing eighth technology. The principle opponents are the PS4, the Xbox One, the Wii U, and the Nintendo Change. This technology was the one chargeable for pushing larger framerates and popularizing 4K decision video games.
  • seventh Technology: That is the technology of the PS3, the Xbox 360, and the unique Wii. This was the place we noticed a significant shift into heavy use of on-line shops and content material obtain as being integral a part of new video games, in addition to the brand new technology of motion-controlled Wii video games.
  • sixth Technology: The sixth technology was marked by the PS2 being greatest promoting console in historical past, by Sega dropping out of the competitors after releasing the Dreamcast, and by Microsoft coming into the console market with the unique Xbox. This technology targeted on making consoles an integral a part of the lounge, helped by way of DVD and HD resolutions.
  • fifth Technology: Right here is the place Sony entered the house console market with the unique PlayStation. Different well-known consoles of the period had been the Nintendo 64 and Sega Saturn. This technology noticed the soar from 32 bits to 64 bits, in addition to an enormous wave of 3D titles for the house console with devoted polygon-rendering {hardware}.
  • 4th Technology: The 4th technology was the marked by the explosion of 16-bit video games with the discharge of Nintendo’s SNES and the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive). This was the technology chargeable for bringing the audiovisual high quality of high arcade machines to the house market, in addition to embodying the well-known firm mascots within the public’s consciousness with Sonic (Sega) and Mario (Nintendo).
  • third Technology: This was referred to as the 8-bit technology, with in style consoles just like the NES (Nintendo Leisure System) and the Sega Grasp System. This was the period of colourful graphics that helped deliver the creative Japanese sport design to the worldwide plenty.
  • 2nd Technology: This was the technology of sport cartridges. The Atari 2600 VCS was essentially the most well-known machine of this period, adopted by the Intellivision and by the lesser recognized Fairchild Channel F. We noticed a shift in the best way we consider consoles, the place one machine may now run a number of video games.
  • 1st Technology: This technology was composed of devoted consoles, the place every machine may play just one or two video games pre-built to the console {hardware}. The primary residence console was the Magnavox Odyssey, adopted by Pong and a wave of Pong-clones.

There we go! A brilliant brief overview from the present ninth technology again to the genesis of residence consoles in 1972. If you happen to had any contact with video video games in your life, likelihood is you acknowledge a number of the names I simply talked about.

Now, to actually perceive how evolution labored by way of know-how, we have to go the opposite manner round. Let’s begin from the primary technology and climb our manner up till the PS2 & the primary Xbox. However for that, let’s put our programmer’s hat on and pay shut consideration to the {hardware} and software program limitations of every period. Understanding the constraints will assist us higher perceive the applied sciences that had been created to unravel them.

We’ll begin with the technology that also thought one machine must be chargeable for doing one factor and one factor solely.

First Technology (1972-1980): One Machine, One Sport.

This primary technology was attempting to deliver the “arcade expertise” into individuals’s houses.

Earlier than residence consoles, we had large cumbersome arcade machines with a single sport manufactured into the {hardware}. Pong was one of many earliest arcade video games. It was created by Allan Alcorn as a coaching train assigned to him by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, however the entire group was so stunned by the standard of Alcorn’s work that they ended up manufacturing the sport.

atari pong arcade machine

The know-how of those first consoles was very fundamental. One factor that the majority college students do not realize is that these machines had no microprocessor. There was no CPU orchestrating the logic of the sport, and all the sport logic was merely the results of indicators flowing via discrete circuits.

For instance, the Pong arcade sport was only a sequence of hardwired logic gates, flip-flops, resistors, all ticking at a sure frequency. A crystal clock oscillates and feeds pulses to the digital circuit. This logic dictates if the output video sign at every scanline is white (on) or black (off) on the display screen.

pong discrete circuit

These first machines had no microprocessor, and the sport logic was managed utilizing discrete circuits.

Within the above picture, the circuit is designed to implement a vertical counter that intercalates between video sign on or off. This helps us generate the internet in the course of the display screen because the CRT scan strains from high to backside. This rudimentary manner of displaying video indicators was additionally the rationale why most video games may solely show rectangular graphics (internet, paddle, ball, rating, and many others.).

Following the will of bringing arcade inside individuals’s houses, we ended up with devoted small consoles with one or two video games pre-built into the {hardware}. And even these consoles that might run a couple of sport, altering video games normally meant flipping a bodily change on the again of the machine.

magnavox odyssey

The Magnavox Odyssey was the primary documented residence online game console, being launched in September of 1972. Initially constructed from solid-state circuits, Magnavox transitioned to cheaper built-in circuit chips to develop a brand new line of machines, the Odyssay series, that had been launched between 1975 and 1977.

The Odyssey additionally had no microprocessor. It was solely able to displaying three sq. dots and one line of various peak in monochrome black and white. The conduct of the dots modified relying on the sport.

Odyssey customers may transfer the dots utilizing the controllers, however so as to add “fancier” visuals, video games included a plastic overlay (a skinny plastic sheet) that customers may persist with the TV display screen. These clear overlays sticked to the display screen by way of static cling. For instance, a colourful overlay would possibly add obstacles that the dots ought to keep away from or strains that the dots ought to comply with. Fairly ingenious for those who ask me.

odyssey overlay

Right here we’ve an Odyssey sport with out overlay and one other sport that makes use of plastic overlays to create visuals.

Atari launched Pong as an arcade sport in November of 1972, and finally partnered with Sears to launch the brand new home Pong console for the Christmas season of 1975. This machine provided a number of benefits over the Odyssey, together with an inside sound chip and the flexibility to maintain monitor of participant rating.

atari pong arcade machine

Quite a few third-party producers entered the console market by 1977, principally merely cloning Pong or different video games. This led to saturation with a number of a whole lot of various consoles of poor high quality to select from, inflicting a sport market crash quickly after.

It was additionally clear that designing and manufacturing a whole new machine to play just some video games was not going to chop it! Firms needed to discover a cheaper manner of distributing video games. As you will see within the subsequent generations, worth is a recurrent deciding issue when creating and adopting new applied sciences. Let’s transfer ahead and be taught in regards to the second technology of sport consoles; the technology of sport cartridges!

Second Technology (1976-1992): The Cartridge Period.

The second technology of residence consoles was distinguished by the introduction of the game cartridge. With this know-how, the code of every sport is saved inside a cart utilizing read-only-memory (ROM) chips.

After we plug-in a brand new cartridge, the console has direct hyperlink to the sport code that’s saved within the cartdrige ROM, so there isn’t any have to pre-load the code into reminiscence. The console, now powered by a microprocessor, has direct entry to the ROM’s content material which is mapped into the primary console reminiscence. This method was rather a lot sooner than different storing options of the time, like cassete tapes or floppy disks.

The principle consoles of this technology had been the Fairchild Channel F, the Atari 2600 VCS, and the Intellivision. The Atari 2600 VCS turned the preferred sport console of the 2nd technology, and it helped unfold the adoption of sport cartridges as the primary media for storing and ditributing video games.

atari 2600 vcs

Having the ability to use cartridges to play a number of Atari 2600 video games was positively a sport changer… ha!

Programming for these machines was not a simple job. The Atari VCS had a gradual 1.19MHz processor, 128 bytes of RAM, and we had solely 4kB of ROM to retailer the code directions of our sport. Your complete sport, together with logic, graphics, sprites, bitmap patterns, and all sport knowledge had to slot in lower than 4kB of ROM.

Enjoyable truth: Any PNG picture on this web site is greater than 4kB, and due to this fact larger than any sport you’ve got ever performed on the Atari 2600. Though, some programmers used a way known as bank-switching to extend ROM dimension in later video games.

The structure of those machines had been nonetheless very rudimentary. One may simply draw the schematics of the Atari 2600 by hand. You will additionally hear programmers say that coding for the Atari VCS required us to “race the beam.”

racing the beam

The Atari 2600 is programmed because the electrom beam scans the show from high to backside.

Racing the beam implies that we should time the clock cycles of every CPU instruction and match that to the time required to render objects on the CRT show. We time every CPU instruction to comply with the CRT show beam, which sends directions of what must be rendered in real-time, because the beam traces the display screen from high to backside… enjoyable occasions!

atari combat tank

The VCS had particular reminiscence registers for various display screen objects (participant, playfield, missile, and ball).

The TIA was a {custom} chip that generated the video output for the VCS, producing the display screen show and the sound results. As described above, the chip was designed round not having a frame buffer, counting on the CPU to ship the proper indicators and timing them exactly to show the objects on the display screen.

If you wish to be taught the soiled particulars of tips on how to program video games for the Atari 2600, I’ve a cool course that teaches coding for the VCS utilizing meeting language. We use the tremendous easy 2600 structure to find out how digital machines work underneath the hood. If this feels like enjoyable, go to the courses web page.

atari 2600 programming tutorial

Earlier than we are saying goodbye to the second technology, I simply wish to briefly point out one thing else that was crucial by way of know-how historical past. The Atari VCS was powered by a microprocessor, which is a particular built-in chip that orchestrates how the information strikes and is processed contained in the console. When Atari was contemplating a processor to energy the VCS, CPU producers like Intel, Motorola, and MOS began a worth combat. MOS was the one firm that might attain the worth level Atari was keen to pay. This was an especially necessary step in know-how historical past, as we had been observing the primary steps of a brilliant well-known household of processors referred to as 6502.

atari 2600 6507 cpu

The Atari 2600 was powered by a 6507 CPU, which was principally a less expensive model of the unique 6502.

The 6502 CPU ended up powering a number of online game consoles and microcomputers. Most programmers of the 70s and 80s needed to code for some sort of 6502 processor. Apart from the Atari 2600, another well-known machines that used a 6502 processor had been the Nintendo Leisure System (NES), the Commodore VIC-20, the Commodore 64, the Apple II, the Tamagotchi, and plenty of (many!) others.

Third Technology (1983-2003): The 8-bit Technology.

In the course of the online game crash of 1983, the USA misplaced its curiosity in console video games in favor of non-public computer systems. The third technology was chargeable for making video video games in style once more in America.

The machines of this technology used 8-bit processors, permitting programmers to push the boundaries of what was doable by way of graphics and audio. Colourful sprites and tiles made the creativity of Japanese sport design well-known in all the world.

The most well-liked consoles of this technology had been the NES, the Sega SG-1000, and the Sega Master System.

Nintendo initially launched the Household Laptop (or Famicom) in Japan, however rebranded the console to NES in North America to keep away from the affiliation with the ugly time period “online game” after the crash.

nintendo nes

The NES (Nintendo Leisure System) was the preferred console of the third technology.

This technology of consoles holds a particular place in my coronary heart. Rising up in Brazil, the primary console I ever owned was a Taiwanese NES clone known as “Micro Genius”!

Enjoyable truth: My console got here with just one sport, Double Dragon II, which I performed time and again for a number of months. I additionally didn’t know English, so I simply assumed one of many characters was known as “Double” and the opposite one “Dragon.”

These machines allowed for extra fascinating graphics than those from the 2nd technology. Now we may have as much as 5 bits for shade (2⁵ = 32 completely different colours), 5 audio channels, and different superior graphics results. For instance, the NES may deal with a set of sprites and tiles by utilizing a devoted image processing unit.

The PPU generated the video output for the NES, operating at 3x the frequency of the CPU (every cycle of the PPU outputs one pixel whereas rendering). The NES PPU may render a background layer and as much as 64 sprites, the place sprites may very well be 8×8 or 8×16 pixels. The background may very well be scrolled in each X and Y axis, together with “high-quality” scrolling (transferring one pixel at a time). Each background and sprites had been constituted of 8×8 tiles, and these tiles had been outlined in “sample tables” contained in the cartridge ROM.

nes ppu
Sample tables within the PPU definined the tiles that may very well be utilized in Super Mario Bros.

Proper, in order that’s loads of info and numbers to recollect about how graphics work on the NES. All you really want to take from all that is that working with tiles and sprites was rather a lot simpler than having to code uncooked blocks of bitmap in ROM like we did with the VCS within the earlier technology. The PPU (image processing unit) dealt with the graphics a part of NES video games, and the APU (audio processing unit) dealt with the audio.

The processor on the NES was a 6502-based Ricoh 2A03. Nearly each critical sport that was developed for the NES was programmed in 6502 meeting language.

Though the machine structure of most third-generation consoles was nonetheless pretty easy, the gradual velocity of the CPU (1.79MHz on the NES) meant each clock cycle was essential when programming a sport. NES programmers usually knew by coronary heart what number of clock cycles every CPU instruction took. Counting clock cycles for each line of 6502 meeting code was a quite common follow on this technology as effectively!

Provided that the C programming language was already a great tool within the laptop science world, would not or not it’s good if we may use a high-level language to jot down video games for the NES?

C was principally a “transportable meeting”, that means that if we’ve a C compiler that knew tips on how to generate compiled MOS 6502 code, we should always theoretically have the ability to write our video games in C as a substitute of writing 6502 meeting by hand.

There have been some small C compilers that might spit out 6502 machine code for the NES. Sadly, the compiled output was too gradual for it to be a viable possibility. Subsequently, for those who had been a NES programmer and also you wished to squeeze the whole lot you could possibly out of the {hardware}, there was no different possibility than to jot down 6502 meeting manually.

However know-how evolves. In an effort to create higher graphics and permit for extra complicated video games, the subsequent technology needed to elevate the bar as soon as once more. We’re about to enter the revolutionary 16-bit technology of residence consoles!

Fourth Technology (1987-2004): The 16-bit Technology.

Most consoles of the 4th technology took benefit of 16-bit processors. In easy phrases, the registers inside these CPUs may now retailer and manipulate 16-bit values. Apart from a sooner CPU clock, these new CPUs may entry exponentially extra reminiscence addresses than the earlier technology. Because it was anticipated, all this horsepower meant two necessary issues: higher graphics and higher audio high quality.

Unusually sufficient, the primary console of the 4th technology – the NEC TurboGrafx-16 – was powered by an 8-bit CPU. Nintendo and Sega entered the competitors with the SNES and the Sega Genesis, each operating true 16-bit processors.

snes sega genesis turbografx

The holy trinity of the 4th technology: NEC TurboGrafx-16, Nintendo SNES, and Sega Genesis.

Enjoyable truth: If you happen to had been a child in Brazil within the early 90s, you in all probability by no means heard of the identify Sega Genesis. If you’re not from the US, likelihood is you understand the Genesis by its unique Japanese identify, Mega Drive.

Okay, so let’s pause for only a second. The NEC TurboGrafx-16 had an 8-bit CPU and nonetheless managed to compete with these different highly effective 16-bit machines? How does that work?


NEC selected the 65C02 processor to energy the TurboGrafx-16. The 65C02 was a quick 8-bit processor operating at spectacular 7.6MHz. To place issues into perspective, the 16-bit processor of the SNES ran at depressing 3.6MHz!

Nintendo needed to cap the SNES CPU clock at 3.6MHz as a result of they selected to make use of gradual RAM and ROM chips. It actually doesn’t matter if we’ve a brilliant quick CPU, gradual RAM velocity will at all times be a bottleneck on the machine’s efficiency.

This romance between CPU velocity and RAM velocity continues to be legitimate right this moment. Most individuals consider efficiency simply by way of CPU clock velocity, however for the reason that nature of most packages is to consistently learn and write values from reminiscence, it is very important pair CPU velocity with RAM velocity. That is why issues like RAM clock and twin channel are so necessary for efficiency, and that is additionally why firms like Apple determined to design their M1 chip with RAM sitting proper beside the CPU circuitry offering direct reminiscence entry.

apple m1 ram
Apple’s M1 “Unified Memory Architecture” views RAM as a single pool of reminiscence that each one components of the processor can entry. GPU, CPU, and different components of the chip can entry the identical knowledge on the identical reminiscence deal with.

So, there we go! NEC managed to compete within the 16-bit market by utilizing a quick 8-bit CPU and pairing it with quick RAM and ROM chips.

bonk adventure turbografx
Bonk, from Bonk’s Adventure, was the mascot of the NEC TurboGrafx-16.

The superior graphics high quality of most TurboGrafx-16 video games was achieved by benefiting from a strong 16-bit graphics chip, which was additionally the rationale NEC began to promote the TurboGrafx-16 as a “16-bit machine.”


Most individuals normally bear in mind the SNES as essentially the most succesful console of this technology. The SNES was not essentially the most highly effective machine, however I will wager the celebrity comes from its superior graphics PPU. The image processing unit on the SNES was able to attaining some very fascinating results. The programmer had entry to eight video modes, included the well-known Mode 7, permitting the background layer to be remodeled (scaled, rotated, translated, mirrored, and many others.) by utilizing matrix transforms. If you happen to ever performed Super Mario Kart or Pilot Wings, these pretend 3D results are created with Mode 7.

mario kart mode 7

Mode 7 getting used to rework the background layer on Tremendous Mario Kart.

The SNES’s 16-bit CPU was based mostly on 6502 structure. As soon as once more, as a result of design nature of the MOS 6502 processor, the shortage of registers, and the overhead produced by most C compilers of the time, most SNES video games had been programmed utilizing hand-written 6502 meeting.

Genesis (Mega Drive)

Sega determined to go together with a extra highly effective processor for the Genesis. The Motorola 68000 CPU ran at 7.6MHz (twice the velocity of the SNES) and was a hybrid 16/32-bit processor. The 68000 turned a highly regarded CPU, turning into the processor of selection of microcomputers just like the Commodore Amiga and the unique Apple Macintosh.

motorola 68000 mega drive

The Motorola 68000 on the Sega Genesis was a hybrid 16/32-bit CPU operating at 7.6MHz.

Right here is the place we begin to see an enormous shift in the best way we developed video games. The obtainable {hardware} energy of the Genesis meant that some video games (or a minimum of components of them) may now be written in C!

Although 68000 meeting is taken into account by many as one of the vital human-friendly assemblies on the market, with the ability to write components of the sport utilizing a high-level programming language was an enormous deal. C compilers had been getting sooner and higher at spitting out optimized compiled code. As we’ll see quickly, writing C would change into the popular manner of creating video games for the subsequent technology of consoles.

Enjoyable truth: Although the Sega Genesis did not have the highly effective graphics PPU of the SNES, the quick 68000 processor allowed Genesis video games to realize results much like these of Mode 7 by way of software program (solely utilizing the CPU).

pier solar mode 7
The Adventures of Batman & Robin achieved Mode7-like results on the Genesis by way of software program.

One thing else that’s in all probability turning into very clear to you is that utilizing the CPU alone to push pixels will not be going to chop it. Did you discover how most consoles are selecting to have a devoted graphics unit to work along with the CPU? That is going to change into extraordinarily in style within the following generations. That is additionally true for contemporary gaming units, as most machines include a devoted graphics unit (or graphics card).

By the top of the 4th technology, Nintendo used devoted overclocked coprocessors manufactured into the sport cartridge to boost the graphics capabilities of video games. Probably the most well-known instance is the Super FX chip. The Tremendous FX was designed by Argonaut Games, who additionally co-developed the 3D sport Star Fox with Nintendo to show the extra polygon rendering capabilities of the chip.

star fox super fx

Star Fox is usually thought of one of many first video games to make use of real-time 3D polygon rendering on consoles.

The Tremendous FX was a custom-made RISC coprocessor that was sometimes programmed to behave like a graphics accelerator chip to attract polygons to a body buffer within the RAM that sits adjoining to it. The information on this body buffer is periodically transferred to the primary video reminiscence inside the console utilizing direct memory access as a way to be displayed on the TV display screen.

super fx 2
Super FX 2 chip sitting contained in the cartridge of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.

Enjoyable truth: Whereas in growth, the Tremendous FX chip was codenamed “MARIO chip”, with the initials standing for “Mathematical, Argonaut, Rotation, & Enter/Output”.

There was additionally a Tremendous FX 2 chip, which was a sooner Tremendous FX mode that ran at spectacular 21.4MHz. The sport Star Fox 2 used the complete energy of the Tremendous FX 2.

And talking of 3D video games for the SNES, some individuals say, “However Gustavo, I bear in mind enjoying Donkey Kong Country for the SNES, and it had some cool 3D objects with lighting and shadows. Do not in addition they render real-time 3D polygons?”

Nicely, no! Not likely. The builders of Donkey Kong Nation purchased a brilliant costly Silicon Graphics station to mannequin the 3D objects of the sport. However on the finish, they merely use pre-rendered 2D sprites of these 3D fashions.

donkey kong country

Donkey Kong Contry for the SNES with “pretend” 3D visuals.

So, after we play Donkey Kong Nation on the SNES, what we’re seeing is a only a sequence of pre-rendered 2D pictures that offers us the impression of a 3D sport.

donkey kong country spritesheet

2D spritesheet for one of many animations of Donkey Kong Nation.

Lovely! This was a tremendous period, and it helped me cowl some tremendous fascinating ideas. However it is time to transfer ahead; we’re about to enter the subsequent technology of consoles. Let’s go 32-bits!

Fifth Technology (1993-2006): The 32-bit Technology.

Now we’re speaking! The fifth technology of residence consoles was the massive soar from 16-bits to 32-bits. This shift allowed machines to entry exponentially extra reminiscence addresses and video games may make the most of sooner CPU clock speeds.

Dwelling computer systems had been annoying the house console market as soon as once more. PCs had quick processors, multimedia, and laptop GPU acceleration was beginning to change into a factor. Consoles had been compelled to step up and get higher at pushing not solely quick pixels, however quick real-time 3D polygons to the display screen.

The fifth technology launched Sony as one of many essential gamers within the residence console market with the discharge of the unique PlayStation. Chronologically, the massive names of the 32-bit technology had been the Sega Saturn, the Sony PlayStation, and the Nintendo 64.

saturn playstation nintendo 64

The principle consoles of the 32-bit technology: Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, and Nintendo 64.

Another necessary applied sciences additionally gained house on this technology. The worth of optical disks (CD-ROMs) dropped sufficiently to make them enticing to the console market. They had been already the popular manner of transport video games for the PC, nevertheless it was the PlayStation that popularized the usage of CDs for console video games.

jet moto playstation
Jet Moto exhibiting the quick 3D polygons that had been doable with the PlayStation.

The Nintendo 64 nonetheless used sport cartridges, as Nintendo believed the load-time benefits of cartridges over CD-ROMs was nonetheless important (in addition to their means to proceed to make use of lockout mechanisms to guard copyrights).

Within the fifth technology we additionally noticed a shift in the best way video games had been programmed. Lastly, with sooner CPU speeds and compilers turning into extra highly effective, video games had been developed utilizing C. And I invite you to cease for a second and ponder what this actually meant for sport builders. As {hardware} turned sooner and sooner, we may now commerce a bit little bit of computing energy for “programmer happiness.”

Most C compilers had been reaching a maturity state the place the meeting generated by them was much like what a human would write. We had been lastly at some extent in tech historical past the place meeting was one thing for compilers to generate, not people.

Enjoyable truth: Trendy compilers will generate higher and extra optimized meeting output than most programmers… however you didn’t hear that from me.

I believe it is also necessary to elucidate how that is associated to some {hardware} selections of that period. The fifth technology used 32-bit processors based mostly on RISC structure.


RISC and CISC are completely different approaches of processor design. RISC stands for Lowered Instruction Set Laptop and tries to cut back the cycles per instruction at the price of the variety of directions per program. CISC stands for Complicated Instruction Set Laptop and makes an attempt to reduce the variety of directions per program however at the price of improve in variety of cycles per instruction.

intel 386 cpu

For instance, each Motorola 68000 and Intel x86 are based mostly on CISC structure (complicated instruction). CISC executes many low-level operations per instruction, making CISC meeting normally smaller and simpler for people to jot down and cause about.

Then again, the NEC VR4300 CPU on the Nintendo 64 is predicated on RISC. RISC directions are sooner, normally taking just one clock cycle. Easy directions imply longer packages. So it is likely to be extra annoying to jot down RISC meeting manually, nevertheless it runs extra effectively and it normally consumes much less vitality.

nec vr4300 cpu

In abstract, CISC directions pack loads of performance and require many CPU cycles to execute. RISC directions are brief and streamlined, however take fewer CPU cycles to run.

As a easy instance, consider a hypothetical CISC processor that has a built-in instruction to compute the factorial of a quantity that’s loaded in a register known as A. For the sake of simplicity, let’s name this meeting instruction “FACT“.

-- Factorial of 6 on CISC

On a RISC processor, the programmer would wish to jot down a bigger program to compute the factorial of a quantity, doubtlessly utilizing a sequence of easy MUL directions to multiply values collectively.

-- Factorial of 6 on RISC

See Also

You in all probability heard of ARM processors that energy cellphones and tablets. ARM CPUs are based mostly on RISC and have become a well-liked selection for cellular units and energy-efficient {hardware}. The Apple M1 chip can be based mostly on ARM/RISC.

Writing meeting by hand was a typical job again in 1989, however these days we will clearly see the enchantment of an easier, extra environment friendly, and extra streamlined RISC structure. If we contemplate that almost all of right this moment’s meeting code is generated by compilers and never by people, we may nearly say that the RISC structure was forward of its time.

Cool! I hope this clarifies what was going on the time by way of CPU structure.


One thing else that occurred with the 32-bit soar was the introduction of a robust layer of abstraction between the programmer and the {hardware}. Earlier consoles did not have the idea of an working system sitting between the developer and the machine, and we had direct entry to the {hardware}. The 32-bit technology launched the thought of a firmware, which acted like a light-weight OS for the console.

It was essential to introduce a firmware due to how complicated the machines had been getting. The firmware acted in the course of the code and the {hardware}, exposing the low-level performance that the programmer can use. Firms like Sony and Nintendo additionally supplied some form of SDK and programming libraries that builders ought to use to create video games for his or her consoles.

3D Polygons

The fifth technology additionally noticed an explosion of 3D titles. Making the most of devoted polygon-rendering chips, these 32-bit consoles may now push quick polygons and render real-time 3D graphics. In fact, we’re speaking lowpoly 3D meshes and low-resolution textures, nevertheless it was completely mind-blowing to see early 3D graphics operating easily on these machines!

super mario 64
Developed by Nintendo, Super Mario 64 was the primary Tremendous Mario sport to function 3D gameplay.

Having the ability to emulate console video games on a PC was at all times a giant deal for avid gamers. Emulating video games from earlier generations on a house laptop was technically not that arduous, since most PC processors of the time may render 2D pixels and compute 2D results by way of software program. However fifth technology consoles now got here with complicated devoted polygon-processing {hardware}, so it turned extraordinarily tough for the PCs to emulate these video games utilizing solely CPU energy.

Some PC emulators for PlayStation and Nintendo 64 took benefit of {hardware} acceleration. If you happen to wished to actually expertise the facility of late PlayStation or Nintendo 64 3D video games, you probably wished to have a GPU card put in in your laptop.

3dfx voodoo

One of many pioneers within the subject of graphics acceleration was an organization known as 3Dfx, making a dent within the PC market with the well-known Voodoo GPU. To make the most of their graphics card, programmers used a library known as Glide, which was developed and distributed by 3Dfx itself.

Subsequently, some emulators tried to emulate the console’s polygon-rendering capabilities on the pc GPU utilizing the Glide API. If you happen to ever put in emulators like Bleem! or ePSXe for Home windows, you in all probability needed to discover the proper DLL model of the Glide API on your system. These DLLs comprise the implementation of the features uncovered by 3Dfx that the emulator can use to entry the graphics card.

To get an thought of how GPU playing cards work, let us take a look at a quite simple instance.

We could say we’re creating a sport for a console with a CPU operating at 7.6MHz (7.6 million directions per second), and a display screen decision of 320×224. That is a complete of 71,680 pixels for a single body of our sport.

resolution 320x224

Now think about that we should convert a sure scene of the sport to grayscale in one of many ranges. Utilizing solely CPU directions, we’ll in all probability want a while-loop to go to each pixel of the display screen altering them one after the other. That is 71,680 pixels per body! And do not forget that we’re inside a sport loop, so this this must occur 60 occasions per second.

That is loads of CPU clock cycles! Even when we assume that every pixel operation takes just one clock cycle to execute, that is 71,680 cycles occasions 60, giving us a complete of 4.3 million directions in a single second. That is greater than half of what our 7.6MHz CPU can deal with. Not cool!

Now, let’s contemplate the identical drawback however with the assistance of a GPU. Completely different than CPUs, GPUs incorporates tens or a whole lot of small cores. All these cores of a GPU imply one factor: processing giant portions of knowledge in parallel!

Apart from a number of cores, GPUs like to work with arrays. Subsequently, as a substitute of performing an instruction on one single worth, GPUs will course of giant vectors of knowledge per cycle. If we have to course of all these 320×224 pixels of our display screen, we will ship giant arrays of pixels to be processed. The GPU will “divide-and-conquer” the issue and use as many cores as doable to finish the duty.

gpu hardware acceleration

The GPU pipeline can course of giant arrays of 3D vertices and pixel operations.

The important thing phrase right here is parallelism. It simply so occurs that the majority laptop graphics issues could be optimized utilizing this method.

Simply remember that GPUs clear up a really particular problem, and not each computation could be optimized by throwing GPUs at it. If an issue is linear (the place the subsequent instruction depends upon the results of the earlier one), then a CPU continues to be the very best instrument for the job. However in our unique instance, since every row of pixels would not rely upon the results of the earlier row, the GPU will certainly enhance the velocity of the rendering.

One very last thing I wish to point out about GPUs is that, again within the day card producers used to supply {custom} libraries for builders to work with their GPUs. If we take the instance of the defunct 3Dfx Voodoo, the Glide API was a 3Dfx library that solely knew tips on how to talk with 3Dfx playing cards. If you happen to had a GPU from a distinct vendor, you wanted a totally completely different API. Not cool!

As laptop graphics advanced, there was a robust motion to seek out a regular for a way we program GPUs. For this reason we’ve issues like OpenGL and Vulkan. These are open libraries that can summary how GPUs are applied and work with all playing cards. This makes programming trendy graphics and dealing with trendy GPUs much less cumbersome than programming within the 3Dfx/Voodoo period.

opengl api

OpenGL is a well-liked graphics API that exposes entry to the GPU.

Trendy GPUs additionally permit the programmer to ship small scripts with directions of what the GPU must execute for each vertex and each pixel of our 3D scene. You in all probability know these scripts as shaders. The code inside these shaders will dictate how the GPU ought to remodel every vertex of our 3D mannequin (vertex shaders) or paint every pixel on the show (pixel shaders). That is the rationale trendy GPUs declare they’ve a programmable pipeline, which is principally a manner of claiming builders can use shaders to program how the graphics pipeline will course of vertices and pixels when rendering. To alleviate the primary processor, extra processing steps have been moved to the pipeline and the GPU.

Alright! We’ve got used the fifth technology to discover a number of necessary concepts of digital machines and programming which are nonetheless legitimate right this moment. Let’s return to our unique plan and be taught in regards to the subsequent technology of residence consoles.

Sixth Technology (1998-2013): Maintaining with the PC.

Within the sixth technology, consoles started to catch up and match the efficiency of non-public computer systems of the time. This would be the final technology that we’ll cowl on this article, since our focus is usually retro {hardware} and early applied sciences.

With the adoption of the DVD as its main media and the unfold of each plasma and LED display screen TVs, the consoles of the sixth technology tried to converge the options of different digital front room units.

Up till this level, the three essential residence console contenders had been Sega, Nintendo, and Sony. The sixth technology noticed one of many contenders drop out, and a brand new contender take its first steps.

Sega launched the Dreamcast in November of 1998. Powered by a Hitachi SH-4 CPU and a NEC PowerVR2 GPU, the Dreamcast is taken into account to be the primary console of the sixth technology. It was additionally the primary console to incorporate a modem to permit gamers to connect with the Sega community and play on-line video games.

sega dreamcast

The Dreamcast was largely outperformed by the Sony PlayStation 2. This was the final console launched by Sega, who turned a third-party software program writer after that.

nintendo gamecube

Nintendo’s sixth technology console was the GameCube, launched in September of 2001. It was the successor of the Nintendo 64 and the primary Nintendo console to make use of optical disks. It launched a proprietary miniDVD as its storage medium and was able to storing as much as 1.5 GB of knowledge.

Personally, I at all times thought that the GameCube was technically very fascinating. Nintendo partnered with IBM for the CPU and with ArtX/ATI for system logic and GPU. IBM designed a RISC PowerPC-based processor for the GameCube known as Gekko. The CPU ran at 486MHz and featured a strong floating level unit (FPU). The GPU was codenamed “Flipper” and ran at 162 MHz, containing not solely the graphics unit, but in addition audio DSP and I/O controllers.

The reception of the GameCube was blended. It was praised by its modern controllers however criticized by the general lack of options. Sadly, the console offered a lot lower than Nintendo anticipated, and it was discontinued in 2007.

playstation 2

The PlayStation 2 was an absolute monster! It was powered by a custom-designed 128-bit R5900 Emotion Engine CPU. Its GPU (known as Graphics Synthesiser) was additionally custom-designed and was able to rendering as much as 75 million polygons per second! Apart from the tech specs, Sony’s resolution to make sure the PS2 was backwards-compatible with earlier PS video games was a genius market transfer. With 155 million copies offered, the PS2 is the very best promoting online game console in historical past!

At this level, Microsoft noticed the success of the PS2 as a menace to the market of gaming on the non-public laptop. The Xbox turned the primary console launched by Microsoft, and it was designed based mostly on Microsoft’s expertise with private computer systems.

The XBox had an OS based mostly on Microsoft Home windows with DirectX options. It ran a {custom} Intel Pentium III CPU, used a tough disk to avoid wasting sport state, had built-in Ethernet performance, and it was the primary console to have a web based service (known as Xbox Live) to help multiplayer video games.


By way of how we develop video games, we noticed clear cues that video games had been turning into a product of utmost collaboration. We’re speaking tens or a whole lot of individuals working collectively on a single sport. Trendy sport studios began to fill warehouses with illustrators, programmers, 3D artists, stage designers, managers, and plenty of different professionals working alongside the event group, like advertising and marketing and analysis.

All this collaboration and the massive variety of builders engaged on a single sport is without doubt one of the causes we have to use supply management instruments like Git or Mercurial right this moment. Additionally, with strict market deadlines, sport studios even borrowed some conventional productiveness tips from the software program engineering world, like XP or SCRUMM.

We additionally noticed the adoption of programming paradigms that helped growth groups cause about software program high quality, development, and maintainability. Alternative ways of excited about software program parts, like object-oriented programming (OOP) and practical programming (FP) are actually widespread in sport code. C++ turned the trade commonplace language for video games, principally due to its means to ship compiled efficiency whereas additionally providing good help for OOP.

With complicated machines and CPU cycles to spare, the usage of general-purpose IDE-like game engines additionally turned a actuality. Engines like Unity and Unreal are nice productiveness instruments and assist many video games see the sunshine of day. Builders can now plan their code and discuss their video games in summary phrases like sport objects, entities, parts, whereas stage designers can merely determine how these items work together with one another utilizing a high-level scripting language.

unity game engine

Unity helps builders create a sport as soon as and deploy it to completely different platforms (Xbox, PlayStation, PC, and many others.)

Going again to the event of video games for the PlayStation and XBox, builders are just about tied to a sport engine or to SDKs supplied by Sony and Microsoft. Not solely libraries and instruments, however whole ecosystems for registering builders and promoting video games. As you will see, the growing distance between programmer and machine is right here to remain. The period of programming by immediately poking bits in reminiscence is lengthy gone.

Bringing it Dwelling…

And right here is the place we’ll cease. Tremendous cool stuff, proper? I informed you this was going to be a enjoyable journey. And it ended up being an extended one as effectively.

We simply visited the fist six generations of residence sport consoles giving a really high-level overview of the tech that revolutionized every considered one of them. In fact, there are various different fascinating concepts that had been adopted within the subsequent generations, however the ones we lined are in all probability an important ones by way of {hardware} evolution and sport design selections that linger till right this moment.

If you happen to assume I forgot an necessary element (which I am certain I did), you may at all times yell at me on Twitter and even subscribe to my YouTube channel.

I actually hope placing issues into historic context helped you perceive the driving forces that prompted these applied sciences to be created within the first place. Hopefuly it additionally helps us reply a number of the questions we had after we first began. You possibly can in all probability clarify in easy phrases why we have to hyperlink OpenGL or Vulkan with our tasks, or why we have to use the working system API after we wish to poke the {hardware} of our system. If that is the case, then I consider the lengthy journey was price it.

Take a while to additionally ponder all the attractive tech we touched. Cartridges, coprocessors, devoted graphics items, RISC, CISC, polygon-rendering chips, firmware, GPUs, graphics APIs, and so (so!) far more. Hopefully you discovered one thing new and gained one thing priceless out of this train.

Studying tips on how to code on a high-spec PC utilizing the most recent shining instrument is unquestionably nice! However trying on the previous and understanding why issues are the best way they’re can be necessary. It is a chance for us to grasp why we do issues the best way we do, whereas giving us a good suggestion of what to anticipate from the longer term.

See you quickly!

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