The following 17 slides constitute an Ignite talk given at deviantART's technology team meetup in France, earlier this month.

Slide 01: Title I've written a couple of emulation cores in my time, and people often ask me how computer emulators work. Well, let's take an example...
Slide 02: A Simple 8-bit Computer Doesn't look like a computer: there's no keyboard, no hard disk. But all the central components are there: processor, memory, keypad input, screen.
Slide 03: The Gameboy Memory Model This is how the Gameboy looks on the inside: A processor talks, through a memory interface, to various memories. The program sits in one of those memories, but what _is_ the program?
Slide 04: Programs: A Stream of Numbers All a program is, is a set of numbers. Each number means something to the processor, and it goes through a simple construct to work out what the number means.
Slide 05: Basic Operation of a CPU Take a number from the "current location", work out what it means, do that. Fetch, Decode, Execute. How does the CPU know what the "current location" is, though?
Slide 06: The Current State As long as the CPU's running, it holds onto a few state variables. One of those is the "current location", or where to find the next instruction. There are others, to help with calculation.
Slide 07: That Stream of Numbers Again Once we have a number, we decode it. Most instructions will either change one of the state variables, or change a piece of memory; some might request more numbers from the program to fully decode.
Slide 08: TANSTAAFL: Execution Times One thing to keep in mind is that none of this is free: it all takes time. For now, that's unimportant, but make a mental note of it.
Slide 09: The CPU as a Stateful Machine To implement the Fetch/Decode/Execute cycle, the CPU needs a few distinct blocks of functionality, and an interface to memory in order to get more program, and hold onto results.
Slide 10: The CPU, Emulated To emulate the cycle, we tear each block out and replace it with JavaScript: a big switch() to decode, discrete functions to execute routines and update the state, and a plain object to hold the state.
Slide 11: That Stream of Numbers, Emulated So those instructions we saw earlier, they become JS. Notice how each instruction changes PC, the "current location", so it points at the next one in the line.
Slide 12: The Emulated Gameboy Memory Model That's the CPU: the memories are easy to emulate. They're just huge arrays. The interface object, "MMU", takes care of mapping out which memory the CPU's looking to talk to; that's generally another switch().
Slide 13: Other Modules of the Gameboy All well and good, but the CPU's plugging away without showing anything. Ideally, we need to emulate the other pieces: graphics, sound, keypad. The most important, of course, is graphics.
Slide 14: The Gameboy LCD (as a CRT) The Gameboy has 144 lines on its screen, and the graphics chip treats the screen like a traditional tube: scan a line, fly back to the left, at the bottom take a long time to fly back to the top-left.
Slide 15: Timings of the Gameboy LCD Each of those scanlines, and blanking periods, has a precise time for how long it should take. But we're emulating the whole system, at a low precision.
Slide 16: The CPU as a Clock Source Remember these from earlier; they allow the CPU to act as "emulated time". We can count the CPU instruction times, and know when to draw a GPU's scanline.
Slide 17: Bringing the Two Together: Dispatch We end up with a central dispatcher, which runs the CPU until it's time to switch GPU mode. And that's a (very) basic introduction to how emulators work.

Article dated: 27th Jun 2012

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