Emulating a BBC Micro in Javascript

One of my favourite things to do of recent times is resurrect computer systems from my youth in Javascript. It’s pretty amazing how fast Javascript interpreters are nowadays: Google’s v8 and Webkit’s engine (and its freshly-announced FTL upgrade) are amazing at taking a fully dynamic language and making it run almost as fast as native code.

Writing an emulator in Javascript makes it much more accessible to users. No installs, often games and discs to emulate are available directly on the web, no configuration. With a modern browser, It Just Works.

That being said, Javascript is not an obvious choice. Most of the work inside an emulator is bit manipulation, or byte access. Using the right code idioms and data types helps, inasmuch as Javascript has types that is.

jsbeeb is a BBC Micro computer emulator, and builds on my experiences writing a Sega Master System emulator. I’m going to talk through some of the more interesting parts of the code. Of course, the code itself is on github.

CPU emulation

The CPU emulator reads the next instruction, decodes it and then executes it just like its real-life silicon version does. From my experimentation in Miracle (the Sega emulator), I discovered that the naive “big switch statement” covering the 256 possible opcodes is not the best way to optimize. Chrome’s v8 at least bails out its JIT process if a function is either too big, or if it has too many entries in the switch statement.

Instead, I use a 256-entry array of function pointers, each to its own instruction handling routine. The main despatch then becomes something like:

for (;;) {
  var opcode = readmem(pc++);
  if (irq_happened) pc = irq_handler;

As many of the instructions are similar (with just indexing or addressing mode differences), I code-generate the Javascript for each instruction from a table. (The table also acts as the source for the disassembler). By evalling each function from its generated text, I build up the entries covering all the instructions. (It has been suggested on the Hacker News forums that it might be better to use a switch statement, but break it into two 128-way switches).

Timings are incredibly important for accurate emulation. To get the most out of the machine, games programmers would take advantage of timing subtleties and (usually undocumented) unusual side effects of instructions. Games anti-copy mechanisms were often the most sensitive to this. For example, many instructions take several CPU cycles to execute, and access memory multiple times during their execution. These accesses may touch memory-mapped hardware which may interpret the access as a command (for example, to schedule a timer interrupt). Sometimes accessing hardware would cause the processor to use a slower clock to handle differing bus speeds.

The 6502 CPU in the BBC Micro had a number of “bugs” too – for example, for read-modify-write instructions of a certain type, under some circumstances, the instruction would actually write the unmodified value first before replacing it with the modified value. Again, some game protection systems would use this to their advantage to try and prevent reverse engineering of their code bases. Kevin Edwards’ protection was the undisputed king – using all the effects described so far; using interrupt timings, various hardware timers and even the self-modifying decryption code itself to generate the keys to decrypt the game.

All of this needs to be accurately modelled in order to get games to run correctly.

The way I achieve this in jsbeeb is to expose the pipeline of when reads and writes are actually performed in the instructions. As I generate the instructions I keep track of which cycle within the instruction memory accesses would occur. I then ensure the peripheral state is updated to take into account passing time before I read or write to memory.

As an optimization, I keep track of whether memory instructions are “visible” to the hardware. Some instructions only affect the stack, or the zero page (the area of memory in the first 256-bytes of RAM). Neither of these ever map to somewhere that hardware can see. As such I don’t need to spool time on for these reads and writes, and so instead I can accumulate up the whole instruction’s time into one block, which is more efficient.

That’s not quite true – due to a small amount of pipelining inside the 6502 the interrupt request lines are checked on the penultimate cycle of an instruction. If the IRQ happens on the last cycle of an instruction, it won’t have a chance to take effect until the entirety of the next instruction has completed, by which time timers etc have all moved on. This is a trick used by the Kevin Edwards protection.

So in all instructions I spool time forward to the penultimate cycle before latching the “is an IRQ taken” flag, then spool forward one cycle, finish any final instruction work, and then take the IRQ as necessary.

The code for this is in 6502.opcodes.js.

Some examples – this is the instruction that transfers the A register to the Y register.

function (cpu) {   // TAY
  "use strict";
  var REG = 0|0;
  cpu.y = cpu.a;

(If you want to play along at home, fire up the website, hit the Home key to pause the emulator, then bring up the javascript console and type processor.instructions[0xa8].)

The var REG part is just a hangover from most instructions needing a temporary register. My hope is the Javascript engines are smart enough to throw it away. Note how the time is advanced (cpu.polltime(1)) once, then the IRQs are checked, then time advanced again. This is a two-cycle instruction so the IRQs are checked on cycle 1. The actual work of the instruction is done on the last cycle: this isn’t important in this case as the instruction has no memory accesses. Note that the checkInt merely latches whether an interrupt happens: it does no actual interrupt processing. That is done in the main dispatch loop.

Taking a more complex example, this instruction does a rotate (read/modify/write) on a memory location indexed by the X register. That is, the code is effectively:

byte *mem = (byte *)(0x12ff + X);
*mem = (*mem << 1) | carryBit;

This comes out as (brace yourself…) :

function (cpu) {   // ROL abs,x
  "use strict";
  var REG = 0|0;
  var addr = cpu.getw();
  var addrWithCarry = (addr + cpu.x) & 0xffff;
  var addrNonCarry = (addr & 0xff00) | 
        (addrWithCarry & 0xff);
  cpu.polltime(4+ cpu.is1MHzAccess(addrNonCarry) * 
        ((cpu.cycles & 1) + 1));
  cpu.polltime(1+ cpu.is1MHzAccess(addrWithCarry) * 
        (!(cpu.cycles & 1) + 1));
  REG = cpu.readmem(addrWithCarry);
  cpu.polltime(1+ cpu.is1MHzAccess(addrWithCarry) * 
        (!(cpu.cycles & 1) + 1));
  cpu.writemem(addrWithCarry, REG);
  var newBotBit = cpu.p.c ? 0x01 : 0x00;
  cpu.p.c = !!(REG & 0x80);
  REG = ((REG << 1) & 0xff) | newBotBit;
  cpu.polltime(1+ cpu.is1MHzAccess(addrWithCarry) * 
        (!(cpu.cycles & 1) + 1));
  cpu.writemem(addrWithCarry, REG);

All the complex code about is1MHzAccess is to synchronize the CPU clock with the slower, 1MHz peripheral bus. Also note the cpu.readmem(addrNonCarry) which is where a single read of the address before any carry in the (addr + X) calculation has been applied. This is what the real 6502 did!

So far the emulation is almost perfect. My own encryption system from days gone by (used in Frogman) decodes, but sadly the game itself doesn’t run – ironically from a bug in the Frogman code. (It works OK on a BBC Master but I don’t emulate that yet). Kevin Edwards’ Alien8 decodes, but unfortunately I’m still a few steps off of getting Lunar Jetman and Nightshade decoding.

I’ll go into the screen and peripheral emulation another time.

Next: Emulating the Video

Filed under: Coding Emulation
Posted at 22:10:00 BST on 14th May 2014.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago for Aquatic. Follow him on Mastodon.