MetalFRO's Blog

Posted on Nov 9th 2021 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under MiSTer, FPGA, DE10 Nano, emulation, simulation, retrogaming

RF Generation is a collector's site, first and foremost. But throughout the years, most of us have dabbled with emulation, in one form or another. Whether it's through official means, like the Wii or Wii U Virtual Console, or buying officially released collections of older games, such as the venerable Namco Museum line, or the Capcom Classics Collection and similar compilations, or via other means that are, shall we say, not quite on the up and up. Whatever the case is, we've probably all encountered emulation, and utilized it to some extent. Even older games built into newer games, such as NES titles found in the original Animal Crossing on Game Cube, or the arcade games present in each of the Shenmue and Yakuza series games would qualify.

Unless you've been living under a rock the past few years, you've probably heard of the MiSTer Project, at least in passing. For the uninitiated, MiSTer is a platform that leverages FPGA technology to simulate older hardware, and aims to do so as accurately as possible. FPGA stands for Field Programmable Gate Array, and the idea is, someone can write code to instruct the FPGA to essentially reconfigure itself to behave like other hardware. For example, the NES used a Ricoh 2A03 CPU, which is an 8-bit microprocessor, based on the MOS Technology 6502 core. The 2A03 also includes some sound capabilities, and the NES included a custom PPU to handle graphics processing. Someone with a lot of technical knowledge and understanding has written a "core" or a set of instructions that tells the FPGA to simulate all that hardware, so that it can effectively behave like the NES console does. If you play a game on the NES that has sprite flicker, because it programs too many sprites on the same horizontal line, it will behave the same way on the MiSTer in theory, assuming that the core is programmed correctly to act just like the real thing. This is the basic idea of the MiSTer Project.

At the heart of the MiSTer is the DE-10 Nano FPGA board, which powers the tech.

NES emulation is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to classic consoles, such as the NES, Atari 2600, ColecoVision, or Sega Genesis, the MiSTer can simulate a lot of 8 and 16-bit microcomputers, such as the TRS-80, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amiga, and more. It can also simulate multiple x86 environments as well, up to an Intel 80486 processor, with capabilities similar to DOSBox, with Soundblaster emulation, integrated MIDI (upgradeable with additional hardware), and mouse support. CD based consoles are also getting in on the action! Sega CD and TurboCD are already working, and there's a PlayStation core in development that is showing real promise in the most recent builds.

Are you covered for console or classic computer gaming, but want to play some arcade games? There are a number of dedicated arcade cores already available for the MiSTer platform. Fancy a bit of PAC-MAN or Donkey Kong? MiSTer has you covered. What about newer stuff, like Capcom CPS1, or Sega 16, with multiple great games to play? That hardware has already been developed for, and many of those games are playable on the MiSTer, with more cores being developed each day to cover more games.

You can really trick out your MiSTer with a custom case, and additional upgrades.

The MiSTer is pretty expandable, as well. Right away, if you have only the DE-10 Nano board and a power supply, you'll need a keyboard and a microSD card at minimum. If you want to play anything more powerful than a Sega Genesis, you'll want to add memory to your MiSTer, and there are 32MB and 129MB expansion boards you can acquire for that. There's an I/O board that will give you analog video capabilities, in addition to the HDMI output that's built into the Nano itself. You can add a USB hub that will give you multiple ports, so you can add things like a Bluetooth dongle, USB game pad or joystick, and other peripherals. As previously mentioned, there's a custom MIDI project that can connect a Raspberry Pi to the MiSTer, and give you full Roland MT32 MIDI capabilities. There's also the MiSTercade board, which is a new product that connects directly to the DE-10 Nano board, and has a JAMMA edge, so you can put the MiSTer into a JAMMA-capable arcade cabinet, and enjoy a very arcade-like experience. Plus, there's an all-in-one solution coming from RMC Retro that combines the I/O board functionality, USB hub, and RAM upgrade together, and comes with a custom case to tie it all together.

If this sounds too good to be true, in some ways, it is. First, you'll need to have a bit of technical knowledge to get this working. It's not overly difficult, but you'll need to download the right stuff to create and seed the microSD card, to at least get the basic MiSTer configuration up and running. It will definitely take a bit of time to get it initially set up. Once configured, if you have the right update scripts on the system, keeping it up to date isn't that difficult. But the DE-10 Nano isn't wireless capable, so if you don't have a wired network connection near the monitor or TV you plan to use with your MiSTer, you will occasionally need to move it elsewhere to plug into the network, so it can get out to the internet to update itself. This is necessary when you want to download new cores, or update existing cores to either get fixes, or be able to make use of new features. There's also the issue of acquiring the necessary components to play games, and the somewhat legal gray area of getting either the ROMS necessary for playing console games, or the BIOS for some proprietary hardware. Some folks don't have qualms with this, but some do, and not everyone has the hardware or ability to dump their own game cartridges, copy their own computer disks, or rip CDs to the right format to use with this setup. The investment isn't that much to get started, but to have a more ideal setup, you'll need to spend a bit of cash to make sure you get a memory upgrade, and probably a USB hub and Bluetooth adapter at minimum, to make sure you can use all the necessary game controllers, keyboard, possibly a mouse, and other stuff you'll want to get the most out of your MiSTer.

The MiSTer interface isn't pretty, but it's fairly easy to navigate, and it gets the job done.

At the end of the day, despite any technical or potential ethical hang-ups, it's easy to see the appeal of the MiSTer. If you want to simplify your setup, and weed out older consoles you don't use as much, this is a way to continue to experience those games in a very accurate way. If you'd rather not invest in flash carts for every console, and have to deal with frequently updating firmware for each one, the MiSTer is an attractive option, because it does all of it at once, and only requires one HDMI connection (or one analog connection, if you use the I/O board) to your TV or monitor. For those who enjoy the more "techie" side of the hobby, this is also a fun option. FPGA gaming tech isn't new, as we've seen consoles from Analogue, or the RetroUSB AVS for NES and Famicom games, but rather than individual bespoke systems, this is open source, and has a large community of developers and users behind it to constantly improve it. If you're looking for more ways to play, or a fun alternative to some of the hardware you might have in the closet, because you have nowhere to hook it up, have a look at the MiSTer - it could be an option for you to scratch that retrogaming itch.

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I've been really intrigued by the MiSTer for a while now, but it seems intimidating. I was able to get a Raspberry Pi up and running though, so I'm tempted to give this a go. Thanks for the write-up! Maybe a project for 2022....

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