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CollectorVision Phoenix: A modern, premium FPGA-based ColecoVision compatible retro console

Help CollectorVision reach their crowdfunding goal and make the Phoenix a reality!

Earlier this week, CollectorVision announced the crowdfunding campaign launch for their Phoenix console on Kickstarter. CollectorVision has in the past developed modern homebrew games for the 1982 ColecoVision videogame console, and in addition to that have partnered with OpCode games, developers of the ColecoVision Super Game Module expansion, which augments the system with more RAM and improved graphics capability.

I’m very excited about this system. ColecoVision was a great system, which died too young due to the videogame industry crash of 1983. It offered graphics nearly on par with the NES, a full year before the Famicom was released in Japan, and delivered home ports of early 80s arcade games that offered greater fidelity to the originals than was possible on the Atari 2600.

The Phoenix’s feature list is amazing: FPGA hardware implementation for 100% compatibility and fidelity with the original system, HDMI-out video, SD card slot, built-in Super Game Module and F18A enhancement hardware, 10 built-in ROMs of modern ColecoVision homebrew games, DB9 controller ports for original ColecoVision controllers, as well as SNES controller ports for compatibility with more common/comfortable SNES gamepads, and even a PS/2 keyboard connector. There’s even been talk of including an FPGA core for support of Atari 2600 games, much like the original ColecoVision’s Expansion Module 1 adapter for Atari 2600 games.

This is a dream system, and considering that, its price tag of $200 is very reasonable. Compared to the RetroUSB AVS system and the Analog Super NT, the Phoenix will fill a nice in retrogame preservation and it deserves to make its crowdfunding goal of $230,000.

To hit this goal, CollectorVision will need about 1000 backers to sign up. The kickstarter campaign is off to a somewhat slow start, however — three days into the campaign, they’ve only managed to secure $28,000 in pledges. Usually, a system like this would be fully funded in the first day, or even the first hour of the crowdfunding campaign going live. If the campaign received steady contributions every day at the level they have for the first 3 days, they would make goal, but it’s most typical for kickstarters to get most of their funding on the first few days, and the last few days. So I’m worried that they will not hit their goal. 

Perhaps retro gamers are wary of crowdfunding for yet another modern retro game console. People enthusiastically backed Ouya to the tune of $8 million dollars several years ago, and the recent AtariBox/Atari VCS crowdfunding was also successful in reaching goal, but only made $3 million dollars amid serious doubts about the current company calling itself Atari’s capabilities to deliver on what it has promised, and alleged mis-representation of their prototype hardware.

I don’t have any insider knowledge of CollectorVision, but everything I have seen from them about the Phoenix looks good, and I have faith that they care capable of delivering on their promises, if they can make their fundraising goal. Their hardware really exists, and all they need is capital for manufacturing. If you have fond memories of the ColecoVision and the early-80’s era of videogames, definitely check out the project, and consider becoming a backer.

New Phoenix console by CollectorVision announced

This week a CollectorVision released a pre-release announcement for a new videogame console, called Phoenix.

CollectorVision Phoenix
CollectorVision Phoenix conceptual drawing courtesy of CollectorVision.com

Phoenix is a Field Programmable Gate Array-based clone of the 1982 ColecoVision videogame console, featuring old-school input ports for compatibility with authentic Coleco controllers, and HDMI-output for modern HDTV sets. It promises to be 100% compatible with the entire ColecoVision library, including newer homebrew games that have been released in recent years — even those that depend on the Super Game Module expansion by OpCode Games. The Phoenix will have the SGM circuitry built in to its FPGA. The console will have a cartridge slot for plugging real ColecoVision games into, as well as a SD card slot for loading ROMs. Curiously, it will also have input ports for SNES/SFC controller, and for PS/2 keyboards.

This is an exciting development for ColecoVision fans. The system is very similar in concept to the AVS, a FPGA-based NES clone that RetroUSB released in 2016, and the Super Nt, FPGA-based SNES clone by Analogue.

The announced price point is expected to be “around $200”, so right in the same ballpark as these upgraded clone systems. As an owner of the Super Nt and AVS, I’m very happy with both systems, and so am very excited about this news.  

The ColecoVision is underappreciated in the history of videogames, as it came out just before the Crash of ’83, and was knocked out of the market after only a few short years by the NES, but Coleco still has a following even today. The system had a solid library of games which featured better graphics and sound than the Atari 2600, its main competitor, and Mattel’s Intellivision, its closest technical rival. The games were not quite as sophisticated as the action/adventure style of games that the NES introduced, but there are many standout ports of classic early 80’s arcade titles for the system — including Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, BurgerTime, Gorf, Frenzy, Pepper II, and others.

Visual theory of the Z3D Engine

Editor’s note: [I originally wrote this as an Appendix to the documentation for Z3D Engine, but I think it’s interesting enough to deserve a slightly wider audience.]

I have to preface this section by saying that I have no idea what I’m talking about here, but am trying to learn.  I like math, but I didn’t go to school primarily for it, and that was decades ago. I haven’t studied 3D geometry, or optics, or computer graphics in any formal sense. I’m figuring this out more or less by myself, learning as I teach myself.

So if someone who knows more than I do wants to explain this stuff better than I can, I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email at the Contact page, or tweet at me @csanyk, or just comment on this article

Thanks in advance!

I’ve called Z3D Engine a “Fake 3D” engine and “2.5D” engine, because those are fairly vague terms that I don’t have to worry about being right about. Someone asked me what type of view it is, and I couldn’t tell them. That bothered me, so I started reading a bit. I still don’t really know for sure.

or·tho·graph·ic pro·jec·tion
ˌôrTHəˈɡrafik prəˈjekSHən/
noun

  1. a method of projection in which an object is depicted or a surface mapped using parallel lines to project its shape onto a plane.
    • a drawing or map made using orthographic projection.

I think this is sortof close to what Z3D is… maybe.  What I can tell you about Z3D is this:  You can see the full front side and the full top side of (most) objects.  These do not foreshorten.

fore·short·en
fôrˈSHôrtn,fərˈSHôrtn/
verb
gerund or present participle: foreshortening

  1. portray or show (an object or view) as closer than it is or as having less depth or distance, as an effect of perspective or the angle of vision.
  2. “seen from the road, the mountain is greatly foreshortened”

The blue rectangle that represents the “player” in the demo is intended to show the player as a side view only, with no pixels in the sprite representing the top surface of the player. This is because I’m intending Z3D to be used for games drawn in a visual style similar to the top-down Legend of Zelda games, and in those games, no matter which way Link is facing, you can only see pixels in his sprite that represent his side, and nothing that represents the top of him, even though you’re viewing most of the rest of the terrain in the room from this weird view where you can see both the top and side of things like blocks and chests, and for other things like bushes you can only see the side.

Things in Z3D do not appear to get smaller as they recede into the background, or get bigger as they get closer to the foreground.  As well, the tops of objects (that have tops), the top is drawn 1 visual pixel “deep” (in the Y-dimension) for every pixel of distance.

This doesn’t look correct, strictly speaking; if you’re looking for “correct” visuals this engine likely isn’t for you.  But it is visually easy to understand for the player, and it is very simple.

What I’m doing in Z3D Engine is showing the top of everything (that has a top) as though you’re looking at it’s top from a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the top, while at the same time you’re also seeing the side of everything as though you’re looking at the side from a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the side.  This is an impossible perspective in real life, but it works in 2D graphics that are trying to create a sort of “fake” 3D look, which is what Z3D does.

Imagine you’re looking at this cube:

Cube

At most, assuming the cube is opaque, you can see only three faces of the cube from any given vantage point outside the cube; the other three faces are occluded on the other side of the cube.

Cube with occluded faces

(That image above is properly called Isometric, by the way. Z3D is not isometric).

If you were looking at the cube from a vantage point where you were perpendicular to one of the faces, you could only see that one face, and it would look like a square:

Square

(Since the faces of this cube are all nondescript, we can’t tell if we’re looking at the side or the top of the cube.)

Now, if it were possible to be at a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the both the side and the top of the cube simultaneously, the cube would look like this:

Flattened Bi-perspective cube

This is weird and wrong, but yet it is easy to understand, and it turns out that it is also very easy to compute the position and movement along 3 dimensional axes if you allow this wrong way of drawing.  This is view is (or perhaps is similar to) a method of visualization known as a oblique projection.

More properly, if you were positioned at a vantage point somewhere between the two points that are perfectly perpendicular to the top and side faces, the cube would look like this:

Cube in perspective

Here, obviously, we are looking at the cube mostly from the side, but our eye is slightly above, so we can see the top of the cube as well.  But notice, since we are not viewing the top face of the cube from a perpendicular vantage point, it does not appear to be a square any longer — it foreshortens, so that the far end of the top of the cube appears narrower than the closer end.

This is perhaps obvious, because we’re using to seeing it, because we see it every day, because that’s what real life looks like.  But it’s because we see this every day that we take it for granted, and when we have to explicitly understand what’s going on visually with geometry, we have to unpack a lot of assumptions and intuitions that we don’t normally think consciously about.

If we were to put our eye at the exact middle point between the points that are perpendicular to the side face and the top face, the cube should look to us like this:

Cube at 45°

Notice that both the bottom of the side face and the far edge of the top face are foreshortened due to perspective.

This is how they “should” look in a “correct” 3D graphics system, but Z3D “cheats” to show both the side and top faces without doing any foreshortening, which means that it can draw an instance as it moves through any of the three dimensions using extremely simple math.

Visually moving 1 pixel left or right is always done at a hspeed of -1 or 1, regardless of whether the object is near (at a high y position) or far away (at a low y position).  Likewise, moving near or far is also always done at a rate of one distance pixel per apparent visual pixel. And moving up and down in the z-dimension is also always done at a rate of 1 distance pixel per apparent visual pixel.

If we wanted to draw more convincingly realistic 3D graphics, we need to understand what’s going on with the eye, with perspective, and things at a distance.

Eye viewing the cube at a 45° angle

The same object viewed in Z3D’s perspective is something like this:

Eye looking at Z3D rendering

(We’ve omitted the occluded faces on the back end of the cube relative to the viewer, for simplicity.)

These two “apparent” perspectives are combined at the point where the player’s real eye is, resulting in something like this fake-3D perspective:

Z3D Flattened Orthographic bi-perspective rendering

So, in conclusion I’m not 100% sure that my terminology is correct, but I think we can call this perspective “flattened orthographic bi-perspective” or perhaps “oblique projection”.

(From this, we can begin to see how a corrected view might be possible, using trigonometry to calculate the amount of foreshortening/skew a given position in the Z3D space would need in order to appear correct for a single-POV perspective.  But this is something well beyond what I am planning to do with the engine; if you wanted this, you would be far better off creating your game with a real 3D engine.)

It gets weirder when you realize that for certain objects, such as the player, we’re going to draw only the side view, meaning that the player will be drawn a flat 2D representation in a fake 3D space.  Yet the player’s “footprint” collision box will likely have some y-dimension height to it.

Classic Videogame Quotes

Since their invention, almost overnight videogames have made a lasting impact on the greater culture. Here are a few of my favorite memorable quotes from video games.

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.

Game: The Legend of Zelda

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1986

It’s the mid-80’s. The NES is new, and a chip shortage has made this already-hot game a hard to find must-have for the holidays — despite being released in February. Limited quantities of the special gold cartridge meant that a lot of kids had to wait a long time to get their copy of the game everyone was talking about: The Legend of Zelda. In Link’s first encounter, he finds an old man in a cave with a gift and some memorable advice.

Welcome to adventure, kid.

It’s a secret to everybody.

It's a secret to Everybody.

Game: The Legend of Zelda

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1986

There’s something seedy about taking free rupees from a cave-dwelling Moblin. Is this a legit offer? What’s the catch? Why is this overworld enemy helping us? But yes, it’s true. Everyone knows that the secret to getting ahead in the world is to have a little money. It can get you into places, and out of jams. You can never have too much, but you can only carry $255. Don’t spend it all in one place, unless it happens to be the hidden shop that sells the Blue Ring!

Uh Oh. The truck have started to move!

Uh-oh! The trick have started to move!

Game: Metal Gear

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1987

Most videogames for the NES were developed in Japan, and accurate translation never seemed to be a high priority. So many memorable quotes from mid-80’s videogames are remembered for their quirky, incorrect grammar and hilarious misspellings.

In Metal Gear, you sneak about a military base attempting to keep a low profile lest you be discovered and create an international incident. While looking inside a few parked trucks for supplies to aid you in your mission, one of them happens to start up with you inside! Better lie low and hope that you will not be discovered, and that wherever it takes you doesn’t bring your mission to a premature end. Fortunately for you, the blundering enemy has in fact just made it easier for you to succeed, by taking you to an area on the base where you could not get to otherwise.

Earlier in the game, you encounter this tired guard, who, if you wait out of sight long enough, will fall asleep. Oddly, before nodding off he announces, to no one in particular, “I feel asleep!!” Either the designers meant to say he fell asleep, which makes no sense because he’s already asleep, or perhaps they meant to say he feels sleepy. Either way, it’s pretty funny.

The NES port of Metal Gear was a bug-ridden mess, but since most of us didn’t have an MSX to compare against, we had no idea, but we didn’t care. The sneaking about, using stealth tactics to infiltrate the base while quietly eliminating guards, and finding an arsenal’s worth of gear to blow up a nuclear-armed super-weapon were too important to let some bad English stop us.

I feel asleep!!

Congratulation.

Congratulation.

Game: 1942

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1986

A number of early Capcom NES games rewarded the player who successfully beat the game with this stingy accolade, “CONGRATULATION.” What, just one measly congratulation? Isn’t plural, multiple congratulations nearly always in order when complimenting someone’s happy success? After dogfighting your way through thirty-two (!) stages of bland, slow-moving shoot-em-up “action” against an unbearable monotone soundtrack, this is the thanks we get?

Literally, this is the entirety of what you get when you beat the game. Screw you, Capcom!

Fortunately, they more than made up for this with the sequel, 1943, which features improved everything, including one of the best soundracks on the NES. Capcom went on to produce some of the best titles on the NES, and found even greater glory in the 16-bit era with Street Fighter II. All is forgiven.

A winner is you!

A winner is you

Game: Pro Wrestling

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1986

Pro Wrestling is one of those games that is pretty dumb, and yet really fun despite that, with a one of the hardest boss fights to win, the championship bout against Great Puma. But each time you manage to win a wrestling match, your reward was this message: A winner is you! All right! It really pumps up your self esteem!

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all [alike|different].

You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.

You are in a maze of twisting passages, all different.

Game: Colossal Cave Adventure

System: DEC PDP-10, and others

Year: 1976

There’s so much quotable in Colossal Cave Adventure, considering the entire game is entirely text, and one of the first computer games ever. But this quote from the Maze is the one that I come back to the most. To create the feeling of being lost in a maze, the game just repeats the same text in each room, until you manage to solve the maze. There’s no feedback to tell you where you are, or to give yourself a reference point to have some idea where you are. After puzzling over this conundrum, successful players eventually figure out that if they drop an item from their inventory in a room, it will help them to make that room in the maze stand out from the others, enabling them to map out the maze with pen and paper.

To this day, whenever I’m in a confusing situation where there are many options and I don’t know which is the right one, I’ll think back to this one.

I am Error

I am Error.

Game: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1987

A genuine WTF moment in gaming occurs when you meet the infamous Error. This is all he ever says to you, “I am Error.” Is that his name? Or is he just a chronic screwup? Or is the game telling you that it has an Error? This was a matter for deep contemplation in 1987.

What a horrible night to have a curse.

What a horrible night to have a curse.

Game: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1987

Castlevania II attempted to innovate by introducing adventure and RPG elements into the action-platformer formula. There’s a level-up system, and shops where you can spend money that you spend hours grinding for… so much grinding for XP and hearts in fact that this game is usually remembered as the least-liked of the NES Castlevania titles. Luckily the music was excellent. Unlike the first Castlevania, rather than having a linear progression through a series of stages, the game featured an open map that you could go back and revisit, and likely would need to several times while trying to figure out some extremely obscurely hidden secrets. Another innovation the game features is a day-night cycle, where during the nighttime hours, the enemies were stronger, doing twice as much damage, and taking twice as many hits to be defeated. Every couple of minutes, day would turn to night, or night to day, and every time the game would freeze and display this message to you… one character at a time… for about 30 seconds. It was… memorable, let me tell you.

Winners don’t use drugs

Game: Various arcade games

Year: 1989-2000

If you went to an arcade in the 1990s, you surely saw this message on a regular basis. I don’t know whether it ever stopped anyone from trying drugs who wanted to, but we sure did know who the Director of the FBI was.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

Game: Zork

System: PC

Year: 1980

The early text adventure games borrowed liberally from one another. In Colossal Cave Adventure, you could die if your torch went out, falling into a pit in the pitch black darkness. In the Zork series, there were locations where you could die without a light source, but it made no sense to have a hole that you could fall into. Enter the Grue, a loathsome fell creature that inhabited only the darkest reaches, and had never been seen by anyone who lived. But what is a Grue? No one knew. Some speculate that the name derived from the word gruesome, which is certainly a likely sounding explanation. On the other hand, the term “grue” is also found in the philosophy of Nelson Goodman, which might have been familiar to the MIT students who formed Infocom. But they’re also a monster in the Dying Earth novels by Jack Vance. So which is it?

Fight, Megaman! For everlasting peace!

Fight, Megaman! For everlasting peace!

Game: Mega Man

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1987

After winning the original Mega Man, we are informed that Mega Man has to continue to fight (basically telling you that you could now play the game again, enjoying it for “replayability”). “Fight, Megaman!” the game extolls us, “For everlasting peace!” What? How? That oxymoronic statement always gives me a chuckle.

President Ronnie has been kidnapped by the ninjas! Are you a bad enough dude to rescue Ronnie?

President Ronnie has been captured by the ninjas

Game: Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja

System: Arcade (Data East)

Year: 1988

What could be more 80’s than a President named Ronnie? In the last year of Reagan’s presidency, this 2D beat-em-up gave us the attitude of cool badness that we all needed. Are you a bad enough dude? The game play in Bad Dudes wasn’t necessarily great, consisting of mostly standing around on platforms as the level slowly scrolled by, delivering repetitive one-punch or one-kick knockouts to an endless supply of cookie cutter Ninjas, without a great amount of depth or variety to the entire affair. This was a game anyone could beat, pretty much regardless of their skill level, as long as they had enough money. But the giant-sized, 16-bit sprites and (somewhat) challenging boss fights were enough to suck us in and drain the quarters from our pockets.

Barf!

Barf!

Game: River City Ransom

System: Nintendo Entertainment System

Year: 1989

The famous last words of many dying students at River City High school, uttered as they blinked out of existence and left behind their bouncing pocket change. It’s funny that they apparently literally say “Barf!” rather than making the sounds of barfing, such as “Bleaugh!”

Finish him!!

Finish Him!

Game: Mortal Kombat

System: Arcade

Year: 1992

The voice narration gave these words a chilling malevolence. When you hear this, having won two out of three rounds in the Mortal Kombat tournament, it’s time to unleash the combo that triggers your fatality move, giving your opponent a death worthy of the game’s title. Or, if you’re the loser, it’s time to endure the indignity and shame of having your body torn asunder, in the most unpleasant way imaginable. Yet, no matter how many times they die in the MK tournament, you everyone still gets to fight again in the endurance rounds.

Game Over

Game Over

Game: Just about every one, ever.

System: All of them.

Year: Eternal

Game Over, man. Game over!

To be sure there are many more memorable videogame quotes that I’ve left out. What are your favorites?

The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time

I just watched The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time, a documentary about the golden age of video games, and the stories of a few collectors of arcade games who are keeping them alive in basements and garages and museums around the country.

A heavily nostalgic look at the games, people telling their stories and what the games and the arcade experience meant to them. It wasn’t as heavy on history, research, and data as I would have liked, and being an enthusiast who lived through this period I didn’t feel like I really learned anything, but I feel qualified to say that the film is accurate in its treament of what it covers, and it is quite enjoyable to watch if you love the the golden age of arcade videogaming, or if you want to learn about that period.

The film did focus mainly on gamers who grew up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, and did not seem to include any interviews with people from the industry — designers, programmers, company presidents, or anything (although, a number of the collectors they interviewed do work in the computer technology field in some capacity). So it’s very much a gamer/fan oriented story, and not an insider story. But you’ll come away from it with a good feel for what the games meant to the generation who came of age during their heyday, and a lot of cabinet envy, if nothing else, and perhaps a desire for more wall outlets in your basement.

Strangely, the actual game Space Invaders seems to have been largely ignored by the collectors who shared their stories. For serving as the inspiration for the film’s title, it’s a bit odd that they didn’t spend a little more time talking about the game somewhere in there.

It’s available as an Amazon Instant Video, and if you watch it through the link below, I’ll get a little compensation through their affiliate program.

The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time

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