The last very awaited MAME was MAME v0.31. Why? Simply because
there were no public betas before that. Why was this one of the greatest
releases ever? A huge surprise came in the form of the Atari System 1 games.
Nobody expected to play Marble Madness, Toobin, etc because there was
this dreaded Slapstic chip that encrypted everything. Enter Frank Palazzolo,
chip bounty hunter. With a mission set, and with Aaron Giles, as his partner
he uncovered the workings of this mysterious chip and granted you the gift
of playing those great games. With this as a topic, we directed our attention
to Mr. Palazzolo to exchange a few questions about "The Dead of Slapstic".
|The Dead of Slapstic - September 12, '98 by JoseQ
1. Back to tradition, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and
what motivated you to get into emulation?
Well, I'm an Electrical Engineer working as a Programmer/Manager. I first heard about
game emulators in early 1997, thanks to the Emulation Repository Web
Site. I've always loved the old games, and in some ways they
affected my career aspirations as a kid. (I always wondered what was inside those
magical machines.) I worked in an Arcade in high-school, never thinking that these
games would be all but gone someday. Today, being able to breathe life into this
old technology is a lot of fun, a technical challenge, and it brings back a lot of
2. What keeps you working hard on it? Does it seem as exciting as ever?
Yes, actually it does. This hobby is fun for me on all levels. There are the
technical challenges, both in understanding the hardware and software, like the
slapstic. Then, there are the preservationist and nostalgic aspects. I like to collect these
games, but I realize that many of them will be all but gone if people weren't doing
this kind of thing. I'm glad my grand-kids are going to be able to see what these
games were like 50 years from now. For me, it's like having dozens of irresistable
puzzles to work on, AND having a great motivation to work on them.
3. What are your current projects (drivers?), and aspirations?
I like to work on audio, older games, and games with unusual hardware.
I tend to jump around a lot! :) I'm looking at a lot of audio-related stuff at the moment:
Emulated speech in the Sega Vector games, analog sound circuit simulation, sound in
Gorf and the Astrocade Games, other security chips, etc. I'd also like
to work on some kind of simulation for the pre-CPU games, (There are a lot of them),
in MAME, and add some obscure consoles to MESS. I just wish it was my
4. What initially motivated you to put the Slapstic into the "goal"
box? Was it a particular game?
Well, it was curiousity for me, initially. I started off just investigating a little bit
with Empire Strikes Back, then got distracted. Later, Aaron Giles proposed
that he'd write the Atari System 1 drivers while I worked on the slapstic chips that
went into those games. At the time, this was a great division of labor because I
could really concentrate on the hardware.
5. Were there any previous (hardware/software) attempts to beat the
Yes. Cliff Koch actually made a "replacement chip" for collectors who wanted to
convert their Star Wars into an Empire Strikes Back. This acted pretty much
like the slapstic chip used in ESB. Also, The Gauntlet I and II slapstics had been
figured out enough to create the hacked ROMs for Gauntlet and Gauntlet II. This
alleviated the need for those slapstics for collectors, and allowed MAME and
Neill Cortlett's Gauntlet emulator to work for those games. Finally, I think there
was another unreleased emulator out there that had made progress on
I think most people were concentrating more on "how to beat it" rather
than on "how they work". Subtle difference, but because MAME is meant as
documentation, and we had multiple games to worry about, that's the approach
6. Had anyone in MAMEDEV attempted to break the slapstic, or emulate
other games that were poised by this in some form or another?
Not really. There was some work done on ESB by Steve Baines, and
Aaron started on the System 1 stuff before I got involved, but
that was about it.
7. From what had been told, this dreaded chip was a major wall to
emulator authors. What approach did you use to solve the puzzle?
It was a team approach. Aaron worked on the driver software, along
with reverse-engineering the game code whenever necessary. I built up
a special fixture for interrogating the chips, and wrote some code to
do that with a 68HC11 board. Between the two of us, and a steady
supply of chips from others, it all came together. And now that it's in the MAME
code, the info is available to any other emulators that want to use it.
8. So the 68HC11, I've had my share of experience programming with
a development board with this microcontroller in it, and I can say
it's excellent. For our readers, can you tell us what it is, what
it can do and how can someone go about getting one?
Well, it's basically a single-board computer. It's CPU is a Motorola
68HC11 chip, which you can program in assembly or C. Among other
features, It has a serial port to connect to PC or Mac, and a bunch of pins
you can control via software. If you write up the appropriate software for
it, and build an adapter for the item you're testing, it can be very powerful.
I've used it to read non-standard ROMS, slapstic cracking, etc.
I got my original one long ago as a "leftover" from a school project.
I recently bought another from Motorola, when they were running a
promotional special through one of their a distributors. It should
be on their web site.
9. How did you get your hands on those Slapstic chips? Are Slapstics
different each one from the other, or are they basically the same
chip in all the games?
Several collectors on the MAME team sent me chips. Aaron even delivered
one in person, while on vacation. Are they all different? - good question.
We didn't know the answer to this one at first. We new
that some games use the same exact chips, and we also new some
couldn't be interchanged. We eventually determined that they all do
basically the same thing...but they use different addresses as "keys"
depending on the part number. Guessing, or scanning the chips is the
only way to get the keys.
10. How long since the development started until you got the first
slapstic game to work? How were the attempts? Did the game drivers
worked preliminary or was it an all or nothing deal?
I think it was a few months, give or take. Some of the drivers worked
preliminarily without any slapstic emulation, but they'd mess up sooner or later.
As it turns out, the Gauntlet games only access the more advanced features
of the chip on later levels, so they started to work right away. I remember
I thought we were done a little too early :)
11. What was the first game that made it through?
Well, even though the Gauntlet's were working ok, we knew that the other
games used "the rest" of the slapstic functionality right away, because they
were basically broken. I had been querying the Marble Madness slapstic, and the
latest code I sent to Aaron still wasn't working. Then, Aaron noticed a code
segment in the Marble Madness game code which hinted that maybe he should
try to tweak the slapstic code a bit (a one-line change). Marble Madness
worked flawlessly! Based on that, we knew how they all worked.
12. You must feel very proud to have "The cracking on the slapstic"
on your back. What do you think were the major factors that helped
this come true?
Well, working with the MAME team is excellent. The team has people
of many different talents. It would have taken me forever to do what
Aaron did, for example. And without the chips I couldn't have done anything.
We had the software talent, hardware talent, and parts, and the emulator
13. Are there still things about the slapstic that remain uncovered?
Well, a bit. We've still got the bugs in the Gauntlet games to be fixed,
and of course there's still the Empire Strikes Back, and some others.
But, I believe it's only a matter of getting the right keys, not of understanding.
14. What is your next Mt. Everest? Is there something now as dreaded
as the Slapstic was?
Nothing really stands out at the moment. A lot of the current "security-chip"
and "encryption" challenges revolve around more modern games, which don't
hold quite the same charm for me. (although I'm sure I'll end up involved if I can help.)
Seems like you never know when the next Everest will show up, though.
At least I usually don't dread it when it does :)
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