Tech

Turn your old Nintendo into a word processor with this NES operating system.

In the context: It used to be thought that only computers needed operating systems. However, times have changed and it now seems like almost every electronic device we own needs one. Game consoles, in particular, require intermediary software to process user input and manage files, but this was not the case in the days of cartridge games.

Systems like the Atari 2600 or the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) didn’t need complex software to handle user input and games because the peripherals and cartridges communicated directly with the console’s “brain”. Nothing needed to be stored because the games were programmed.

Users were only able to interact with whatever cartridge was connected, so there was no need to let them move objects or jump from file to file. Plus the resources were minimal. There was no room for an operating system—or was there?

Apparently, if you’re dedicated, you can develop an OS small enough to run on the NES. YouTube channel Hobbyist Inkbox proved it a few weeks ago with the introduction of NESOS. It’s a purely graphical OS with no command line, which is remarkable for several reasons.

First, graphical operating systems were rare when the NES launched in 1986. The two predominant computer interfaces were MS-DOS on the PC and ProDOS on the Apple IIc, both prompt-based systems.

Computers that used to use a graphical interface were expensive business machines. Consumers had to wait until the early 1990s before finding PCs with Windows 3 (1990) and Apple System 7 (1991) installed, and even then, GUIs didn’t revolutionize until the later versions of Windows 95 in 1995 and System 8 in 1997.

Secondly, the NES is a real challenge for building a graphical OS, given that it only has a couple kilobytes of built-in RAM and requires an NVRAM cartridge to store user-created files.

Inkbox did it, but don’t expect anything big. NESOS has only two apps – settings and a word processor.

The settings app shows basic system information. It also allows users to choose from seven cursors and one of 53 desktop colors. In addition, users can delete files from settings, which is very important given the limited external NVRAM storage.

The word processor is much more complex, but still in its infancy by all current and past standards. Users are limited to 832 characters per file, with each keystroke costing one byte. This is a maximum of nine text files for a standard 8 KB NVRAM on an NES cartridge.

Entering a document is a chore with a standard NES controller. However, Inkbox was able to map out keys for the Famicom keyboard, which was only released in Japan. It works much more efficiently than a controller if you’re willing to shell out $90 to $400 to buy one on eBay.

Inkbox has documented the whole process in their YouTube video at the header. Users with ROM flashing hardware can freely download NESOS from the Inkbox Software website.


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