Retro gaming company Analogue is looking to push its Pocket handheld beyond a high-end nostalgia-grab and into the realm of preservation tool, launching the openFPGA developer program through through which its field-programmable gate array (FPGA) can be harnessed to mimic rare devices.
"For decades," Analogue claims, "dedicated software developers have tirelessly worked to preserve video game hardware within the constraints of software emulation. We believe FPGA is the next step — the pinnacle of preserving video game hardware for the future. OpenFPGA is the first purpose built, FPGA driven hardware and ecosystem designed for third-party development of video game hardware. Created specifically for preserving video game history to develop, play, explore, and study for scholarly purposes. Engineered for decentralization."
Previously, the company had concentrated on selling its Pocket handheld console to those interested in playing the games of their childhood on a modern device. Unlike rival handhelds, which are near-exclusively based on software emulation running atop an Arm single-board computer, the Pocket houses an FPGA which handles the console emulation — running actual physical cartridges inserted into the Pocket's rear slot in hardware and with impressive upscaling and CRT simulation effects on the high-resolution color display.
Now, that same FPGA hardware will be available to third-party developers to develop and run their own cores. Both of the FPGAs inside the Pocket are up for use: An Intel/Altera Cyclone V boasting 49k logic elements and 3.4Mb of block RAM (BRAM), plus a Cyclone 10 with 15k logic elements. The console also includes two independently-addressable 16MB blocks of cellular RAM, 32MB of low-latency memory, 64MB of synchronous dynamic RAM (DRAM), and 256kB of asynchronous static RAM (SRAM.)
To showcase exactly what the openFPGA project means, Analogue has ported an open source core designed to emulate the Digital PDP-1 along with what is generally recognized as the first digital video game: Spacewar!, written in 1962 by Steve Russell and colleagues. A two-player player-versus-player shooter set in the gravity well of a star, Spacewar! set the stage for the first arcade games — Atari's Computer Space, released in 1971, was a simplified Spacewar! clone — and kicked off video gaming as we recognize it today.
All Analogue Pocket owners will be able to use their devices as openFPGA development kits, the company has confirmed, but it is also planning to release a limited number of specific developer-focused hardware bundles — to be provided for free to selected developers. It's a big shift for Analogue, which had previously refused to allow its hardware to run third-party code except via the cartridge slots — as a means of discouraging its use for piracy.
More information on the openFPGA program, including instructions to begin developing for the platform, is available on the Analogue website.