The Rise of Retro-Computing

Alasdair Allan
3 min readNov 24, 2017

Perhaps its because those of us that grew up before the arrival of home computing have reached a certain age and are returning to the classics, but in recent weeks there seems to be more and more retro-computing projects crossing over my desk. I can’t open my email without someone pitching me an FPGA-based retro-computing project.

Building a retro-computing platform these days is as simple as booting up a software emulator, computing is now cheap enough that you can even build your own retro-gaming machine using the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi

The PiCade. (📷: Pimoroni)

But while software emulators for retro-gaming have been around almost since before the original machines disappeared, the arrival of cheap FPGA has led to an explosion of retro-computing options.

The MiSTer board. (📷: MiSTer)

Capable of running many different retro-computing cores, simulating a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro, or an Apple II+, and shrugging into the persona of one thirty year old machine or another with the push of a button, the idea of FPGA-based retro-computing offends hobby purists.

The original MiST board has been around for a while now, and causing some controversy amongst the hard-core 80’s hardware enthusiasts. So I’m sure the recently updated MiSTer board, a port to DE10-nano board with ×4 larger FPGA—an Altera Cyclone V SE—and faster ARM Cortex A9 dual-core CPU running at 800MHz, will be equally controversial.

Despite the controversy FPGA-based projects can be just as intricate as loving updated and maintained original hardware, with the split amongst hobbyists seems to be down motivational lines. Whether you like the idea of FPGA re-implementation of the original cores depends on whether you’re into the hobby for the history, or for the nostalgia.

Moving beyond FPGA people are now considering custom ASIC for retro-computing. The Retro-µC project is looking to produce an open source silicon ASIC that contains the RTL for some retro CPUs — the Zilog Z80, MOS 6502 and Motorola M68K.

Presentation by Chips4Makers at ORConf 2017. (📹: FOSSi Foundation)

The Retro-µC custom ASIC is intended to ship on a board with Arduino-compatible header blocks, and should be arriving on Crowd Supply soon.

Whatever your motivation, whether you’re collecting original hardware, or just want to play the games that you remember from your childhood—I still fire up Swords of Aragon in an emulator every once in a while, although my Lords of Midnight addiction is now satisfied using the iOS port of the game—or preserve the history of computing for future generations, there’s a place in retro-computing waiting for you.