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I am a professional developer by day. I develop enterprise wide applications using a variety of tools including Microsoft’s Visual Studio for .Net work as well as Lotus Notes and Domino development. For the last fourteen years, the majority of my work has been with the Lotus platform. I did a bit of DOS development back in the day as well as Windows stuff with Visual Basic 3 to 6. Since I began my career, I have developed with some amazing tools and, yes, I include the Notes stuff in that category. In fact, some of the coolest stuff I’ve done has been with Lotus Notes. However, as nice as these tools are, they have done one thing to me-and every other developer today that codes with these or similar tools: it made me lazy. Because these tools do so much and because the machines that run the code are so advanced, comparatively speaking, we can be sloppy and lazy and still turn out decent product. Somehow, though, it is not as challenging or as rewarding as it once was. I’ve had the itch to go old school lately. I started searching around the Internet looking for emulators for old machines like the National Semiconductor SC/MP or anything that ran Tiny Basic. My first computer-one that I could call MINE-was based on the SC/MP. This little guy was an interesting chip. More a microcontroller than anything else, it worked internally like a 16 bit CPU, but had an 8 bit data bus. It had hardware multiply, something most processors lacked at the time (the mid to late 1970’s.) My particular computer had National’s flavor of Tiny Basic, something called NI/BL. NIBL was a cool little interpreter. It was integer based, but could directly manipulate memory. Intended to be used for controlling servos, motors, etc., NIBL contained a few constructs that were not to found in BASIC until the late 80’s like Do-Until and the ability to page out memory.
Well, my search led me to something called the BASIC Stamp. The BASIC Stamp is a microcontroller that contains most of what is needed to create a little computer that can talk to the external world and also has a version of BASIC built in. There is a plethora of boards and interfaces for this thing. I started searching for the right combination of board, chips and interfaces to build a small little computer that I could code, old style, and maybe use to control ‘stuff’. One site would lead to another and, along the way, I found out about Arduino and other similar board and chip combinations. These things tend to be very small and fairly cheap. Well, the last site I hit was for the XGamestation. Now, I had seen this before, years ago, but never paid much attention. I thought they were just cheap Atari knock offs to cash in on the retro craze that hit a few years ago. How wrong I was.
XGamestation carries several lines of products, all of which are based on the same or similar processors used in the Arduino and other similar products. The difference here is that there is an emphasis on LEARNING about electronics, computers and how to develop video games. Since the purpose is to teach and have fun, the products are all simplistic in that they are of the 8 and 16 bi era of video games. The processors are not even 8086 caliber, but are adequate for the purpose of these products.
There are many versions of each product line and you really need to pay attention to the descriptions. I had originally ordered one, the Micro Edition, that seemed to be more than it was. It was not that the company was misleading me, it was, in fact, me not paying close enough attention. For my purposes-old school programming, old-school games and teaching my son how to do this stuff-the 16 bit PIC system was what I looking for. This product has everything you need: the board, fully assembled and tested, a controller, power supply, development software and cables. It can connect to a VGA monitor or any monitor or TV with composite video in. It also comes with a book about designing video games and other teaching materials. The product costs about $150 US. I placed my original order for the Micro Edition, but after an exchange on one of the company forums, I decided that the PIC 16 product was what I wanted. I was able to cancel the original order and place the order for the PIC product without any hassle. Customer service, so far, has been outstanding.
I am looking forward to receiving the product and diving in. Emulators on the computer are fine, but you have to be careful with them as many of them contain code that is still under copyright (like the TRS 80 emulators that contain the BASIC rom image, which is still, I’m sure, under copyright to both Tandy and Microsoft.) However, nothing beats actual hardware. I even did a quick search on eBay for an old Apple II or TRS-80 but decided something like the XGamestation or even an Arduino setup would be better. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have an old Apple II or TRS-80, but the idea of coding for hardware that resembles an Atari VCS or the NES is more compelling to me since I have a 12 year old boy who loves games. Seeing a video game that we wrote, running a ‘console’ on a TV is more identifiable and exciting for him than seeing Dad play with old computer, especially an Apple.
I will follow up with thoughts on the PIC 16 once I get it and have had some time to play, er, use it.
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