Having got the power supply working for my original 1978-vintage Atari Super Breakout PCB, it was time to get the screen looking right.
At the time Super Breakout was made, video games were mostly black and white. Colour screens were expensive, and so were the relatively complex electronics needed to generate a colour image. But black and white images don’t look too pretty in an arcade, so colour was added by sticking patches of various colours of clear plastic foil on to the screen. Simple, and pretty cheesy, but effective enough to get more coins into the machine. Games like Space Invaders used the same technique.
Fast forward to the 21st century, however, and black and white screens have become rare and expensive while colour screens are standard. My arcade game testing and playing rig uses a colour screen, and I didn’t want to stick coloured plastic on it – it would make other games look very odd! I wondered: how about adding colour to the image electronically?
I had recently been given a MachXO2 pico dev kit from Lattice Semiconductor. It’s a neat little thing, with a 1200-LUT MachXO2 CPLD on it and a built-in USB interface which makes it easy to program. The Lattice Diamond development software is available to download and license at no cost. I wanted to gain experience using this series of chips, since they seem to offer much better price/performance than the older Xilinx CPLDs I’ve used on several projects. Colourising Super Breakout seemed like a neat and vaguely useful example project.
Super Breakout produces a roughly NTSC-standard composite video signal. It’s thoroughly analogue, and there’s no way it could be connected straight to the CPLD. My task was to convert the composite signal into separate sync and video signals, which could then be processed using the CPLD.
The industry-standard LM1881 chip separates the sync from the signal. Its output on pin 1 is directly compatible with the CPLD. Getting the video information is a bit more tricky. The video output from the Super Breakout board is about 0.7V peak-to-peak, which isn’t enough to reliably drive any kind of logic gate. I took the easy way out and used an LT1252 video amplifier with a gain of just under 5 to generate a signal large enough to feed into a 74HC132 Schmitt trigger which produces a clean logic output. It was also necessary to add a clamp, the transistor in the top right driven from the blanking output of the LM1881, which forces the black level of the video to a known voltage. Without the clamp, the definitions of ‘white’ and ‘black’ would drift around depending on the picture content, which leads to peculiar black patches and streaks in bright areas of the image.
The resulting waveforms look like this. At the top, the composite video waveform from the Super Breakout PCB. In the centre, the sync pulse at pin 1 of the LM1881 chip. At the bottom, the digital video ready to feed to the CPLD.
Here’s the circuit built on matrix board, next to the Lattice development board. There’s some more electronics at the bottom left, but more about that in another post.
Generating the colour signal was relatively simple: a counter, clocked at about 6MHz, reset by the horizontal sync signal, indicates the position along each line of video. Some comparisons of that counter with fixed values decide what colour the output should be. A simple AND function of the colour with the video input and – lo and behold – a coloured screen! And no plastic film in sight.