Digital Archaeology Revives the Ancient Chip That Ran the First Nintendo

By Veronique Greenwood | July 20, 2011 12:30 pm


Modern microchip designers have numerous digital backup copies of their work. But in the early days of home computers, chip designs were drawn out by hand on sheaves of paper, many of which have since gone missing. In the last 30 years, we have already forgotten how the first chips that brought computers into our homes worked.

A team of enthusiasts calling themselves “digital archaeologists” have reconstructed the design of several key early chips, including the MOS 6502. The name might not be familiar, but if you’re of a certain age, you used it in such early computing gems at the Atari, the Commodore, the Apple I and II, and, of course, the Nintendo Entertainment System. (It also appears to have powered the Terminator—Nikhil Swaminathan at Archaeology Magazine, who has written a delightful feature on the project, notes that when the 1984 film switches to the killing machine’s point of view, 6502 code is running up the side of the screen.) By dissecting the chip with acid and photographing each layer of its workings, they’ve developed a map of its circuits that can be plugged into a programmable chip and used to play Atari games, as well as serve as a resource for understanding how early chips were designed.

Read the whole story at Archaeology Magazine, and check out the group’s site for beautiful, massive images of the chip architecture.

Image credit: Visual 6502 project

  • durfus McGrew
  • Uncle B

    Soon! All in Mandarin, oriental languages! America dies as we speak! most “chips” now come from off-shore! Even Sanskrit more valued than American English on the computer world now! Will they even record us, our part?

  • kirk

    I have reverse engineered many, many, many IC’s. It is a well known craft. Most are done for patent claims. If you don’t think a 6502 schematic and artwork exists – you are not even wrong. This chip holds many, many patents and has been the focus of many, many claims both defensively and offensively. Plus, someone one (or many someones) has transistor for transistor knock-offs. You are claiming that we don’t know how to reproduce a model-T because the original Ford plant does not exist anymore. Just sayin.

  • Curt

    Kirk you are so right,

    I’ve been recovering GDS and GDS II files off of TU78’s for several years and have recovered numerous Atari proprietary chips thought long lost…. shoot me an email, we should talk…


  • Brian Too

    On a slight tangent, software emulation of processors (works especially well on old processors like the 6502) is common and very popular. The power of modern CPU design is more than sufficient to overcome the inefficiency of emulating (old) hardware with software.

    The posterchild for such digital archaeology might well be the MAME project (see

  • Murgatroyd

    It also appears to have powered the Terminator …

    And it powers Bender on Futurama!


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