Retro Computing, Unleashing the Power of Small, Affordable FPGAs

Added 19 Oct 2023, 5:28 a.m. edited 19 Oct 2023, 6:51 a.m.

A Journey to Recreate the Nostalgic Experience in Retro Computing

The world of retro computing holds a special place for enthusiasts who bask in the glow of vintage computer systems (although that glow is often amber or green from some ancient monitor they cherish), there is a careful balance between authenticity and modern utility. While some maintain within the retro computing community that integrating ARM chips and modern Wi-Fi controllers into these classic systems as a short cut is perfectly legitimate, I maintain that small, affordable Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) should reign supreme in retro computing, not as complete systems (you could use an emulator - a better use for an arm chip) but rather as a replacement for increasingly rare custom Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs).

So I'm going to explore why these FPGAs outshine ARM chips and modern Wi-Fi controllers, drawing from the world of breadboarding, ASIC development, and vintage computer systems like the Amiga chipset, as we seek to recreate the nostalgic experience of retro computing.

Unveiling the Power of Small, Affordable FPGAs

The heart of the retro computing movement is a desire to authentically relive the computing experiences of a bygone era. Enthusiasts find joy in immersing themselves in the vintage hardware and software, embracing the constraints and quirks that defined these classic systems. Retro computing is more than a hobby; it's a dedicated journey to transport oneself back to the early days of personal computing.

A Step Back: The Challenge of ARM Chips

While ARM chips are celebrated for their efficiency and performance, I contend that they are ill-suited to the ethos of retro computing. The clock speeds of classic systems like the Commodore 64 and Apple II measured in kilohertz or megahertz, a stark contrast to the gigahertz speeds of modern ARM processors. The integration of ARM chips, even for specific functions, risks diluting the core authenticity that makes retro computing special, as these processors threaten to erase the constraints that defined the vintage computing experience. You could literally emulate the whole system on a (system in a) chip that is part of a support board for a retro CPU.

The Allure of Nostalgia: Retro Graphics

One of the most contentious issues arises when discussing ARM chips for graphics enhancement. The temptation to elevate the visual capabilities of vintage systems with modern graphics processing is undeniable. Yet, it puts in peril the very essence of retro gaming's allure. Retro gaming enthusiasts treasure the pixelated graphics and distinctive visual style that characterize classic games. ARM chips, with their prowess for delivering superior graphics, pose a substantial risk to preserving this unique aesthetic and the nostalgia it carries. Even if you are aping the retro pixels with an arms video output, you're still using a massively powered complete system to do this with, the joy of success when you get your little FPGA circuit to output a VGA signal through HDMI so it can be displayed on a modern display, well believe me its a treat, and compounded when you design and implement a way for the retro CPU to talk with this circuit, be it memory mapping or other techniques of yesteryear...

The Simplicity of a Bygone Era: Connectivity and Online Systems

The addition of modern Wi-Fi controllers may seem like an enticing prospect for introducing connectivity features into retro systems. However, a compelling argument against this approach emerges when we consider the systems' origins. Vintage systems were not designed for online interaction or high-speed data transfer. The incorporation of such features could potentially compromise the charm of a simpler era when computing was a fundamentally different endeavour.

The Power of Small, Affordable FPGAs

In contrast to ARM chips and modern Wi-Fi controllers, small, affordable Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) emerge as the ideal choice for retro computing. These adaptable devices boast the capability to define and configure logic and functions, making them versatile tools for replicating classic systems, including custom ASICs. FPGAs empower retro enthusiasts to recreate the nostalgic experience of classic systems while enjoying the benefits of modern technology where needed. USB input for a keyboard, HDMI for an output, to name just two areas where you can make a more self contained and future proofed retro system.

Recreating the Authentic Experience with FPGAs

Small FPGAs give retro enthusiasts the means to maintain the limitations, celebrate the ingenuity of early developers, and cherish the quirks of vintage hardware. By opting for FPGAs, the core of retro computing remains intact, honouring the very constraints that define these systems' character. Small, affordable FPGAs have the potential to equal the power and authenticity of custom ASIC chips, maintaining the nostalgic aura while providing modern functionality where desired.

Resurrecting the Spirit of Innovation: A Journey to the Past

The early days of home microcomputer development often involved working with primitive FPGAs and custom ASICs, CLPD's etc. on a large breadboard gradually whittling down the component count as areas were finalised and replaced with temporary ASICs, the very way you program an FPGA is by describing a circuits behavior, do I want 3 bits or 16 per pixel, do I have enough resources for my ideal.  These chips were pivotal in pioneering the home computing revolution, enabling designers to push the boundaries of technology. ARM chips and modern Wi-Fi controllers, with their all-encompassing capabilities, risk overshadowing the spirit of innovation and resourcefulness that characterized these early landmarks.

The Legacy of Vintage Systems: The Amiga Chipset

Many systems even the ZX81 had custom chips, the Amiga, a beloved example of the retro computing world, serves as a testament to the creative use of custom ASICs in enhancing the computing experience. The Amiga chipset, comprising the Agnus, Denise, and Paula chips, played a pivotal role in delivering outstanding graphics and sound for its time. And programming them from 68000 assembly was sweet to boot, custom chips like these showcased the ingenious spirit of the era, and FPGAs provide a means to relive and preserve that spirit, you probably might find it hard to buy a Paula today, but you can look up its specs read about its behaviour and recreate the functionality of that chip within an FPGA, you still then have to design and implement an interface all a challenge, but very rewarding (When it works!)


The ongoing debate over whether to use ARM chips and modern Wi-Fi controllers in retro computing setups is met with a strong counter-argument. I champion small, affordable FPGAs as the superior choice. FPGAs allow retro enthusiasts to preserve the essence of retro computing, honouring the limitations, celebrating the ingenuity of early developers, and cherishing the quirks of vintage hardware.

Retro computing is a journey to the past, an immersion in a simpler time when computing was an adventure of limitations and creativity. While modern technology offers undeniable advantages, it can inadvertently dilute the very essence that makes retro computing so cherished. By selecting small, affordable FPGAs to provide that bit of glue that is no longer available, retro enthusiasts ensure that the past remains unadulterated, allowing the spirit of innovation to thrive, untarnished by the demands and capabilities of the present.

Enjoy your retro experience, but keep it retro.