has long been an interest for me. In fact, it was that interest
that led me to become a part of Digital Eclipse in its infancy as
a game development studio. Growing up as an avid player of an Atari
2600, Atari has long had a special place in my heart. Even in 1993,
a year before joining Digital Eclipse, I was dreaming of the idea
of getting an Atari 2600 emulator going on my PC. I had a prototype
going, but it would be ten years before the dream would fully become
a reality. In 1993, the challenge of trying to get an Atari 2600
emulator going on a 486 33MHz was immense. In 2003, our ultra-modest
system requirement of a 200MHz Pentium was much more agreeable,
and so Atari: The 80 Classic Games in One for Windows was
born. In 2004, Atari invited us to follow up and expand on the concept
with Atari Anthology for the Xbox and PlayStation 2 - an
endeavor that presented its own challenges.
on Atari Anthology
would a modest console like the Atari 2600, with its 128 bytes of
RAM and 1.2MHz CPU, pose even the slightest threat to a modern console?
The answer is in the nature of emulation, and why we'd even contemplate
emulation instead of rewriting the games for the new console.
How Emulation Works
general terms, emulation is the painstaking process of recreating
the experience of playing a game on the original machine for which
it was created. We consider the characteristics of every piece of
hardware from the controller buttons to the CPU and figure how each
adds to the feel of the game.
here's how it works:
computer ultimately runs machine code binaries. Programs are a series
of instructions encoded numerically (e.g., in 8- or 16-bit values).
The process performs a specific simple mathematical or logical step
based on each instruction. People don't typically write programs
that way. They write them symbolically in a programming language.
Early on in arcade-style games, it might've been assembly language.
Subsequent to that, it might've been a higher language like C.
someone is asked to convert a game from one platform to another,
there are a few approaches: rewrite, port, or emulate.
a rewrite, you just write a new program that has the look-and-feel
of the original. That effort is going to be as good as the new programmer's
attention to detail might be, and there's a lot of quirky detail
in an action game that can be difficult to reproduce precisely given
how a game can act so differently in a different player's hands.
a port, it's easiest to consider a game written in a high-level
language like C (though that wasn't at all common in the first half
of the '80s or earlier). As the person porting the game, you'd separate
the program into two parts. There's the C code that represents the
game logic itself, which you try to leave intact, and there's the
platform-specific code (for example, a video driver might be considered
part of the platform-specific code). Early computers, arcade games
and home consoles had video chipsets that bore no resemblance at
all to what we have now. So, you'd have to rip out that code and
replace it with something that hopefully works the same way on the
come up in two areas here. First, the obvious thing is if the game
timing, visuals, etc. derived in some way from the platform specific
part of the code you ripped out, you've destroyed that part of the
game. Likewise, the performance specs of the new hardware itself
can alter game play.
example, in the Williams game Joust, the player gets to update
position every 1/60th of a second, but the enemies update only as
many as they can in the CPU bandwidth that's left. If the processing
time runs out for a frame of the game, the rest of the enemies are
unable to make a new AI decision until the next frame. Thus, the
game's AI slows down as the screen gets more crowded. The game has
been balanced to compensate for this. If the exact same code were
brought to hardware that was identical in every way, excepting only
that the CPU was faster, the AI would be able to "think"
faster on a crowded screen. The player would see more aggressive
and skilled enemies compared to the original.
really pains me when I read reviews that talk about how appalling
it is that our emulation appeared to slow down somewhere, as, for
example, one review commented of the smart bomb effect in the N64
version of Defender on Midway's Greatest Arcade Hits,
released a few years back. The emulation slowed down because the
original game slowed down, and emulation strives to reflect every
nuance of the original game. There are often timing nuances and
sometimes even original code bugs, which become part of a player's
strategy in playing the arcade game. For a truly authentic experience,
every one of these quirks needs to be reproduced.
second source of inaccuracy is the C compiler itself and the fact
that the new platform is likely to have a different set of instructions
in its machine code vocabulary than the old one did. This means
the same line of C is not going to be translated into precisely
the same set of mathematical and logical steps. Maybe the new platform
had different mathematical precision. You could get a butterfly
effect where a small mathematical imprecision (either existing and
compensated for in the original game, or introduced by the compiler
in the new port) gets amplified over the course of a game until
it has some significant consequence, perhaps to player firepower
or the like.
the question is - how do you make sure all these potential inaccuracies
are kept in check? Well, the basic problem is that you're not running
the game on the same hardware as the original game. That means you
can't use the original machine code, and that means you can't rely
on the original graphics or processor timings being the same. Emulation
is the answer to this.
its most basic approach, emulation is an on-the-fly translator.
The analogy I'm fond of is this: In porting, it's like you took
a foreign movie, gave the script to someone fluently bilingual,
and got that person to rewrite the script in English. You'd rely
on the translator's appreciation for the nuances of the original
language, appreciation for the subtext, the message of the movie,
etc. The quality of the product would be entirely a property of
the translation effort, and regardless, what is important to one
person is not what's important to another. Some double-entendres
and the like just don't come across, and need to be replaced with
something of equal value, or else ditched.
emulation, you're watching the original foreign movie, but someone
has given you a translating dictionary and all the books on the
language's grammar and nuances. Looking up each word on the fly
as it's spoken, and appreciating all the impact it has, and still
being able to follow the movie in real time sounds impossible. It
would be, unless you could think about 10 times to 100 times faster
than the movie's pace.
is what emulation does. It reads each byte from the original game's
binary machine code (not the game's source code), looks up precisely
how the original game's processor would've responded to it, how
long it would've taken to respond, and what aspects of the hardware
would've been affected (video, sound, coprocessors, etc.). It also
updates a vast array of data, everything there is to know about
the original system's state (what was in its memory, what state
its hardware such as its timers were in, etc.), in response to these
instructions. Just like the movie analogy, all this maintenance
takes a lot of effort on the new platform's CPU, since it takes
a lot of code in its native language to explain every nuance of
the foreign language it's interpreting. So, likewise, a new platform's
CPU needs to be 10 times to 30 times faster than the original hardware
to process the original hardware's machine code.
factor varies depending on just how alien the original hardware's
capabilities were, and how many coprocessors it might've had. The
"modest" Atari 2600 platform, in fact, is so alien to
just about every console and computer platform that came after it,
that the code necessary to explain it is extremely convoluted. So,
emulating an Atari 2600 is much more challenging than, say, emulating
Bally/Midway's Rampage, which was released nine years later.
But more on that later.
it comes to recreating the original game's sound, it's a similar
process. Sound in an arcade machine or home console is usually built
in one of two ways. There will either be some sort of custom sound
hardware that's manipulated by changing values that the CPU can
access: pitch, volume, tonal quality, etc.; or, the sound samples
are built by a CPU and just played out the same way a .WAV file
might be on your PC. The first method is typically called FM synthesis;
the second is called DAC (digital-to-analog converter) or PCM (pulse
code modulated) sound. (There are minor variations on this. For
example, instead of FM synthesis, early arcade games may have a
trigger that makes custom hardware produce a small selection of
very specific sounds, such as explosions or laser shots in different
volumes or pitches. Or, in later games, they might be able to handle
compressed audio, which might, for example, take the form of ADPCM
instead of PCM.)
any event, the sound controls accessible to the original game's
CPU that are going to drive the sound hardware are either going
to be manipulated by the main game's CPU, or one of its coprocessors.
As our first step, we simulate the original game's CPU and all of
its coprocessors. From there, we're going to see the control values
it's trying to send to the sound hardware. Like processor emulation,
we must then respond to these values and rebuild sounds according
to the same rules the original hardware did. In most of our emulation
efforts from the PSone on, we rebuilt the sounds as straight audio
samples, like .WAV files. If the platform doing the emulating had
the CPU bandwidth to spare, we'd build the sounds in real time,
(hopefully) just an imperceptible fraction of a second ahead of
when they were played back. (Building sounds in this fashion requires
careful timing, and you need a CPU fast enough to make sure you
have enough power to spare to maintain that timing. It's akin to
trying to stay just far enough ahead of an avalanche so that you
can get a nice shower of snowflakes down the back of your neck.)
the case of FM synthesis (or other custom hardware), building the
sound in this fashion also requires a precise rule set for how that
sound hardware behaved and what its samples would've looked like.
You don't just need to know how it responds to the control values
the CPU is giving it, but also how it might be influenced by what
it was doing before hand. In its own way, it is just as complicated
(perhaps more so) than simulating a microprocessor.
the case of the Atari 2600 and many of the Atari arcade games, the
sounds were created using FM synthesis. So, we'd create special
ROMs that would just write every possible unique command to the
sound hardware, and capture the results that came out of the amplifier.
We'd store these as looped samples (after carefully examining the
original sound to determine where its loop point was). Then, in
our game's emulator, we'd look for the commands that triggered these
sounds and run the appropriate sample (with pitch, volume, etc.
adjusted) into our console's sound mixer.
on Atari Anthology
mixing these samples on the fly is something we've only recently
been able to accomplish. For older platforms that didn't have the
CPU power to do this in real-time and still have the spare bandwidth
to emulate the game's main CPUs, we have to pre-process the sound
as much as we can. As anyone viewing a streaming video on the Internet
knows, you don't need to be able to stream the video in as fast
as it plays back if you're willing to wait for it. So, in our "test
bed" emulators, even if the computer is not fast enough, the
emulator can take as long as it needs to build the sound, and we
write the .WAV-like data to the hard drive, instead of playing it
out to the speaker. We can isolate certain sounds in the game by
patching the ROM in our test bed, so that other sounds can be shut
down. This usually requires us delving into the original ROM somewhat.
That requires reverse engineering skills and that's where things
can get complicated. Fortunately, since we've already created a
full simulator of the main CPU running the original machine code,
we can see when it writes values to its sound controls, trace back
to see what code did that, and then patch that code as we see fit.
In that same vein, we find out where the triggers in the code are
that trigger these sounds, and patch our emulators to play the pre-fabbed
.WAV files when those triggers are seen.
speaking, this is a fairly safe bending of the rules of emulation,
because the code looking for triggers is "looking over the
shoulder" of the emulator as it runs the original machine code.
It does not affect how the emulator responds to the original code.
Beyond that, the CPU tells the sound hardware what sounds to make,
but it never checks to see what's coming out of the speakers.
main hazard of this approach is if a game has a large variety of
sounds it can make that are "dynamic", influenced in pitch,
tempo, or volume, etc. by game events. Mercifully, most early arcade
games do not seem to do this, for whatever reason. In the rare case
where this does happen, we have to delve deeper into the original
machine code, the triggers that change these properties, and how
the sound responded to it. We usually have to do a lot of trial
and error and hacking (typical of reverse engineering) to pull this
since about the N64 and Dreamcast days, home consoles have been
fast enough that we don't need to use any of this pre-fab sound
technique anymore and can just build the sounds on the fly, at least
when it comes to the early '80s games. When it comes to the '90s
games (games much newer than what appeared in Atari Anthology),
another reason we might not build sound in real-time is if the sound
hardware was so complex, it is difficult to create a rule set that
mimics it with sufficient accuracy. For that, we can't even pre-process
the sounds in our "test bed" and we instead resort to
extracting them out of the original arcade games by plugging a computer
into the audio out of the machine and sampling it. We might use
the same techniques of hacking the ROM as we would above to trigger
sounds in isolation, if necessary, except instead of dumping emulated
sound output to the hard drive, we record it from the hacked genuine
arcade machine using our computer's "line in" jack.