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Atari 2600 Programming for Newbies

Session 23: Moving Sprites Vertically

By Andrew Davie (adapted by Duane Alan Hahn, a.k.a. Random Terrain)

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Page Table of Contents

Original Session

This session we're going to have a preliminary look at vertical movement of sprites.


In the previous sessions we have seen that there are two 8-pixel wide sprites, each represented by a single 8-bit register in the TIA itself. The TIA displays the contents of the sprite registers at the same horizontal position on each scanline, corresponding to where on an earlier scanline the RESP0 or RESP1 register was toggled. We explored how to use this knowledge to develop some generic "position at horizontal pixel x" code which greatly simplified the movement of sprites in a horizontal direction.


Instead of having to work with the odd RESPx timing, we have abstracted that aspect of the hardware and now reference the sprite position through a variable in RAM, and our code positions the sprite to the pixel number indicated by this variable.


Let's now have a look at how to position a sprite vertically.


Our examples so far have shown how sprites appear as a vertical strip the entire height of the screen. This is due, of course, to the single byte of sprite data (8 bits = 8 pixels) being duplicated by the TIA (for each sprite) on each scanline. If we change the data held in the TIA sprite graphics registers (ie: in GRP0 or GRP1), then the next time the TIA draws the relevant sprite, we see a change in the shape that the TIA draws on-screen. We still see 8 pixels, directly under the 8 pixels of the same sprite on the previous scanlinebut if we've changed the relevant GRPx register then we will see different pixels on (solid) and different pixels off (transparent).


To achieve vertical movement of 'a sprite'and by this, we mean a recognizable shape like a balloon, for examplewe need to modify the data that we are writing to the GRPx register. When we're on scanlines where the shape is not visible, then we should be writing 0 to the GRPx registerand when on scanlines where the shape is visible, we should be writing the appropriate line of that shape to the GRPx register. Doing this quickly, and with little RAM or ROM usage, is the trickiest bit. Conceptually, it's quite simple.


There are several ways to tackle the problem of writing the right line of the shape on the right line of the screen, and nothing when the shape isn't on the line we're drawing. Some of them take extra ROM, some require more RAM, and some of them require more cycles per line.





Line Counter

Most kernels keep one of the registers as a 'line counter' for use in indexing into tables of data for playfield graphicsso that the correct line of data is placed in the graphics registers for each scanline. The kernels we've created so far also use this line counter to determine when we have done sufficient lines in our kernel. For example. . .

    ldx #0   ;2

Kernel  lda PF0Table,x   ;4

    sta PF0   ;3

    lda PF1Table,x   ;4

    sta PF1   ;3

    lda PF2Table,x   ;4

    sta PF2   ;3

    sta WSYNC   ;3

    inx   ;2

    cpx #192   ;2

    bne Kernel   ;3(2)

The above code segment shows a loop which iterates the X register from 0 to 192 while it writes three playfield registers on each of the scanlines it 'generates'. We've covered all of this in previous sessions. The numbers after the semicolon (the comment area) indicate the number of cycles that instruction will take (not taking into account possible page-boundary crossing, etc). We can see that this simple symmetrical playfield modification will take at least 31 cycles of our available 76 cycles just to do the three playfield registers on each scanline. That leaves only 45 cycles to do sprites, missiles, balland let's not forget the other three playfield writes if we're doing an asymmetrical playfield.










In the meantime, though we have covered a lot of ground today I hope you will understand the basic principles of vertical sprite movement. In summary. . .

  1. There is no hardware facility to 'move' sprites either horizontally or vertically. To achieve horizontal motion, we need to hit RESPx register at exactly the right horizontal position in a scanline, at which point the appropriate sprite will start drawing. To achieve vertical motion, we need to adjust what data we feed to the GRPx registers, so that the shape we are drawing starts on the appropriate scanline, and scanlines where it is not visible have 0-data.
  2. There are precious few cycles available on scanlines, and many of these are taken up by playfield drawing and loop management. Sprite drawing can be done efficiently with large RAM buffers, but most cartridge configurations don't offer this luxury.
  3. Drawing animated sprites can be done efficiently by using an indirect zero-page pointer to point to sprite data tables. These tables can then be used as source for the sprite draw.
  4. The sprite draw needs to determine, for each scanline, if the sprite would be visible on that lineand either take data from the correct table, or use 0-data.
  5. Kernels can be extended to multiple-lines (at the cost of vertical resolution) to allow all the necessary hardware updates to be performed.






  1. Modify your current sprite drawing code to use a zero-page variable to point to a table of data in your ROM.
  2. Create another data table, and use a variable to determine which of the two data tables to display. You might like to have it switch between these tables every second, or perhaps use the joystick button to determine which is displayed. As a hintremember, you need to setup the zero page pointer to point to the table for your sprite draw to useso all you need to do is change this pointer, and leave your kernel code alone.
  3. The more difficult task is to attempt to integrate the generic draw (either the code above, or Thomas's code, which should appear shortly) into your kernel. This is worth doingand waiting for!because once you have this installed, you'll have a totally generic kernel which can draw a sprite at practically any horizontal and vertical position on the screen and all you have to do is tell it WHERE to appearand voila!


That should keep you busy. Enjoy!




Other Assembly Language Tutorials

Be sure to check out the other assembly language tutorials and the general programming pages on this web site.


Amazon Stuff


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Session Links

Session 1: Start Here

Session 2: Television Display Basics

Sessions 3 & 6: The TIA and the 6502

Session 4: The TIA

Session 5: Memory Architecture

Session 7: The TV and our Kernel

Session 8: Our First Kernel

Session 9: 6502 and DASM - Assembling the Basics

Session 10: Orgasm

Session 11: Colorful Colors

Session 12: Initialization

Session 13: Playfield Basics

Session 14: Playfield Weirdness

Session 15: Playfield Continued

Session 16: Letting the Assembler do the Work

Sessions 17 & 18: Asymmetrical Playfields (Parts 1 & 2)

Session 19: Addressing Modes

Session 20: Asymmetrical Playfields (Part 3)

Session 21: Sprites

Session 22: Sprites, Horizontal Positioning (Part 1)

Session 22: Sprites, Horizontal Positioning (Part 2)

Session 23: Moving Sprites Vertically

Session 24: Some Nice Code

Session 25: Advanced Timeslicing





Useful Links

Easy 6502 by Nick Morgan

How to get started writing 6502 assembly language. Includes a JavaScript 6502 assembler and simulator.



Atari Roots by Mark Andrews (Online Book)

This book was written in English, not computerese. It's written for Atari users, not for professional programmers (though they might find it useful).



Machine Language For Beginners by Richard Mansfield (Online Book)

This book only assumes a working knowledge of BASIC. It was designed to speak directly to the amateur programmer, the part-time computerist. It should help you make the transition from BASIC to machine language with relative ease.



The Second Book Of Machine Language by Richard Mansfield (Online Book)

This book shows how to put together a large machine language program. All of the fundamentals were covered in Machine Language for Beginners. What remains is to put the rules to use by constructing a working program, to take the theory into the field and show how machine language is done.



6502 Instruction Set with Examples

A useful page from Assembly Language Programming for the Atari Computers.

Continually strives to remain the largest and most complete source for 6502-related information in the world.



Guide to 6502 Assembly Language Programming by Andrew Jacobs

Below are direct links to the most important pages.



Stella Programmer's Guide

HTMLified version.



Nick Bensema's Guide to Cycle Counting on the Atari 2600

Cycle counting is an important aspect of Atari 2600 programming. It makes possible the positioning of sprites, the drawing of six-digit scores, non-mirrored playfield graphics and many other cool TIA tricks that keep every game from looking like Combat.



How to Draw A Playfield by Nick Bensema

Atari 2600 programming is different from any other kind of programming in many ways. Just one of these ways is the flow of the program.



Cart Sizes and Bankswitching Methods by Kevin Horton

The "bankswitching bible." Also check out the Atari 2600 Fun Facts and Information Guide and this post about bankswitching by SeaGtGruff at AtariAge.



Atari 2600 Specifications

Atari 2600 programming specs (HTML version).



Atari 2600 Programming Page (AtariAge)

Links to useful information, tools, source code, and documentation.




Atari 2600 programming site based on Garon's "The Dig," which is now dead.



TIA Color Charts and Tools

Includes interactive color charts, an NTSC/PAL color conversion tool, and Atari 2600 color compatibility tools that can help you quickly find colors that go great together.



The Atari 2600 Music and Sound Page

Adapted information and charts related to Atari 2600 music and sound.



Game Standards and Procedures

A guide and a check list for finished carts.




A multi-platform Atari 2600 VCS emulator. It has a built-in debugger to help you with your works in progress or you can use it to study classic games.




A very good emulator that can also be embedded on your own web site so people can play the games you make online. It's much better than JStella.



batari Basic Commands

If assembly language seems a little too hard, don't worry. You can always try to make Atari 2600 games the faster, easier way with batari Basic.



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