Growing Up with the 6502

by Chris Stones

What does an Apple II, a VIC-20 and the NES have in common?

Well, they are all types of computers. But they also share something
more intimate under the hood. They all make use of a micro-computing
chip known as the 6502. Yes, the tiny Sixty-Five-O-Two computer is
largely responsible for the signature digitals of the 80s and for the
hours upon hours of 8 bit wonders young kids grew up with. Well, young
kids whom owned NES game systems anyway.

I'm one such kid.

I used to sneak into my brother's room when he was away at school
and play the NES.

It was a classic experience of my youth. In fact, I'd mimic what I saw
in NES games with toy blocks. I'd move them as though I was a human
powered side scroller. I'd even stack them up and knock them down
imitating a game called Wrecking Crew. Some of my earliest
experiences with music stemmed from the 8-bit audio emanating from
that console. Who knows what role the material of those ROM chips in
their fancy plastic cartridge housing played on my developing brain.

I've always had a very visual and vivid imagination. Although I don't
"think in 8 bit" thankfully, I sure was influenced by the stimulation.
Perhaps this explains some of those oddly warm feelings for the boxy
gray thing sitting in my closet today. I have since become the
caretaker of the device and its large family of games.

Once upon a time, I saw an edition of Nintendo Power Magazine that had
a full page spread with the NES opened up revealing the circuit boards
splayed out. The page described how it all worked. (Or at least as
good an explanation as was ever going to come from a teens video game
strategy guide magazine) [1] I stared at those 2 pages for hours.
Trying to figure it out. But it was largely a mystery and I knew very
little about how any of it really worked.

Back then I was very excited about electronics though. I used to love
watching the ITT Tech commercials on daytime TV between episodes of
Gilligan's Island. They would show cool computer graphics for
architecture and wavy green lines and a host of electronic tools and
chips with a deep voice blaring, "Because you have to have the skills
of today to get he jobs of tomorrow".. or some such thing.

Well, it's tomorrow now. And I'm the caretaker of the exact same video
game consoles I used to play when I was a little kid. I also used to
goto arcades and gawk in awe at all the circuitry inside of the
cabinets when they were left open for maintenance. I wished I could
make that stuff. I wished I could build robots. I wished I could
program things.

I could not.

Which brings us to today. For once, I can look upon the world of
electronics and say I know how that is made. I've made things like
this and that. These days I feel proud knowing my knowledge of
electronics was no longer "as" swallow. Back then, I had actually
thought the controllers worked with a wire for each button going
directly into the device. Nope turns out the system sends signals back
and forth constantly checking up on the state of the controller. I
know such things because today, I can rummage through the internet and
learn just what was going on inside the NES. I can even simulate the
thing entirely in my computer without getting my hands all soldery.

I could program my own games...

My brief romp into the world of NES game programming began with
research and culminated in getting an example program to compile into
a "game". (Not really a game just a file that one could put on a game
cartridge and run to display text.) That's about as far as my current
ambitious self would allow my un-direction to roam before packing it
up and heading back to more justifiable activities.[3]

But I was delighted to morph source code into a runnable file within a
few hours. I found a compiler for the 6502 and examples for NES test
games. And made it happen. Now when I fire up the N.E.S. I smile as I
think about the skill it took to craft all the amazing game play. I
think about the technical aspects and all the stuff I used to wonder
about in bemused astonishment. With my new found deeper understanding,
game play takes on a new thrill.

In some of my more nostalgic moments, I find myself thinking back to
being that kid watching tech college commercials.

I smile because now when I daydream...
...... those dreams might just become real.


[1] (Now I know how my brother beat all that stuff.)

[2] I realize I might get into legal trouble if I make an NES example
in the series. But I guess maybe I can use the VIC-20 instead.

[3] You see my ambition silences a lot of the tinkering I would probably be
doing if I just let my feelings and curiosity roam free. I'd pour
over manuals for the 6502 (the processor from the NES) for as long as
I felt like if I wasn't so keen on accomplishing certain things. I've
tended to reduce my time on activities I can't justify as part of the
greater scheme of my life.

But that's a bit sad when I think about it. Clearly, something in me
wants to learn about my childhoods' digital heritage. And why should I
stop myself? My thought was so long as I can relate it back to one of
those other tasks that pushes me forward the time would be well spent.
The fact I have to justify that before I dig in is tribute to the
changing tides of my emotional ambitions.

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