Personal Log »

Cartridges for the Amstrad CPC

The Amstrad CPC was discontinued in 1990 –that’s 31 years ago, and we will see why that’s relevant–, and the main media to distribute software was cassettes and 3 inch floppy disks. The Plus models, including the GX4000 console, introduced cartridges (in fact, the plus models don’t have an on board ROM with the firmware, and it was provided in a cartridge instead).

Despite being in 2021, cassettes are still available. There aren’t that many companies selling them, but I would say that for now the situation seems stable. The only downside is that, putting nostalgia aside, as media isn’t great. Cassettes limit the type and size of game you can make, and don’t work well for multi-load games.

The 3" disks where intended to rival Sony’s 3.5" floppy system, and we know who won that one, so the media used by the 128K models have been out of production for years and is increasingly hard to find new disks. The prices are up, and it is old stock, meaning that the media may have physical issues. We also have to remember that 3" disks won’t work for tape-only models without and add-on; and you are still limited to the 64K memory on board, unless you make your game multi-load from disk –not as bad as cassette, but the wait times are still something to consider–.

There are also ways of using a 3.5" disk drive with CPCs, but this is limited to 128K models and I would put this option as something that only the most hardcore CPC fan will do. At least the sales of games supporting this format suggest it isn’t very popular.

Cartridges, as originally intended, have a protection with a special chip that prevents third parties from producing cartridges; and those usually have features for the Plus models that aren’t backwards compatible with the regular CPCs.

We know how to bypass that protection now, so it is possible to produce Plus cartridges; but there’s still the limitation that it is intended to the CPC Plus models only –the CPC models don’t have cartridge slot, only a expansion port that is not really meant to frequently plug and unplug cartridges–.

The CPC was designed to make it easy to be expanded using ROMs, and that has been a common way to load software into the CPCs for a long time, is just that is not very convenient and it requires a higher level of commitment from the average Amstrad aficionado as it needs an expansion where you can put the ROMs. Fortunately, in the last few years things have changed.

My M4

My M4 in a nice 3D-printed enclosure

I’m not going to write an history lesson here –I know this post may look like it already–, so excuse me if these aren’t in chronological order or if I’m missing other options I don’t know about:

  • Dandanator mini –page only in Spanish, as far as I know–: is a cartridge format to be plugged in the expansion port that provides a number of generic and advanced features, including support for 512K of ROM (in 16K banks), and it works on any CPC without jumpers or special configuration.
  • DES: the Dandanator Entertainment System, which is an interface that goes to the expansion port and supports cartridges. It has the same functionality as the Dandanator, with the difference that the expansion contains most of the functionality, and the cartridges are simpler –and cheaper–. It also makes it easier than the expansion port to plug and unplug cartridges, and these use the Game Boy Advance shells –that are cheap and easy to find–. Perhaps the only downside is that you need to buy the DES expansion, and then cartridges for the games.
  • Plus2CPC: this is probably the newest of the three and provides a cheap way to plug CPC Plus cartridges on any CPC and, as long as the cartridge doesn’t use any Plus features, it will work. It also offers 512K of ROM, just like the Dandanator, and uses the regular ROM mapping functions of the CPC. The Dandanator provides much more functions, but if we only look at storage, this is almost equivalent. The boards for CPC Plus cartridges are available, but not the shells (as far as I know).

So these would be three different options to distribute software in cartridges for our physical editions, and they work for all CPC models –although the two Dandanator options don’t support GX4000–. Not as cheap as cassette or 3" disks, but is instant access to 512K, and in the case of Dandanator, there are extra features –e.g. the mapping is more advanced, or saving data in the cartridge–.

The Dandanator design is public domain and anybody can build and sell them –not sure what is the status of the Plus2CPC–; which makes them more or less available, and supported by different emulators. And this is another requirement for me because: what if you don’t have the hardware?

Currently CPR files –the format for Plus cartridges, which is a container for 32 ROMs of 16K– are supported by any emulator that can emulate CPC Plus models, and the Dandanator images are supported by several popular emulators as well, so it wouldn’t be too difficult for people to enjoy the games without an actual CPC. Besides, there are modern hardware add-ons that support some of these formats –for example, the M4 can load CRT files; and of course the C4CPC for the GX4000–, meaning that you can still play the games in real hardware without having the cartridge itself.

If the games abstract the ROM mapping code, it is trivial to make the same game work in both CPC Plus cartridges and Dandanator cartridges, and it is trivial to generate CPR and Dandanator ROM files.

I’m not sure what would be the response from the community. We have seen a couple of releases recently that were Dandanator only, and these had a mixed response –the games are amazing, it was more people not having Dandanators to play them on real hardware–, and one that was CPR based (probably the best vertical shooter on the system: Alcon 2020).

I would expect that, having not too expensive and easy to use physical releases, plus the digital version that can be played with different options –both emulated and real hardware–, the CRT/Dandanator duo is probably the future of media for the Amstrad CPC. I don’t think I have capacity to fill all that ROM space, but it would take me less time to make better games, because I wouldn’t waste time wrestling with memory limits and I could use techniques that are usually unviable because they require lots of memory.

I have been investigating both CRT and Dandanator, and I can’t promise anything, but watch this space –just in case–.

Would you like to discuss the post? You can send me an email!