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Reprogrammable SMS and Game Gear cartridge PCBs

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Contents

Overview and design notes

For a game project, I was called upon to design the cartridge circuit boards for SMS and Game Gear presented on this page.

The requirements were established as such: I decided to use a flash memory chip which can be erased and reprogrammed at will. The chip works natively at 5 volts so no voltage level translators were required.

The "mapper" function, which allows the console to access more than 64kB of memory, is implemented using a CPLD. It works as a simpligied Sega-style mapper supporting slot 2 only, with bank selection through address FFFF.

The traditional approach for saving scores or progress is to use battery-backed RAM in the cartridge. In order to keep things simple and save cost, my approach is to save directly into the flash chip. A 64 kB sector must be reserved, leaving 448 kB of space for the game.

On the mechanical side of things, in order to make sure the circuit would fit in original cartridge shells, I just had to carefully measure.


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Master System PCB

Here is what the SMS cartridge PCB looks like. It is available (with or without an enclosure) from my online store.

SMS PCB (Front)

SMS PCB (Front)

SMS PCB (Back)

SMS PCB (Back)



And here are a few pictures of the PCB in use:
Programming with SMSCPROGR

Programming with SMSCPROGR

Testing a homebrew game

Testing a homebrew game

PCB installed in an cartridge shell

PCB installed in an cartridge shell

Reprogrammable cartridge built with this PCB

Reprogrammable cartridge built with this PCB


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Game Gear PCB

And here is the Game Gear version. This PCB also is available from my online store.

Game Gear cartridge PCB

Game Gear cartridge PCB

Cartridge PCB installed in a cartridge

Cartridge PCB installed in a cartridge



Here are a few pictures of the Game Gear PCB in action:
Programming with SMSCPROGR

Programming with SMSCPROGR

Testing a homebrew game

Testing a homebrew game

Testing a homebrew game

Testing a homebrew game


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Programming a cartridge

Building an SMS cartridge PCB with a soldered flash chip is good, but without a way to program it in place it is not very useful.

The first 32 kB of FLASH can be programmed with an ordinary EPROM programmer, given an appropriate adapter and a programmer supporting the flash chip. This is what I did first. The 32 kB limit is due to the fact that most (if not all) EPROM programmers don't know how to use the mapper to switch banks.



This was not very convenient, and the 32 kB limit was a problem. So I designed a dedicated cartridge programmer (and reader), which can program the entirety of the 512kB flash chip.



This programmer/reader is presented on a dedicated page.

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The mapper chip

The Z80 CPU in the SMS can directly address up to 64 kB of memory. The last 16 kB (slot 3) are reserved for the console internal 8K RAM. This leaves up to 48 kB for the cartridge ROM.

Still, games larger than 48 kB are possible thanks to an additional chip called "mapper" which can arrange for some range of memory (from the Z80 point of view) to correspond to a selectable range located past the 48 kB in ROM. (bank switching)

Using a CPLD programmed in the CUPL language, I implemented a simplified version of the Sega-style mapper described there:
https://www.smspower.org/Development/Mappers

Memory map

Memory addresses from $0000 to $7FFF (slots 0 and 1, 16kB each) always correspond directly to addresses $0000 to $7FFF in flash. However, memory from $8000 to $FFFF (slot 2) can be pointed to any 16kB bank in flash. The bank is selected by writing to address $FFFF.

Most homebrew games do not "move" slots 0 and 1, so supporting slot 2 should be enough.


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Development: Saving scores on Flash

As mentioned in the introduction, saving scores or progress can be done by writing to the flash chip. This allows for a very simple circuit (Only two chips) without a battery, but it does complicate the software side. While writing to battery-backed RAM is a simple matter of doing a normal memory write, writing to flash is not so simple.

Thankfully, at least reading from flash is done perfectly normally, otherwise the program could not execute from it! Only writes are tricky. First, erasing a single byte is not possible. The flash chip I used is divided in 64 kB erase blocks. Yes, 64 kB must be erased even to change a single byte.

Next, the erase and write commands required some time to execute, and during that time, reading from flash is not possible! This means that if the game code is executing from the flash (i.e the CPU is reading instructions) then the system will crash/hang.

The solution is to load the code handling the flash erase and write operation in the console RAM. As the code executes from RAM rather than from flash, the problem is avoided! (Interrupts should also be disabled)

Yes but, could the game accidentally erase itself?

I think the changes of this happening are extremely low, since erasing a sector requires a very specific sequence:
  1. Write $AA to address 555
  2. Write $55 to address 2AA
  3. Write $80 to address 555
  4. Write $AA to address 555
  5. Write $30 to sector address to erase.
In order for the erase operation to take place, nothing must happen between the steps above. For instance, if the console is executing code from the flash, read accessed will be introduced between the steps above and the operating will be aborted. Writing bytes to flash is done with a sequence similar to the above, but the sequence is shorter (it ends at step 3).

But what about the non-maskable interrupt? (NMI)

Ah, yes, this is the only defect this approach has. If the player manages to press the PAUSE button (wired to the NMI) at the wrong time (during the few milliseconds where the code must run from RAM) the processor will try running code from address $0066 and will hang or reset.

Ok, where's the code?

Right here: https://github.com/raphnet/flashrwSMS


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Gallery

My hope is that one day a great number of new, high quality homebrew games using my PCB design will be published.

Did you make a game using one of those boards? Please share a few pictures and screenshots and, with your permission, I will add them here, accompanied by a link to your game's homepage.


DONKEY.SMS

For fun, I created a simple game called DONKEY.SMS. This game has its own page.

DONKEY.SMS

DONKEY.SMS

DONKEY.SMS

DONKEY.SMS

DONKEY.SMS

DONKEY.SMS





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