October 27th 2002

Interview with Chris Covell

Before begining the interview, I believe I should tell the background story of it. It is now known that the e-Reader has a built-in NES emulator. I was thinking about how new e-Card games could be made to take advantage of this hardware feature, and that's when it hit me: There are many homebrew NES programmers out there, and perhaps they'd like to make NES e-Cards. So then I thought about interviewing one of them, just for fun. Chris Covell is well-known for this Solar Wars homebrewed NES game, as well as his advanced knowledge of NES programming.

If you want to find out more about Chris Covell, I invite you to check out his home page, at http://mypage.direct.ca/c/ccovell/.

Pix: Please tell us a little bit about yourself...

Chris: My name is Chris Covell... I am a Canadian, and I have lived in North Vancouver, B.C. all my life. I am now 24 years old. My favourite videogame system has always been the NES, ever since I was a kid. My hobbies are listening to music, playing games, programming, hiking, biking, and reading. Currently, I am living in Japan teaching English as a second language. That's what I graduated from university with -- a BA in English literature and a certificate to teach ESL English.

Pix: When did you get into NES programming?

Chris: That would be around 1998 or so. In college, my major was originally computer programming, where I learned C++ and 8086 assembly. I switched over to English 2 years later because I am terrible at math and I hate it.

In early 1998, I decided on a whim to check out some NES demos because I had gotten into NES emulators. The first demos I downloaded were a couple of small ones by a guy named Mark Knibbs. I read the source code and was able to assemble it because both Mark and I used Amiga computers for programming. Slowly, I modified the demos to see what it did, and then I decided to learn about the NES hardware and 6502 assembly. So, I just read the NES technical docs and memorized the 6502 instructions and that same night I made my "Amiga!" demo... It just shows the Amiga logo on the NES screen. It grew from there.

Pix: Do you have any knowledge of GBA programming?

Chris: None whatsoever. I read about the GBA hardware specs and architecture just to see what it could do, but I have never done any programming on the GBA or in ARM or Thumb assembly.

Pix: Have you tried the e-Reader? What is your general opinion of it?

Chris: No, I haven't. I'm not into card collecting, especially the ones in Japan.

Pix: Would you consider porting your NES creations, such as Solar Wars, to e-Cards?

Chris: That would be neat to see, but I don't know if the NES emulator of the e-Reader supports CHR bank switching to vary the graphics. Solar Wars uses 4 CHR banks (as opposed to the 1 on most e-Reader NES games). But, a basic, cut-down version of Solar Wars could be made in just 16K PRG + 8K CHR (no sound or extra graphics) which wouldn't take up too many cards.

Pix: Hmmm... A game with no sound wouldn't be very appealing to most players. Does sound data take up a lot of memory in the NES ROM? Theoretically speaking, couldn't you at least squeeze a few sound effects in there?

Chris: Yes, since there's music and several sound effects. I didn't program the sound code for Solar Wars; other people did it, so I can't begin to make any good sound effects in my game(s). A typical set of soundtracks for an average NES game takes up 4-8k. Some have less (like small games), while some have more than 16K.

Pix: Would you be interested in developing new e-Card applications that take advantage of the NES emulator built into the e-Reader?

Chris: Just as a "let's-see-if-I-can-do-it" exercise, but not otherwise. There are easier ways of getting NES games onto the GB or GBA. The PocketNES emulator is one example -- it works great for NES games of any size. You need to buy flash card hardware for that, of course; but again, you would need to buy the e-Reader to use e-Reader cards. If I were a gamer who was crazy about playing NES games on the GBA, I'd go the flash card route.

Plus, as you mentioned on your site, getting games onto an e-Reader would require a prohibitively expensive industrial printer -- not to mention we don't know the encoding scheme of the strips, do we?

Pix: Well, how about letting Nintendo (or another able publisher) do the e-Card encoding and manufacturing? All you'd have to do is the game program itself... (Again, I'm being totally theoretical here.)

Chris: Nintendo has always been very unresponsive to homebrew and small programmers, unless you can somehow guarantee lots of money for them. They prefer working with the big companies, not individuals.

Pix: Do you think other homebrew NES programmers would be interested in making NES games on e-Cards?

Chris: I'm not sure... There are already easier ways to program and test NES games, so I doubt it. But, you can always ask other people. If you go over to nesdev.parodius.com and go onto the messageboards, there are other NES programmers there that you can ask.

Pix: Are there any existing homebrewed NES games (from other authors) that you think would make great games on e-Cards?

Chris: Well, there was recently a 1k game competition held, and a few guys entered some NES games -- Joey "Memblers" Parsell, for instance. Those would be neat games to put on the e-Reader due simply to their small size. They'd fit on a single card.

Pix: Do you have any other thoughts concerning the e-Reader?

Chris: It's a neat novelty item -- more promising than the barcode battler was (but it might be consigned to the same fate). But, getting new things onto cards in a homebrew fashion looks a little too difficult.

Pix: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. :-)

Chris: No problem. I hope I didn't sound too negative. ;-)