Basic Engine: $10 open-source gadget designed to be the best game machine of the 1980s


Originally published at:


I found the video chip is rather nifty, but it’ $5 + $10 shipping. (VS23S010) I wish there were better suppliers in the US for it.


256-color text and graphics

Is that 256 fixed colors, or do they use color ram where each of the 256 colors is definable on the fly?

eta: probably the latter from the text.


I reckon the “fun” of hardware limitations is that with rigorous effort, one can persuade the hardware to do things it was never quite intended to do. But then the downside of that is that you end up with code that never quite works as well if you try to port it (if it’s portable at all), all for the sake of something that much more capable hardware would be able to do with much less difficulty.


I’d pay a reasonable amount for a pre-assembled version - I’m simply too old and blind to do SMD work anymore - I’ve tried. And I want one. Someone make these pre-assembled for $30 a pop, please.


You have reckoned correctly. The software I enjoy writing is usually stuff meant to make things do stuff they weren’t designed to do.


$10 is a highly optimistic number, just ordering PCBs is probably going to be more than that. You could hit the $10 price point if you built in volume, but short of someone selling pre-arranged kits of hardware or having the ability to salvage a bunch of these parts, I suspect that most people would have difficulty building one of these for that price outside of Shenzen.


Right! Like if this takes off, there’ll be some real magic hiding between the chips and the magic won’t work anywhere else.

But Pico-8 has no secrets.


My understanding from the datasheet is Y (luminance) is upper 4-bits, and the two chroma components (U and V) are each 2-bits, for a total of 8 bits per pixel. There are two look-up tables to let you select 4 out of 16 entries for each U and V. (effectively each component is 4-bits)

So, it’s almost like having a fixed palette, but it’s lets you tweak the colors a bit.

While this video controller is really neat in terms of minimalism. I think in terms of price, I’d go with an ILI9341-based LCD. You can get a 2.4" LCD on aliexpress, ebay, Adafruit, and Sparkfun for $6-$15. Combined with either an ESP8266 like this BASIC Engine or STM32(blue pill) and you can build a very primitive handheld system.


The Tetris clone says it’s written by David Murray. Is this the 8bitguy?


For some, certainly. It reminds me of the old demoscene stuff, trying to squeeze what you can out of what you’re given.

For others, the restrictions are liberating - you don’t need 3D modeling skills, High resolution assets, and a huge toolchain to dive in and make something amusing. When graphics are intentionally limited, things like gameplay come to the fore. Making something that is little, limited, kinda stupid, but FUN is totally acceptable. The restrictions oddly lower the barrier to entry, and making games becomes fun in a way that’s perhaps been lost nowadays for many.


In what would have struck the 80s user as unimaginable luxury; I think that the biggest expense here would probably involve the fact that I don’t actually have anything that will accept composite video natively; and bolting a framegrabber that can just ADC the problem in the face for display on one of monsterously nice digital displays costs several times as much as this thing does (if you want decent quality and latency; I have one around here somewhere, forged of purest Chinese mystery engineering; that exists in the juxtaposition of “I can’t believe how awful the results are” and “I can’t believe that $5, shipped, can get you something that munges composite vidoe into a UVC device sane enough not to crash your computer”; but it’s close to useless for anything where latency is even remotely a factor).

I’d really love an excuse to add some gratuitous PVM-411 to the rack; but those things are heavy and toasty for what is basically a whim…


I suspect that that depends on what was restricting you: it’s certainly true that not needing a feature-film caliber art and assets team is a major plus; but unless you are set on the programming skills side, just not on the art assets side, you might find that path to your desired game is blocked by lack of facility with really limited hardware.

I get the impression that there’s a reason why a fair few of the truly retro games one hears about have a story of Serious optimization attached; and why a lot of ‘retro’ pixel art and minimalist stuff is punched out in Unity.

There’s a lot to be impressed by in the case of people who can make it work on something like this; but in much the second way that there’s a lot to be impressed by in the case of people who could do the art or the music: true; but a bit of an obstacle if you don’t qualify.


I’m not sure I understand the point you’re making, but using Unity as an example: I can’t just drop a kid who wants to make video games down with Unity - there’s a ton of work to be done between “I want to make a game” and actually making that game. Whereas with this (or Pico-8 or tic80 or such) I can literally sit them down and start programming with them - they are minutes from making what they want appear on the screen, in a way that’s been lost since the days you had BASIC built-in to the box. I am not talking about “professional” video games in a retro style - I am talking about anyone sitting down and learning and doing. I can tell a smart teen in 30 minutes all they need to do to get real results with Pico-8 or tic80 - not so Unity. That’s a low barrier to entry.


Unity is perhaps a too weighty example(though some of the beginner tutorials have a pretty low learning curve, albeit one propped up by large piles of precanned automagic); but the point I had in mind was that, especially when the hardware constraints are this tight, the first couple of steps are relatively simple; but you can hit your head relatively quickly on the resource constraints that the demoscene and people with fond childhood memories of peeking and poking at the memory area where video lived in order to see what happens love; but which are somewhat less helpful to the novice who was here because they could dive right in in 30 minutes. (though, being based on a comparatively modern microcontroller, the limits aren’t quite as draconian as they sometimes were in ye olden times).

Something like Processing (or its more hip javascript-based offspring doesn’t have a too notably higher initial learning curve; and (at the cost of using no-doubt-horrifying amounts of resources that are now cheap) lets you more or less keep going in that vein for quite a long way; rather than moving rather abruptly from ‘hitting limits of basic interpreter’ to ‘thinking very, very, carefully about how to cram things into blanking intervals and as little RAM as possible’; which can set in fairly quickly on authentically limited hardware.


Yes. He did a video on something similar to the Basic Engine, (but not exactly the same) called the “Color Maximite”, and showed his Tetris written in Basic (which he had originally written for the C64) for that.


This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.