Going Retro with the BASIC Engine

Alasdair Allan
3 min readJul 6, 2018

To those of us that grew up before computers became ubiquitous black rectangles that live in your pocket, there’s still something about a computer that boots up and lets you start programming right there at the prompt.

While some of those early computers used Forth, or other even more obscure languages, most of the ones people still remember used some variant of BASIC. Which is why something like the BASIC Engine pulls at the heart strings quite as much as it does.

A BASIC Engine (Rev1) board. (📷: BASIC Engine)

Built around an ESP8266, in the form of an ESP-12 module, the BASIC Engine is fully open source. From the PCB, through to the Bill of Materials, and the firmware, everything is open. There are even some demo programs.

While the BASIC Engine does use some SMD components, the project makes a lot of effort to hold you hand through assembly.

BASIC Engine assembly. (📷: BASIC Engine)

“…it is possible to solder a 0.5mm-pitch SMD chip using a soldering iron, provided you have decent tools, a steady hand and years of practice. It is equally possible to solder the exact same chip using solder wire, an €80 iron and heat gun combo from eBay and jittery hands, without having ever done that before. It just takes two minutes longer, during which you can contemplate how much time you have saved by not practicing soldering.”

Although there’s a lot of retro computing going on right now, I guess a lot of us have reached “a certain age” and are looking back on our computing youth with fondness. Or at least some degree of nostalgia. This is one of the few I’ve come across with really thorough documentation that walks you all the way through—from initially sourcing the bill of materials, assembly, through to loading the firmware, writing and loading code onto your new toy.

The boot screen. (📷: BASIC Engine)

If everything goes to plan as you put the BASIC Engine together you should eventually be greeted by something that looks a lot like the boot screens from days gone by, familiar to anyone that was around during the 80's and early 90’s.

The provided demo code even includes a conversion of David Murray’s Tetris for Commodore BASIC to the Engine BASIC.

From there the Engine BASIC Reference Manual is your go-to guide for syntax.

You can probably put the BASIC Engine together for under $15 if you’re careful when you pick up your bill of materials and, despite the SMD components it uses, it’s pretty practical to build this on the bench at home. So if you’re missing the Commodore, or Sinclair, of your youth, maybe this is your next project?

--

--