Writing an Apple 2 game in 2021 (Part 1)

2021-01-28 apple / games
As I set out to recapture my childhood dreams ...

I wrote (and presented) about my teenage obsession with Ultima IV and the Apple 2 in Ultima IV: Reflections and Journey Onward: The Apple 2 and me, but I kind of regret letting go of the Apple so quickly when PCs came along.

So I thought, here in the cold light of 2021, I should write a new piece of software for the 40 year old Apple II.


I don’t actually have an Apple II any more … it’s tempting to pick up a IIc or IIe from fleabay but there’s not many left and I’m not sure I have the enthusiasm for real hardware.

Thankfully, MAME does a good job of emulating an Apple 2 when combined with the correct Apple II Plus and Apple Disk II ROM Images. With the right zip file in the right place, run:

    mame apple2p -uimodekey DEL -flop1 $image.dsk

There’s also a great javascript simulator Apple2js which already has a bunch of disks available, if installing MAME isn’t your idea of fun.

Writing Software

Actually writing software from inside the emulator would get old quick: the keyboard mapping is weird and the 40 column screen is small. So I want to get my tools on the outside and just boot a disk image.

Notation & Encodings

A quick note re: notation, the Apple 2 era tended to write numbers as hexadecimal, starting with $ eg: $A9. Most numbers are single bytes, but addresses are 16 bits, written like $ABCD. The 6502 is little endian, so this would be stored in memory as $CD $AB.

Also note that the Apple 2 is described as supporting ASCII, but earlier Apples had no lower case characters and stored normal letters with the high bit set, so for example HELLO is stored as $C8 $C5 $CC $CC $CF.

Files under DOS

a2tools does a good job of manipulating .dsk DOS 3.3 image files.

There’s no a2format command but you can download an empty formatted floppy image and add files to that.

I used this method to make the slideshow at the start of the Journey Onward presentation: it’s a real disk image with some HGR images and a tiny applesoft HELLO program which is automatically run when the disk boots:

 10  HGR2 
 20  PRINT  CHR$ (4);"BLOAD TITLE1.HGR,A$4000"
 20  PRINT  CHR$ (4);"BLOAD TITLE2.HGR,A$4000"
 30  GET X$
 40  TEXT 

Self Portrait Apple 2 Style

HELLO could also load and run a binary, so with a bit of help from a Makefile it’d be easy enough to make a floppy to run a game on the fly.

Disk Images

An alternative is to make a raw disk image.

When booting, the Apple first passes control to a piece of code known as BOOT0 which resides on the Disk II controller. This is responsible for loading track 0 sector 0 of the floppy, known as BOOT1, into memory at locations $0800-$08FF and then jumping to location $0801.

Using a raw disk image also avoids the whole question of whether distributing Apple DOS is allowed or not.

Loading One Sector

So, let’s write our own loader.

There are a lot of 6502 tools out there. For my first foray I’m using ACME not for any particularly good reason other than there’s a Ubuntu package

This is pretty much the minimal HELLO, WORLD! program in a sector:

; this code will be loaded at $0800 by BOOT0

* = $0800

; this byte is supposed to be "number of sectors to load"
; but by the time it reads this is has already loaded the
; first sector, so zero works too

!byte 0

; BOOT0 then jumps to $0801, so this is our entry point

    ldx 0
    lda message,X     ; start of message buffer
    beq exit          ; stop if we got a zero
    sta $0400,X       ; start of text screen
    bne print_loop

    brk               ; drop into monitor

    ; convert to Apple's weird ASCII
    !convtab "apple2.convtab"
    !text "HELLO, WORLD!", 0

(you can grab this code here)

Run it in MAME and it looks like this:


The APPLE ][ banner is still there, but we’ve written the text HELLO, WORLD! at the top left corner of the screen, and then that last brk instruction jumps to the monitor, which prints the current values of registers and drops to a CLI to allow you to inspect, manipulate and execute memory.

Sector Interleaving

Actually, BOOT0 will do more than load one sector. If you set the very first byte of that very first sector to a larger value it’ll load several sectors, up to $10 to load the whole first track into memory from $0800 to $17FF.

But there’s a trick to it. DOS 3.3 doesn’t use this facility, only loading up a single sector for BOOT1 which takes over from there. And DOS 3.3 chose to interleave its sectors, strangely not by reordering them when formatting them onto the disk but by renumbering them as it reads them.

BOOT0 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
DOS 3 0 7 E 6 D 5 C 4 B 3 A 2 9 1 8 F

The emulator knows about this, and so when it is pretending to be a floppy disk, it renumbers the sectors back the other way, so that they appear to DOS to be in the same order as they are in the .dsk file.

DOS 3 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
BOOT0 0 D B 9 7 5 3 1 E C A 8 6 4 2 F

BOOT0 knows nothing of this renumbering, and so just reads the sectors in as per their labels. So to make the first track all load neatly into memory, we need to cut and splice our memory into place. I wrote a quick bin2dsk.py utility to do this. It just picks up 256 byte chunks and shuffles them so that when the sectors are loaded they come out in the right place:

.bin Offset .dsk Offset RAM Address
$0000 - $00FF $0000 - $00FF $0800 - $08FF
$0100 - $01FF $0700 - $07FF $0900 - $09FF
$0200 - $02FF $0E00 - $0EFF $0200 - $02FF
… etc … … etc … … etc …

See also: Beneath Apple DOS page 3-22..23

Once we’ve reshuffled the sectors this way, we can load an entire track in to memory from $0800 - $17FF just by setting that first byte to $10. That’s 16 sectors, or 4K, which is quite a lot of 6502 code, certainly enough to make a good start!

Loading Another Track

But let’s say we want more … how can we load multiple tracks without DOS? It turns out we can alter a few things and jump back into the BOOT0 code to load more data.

Once the track is loaded, our loader code at $801 is called again. We can just check if all our data is loaded (there’s a pointer of where the loader is up to stored at $26/$27) and if not we go around again until all our memory is loaded. The same sector-reshuffling as above applies. We could load 184 sectors / 11½ tracks this way, being careful not to overshoot into $C000 I/O peripheral space.

Disk access is pretty slow, so it’d be nice to show some kind of splash screen once the first track has arrived and some kind of loading message as the others roll in.

Memory Map

My aim here is to write an absolutely minimal program, so it’s worth considering what memory we’ve got available with no DOS or anything loaded:

From To Purpose
$0000 $00FF “Page Zero” variables
$0100 $01FF 6502 stack, grows downwards
$0200 $02FF Available space
$0300 $03d5 BOOT0 sector read buffer & translate tables
$03D6 $03FF Available space
$0400 $07FF Text / LORES Screen 1
$0800 $0BFF Text / LORES Screen 2, also BOOT1 or available space
$0C00 $1FFF Available Space
$2000 $3FFF HIRES Screen 1
$4000 $5FFF HIRES Screen 2
$6000 $BFFF Available Space
$C000 $CFFF I/O, Peripheral mapped memory

If we don’t want to use Text / LORES Screen 2 we can just load our entire program in in chunks all the way from $0800 to $BFFF. Once we’ve finished loading, the space from $0200 - $03FF, part of which was used by the BOOT0 loader, is available too.

If we do want to use LORES Screen 2, we can write a loader in the space $0800-$0BFF which once it has finished loading jumps to $0C00 before clearing $0800 - $0BFF for use as Page 2. If you don’t want to waste space and you’re finished with disk reads, the loader could copy $0A00 - $0BFF over $0200-$03FF.

That’s the nice thing about these simple systems: once you’ve finished with a stage, you can just throw it away.

If we’re not using AppleSoft BASIC or DOS, we can use pretty much any part of memory except for what’s needed by the Monitor … it’s nice to still have that available!


The Apple 2 has two graphics modes: Low-res or “GR” graphics which has 40x48 rectangular pixels in 16 colours, packed two pixels per byte, and Hi-res or “HGR” graphics which has 280x192 pixels and six colours but some bizarre limitations.

There’s a lot of quite strange messing about between the pixel clock and the NTSC chroma burst which is typically documented as if it is a precise science whereas really it’s a big ball of hair. Apple II Circuit Description chapter 8 gives you some idea of the horrors within.

Emulators attempt to approximate this but without the levels of analogue depravity present in the original, with all sorts of weird effects and colour fringing. Sadly I don’t have an actual physical Apple 2 on hand so I can’t back this up with ‘scope traces and photos of glowing phosphors.


40 x 48 pixels in 15 colours (16, but there’s two identical shades of grey). Each byte of video memory holds two coloured pixels. The pixels are distinctly rectangular, about 3:2, which is odd.

LoRes colours, as seen in MAME anyway, are actually quite fetching. The only game I can remember being written in LoRes is the original Little Brick Out by Woz so there’s a certain additional cachet there.


Each scan line is 40 bytes, each of which displays seven pixels for a horizontal resolution of 280 pixels. The eighth bit of each byte alters the colour phase of that group of bits, shifting between colour palettes. It’s really a bit more complicated than it seems. The order of scan lines is all jumbled up in memory too.

Additionally, the 280 x 192 pixels aren’t quite square on a 4:3 CRT. The exact proportions depend on a bunch of analogue stuff but I think on a typical CRT a pixel would end up being about 10% narrower than it was tall.

So, what to write?

What not to write.

My first thought was to avoid this question, probably indefinitely, by writing an interpreted VM to run over the top of the 6502 and provide a sane number of registers and addressing modes comprehensible to humans and stuff like that. But it turns out Woz already did this 40 years ago, with SWEET 16 which takes a lot of the fun out of it.

Any kind of networking is out, really: Apple IIs had serial ports but very few people would have had access to any kind of dial-up network so I think I should restrict myself to one-player games, or two-player-one-computer games at the most.

Writing a small FORTH or Lisp machine is tempting, but there were already quite a lot of these too, and the risk would be that I’d spend all my time on the language and never get around to writing the game.

Tile-based RPGs.

Tile-based RPGs are an obvious option. 6502workshop have just released Nox Archaist which looks like a cool Ultima-style RPG world. (There’s also a list of Tile-based RPGs for Apple 2)

By making each tile a multiple of 14 pixels across, the tiles can be stored as simple bitmaps and colour fringing isn’t a (big) problem. With some careful bit-juggling maybe even a multiple of 7 pixels. While clip-clopping a whole tile at a time is traditional, it’d be nice to have half- or quarter- tile movement.

Tile-based games can also be sort of side-on isometric like Stardew Valley A weird top-down pseudo-perspective like Zelda would also be possible.

I started thinking about a kind of graphical roguelike with 14x16 tiles but I never really got into Rogue to be honest and also as soon as you try to draw a little sword wielding dude in a tile you end up looking an awful lot like Ultima but without the plot.

The impractical dream

My next idea was to do something utterly impossible: Minecraft for Apple 2.

Ultima IV fit a lot of 2D world onto a disc, how much could we manage in three dimensions? Assuming a minecraft-like, uncompressed map fitting onto one floppy, we’d have 35 tracks x 16 sectors x 256 bytes to play with. Restricting ourselves to 16 block types, we could construct a 4 x 4 x 32 chunk in each sector, giving us room for a 92 x 92 x 32 world map on a disk.

We’d load and save sectors on demand as we moved through the map, and mobs etc would be stored on the remaining sectors of the disk. Hmmm, restrictive but possible. The original pocket edition was about 256 x 256 x 64 and had relativly few block types.

3D rendering? Well, not impossible. Sure there’s no floating point math, actually there’s no division or multiplication either, but if we restrict our perspectives to always horizontal and only 8 (or so) different directions, we can exploit the symmetries of the grid and just use lookup tables for everything.

Each block type could just have a set colour, I’m not going for much here, but even then we hit a final hurdle: trying to display multiple colours. Specifically, the dreaded palette select bit per seven pixels. As illustrated here trying to combine colours can lead to a mess.

Maybe this would be worth revisiting for the substantially less limited Apple IIc Double HiRes or even the Apple IIGS which as a bonus has much larger 800kB floppies.

To be interesting, the game would also have to write back sectors to the disk, which adds a level of complexity I’m not sure I want to deal with right now!

Slightly Less Impossible

Isometric projection might be possible, with a lookup table. Each ‘face’ could be represented the same way every time, and by choosing our face dimensions carefully and adding a black or white border we could avoid colour palette collisions.

Typically a 2:1 pixel ratio is used for isometric drawings on computer, so we could align the tile boundaries with the word boundaries in Hi-Res mode use 7:3, 7:4 or 14:7 ratio depending on what looked best. Anything which needed partial occlusion like sprites or particle effects would be stuck being black-and-white to prevent colour fringing.

It’d be possible to put together a neat Syndicate-like game this way.


Side-on 2D perspectives are mostly associated with platformers like Conan: Hall of Volta but Below the Root and the (much more recent) Night in the Woods shows how this format can be used for a narrative-driven adventure game.


During the Recent Unpleasantness I spent a bit of time playing Untitled Goose Game with my daughter, and it is an absolute hoot, especially the two-player version and I absolutely recommend it.

And there’s something about it’s muted palette which reminds me of the LORES palette. Okay, so how about a low res goose? The first step was to see what a goose made of big fat lores pixels would look like, so I fired up a trusty spreadsheet and drew this:

a pixelly goose a pixelly goose

Hmmm, maybe!


… continued in Writing an Apple 2 game in 2021: Part 2

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