Running BBC BASIC on the Sega Master System

Thursday, 22nd July 2021

I've recently been spending some time finding a way to run BBC BASIC on the Sega Master System, inspired by BASIC Month 6: The Mandelbaum Set on the RetroBattlestations Reddit community.

Photograph of the final setup with a Sega Master System running BBC BASIC and a Z88 computer acting as file store.

When this month's program was first announced I tried running it on my only unarguably retrobattlestation, my Cambridge Z88, but the screen's low (vertical) resolution didn't do the program much justice.

I thought this gave me two options:

  1. Control some external piece of retro tech to produce higher-resolution output (e.g. a printer or a plotter.
  2. Port a BASIC interpreter to another retro system with a higher resolution display and run the program on that.

Unfortunately, I don't own any old printers or plotters (or a Logo-like turtle!) so option 2 seemed my best option. I had some experience adapting Richard Russell's BBC BASIC (Z80) to run on the TI-83 Plus calculator so I thought I should pick the Sega Master System as that also has a Z80 CPU in it. Here are some rough specs:

  • 3.58(ish)MHz Z80 CPU.
  • 8KB work RAM.
  • TMS9918A-derived VDP for video with 16KB dedicated VRAM accessed via I/O port.
  • SN76489-derived PSG for sound.
  • Two controller ports with six input pins and two pins that could be configured as inputs or outputs.
  • Software loaded from ROM cartridge or card slot with a small BIOS ROM that detects whether a cartridge or card is inserted (and if not, runs its own built-in game).

There is some precedence to this endeavour with the computer version of Sega's SG-1000, the SC-3000, which came with a keyboard and had BASIC ROM cartridges.

An RS-232 serial adaptor and PS/2 keyboard adaptor for the Master System.

I wanted to try to keep this project as retro as possible, so no modern microcontrollers as I've been accused of cheating by using them in the past. I did have to make a couple of adaptors to allow me to plug in a keyboard and to give the Master System a serial port to load or save programs over – more about these later!

Loading BASIC onto the Master System

The first problem was getting BASIC onto the Master System at all. As my Master System doesn't have BASIC in ROM (it comes with Hang-On, which is perhaps more fun but less likely to handle the Mandelbaum set) I'd need to load the program onto a cartridge or card. Master System cartridges usually contain a mapper circuit to handle bank switching in the lower 48KB of the Z80's address space (the upper 16KB contains the 8KB work RAM, appearing twice) which is normally integrated directly into the ROM chip for the game, however there are a handful of games that have separate mapper chips and ROM chips and the ROM chips that Sega used have a pinout that is extremely close to that used by common EEPROMs (e.g. 29F010,
49F040) with only a couple of pins needing to be swapped around. After Burner is one such cartridge, so I've modified an old copy to let me plug in flash memory chips that I can program with the version of BASIC I'm working on. A switch at the top of the cartridge lets me switch back to the original pin configuration if I want to play the original copy of After Burner.

Typing commands into BASIC

With a flashable cartridge to hand I was able to assemble a version of Richard Russell's BBC BASIC (Z80) with some simple code stubs in place to direct text output to the screen. Output is useful but only half the story, we still need to be send commands to BASIC!

The Master System doesn't have its own keyboard, so I'd need to find some way to interface one to it. I have previously used PS/2 keyboards in a number of projects, as they are pretty simple to deal with. Electrically, they use two open collector I/O lines for bidirectional data transfer (one as clock, one as data), and fortunately each controller port of the Master System has two pins that can be configured as outputs which can therefore be used to interface with a keyboard (either left as inputs and pulled weakly high in their idle state, or driven low as outputs for their active state).

Showing the internal wiring of the PS/2 keyboard adaptor and controller passthrough.

It acts as a pass-through cable so you can still have a regular controller plugged in when using the keyboard.

The two pins on the Master System control port that can act as outputs are TH and TR; TH is normally used by light guns to latch the horizontal counter in the video chip so is unused with normal controllers so it's no great loss here, but TR is the right action button (marked "2") so by using this pass-through adaptor you do unfortunately lose one of the controller buttons. However, you do gain a hundred or so keyboard keys, so I don't think it's too bad a compromise...

For the software side of things I adapted my Emerson AT device library, previously written for the TI-83 Plus calculators, to the Sega Master System hardware. This library handles the low-level AT device protocol and also translates the raw keyboard scancode values to the corresponding characters.

Saving and loading programs

At this point I was able to type in BASIC programs and run them on the Master System, which was pretty neat! However, I was still working on adding new features (e.g. drawing commands for graphics) and having to type in the entire Mandelbaum program after every change was going to get pretty exhausting. I could bake it into the ROM but that seemed like cheating, so I thought I should try to find a way to load the file from an external source. A floppy disk or tape cassette would seem authentically retro but adding a floppy drive controller to the Master System would be a fairly complicated task and I don't have a suitable data cassette recorder to even attempt loading from tape so I thought some sort of file store accessible over a serial port would be a good option.

The Z88 has a serial port and can act as a remotely-controlled file store when running the PC Link software (with the protocol documented here. This seemed like a good choice, if not for the fact that the Sega Master System doesn't have a serial port of its own. To get around this, I added one, using a MAX232 chip to adapt the Master System's 5V logic levels to RS-232 compatible ones so I could plug in a null modem cable from the Z88 or my PC without accidentally frying the Master System with -12V.

Showing the insides of the RS-232 serial port adaptor.

I wrote some code that bit-bangs the serial data over the controller port lines using the timing loop code I wrote for a previous BASIC Month (Crisps Tunes) to support rates between 19200 and 300 baud. 19200 baud is somewhat unreliable but that's OK because the Z88's 19200 baud is unreliable too, so the default 9600 baud speed does a good job. RTS/CTS handshaking has to be implemented, as there is no hardware serial support on the Master System and it needs to be actively polling the port to receive any data. In doing so I noticed one awkward fact about my PC's serial port - if you de-assert RTS it will continue sending data until its buffer is empty, presumably only checking the RTS line when it's about to top up the buffer. In practice this means that even if I change RTS virtually as soon as the start bit for the first byte is received, the PC will continue to send up to 256 bytes before stopping. To get around this I added a serial receive buffer that immediately checks for the next byte even after asserting RTS, and this seems to have done the trick.

The protocol used by PC Link requires acknowledgement after every single byte so is very slow but at least it's reliable. I plumbed the PC Link code into BASIC's LOAD and SAVE which makes loading and saving programs as transparent and easy as if you had a floppy disk in the system instead!

Pressed for size

The Master System has 8KB of RAM. Of this, 16 bytes are mapped to special hardware functions and BBC BASIC reserves 768 bytes for itself, so we're already down to 7,408 bytes. I initially reserved 256 bytes for my own needs (display settings, VDU command buffer, serial port status, keyboard status etc) bringing it down to 7,152 bytes. The 16KB of display memory is not directly accessible to the CPU, so it can't be used for additional work RAM, and having to access it indirectly via I/O ports is very slow but I can't afford to mirror parts of it in RAM for speed.

Initially the Mandelbaum program ran well enough by stripping out comments, but I then added sound support (with eight 13-byte envelope definitions, and four channels with their own state, copy of their active envelope and a command queue for 32 bytes per channel, adding around another 140 bytes of memory usage) and the program stopped running with a "No room" error during execution (performing a square root operation, of all things!) so I guess the tolerances were very tight. I went and combine more lines of code into single lines and replaced two-letter variable names with single-letter ones (no, really) and it was able to run again but I don't think 8KB is a particularly comfortable amount of RAM for a BASIC computer!

Further design considerations

The version of the BASIC host interface used here is very much a work-in-progress. I would need to extend it considerably to be useful, including:

  • Fuller support of different VDU commands, e.g. redefining character shapes, changing the text and graphics viewports, better colour handling (differentiating between logical palettes and physical palettes).
  • Better support of other modes (so far only TMS9918A "Text" and "Graphics II" modes are used, there is a Master System-specific "mode 4" but that lacks graphics support and only takes advantage of hardware scrolling for extremely fast program LISTing).
  • Implementation of more graphics commands - so far only PLOT 4 (MOVE) and PLOT 5 (DRAW) are implemented. They also use a non-standard coordinate system with (0,0) in the top left of the screen and a screen resolution of 256x192, whereas for standardisation with other BBC BASIC implementations this should move (0,0) to the bottom left and use a logical resolution of 1280x1024 or similar.
  • Support of other file systems rather than rely on a Z88 running PC Link, e.g. using I²C EEPROMs (as they use two open collector pins, so could be plugged into a controller port via a passive adaptor).
  • Support of extra RAM, either integrated directly on a custom cartridge or using the battery-backed SRAM supported by some other cartridge types.
  • Native controller support via BASIC ADVAL command (at the moment you can access the controller ports directly with GET(&DC))

This is before even getting into adding anything machine-specific (e.g. to take advantage of scrolling tilemaps or hardware sprites), but getting the BASICs down (and consistent!) is a very important starting point. Consistency is useful, after all I was able to get the original program running under BBC BASIC with very minimal changes to it.

But, in the short term, I have at least succeeded in what I set out to do, which was to run the Mandelbaum program on a retro "computer" wholly unsuited to it!

The above video provides another demonstration of the setup – playing the Cold Tea music demo, albeit with a heavily stripped-down version of the visuals as the Master System doesn't have anything that can match the capabilities of the BBC Micro's teletext mode 7.

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