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Why I Prefer Original Hardware to Emulation

creepingnet

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I've been sick since Friday, Tonsillitis....only just in the last hour since finally getting medicine do I not feel like there is a gnome in my throat trying to cutt of my air supply, all the while my job being the only one whose understanding in all this shit. I'll keep the personal ranting at bay.

I have a nice collection of devices: 4 NEC Versa laptops from around 1994-1995ish, 3 vintage PC desktops, an NES, a Sears 2600...and then there's the emulation boxes....2 Wiis and a Raspberry Pi 4 with a microSD slot that's been jury rigged. The the cats knocked over our bedroom TV while I was away and well...the slots now totally jacked.

The "RetroPi" is my "problem child". Aside from the SD Card slot, I probably spend more time tuning, tweaking, fixing, updating, upgrading, and scraping ROMs on that thing, than I actually spend playing it. I honestly don't get why every non-retro "Nerd" around me swears up and down that the "retropi" is the hot thing when it comes to emulating old systems.

My 40 year old 2600 - plug n' play, slap in a cart, slap on the appropriate controller. Done, it works. My 32 year old NES? Same. My old PC's....load em with DOS pretty much the same way, or Windows (sigh), drag a Zip File or rip a CD, or plug in some Floppy Diskettes - boom, I'm off to Brittania, at full frame rate, with a genuine SoundBlaster that does not stutter. About the only things I have to tune, tweak, or update, is the occasional mtcp.cfg, Links web browser, or the usual autoexec.bat and config.sys files. It's no more fiddly than using a DOS PC in it's original time period, probably quite a bit less, honestly.

Any time I tell people about what I do for retro-gaming, there's always going to be that one guy who say's "get a Raspberry Pi dude".....

Yeah, I think I'll go buy one from the confection section at Wally World....and eat it. I've got one, jury rigged cart slot, only 2 hours of actual playtime, the other 900+ hours was spent tweaking, fixing, and updating things. Maybe that's part of it, the fun of tweaking for nerds, but there comes a point where I want to enjoy the device as intended, not spend my time giving myself a headache tuning it.

Here I have PC's and Consoles from 2-3-4 decades ago, and they all run great, mostly on of-the-period hardware even, and they give me less trouble than the "latest and greatest" stuff.

First off, everyone talks about how cheap the Pi is. The Pi is $54.00.....but that's for just the circuit board. You still need the official power adapter to guarantee it will run correctly, then you need a case, the default one has crap cooling, which took a few firmware revisions to work out. It needs an HDMI output device - "great" I thought "I can hook this into our 4K TV". I'd suggest getting something metal that has a fan, and a support for the frail and weak SDcard slot.

Then there's setting it up. I of course found the act of doing this easy, but tedious. And luckily, I had to do it once.

Then comes the updates. And there are lots of them, and they can take a really, really, long time sometimes. It was not unusual for me prepare the machine for gaming 2 weeks in advance. In that time, I would have done a bunch of stuff with my NES, NEC Versa, and written half an album of songs on guitar.

Adding games is easy but scraping ROMs is a pain. Skyscraper does not find everything, if you have DOS stuff for DOSbox on there, it scrapes every EXE, BAT, and COM file in the folder, and will more often than not mismatch them with some other totally unrelated piece of software. I spent about 3.5 months scraping what I'd accumulated in my data horading phase of my 20's....leading to a more streamlined collection later on as I was sick of re-adding crap.

The best systems for RetroPie would be NES, SNES, and 2600. But why is my counter arguement? Even then, they are nowhere near perfect. I had to play with all 30-40ish screen resolutions and about 5-6 different NES emulators to get one that had the least latency. SNES and 2600 worked the best out of the box. But c'mon - Bloodlust Software CONQURED the NES in the mid 1990's with NESticle.

Arcade games is a game of installing a few Arcade emulators, then spending a nice sum of time trying and failing until they work, and finding 4-5 of the games you have in your collection won't work at all. Shame, I think I'll buy a Pole Position and Pole Position II cabinet when I get a house.

Playstation, you need that BIOS ROM. Once you have it, it's good.

N64....good god. The button mappings change randomly...so that renders 2 of the Cruisin' titles I like so much to be unplayable...

Probably the worst emulators to configure were for games for DOS/Windows, and especially that color Mac emulator.....I probably rolled more hard disks for basiliskii than I care to mention, took me a year and a half to get that working with so much research I probably would have been better off just getting a Mac 7100/80 from a dumpster, or what I'm doing now, running Executor on my 486s.

DOSbox has a ceiling on games from around 1991....my 486 DX4-100 can run Quake. Thankfully there's a source port for that, but sim city? Mac covered that finally once Basiliskii was setup. But the sourceport freeware Sim City clone? HAH, imagine a 4K screen with ant-sized pixels being commanded from across the room.

Then there's controllers. Apparently 8-bitdo is the way to go. I wanted wireless, well, they cost as much as the Pi itself, putting it over $100.00. So I got shinwan twin duos, had to get some kind of weird hacked script off Reddit, set it up to start at boot, for them to stop acting as one controller, and then it's a gamble with is Player one and Player two, and sometimes buttons get crossed....oh joy...

And it's not just the Pi, I have 2 Wiis, that are a little better, except DOSbox tops out at XT class, no Mac support (that I know off), I have to do the letterbomb hack, and in the end, most of what runs, runs on my consoles anyway...so I break em out more for newer Wii games more than anything else.

Which then brings up what the idea of emulation for me was....so me and my wife can play. But every time, there's the difficulty of teaching her these complex button presses or that these thumbsticks need to be pressed to do this, or she brings up some funky menu and is hurt because she thinks she broke it. Yet I set her up on a Pentium 1 and my 486 with me on it, and we played DOOM over the network and it took me all of 2 minutes to get that going and it was fun, and we always are passing the Versas around with no problems. But with the Pi...."Press "Select" (marked 2 by the manufacturer), then press on the left thumbstick like it's a button"....oh look, it's not working...then comes the 2 hours of "is it ready yet" and me trying to figure out why controller mappings keep changing, or hunting for AAs for the Wiimotes, or being unable to play 2 player games because there's only one Doodad and 2 wiimotes. At least Atari had the clever idea to sell Paddles in pairs.

And so there you have it, that is why to me....original hardware is best. Because - to finalize, RetroPie has maybe 2 hours of gaming on it at most, meanhile my old PCs and Consoles have so many hours of enjoyment put in them because I was not needing to spend 2 hours updating firmware, drivers, emulators, sotware, scraping ROM presentations, then dealing with wonky chinese controllers sold as for Pi but intended for PCs, Meanwhile...boom, NES, there's Dragon Warrior. BOOM, Atari, there's your Pac-Man. Kadonk Kadonk....Beep....There's Ultima VI at full throttle with a genuine OPL3 and no need to play with F11 and F12 or choose between LR-Dosbox, DOSbox, HQdosbox, 4KDosbox, LtDosbox...or whatever other variations of that emulator exist, and find the one that will run sometihng circa 1990 or later at full frame rate without the emulated midi breaking up.

And that's why I prefer real vintage hardware to emulation.
 

VERAULT

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I know what you mean. Dont get me wrong I like emulation in some ways. Maybe not as much as I used to. I remember getting into it on my 486 when you could emulate a gameboy pretty well. That was new and interesting. We all are into this hobby because we like original hardware and keeping it going or even modernizing it a bit. However I see all these videos on youtube about the "Mister" and I am like WHO CARES! Why is everyone talking about a device that can emulate things. A PI can do the same.. Big deal. I still dont care.
 

whartung

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Oh, odd, this is a "blog", not a forum topic. Interesting.

No matter.

I completely appreciate the POV regarding real hardware. Obviously the popularity of the Pi is simply that everything is available with a "mouse click" and it takes little space, vs trying to build up a collection of machines from disparate sources, hoping they work, and having to maintain them.

That said, there's something fundamental to the experience of slapping a cartrdige in to the slot, or the tick-tick-tick of a floppy booting up that's not easily replicated with a $50 board and a flash drive.
 

whartung

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Our tape drive had this vacuum column that I think it used as a tensioner. So, when you mounted a tape, there was this great sucking sound.

And neither really compares with the sound of card reader chunking through its payload followed by the sing song chorus of the band printer next to it spitting out the results.

Also, I like to consider the modern CP/M machines and their flash drives. CP/M is a floppy based OS. Yes, it can be extended, but whereas MSDOS et al have things like named directories and what not, the primary organization unit of a CP/M machine is a floppy. Just the directory limitations, etc. And with both with the simulators and even modern flash based hardware, it's HARD to "swap floppies". So folks jump through all these hoops to try to make it hospitable on a larger medium, and it really doesn't translate very well, particularly with stock CP/M 2.2.
 

Chuck(G)

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I started on second-generation systems. IBM 1401, 1620, 7090 (look them up if that's too distant for you) CDC 6600. Much of my work was done on CDC mainframes (6000-series, STAR-100/Cyber 200) and ended with the nitrogen-cooled ETA-10. When we got a VAX 11/750, I thought it was a cute minicomputer, but not all that interesting. My old Altair 8800 has been sitting unused on a shelf for nearly 40 years--it was novel in 1975, but after a couple of years, it was just quaint.

As I plod toward the great bit-bucket in the sky, I know that I will never re-experience the old days. When I say 7-track (not 9-track) drive, I mean a drive like this.
 

Gary C

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Whartung, yep the channel had lots of little holes in it that the controller used to modulate the speed of the pickup spool to maintain the correct spooling rate.
I used to love loading a reel to reel tape into our honeywells, the sluuurp noise as it sucked the loop of tape down into the vacuum channel was so much a part of operating them, that along with the floor shaking as the voice coil of the CDC CMD disk drives hammered back and forth when you complied a program :)

Head crashes would fill the room with smoke as well.

One memory I treasure. For years as a kid, 70's scifi had computers going mad and spooling tape everywhere and I always though it was unrealistic and just for effect until one day, one of our DPS 6's threw a wobbly and tape leapt out of the drive, jumping about 4ft in the air to decorate the room in swathes of data tape :)

Maybe I should have had the cabinet door shut but when I picked it all up, it still worked, if the door had been shut it might have jammed and tore.


And, I dont really see the point of emulation other than software maintenance and testing. Its the hardware that makes vintage computing special

but a drive of Revs on my BBC against my PS5 with VR and the Fanatec wheel on dirt rally, boy, that really shows how far we have come, and I used to love Revs.
 

Chuck(G)

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It's emulation that keeps some very expensive industrial equipment working. For example, a PLC for a Strippit punch press went toes-up (used an 8085 as the CPU). We were able to get the thing going by emulating the hardware on a PC. It's not unusual for the big industrial iron to outlast the PLCs doing the controlling. There's a small cottage industry furnishing floppy (and paper tape) emulation for things as diverse as wire EDM and embroidery machines; replacement of which would run into 6 or 7 figures.
 

Gary C

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Oh certainly, but not for 'collection' purposes.

Though we are 'remanufacturing' things at work because emulation is a big no no as its the software that is the real problem, there is no way to really certify an emulator for a critical environment so we are doing (or more accurately Daver2 and the team) are doing everything to manage the hardware to ensure the software is not changed.
 

Chuck(G)

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At some point, you'll have no choice but to emulate, as old components no longer manufactured become harder and then nearly impossible to find--or prohibitively expensive. For example, how many operating IBM 1710 process computers are still functional out in the world?
 

Gary C

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Yep, then I suppose we have to get emulation at the component level.

Its possibly a brief period between still repairable and becoming interesting static displays :(
 

Chuck(G)

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That's where you get into the gray area. For example, is the "100 MHz 6502" using an FPGA still a 6502? Would an Apple II using it still be an authentic Apple II?

Would you consider the FPGA 6502 an adequate mission-critical substitute for the real thing? Is substituting modern semiconductor memory for old core or delay-line storage keeping the "real thing"?

I suppose it's like taking a human and substituting prosthetic this and that--when you come to using a prosthetic brain, is the result still a "real" human? Would a robot constructed using the same technology be considered human? Philosophical questions that I thankfully, will never have to answer.
 

Chuck(G)

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I think you're correct--I wasn't familiar with the term. The meaning is "An item that has been repaired many times and contain none of its original parts."
 

Hugo Holden

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I couldn't agree more. I have never found a single emulator that works better than an original arcade game, even for the simple game of Pong. The original arcade version had 42 states of ball motion which the coders for emulators never knew about until the circuit analysis was published less than 10 years ago. So when I built one I essentially used the original hardware, with a few hardware "bug" fixes:

https://www.worldphaco.com/uploads/ARCADE_MINI-PONG.pdf

https://www.worldphaco.com/uploads/LAWN_TENNIS.pdf
 

Hugo Holden

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Chuck(G)

"I suppose it's like taking a human and substituting prosthetic this and that--when you come to using a prosthetic brain, is the result still a "real" human? Would a robot constructed using the same technology be considered human? Philosophical questions that I thankfully, will never have to answer"

This notion was done in the UK TV series Dr. Who. The idea was that you had an organic humanoid like life form, not dissimilar to a human. Then through a series of what amounted to "hardware upgrades" with various organ systems being replaced with longer lasting artificial ones, you ended up with the "Cyberman"

Though I'm not sure if they ever got around to replacing their brain as that might have defeated the purpose of the original exercise.

The thing is that nobody still knows where the organic brain ends and human consciousness begins, or if even they are one and the same thing. Suffice to say that despite claims of AI, I'm still fairly certain that self awareness is a property of organic life forms, humans, primates, dogs etc, not a man made machine... yet, that is until VIKI from I.robot takes over, or perhaps the IBM manufactured HAL-9000. So think twice before you let your Tesla drive you to work.
 
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