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I'm curious about how the early handheld video games from the 70's and 80's worked. You know, those small games with a LCD display with "fixed elements" meaning it was hard wired for one (or a small number of) specific games(s). For instance,

this one:

enter image description here

or this:

enter image description here

Specifically, what type of micro controllers did these games use? As I recall, there was usually one big epoxy "blob" at the center of the board which probably controlled everything. So my question is, what was inside this blob? Was it a small standard microcontroller with a ROM running the actual game, or was it a custom CPU/controller for every design? Or maybe it wasn't even a CPU but more like a simple state machine hardwired for the game in question? I realize the answer may depend on the particular game.

Has the design/schematics for any of these games been released or is there any good books/references about how they were made? Finally, what tools were used to design microcontrollers like this? Was it based on something like VHDL/Verilog synthesis, or was it a more low-level approach with wiring the individual elements?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Buy one and take it apart! \$\endgroup\$ – Connor Wolf May 19 '13 at 11:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Very interesting topic :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Al Kepp May 19 '13 at 16:17
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While the 4004 and Z80 were available, they were both unlikely to be used in handhelds where low part count, cost and battery life were important.

There were families of 4-bit and 8-bit microcontrollers from the 1970s that have been mostly forgotten - these usually had on-chip ROMs so after developing your program on a relatively expensive emulation system - always in assembly language - you paid your money and the silicon manufacturer made a mask - and printed YOUR specific ROM contents on a waferload of blank chips, then tested, sliced and packaged* them : six weeks later you had a delivery of 25000 micros with permanent ROM contents and prayed that the program would work...

(* Or supplied die for you to fit your own epoxy blob over)

  • Texas Instruments had the TMS-1000 and sold probably millions with the same damn set of 20 slightly-off-key tunes for doorbells.

  • National Semi had the SC/MP ... don't know much about it except that I believe it was used in the first Sinclair computer, the "Science of Cambridge MK14", a year or two before the ZX80, ZX81 and Spectrum.

  • Intel had the 8048 eight-bitter that may still be used in PC keyboards as far as I know ... they even had an EPROM version (8748) which appealed to the smaller company (no mask costs! YAY!) I was bitten when the promised CMOS version of the 8748 was quietly dropped...

  • Zilog had (still have, I think) the Z8.

  • Motorola, oddly, kind of missed this boat despite the 6800 - the 6802 may have been an attempt but the 6811 was (to my recollection) quite late in the game.

  • RCA had the CMOS (low power!!!!) 1802 with the weirdest instruction set on the planet.

  • And a long-forgotten company called General Instruments had another offering, which my "Preliminary" datasheet from 1983 calls the PIC1652 or PIC1654 (with 256 or 512 words of program ROM.) and a fairly freaky instruction set. I expect that sank without trace...

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    \$\begingroup\$ The young'uns around here aren't going to get your last point. :) (Hint) \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Lawrence May 19 '13 at 13:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ No bullet line for 6502? \$\endgroup\$ – The Photon May 19 '13 at 15:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I know of the 6502 more of a microprocessor alongside the Z80/6800 rather than a single chip MCU. There may have been a version with ROM (6501?) but I don't recall well enough to put it in the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Drummond May 19 '13 at 16:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for a thorough answer. I wonder what the pricing of, say, a TMS-1000 was back then. Probably cheaper than even the lowest end x86's today (even though TMS-1000 was 'high end' for the microprocesser class back then!) since otherwise it wouldn't have been possible to use it toys, doorbells etc. \$\endgroup\$ – Morty29 May 19 '13 at 16:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ To be honest I can't say which if any was used for your Nintendo example, but I took apart a broken "Simon" game and it was a TMS1000. Price? I believe you could have your own TMS1000 for under $10 in small (5000?) quantities and it went down from there. \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Drummond May 19 '13 at 17:05
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The 'black blob' is chip-on-board (COB) technology. The technique is still used today and the semiconductor die(s) are directly placed directly on the board and interconnected. The black substance is used to protect the fine wires from damage. Now you know the term there are many resources around you can find, for example the following looks like a good introduction:

http://www.siliconfareast.com/cob.htm

The Intel 4004 was released in 1971 and widely considered as the first generally available microprocessor. By the mid 70's microprocessors such as the Zilog Z80 were available and they were more than capable of running such simple games.

So while I'm not a game industry insider the reality is that they were probably not greatly different to how you'd do things today, a microprocessor combined with a ROM and a simple LCD controller. Remember most games of that era had elements hard wired on the LCD rather than being bit-mapped which would have simplified processing power.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Great thanks for the answer, though I think I conceptually understood what COB was, namely just a way of packaging the actual dies/semiconductors. \$\endgroup\$ – Morty29 May 19 '13 at 16:53

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