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Alive 12
SMS plus
       A Sega Master System and Game Gear emulator for the Falcon '060!

We've been pleasantly surprised by a hyper-active Peter P.  once more.  He's
in  the  middle  of an emulator porting frenzy it  seems.  After  a  roaring
success  of bringing the Commodore 64 emulator 'Frodo' to the CT60,  now  we
have  another  previously  neglected emulation on  Atari,  the  Sega  Master
System, and the Game Gear handheld console 'SMS Plus'.

The  Master  System  was Sega's first attempt at making a  product  for  the
international  console marketplace.  It was a follow-on from the earlier SG-
1000  series,  and the most direct rival to the other main second generation
console,  the  Nintendo  Entertainment System (NES).  Both of these machines
were  offering  quite  a  bit more,  technically speaking,  than  the  first
generation  of  consoles,  such  as the Atari VCS,  Intellivision,  etc.  The
Master System had quite a long lifespan,  first appearing in 1985,  with its
final  official demise being postponed until the early nineties.  Even then,
it managed a successful afterlife in countries such as Brazil.

The Master System was considered to be technically superior to the NES,  but
lagged  behind  that machine's impressive sales.  At the latter end  of  its
life,  it also had to go up against the later 16-bit Sega Genesis/Megadrive,
which was wildly successful.  Still, it was a mild hit, and a good test case
for  Sega  to learn from,  when presenting their later products such as  the

The  Game Gear was launched in 1990,  as a response to the Nintendo Gameboy,
and was basically a pocket Master System,  with an increased colour palette,
(up  from 64 to 4096 available colours.).  It suffered from the same sort of
problems as its contemporary,  the Atari Lynx, as fighting in a market where
Ninetendo's  product  was  conquering  all before it,  and  that  the  rival
products were too bulky and too greedy for battery life.

Game Gear was able to play Master System games,  with an adaptor, due to the
closeness  of most of the hardware,  and it got versions of the more popular
software, such as Sonic the Hedgehog. It didn't get much commercial success,
but  lived  on  until  1997,   and  even  afterwards,  when  a  third  party
manufacturer 'Majesco' took over.

The  specs  for  the  Master  System can  be  seen  here,  followed  by  the
differences from the Game Gear.

#  CPU:  8-bit  Zilog Z80 - 3.54 MHz for PAL/SECAM,  3.57 MHz for NTSC (Ahh,
Zilog, the processor which built a computing revolution!)

#  Graphics:  VDP (Video Display Processor) - Derived from Texas Instruments
TMS9918.  Up  to  32 simultaneous colors available (16 for sprites,  16  for
background)  from  a palette of 64 (can also show  64   simultaneous  colors
using programming tricks.) Screen resolutions 256x192 and 256x224. PAL/SECAM
also  supports 256x240 mode.  8x8 pixel characters,  max of 488 (due to VRAM
space limitation),  8x8 or 8x16 pixel sprites, max 64, Horizontal, diagonal,
vertical, and partial screen scrolling

#  Sound  (PSG):  Texas  Instruments SN76489 - 4 channel  mono  sound  (Very
similar sound type to basic YM.) 3 sound generators, 4 octaves each, 1 white
noise generator

# Sound (FM): Yamaha YM2413  - (I guess this isn't supported in SMS Plus!) 9
channel mono FM sound, built into Japanese Master System, available as plug-
in module for Mark III supported by certain games only

# ROM: 64 kbit (8kB) to 2048 kbit (256 kB), depending on built-in game

# Main RAM: 64 kbit (8 kB)

# Video RAM: 128 kbit (16 kB)

The  Game Gear was very similar.  Its main differences were a reduced screen
resolution  of  160x 144 pixels,  and a colour palette of 4096  colours,  of
which 32 were available onscreen at any time.

The  Master  System was able to keep up with the  increasing  complexity  of
games  as they developed.  Screenshots from the SMS Power website show  some
very simplistic and decidely 8-bit games at the start, (These may be tied in
with the SG-1000). There were some later releases including adaptations from
ST/Amiga 16-bit games like 'Fire and Ice',  Chuck Rock,   Xenon 2,  and even
Populous!  Graphically  it  is  not too far off the quality  of  the  16-bit
computers with the better games, maybe with a slighty coarser resolution.

The SMS Plus port is a version of a widely ported open source emulator. Like
Frodo,  it  really needs a CT60 level of hardware,  but is completely smooth
for  that  at 90mhz.  It is quoted as being the same on a 66mhz  revision  1
based CT60/CT63.  It can run on a CT2, but the experience would be something
like  the  Atari 800 emulator running on that system,  barely  tolerable  in
other  words.  The  Game Gear roms are slightly more playable than  the  SMS
roms, if you had to resort to a CT2,  owing  to the reduced number of pixels
it is having to support.  It is o/s  independent,   even  if  Peter presents
it  as  a  Mint  specific application.  It runs fine on plain  Tos and Magic
alike. The  only  complicating  factor is that Centscreen messes up when you
press  escape  to exit the emulator, so run it without and you're fine.

SMS  Plus  is  still  in  an early stage  of  development  from  an  Atarian
perspective,  although  the  emulator  core  seems to  be  very  mature  and
accurate.  It  is  very simple to use,  which goes in favour of the  console
concept.  You simply drag and drop the selected .sms or .gg rom onto the sms
executable binary,  and off you go!  Usefully,  Peter P.  has enabled Jagpad
controllers,  which  makes SMS plus a very attractive retro platform indeed!

SMS  Plus  adds hundreds of titles to the list of CT60 things  to  do.  'SMS
Power'  is  the  top  site  for  Master  System  and  Game  Gear  rom  image
collections,  including  some rare Japanese only releases.  There is a large
collection of screengrabs, so you can see what you are downloading. There is
quite a diverse collection there. The dominant genre being 2-D and Platform,
but you get several beat-em-ups,  and lots of film licences.  There are some
classic shoot-em-ups,  and even the occasional flight combat sim. There is a
lot  of Japanese material,  the role player adventures in particular looking
pretty  but useless to non-Japanese speakers.  There was even a training aid
rom for the Japanese highway code, including a drive down "Brocked Street".

Then there is Sonic the Hedgehog.

I  have played Sonic on the SMS's big brother,  the 16-bit Megadrive.  I got
the impression that as a flagship game for that console,  it was pushing the
hardware  greatly.  I had lowish expectations for the SMS version,  as there
would  be  no way it could keep up with the massive scrolling feats  on  the
Megadrive, right?

                          It's that hedgehog again!

Wrong!  SMS Sonic is just about as good as the Megadrive version, the coding
team  carrying off a major feat of genius,  making an older console keep  up
with  the 16 bit hardware.  There is a difference with the lesser amount  of
colour  onscreen,  but  not so much,  so it still looks great.  And it plays
fantastically smoothly, and the Jagpad is perfect for it, so we've got Sonic
on the Falcon at last!  The Game Gear version is about the same,  maybe even
running a little too quickly at 90mhz?

Other games I tried included 'Rainbow Islands',  'Space Harrier', 'Xenon 2',
and some Game Gear releases including Pinball Dreams. SMS Plus has proved to
be very compatible, managing to handle everything thrown at it so far.

Inevitably,  paths lead to check out the 'Prods' section on There
are a handful of SMS demos. There is nothing major, but I did get a few nice
oldschool intro's,  showing authentic scrolltexts and raster bars. There was
a  strange  but  nice  slideshow by Chris Covell,  which  uses  those  funny
red/green spectacles to view images in a pseudo-3D effect off the screen. He
also  made  a Game Gear Hi-color slideshow,  which showed off the  increased
palette of the Game Gear.

                Some nice raster bars and a scrolltext.

To end with,  I'd say  that  Peter  has  brought us another great emulation,
another missing link for the Atari. He's working on it a bit more, and we'll
see if we get further development on a more elaborate front end.

And  here's  your  one-stop shop for the Sega Master System  and  Game  Gear
CiH, for the Alive Xmas Special,Dec '05
Alive 12