New hardware for the C64 appears like it was still a production machine. It’s amazing. This time I’m talking about EasyFlash cartridge. EasyFlash has existed for some time already, and now I got myself one of those.
I bought mine fully assembled from Mike Betz via Lemon64 Forums. These carts are nicely finished with quality case, stickers and all. And of course I peeked inside – the case hides the real quality of the cartridge; Professionally made PCB, all socketed chips and flawless soldering make up these EasyFlash cartridges.
So what’s EasyFlash?
EasyFlash is a Flash memory based programmable cartridge for C64. Basically it works like any original game or software cartridge except that the cartridge binary (data, or cartridge image) can be easily erased and rewritten. And this is done using no other tools than the C64 and software called EasyProg. Any standard (8k & 16k) or Ocean Type 1 (128k & 256k) cartridge image can be written into EasyFlash and it effectively “becomes” that cartridge.
The standard Commodore cartridges are only 8k or 16k in size, but EasyFlash has one megabyte of Flash memory. Flashing an 8 kilobyte cartridge image into EasyFlash is of course a great opportunity but does not make much use of the full megabyte of the available space. Even 256 kb Ocean game will leave 3/4 of the memory empty.
Now, the thing with EasyFlash is the possibility to create game and program compilation cartridges. And it’s all very simple.
Draco Cart Maker
Draco Cart Maker is a tool for creating EasyFlash multicart images. The DCM has a simple GUI where you can drag and drop supported .crt and .prg files which are then exported into one EasyFlash cartridge image. The exported file can be then flashed into EasyFlash memory.
When cartridge made this way is started on C64 you have the list made in DCM from which the games and programs can be launched. And really launched – there is virtually no loading times when the programs are on a cartridge.
EasyProg is the software which is used to program the EasyFlash memory using nothing more than a C64 and disk drive. The program is really straightforward but you need some means to read the cartridge image you are going to flash with the C64. If you have a uIEC or some similar device it’s not a problem. Just drop the files on the memory card and you’re good to go. This is the easy scenario and everything you really need to know if you have invested in e.g. uIEC.
If you have to rely on actual floppy drive then it’s another story and effort. You must have a way to transfer the .crt cartridge images to the disks somehow. There are numerous possibilities, but I won’t go there now. Also, one 1541 floppy disk side can hold only about 170 kb of data. If you have .crt image larger than that you need to do some extra steps.
In case you have to split the cartridge image to multiple files you will need EasySplit. It’s a tool that splits files into parts that can be then loaded with EasyProg from multiple disks. EasySplit does not only split the files but it also compresses them into format that EasyProg can read directly. This is useful thing because the flashing times can be long and most of it comes from the data loading.
Improving flashing times
Flashing data into EasyFlash memory does not take a lot of time. Loading the data takes. Unless you have a setup with fast disk access prepare for some waiting. The max. one megabyte cartridge image file will take something like an hour to load and flash with the standard C64 disk access speed. Fortunately the latest version of EasyProg (1.5.0) has built-in fast loader to improve the loading times on 1541, 1581 and sd2iec compatible drives.
Unfortunately the fast loader is not compatible with the latest (0.10.1) nor earlier versions of sd2iec firmware. Likely the next firmware release will add the fast loader support. From version 0.10.2 onwards sd2iec firmware supports the EasyFlash fastloader.
Speeding up disk access is one way to shave off loading times and compressing the data is another. The less there is data to load, the less time it takes (EDIT: Not always the case. Read more: EasyFlash fastloader comparison). Therefore it might be useful to compress (without splitting) the cartridge images using EasySplit. The excellent Maniac Mansion Mercury that is full megabyte cartridge compresses into less than half with EasySplit. But if you have made a custom multicart image with Draco Cart Maker consisting mostly of already compressed executables (read: cracked games) then you are out of luck.
What is the EasyFlash good for?
When you have the needed technical things sorted out you can start enjoying the possibilities of EasyFlash. You might want to (re)create some classic game cartridge, or cartridge that is useful in C64 diagnostics. Or you could put your favourite single load games and programs into one multicart image with DCM. All good reasons for getting one.
Then there are some games that have been patched to work from and make use of the EasyFlash. EasyFlash patched Last Ninja Remix was one of the first things I tried. It was awesome to play trough Last Ninja 2 (Remix is LN2 with new menu graphics and music) without the loading pauses between levels. Another marvel is the Maniac Mansion Mercury. And just recently EasyFlash patched Myth was released! These all are worth checking out!
More on this topic: New life of EasyFlash as a cartridge format standard