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PPcenter. Arts and craft for my Sega Saturn. Since 1847 :D

Rebirth

Written by cafealpha 6 comments
Today is some kind of special day for me : among many other things, this is the anniversary of Jean-Luc Le Ténia, the best French singer in the world ! Jean-Luc would had be 45 years old today but unfortunately is no longer here to celebrate today with us.

Today is also the 4th anniversary of Gamer's Cartridge initial public release. For more than three years, this project was the occasion to meet many people, to loose hair on many bug and -I hope- to have contributed in a better Saturn community

Jean-Luc Le Ténia is no longer here, Gamer's Cartridge production was frozen (not to say discontinued) last year because of enough free time lacking to assemble new cartridges. And Saturn gamers are now either using Action Replay (reliable expansion RAM but no backup memory) or "all-in-one" cartridge (backup memory but sometimes buggy expansion RAM) to play their favorite games.


To makes things a little brighter, the best I can do is to develop a new Pseudo Saturn Kai fitting more nowadays needs and situation :
  • Built-in support with latest ODEs
  • In-game save data access for Satiator ODE
  • Save data storage on cartridge flash ROM

As a consequence of my free time being limited from this year, I thought in stopping non-priority projects to focus on other (not necessarily Saturn) ones. But on the other side, if I don't improve Pseudo Saturn Kai, I'm not sure that somebody else would do it for me !

So if the Saturn community shows enough interest, I would like to contribute to a newer Pseudo Saturn Kai

And to measure if the community is interested or not, I'm making Pseudo Saturn Kai development crowdfunding-based.
Principle is simple : the more interest (support) from the community, the more free time I allocate on Pseudo Saturn Kai. And the less interest from community, the more free time I spend on other projects.


My new patreon page

I don't plan to make a living in developing Pseudo Saturn Kai, and for this reason all the development made so far was done on a altruist basis.
All the development made so far (cheat codes, Rhea/Phoebe support etc) was cool but honestly a lot of work. So with your help I would like to find enough energy to give it birth again

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P.P. Center : Security at its Finest

Written by cafealpha 2 comments
Just a quick article to announce that PPcenter (which gathers this blog, Planet de Pon, my custom cartridges, Pseudo Saturn Kai and some other projects) is now correctly supporting HTTPS !

Webou (which host PPcenter) was kindly providing HTTPS for already a long while but my homemade CMS was messing up the display of my homepage : for obscure reason (I honestly don't remember why) it was trying to load the page's CSS from an absolute URL, including the "http", and as HTTPS doesn't really likes to load something from an unsecured location, the CSS was discarded so that the page display was ... minimalistic

Saturn cartridges page before fixing HTTPS support


This is now fixed, and additionally trying to use plain HTTP should also magically redirect to HTTPS.
That's quite helpful, because all the labels for Gamer's Cartridge are referring my homepage as "HTTP" (*) and I really didn't wanted to have to re-design theses labels

(*) The labels refer to my old homepage "since 2005", http://ppcenter.free.fr/satcart/, which redirects to my "since 2014" http://ppcenter.webou.net/satcart/, and then redirect to the "ultra secure" https://ppcenter.webou.net/satcart/ ... it's a bit messy but it works

Forgive me for the link : http was still a thing when
Gamer's Cartridge labels were designed !

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8 years already ...

Written by cafealpha no comments
Jean-Luc Le Ténia, a.k.a. "The Best French Singer In The World" went away exactly 8 years ago.

Jean-Luc, from teniadiary
Warm thanks to Tony P. for maintaining
and updating Jean-Luc's homepage !

I really like Jean-Luc love for DIY work, as well as his aversion for things too make-up to be real. Everyone should be proud of their own work rather than being a simple consumer (not to say stubborn believer) of someone else's work

Read more 8 years already ...

I wanted to publish an article this October ...

Written by cafealpha no comments
... and all of a sudden, November arrived

It's not like being under a quota of articles to write every months would stop the financing of my Saturn projects and in fact, as described on my "donate" page or this blog article, I don't have any interest in crowdfunding, or some kind of third party financing : if I'm not in the mood, or don't have enough free time to update this blog, then I don't update it

But well, moreover not being paid for not writing blog articles, as I actually have to pay to keep this blog alive (web page hosting is cheap but not free, but at least it's my own homepage ), I like to feed this blog from time to time even when being busy with real life things
So don't worry, I didn't stopped this blog : currently, I have one ongoing article that is waiting for its last paragraph and proofreading etc, but as I started more than two weeks ago (yes, that's my usual pace when preparing blog articles), please be patient until I finish it
I do have some ideas for future articles too, but theses are just ideas currently recorded as single lines in my TODO list, so I don't know when I actually start writing them


Regarding Pseudo Saturn Kai project, I ... didn't had a lot of free time to continue it recently In fact, I think I just turned on my Saturn once last month just to test if -as requested by someone by email- DoDonPachi worked with Pseudo Saturn Kai or not. The game worked fine here, so I turned off my dev Saturn an put it back in my closet for better times when I will be more available
BTW, I'm currently experiencing an unexpected burst of things to do at work, so it may take a while until things return back to normal But as I can't live without doing my Saturn projects, I promise that things will return back to normal as soon as possible


... Well, the contents in this article are a bit poor, so let's fill remaining space with random facts about my life recently The "okra" plant I wrote about in a previous blog article is still going well and I continue to water it regularly.

Okra in all its glory, 2018/10/18

Since summer is now finished, I no longer have to water it everyday, so that I now just do this regularly enough to prevent it from finishing yellow and burned  And yes, the kid who took back that from school completely forgot about its existence
I'm not keen on gardening (as suggested on the picture above, I don't even own a garden), but have a couple of pictures of other green things in reserve ... and I keep theses to fill future small posts

Read more I wanted to publish an article this October ...

X-Terminator Cartridge Revival

Written by cafealpha 3 comments
This article is not about my own development experience, but from my friend XRider. Thanks a lot to him for the good work and the permission to share his pictures

First, what is a X-Terminator cartridge ? It is a Saturn flash cartridge which provides the following features :
 - 1MB expansion RAM
 - Backup memory
 - Ability to play import games
 - Cheat codes
 - Ability to search cheat codes by using standalone "X-Assist" unit


X-Terminator cartridge and X-Assist
Image taken from SegaRetro

X-Assist is particularly convenient because unlike Action Replay cartridges, it doesn't requires connection to a PC : it is true that connection to a PC provides more features (such as memory access, program upload, etc), but as "connection to PC" basically means "software support will be dropped someday", a standalone unit is a real treasure
For example, do you remember that Action Replay cartridges initially had DB25 connector ? This was for connecting the cartridge to PC via the -sold separately- Comms Link board, whose used now obsolete ISA port, and consequently not supported on nowadays PCs and/or OS.
There are some alternate solutions for connecting Action Replay to PC, whose major one is USB Data Link, but unfortunately it doesn't provides any software support for advanced features such as cheat codes search and testing.
So if you want to search cheat codes for your favorite game, X-Terminator is a good choice ! ... Okay, the user interface is in Japanese, but that's just a detail : after 200 or 300 hours learning about it, it shouldn't cause any problems

On the other hands, the major limitations are probably the lack of 4MB expansion RAM support, and using flash ROM for storing backup save data (which on the long term may brick the cartridge), but for a cartridge developed more than 20 years ago, theses limitations are quite honorable


So, once upon a time, XRider found a X-Terminator cartridge. It was a cheap auction, but on the other hand the cartridge didn't boot anymore, and the X-Assist unit wasn't included

Normal people would add this cartridge to their collection or put it on display as a decorating vintage objet Other people with engineering and electronics education background would put it on their "to repair someday" cardboard, and don't touch it for the next 20 years because they are busy with other projects or work, or real life, or all of theses at once

But XRider is none of them. XRider owns soldering tools. And knows how to use them. And really wants to fix this marvelous cartridge

So, let's try to fix the cartridge ! The first step would be to start with the most common problem, which is broken flash ROM.
In my opinion, this is the most difficult step, because it requires to desolder two chips for a total of 64 pins !
I personally can't do this because of lack of appropriate tools, so the alternate desoldering way I would had used would be to ... use a nipper and cut each pins

Fortunately, XRider likes work well done, so theses chips were removed in a clean way


X-Terminator cartridge, with flash ROM chips removed.
Additionally, all capacitors are removed too : that's
the occasion or never to replace them

Next step is a bit optional, and is about to dump removed flash ROM chips with flash ROM dumper device. This is the best way to verify if failure is due to corrupted flash ROM chips, and if still in working condition, this at least would be an occasion to dump the cartridge's firmware


Flash ROM chip on dumper device.

Dump is full of 0xFF bytes ... unless a miracle happens, theses flash ROM chips are no longer functioning  But, this comforts us regarding initial supposition of broken flash ROM chips causing cartridge not booting
 
Just in case of, let's verify PCB traces around flash ROM chips while theses are removed : this takes only 5 minutes to check, and it would be frustrating to find that cartridge was not working because of broken trace after soldering new flash ROM chips


PCB traces : just requires a light source
strong enough to be seen


What to do next ? Maybe use PLCC sockets so that future replacement of flash ROM chips would be easier ! That's a couple of weeks to wait for the postman, but worth the wait
PCB with PLCC32 sockets soldered

And then, simply replace the flash ROM chips

Next generation is here !


PCB with new flash ROM chips.
Additionally, new capacitors are populated


One last step remaining ! Flash ROM is mounted, but ROM itself needs to be set up with X-Terminator firmware. The simplest way to do this is to use Pseudo Saturn Kai flasher utility : it obviously allows to install Pseudo Saturn Kai, but also several other legacy firmwares in the case someone would want to revert to initial firmware after trying Pseudo Saturn Kai.


Just select the ROM version you want to install,
and follow on-screen instructions

 
Flashing in progress ! Will it work after that ?!


Yeehaw !!! It boot fine, mission done
Let's try with Metal Slug ...

Metal Slug works too !
So it seems there's no need to replace RAM chips


Everything finished ? No, there is a side quest remaining Among the couple of X-Terminator cartridges XRider owns, one X-Assist (pad and LCD unit used to search cheat codes) is missing.
One X-Assist available ? And another one missing ? No problem : let's reverse engineer the first one and DIY the second one

The X-Assist features two PCBs : one for connection interfacing and pad, and another one for LCD, as pictured below.

X-Assist pad/interfacing board

X-Assist LCD board

The LCD board is incredibly complex, but since it was manufactured as a whole and can still be purchased on auctions or second-hand market nowadays, there's no real interest to build it from scratch ! And I personally wouldn't try : that seems too much complex

So remaining is pad and interfacing board : fortunately it uses standard components and not any Gate Array Logic-ish components that would need to be reverse-engineered too. Simply speaking, it's like assembling LEGOs
Multi-meter, a LCD board, electronic breadboard, a bunch of wires, few electronic components ... is there something missing ? Yes ! A LOT of motivation !!


X-Assist DIY prototype, in all its glory


It's so beautiful it deserves another picture !

Let's try for real ! Of course, after verifying any eventual short-circuit with a multi-meter 
No short-circuit ? It's then ready for the "first-lighting ceremony" (火入れ式), as it is nicknamed in my neighboring ... I don't know if that's a common expression in Japan or anywhere else, but I like its naming anyway


No sparks ? No smoke ? That looks good

At first glance, that seems working ! Let's try cheat codes search feature in order to be 100% sure ...

Search unit not found ?!

Arg, it was too early to sing victory X-Assist seems not being correctly detected by X-Terminator cartridge ...
Since text could be sent to the LCD, let's assume nearly everything is working correctly, and that a small detail is causing this trouble ... after some head-scratching, XRider found what's wrong : a Zener diode that initially looked useless was used to return some ACK to X-Terminator cartridge when looking for its connection !


The X-Assist screen after adding the Zener diode :
code search memory could be captured !


65535 candidate codes ?! I'm not sure if correct cheat code could be found this time, but at least the DIY X-Assist unit works correctly now

 

Additional informations are available in French  on Darius forums :


Credits :
 - XRider, for the good work in game cartridges preservation
 - Darius, for gathering French community around Saturn

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