Nintendo Entertainment System Programming Setup
Well, I thought about doing some retro coding on the Nintendo Entertainment system (the NES) and researched a lot. Then i was able to set up a development environment, follow a tutorial, and write a “Hello World” program. My original goal was to write an endless runner or a space shooter or some other crappy game, though i am still very far from that. In this post, I am going to share the setup of my environment and which parts have to be covered for programming on the NES.
Why Retro programming?
Sometimes I have a deep yearning for programming like it used to be before the internet. Back when code was not simply copied from stackoverflow. Back when code was not buried under tons of frameworks and abstraction layers. Before all that object-oriented stuff. When I did not know what a library was and instead had a bunch of helper functions that I copied into every project i wrote. I have to say that writing code for the NES fulfills that desire.
The nintendo system is the console of my generation. Even though I did not own a nintendo at the time i often played with my friends together when we met. That was the time when there was no internet and multiplayer meant that you sat together on a couch and stared at a screen. So, part of choosing the NES is out of nostalgia, part is, because it really is a cool console.
I also looked into Gameboy programming and SNES programming. Well, gameboy programming is surely interesting, but I do not have such a personal connection to the gameboy as i have to the NES. Regarding the SNES, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, i.e., the successor of the NES, there are not many tools available in order to program that. Further, i looked into the SNES audio chip in a little more depth, and it is completely sample-based, instead of having to program the oscillators by yourself. Thus, it is less fun.
Setting up a development workflow
Programming the NES is divided in approximately three areas:
Additionally, you want to have an emulator (such as fceux or nestopia) in order to test your code. I will talk about each of the three areas in the following paragraphs.
[Edit 2020-03-28: Actually, the emulator part is not trivial either. While there are a large number of emulators (Nestopia, fceux, Mesen), not all of them offer debugging support. The Windows version of fceux (which works in wine) has debug support. Mesen also offers debugging functionality.]
The NES was originally programmed in 6502 assembler. I’d like to think that there was a bunch of tooling involved, but all of these original tools are lost to history.
A modern approach to NES development is either writing it in Assembly or using C. Originally I thought that using C is shitty, as the hardware of the NES is very restricted and C does not optimally use the resources. While C is certainly not as well-performing as assembly, you can compile your C to assembly and then modify the assembly. This is easier than writing all of your code in assembly. It may also help you in learning the assembly, when you already know a bit of C.
If you plan to use assembly, we are talking here about 6502 assembly. In contrast to “modern” x86 assembly, this was at a time when assembly was targeted to be written by humans. Nowadays, assembly has thousands of commands and is primarily targeted to be written by compilers. 6502 assembly has just a bunch of commands, due to it being a RISC architecture. But note that this also means that you have to do more things by yourself. As an example, 6502 does not have an instruction for multiplication. And there is no stack. And you have to reuse variables which served a totally different purpose, since you want to behave like a cheapskate and do not simply hand out your precious memory to anyone.
So, the current way to go seem to be the following tools:
- cc65 - A C compiler
- ca65 - An assembler for 6502
Note that when you are using older tutorials with cc65, when compiling you may
get the error
Error: Call to undefined function 'waitvblank'. This
function is now called waitvsync in more modern versions of nes.h.
The audio chip (APU = Audio processing unit) of the NES is a real old-school chip, from before sound cards were invented. Having some experience with the SID chip, the NES APU is very similar but more shitty. There are five oscillators builtin. You cannot use more, as these are hardware oscillators. And they have a fixed purpose in contrast to the SID chip, where the oscillators can play different wave forms.
- 2 pulse waves
- 1 triangle wave
- 1 noise
- 1 sample
Last time I played around with that, i think I used Famitracker, but had problems getting it to work reliably with wine. There is also the Deflemask Tracker. If you have never worked with a tracker, prepare to get frustrated. If you have worked with a tracker before, prepare to get perfectionist and never write any code but instead waste hours composing shitty music. Maybe my synth recipe post helps you with being perfectionist.
Well, at least music is not a necessary part of anything you do at the NES. If you manage to finish programming a game, just state in the user manual that there is no music and listening to fucking Slayer while playing is recommended. That’s what we did back then anyway.
Regarding the graphic chip (PPU = Picture Processing Unit), as the hardware of the NES is so limited, images are stored in a special format, such that many parts can be reused.
Let me first explain Hires Mode on the Commodore C64, as that is conceptually similar, but easier. Hires stands for high-resolution (yeah!), as there are 320x200 pixel you can use. This is not a typo. Back then, that was high resolution. These 320x200 pixel are divided into 40x25 chars of 8x8 pixel each. They are called chars, as they are usually the size of a character. Per char you can use 2 colors. So you have one bit per pixel for the color. In total you had a palette of 16 colors to choose from. This subdivision into chars and palettes per char is very similar to the NES PPU. (Note that the C64 had some additional graphic modes to Hires, whereas the NES PPU seems to have only one graphic mode according to my research.)
In the NES PPU, there are 256x240 pixel. These are divided into 16x15 blocks. Each block in turn is divided into 2x2 CHR tiles of 8x8 pixel. So, in total, there are 960 CHR tiles per screen. The fun thing is that only 256 CHR tiles are allowed, so you have to reuse CHR tiles. Regarding the colors, there are in total 64 colors you can choose from (instead of the 16 for the C64). But you can only use 4 palettes consisting of 3 colors and a background color which is shared between all palettes. Per block (=2x2 CHR tiles), you need to choose one palette. So you have 2 bits per pixel. The image is then stored as the following data structures.
- a bunch of CHR tiles (at most 256)
- a nametable, which assigns CHR tiles to the tiles of the screen
- four palettes
- an assignment of palettes to blocks of the screen
This format of course makes very good use of the limited memory of the NES, but is not very handy for drawing. To be honest, it looks like a great pain.
When drawing art for the NES, you probably want to have a graphic editor, which can take care of these limitations. There is YY-CHR which works under wine and can work with tiles. Previously, I have used YY-CHR for dumping tiles out of finished roms. There is also makechr which can take in a png file and convert it into the four data structures needed for representing the image in the NES. Additionally, there is this thing which i did not test yet and tiled which I also did not test yet.
I thought there should be a Lua extension for GIMP which at least can count the CHR tiles (to ensure that you are not going beyond 256), or otherwise ensure that you are working within the restrictions of the NES. I did not find one. Maybe I can write it by myself. In fact, I should probably admit at this point, that I was unable to successfully draw an image for NES except the most basic stuff, such as a black background.
[Edit 2020-03-28: I was able to draw an image. My current workflow uses the NES Screen Tool.]
Additionally to the background images, which I explained above, there are also sprites. You can think of these as “floating stuff”. I will not explain them here. Read this instead.
If you want to have another explanation of the PPU, there is one here.
And that is all you have to know in order to start with NES development.
Here is a bunch of tutorials i am currently working with.
These tutorials are bottom-up, i.e., you start with nothing and then learn step by step.
These tutorials are top-down, i.e., you start with a bunch of stuff which you only partially understand and then hack around.
- NES starter kit Note: this describes a windows-only toolchain.
- You can also take any rom and reverse engineer it. Play around with the included sprites. Maybe try to dump the music.
Nesdev Wiki is probably the best resource when it comes to the NES. However, it is often overwhelming for a beginner such as me.