Assembly language

In the book, this language is known as “Hack”.

Cheatsheet (PDF)

Elements of a computer

Linear programming vs. structured programming

Memory “addressing”

Flow of control

Instruction format in binary

Assembly language syntax


Absolute value

// absolute value function

// suppose RAM[0] has a value, could
// be negative; overwrite RAM[0]
// with the absolute value version

// didn't jump, so flip sign of neg value


// quotient of RAM[0] / RAM[1]

// strategy: count how many times we can
// subtract RAM[0]-RAM[1] without going negative
// save counter in RAM[2]

M=0   // start counter (RAM[2])
D=M   // load RAM[0] into D
D=D-M // D=D-RAM[1] (i.e., D=RAM[0]-RAM[1])
D;JLT // jump to Save label if D < 0 (RAM[0]-RAM[1]<0)
M=M+1 // increment counter
0;JMP // otherwise (else), jump back to top Sub label (subtract again)
D=M   // get counter value
M=D   // save counter into RAM[0]
@End  // loop forever


// modulo; RAM[0] % RAM[1], store in RAM[0]

// repeatedly subtract RAM[1] from RAM[0],
// until RAM[0]-RAM[1] < 0

D=M   // load RAM[0] into D
D=D-M // D=D-RAM[1] (i.e., D=RAM[0]-RAM[1])
D;JLT // jump to Save label if D < 0 (RAM[0]-RAM[1]<0)
0;JMP // otherwise (else), jump back to top Sub label (subtract again)
D=D+M // save operation involves saving D into RAM[0]
@0    // but we gotta add back RAM[1] because D<0 currently
@End  // loop forever

Sum list

// sum a list

// RAM[0] will hold the sum (it holds meaningless data at first)
// RAM[1] says final position of values
// RAM[2] is start of values


D=D+M // add value at end of list
@0    // save back to RAM[0]



MIPS assembly language

The MIPS32 processor has the following features:

RISC was a revolution in the 80’s, and the MIPS chip was the first of its kind. A RISC chip differs from a CISC chip (complex instruction set computer) in that a RISC chip supports a small number of operations (read/write memory, ALU operations, jumps) and the operations are used in a very consistent way. For example, every ALU operation has exactly three arguments: the destination register and the two source registers. There are no ALU instructions that are capable of reading/writing memory. Data from memory can be loaded/stored into/out of registers and from/to memory using dedicated instructions. The idea is that if the instructions are very minimal and consistently designed, and more registers are available (32 instead of 10 or so in CISC chips at the time), then each instruction can be made very fast (due to its simplicity) and therefore the chip can be faster.

Intel chips are common examples of CISC chips (although modern Intel chips have RISC-like cores). There were some very complex CISC chips in the 80’s, like the VAX chip, which included instructions like movsb (copy string; Intel chip) and insque (insert into queue; VAX chip). On a RISC chip, those kinds of instructions would require several individual instructions including jumps (for loops).

The assembly language used by our book is extremely simple, but not so pristine as RISC. We have instructions that read/write memory while also performing ALU operations, for example. So it’s CISC-like in that way.

MIPS registers

Register ID Register Name Description
$0 $zero read-only, always has value 0
$1 $at “assembler temporary”; not available for use
$2 - $3 $v0 - $v1 “values”, used for function return values
$4 - $7 $a0 - $a3 “arguments”, used for function calls
$8 - $15 $t0 - $t7 “temporaries”, these are ones you’ll use most
$16 - $23 $s0 - $s7 “saved values”, used for function calls
$24 - $25 $t8 - $t9 more temporary registers
$26 - $27 $k0 - $k1 reserved
$28 $gp “global pointer”, points to data available for all functions
$29 $sp “stack pointer”, points to top of stack
$30 $fp “frame pointer”, points to base of stack for current function
$31 $ra “return address”, points to jump address for calling function

You’ll use registers $t0 through $t7. Many of the other registers have special purposes related to function calls. (Yes, you can call functions in assembly language.) We’ll talk about function calls later in the course.

MIPS instructions

RISC chips can be tedious to program by-hand, since the instructions are so simple. Thus, there do exist some “psuedo” instructions that actually turn into several simple instructions when the assembly source code is translated to machine code.

Below, I list the instructions we care about. Note that anything with a $ means “register”, e.g., $t0.

ALU instructions

Instruction English name Meaning
add $a, $b, $c Add $a = $b + $c
addi $a, $b, N Add immediate $a = $b + N (N is a number)
sub $a, $b, $c Subtract $a = $b - $c; to subtract a particular value like N, use addi $a, $b, -N
mul $a, $b, $c Multiply $a = $b * $c; note, only first 32-bits of result are saved (multiply of two 32-bit values can result in a 64-bit value; don’t multiply big numbers this way)
div $a, $b, $c Divide (quotient) $a = $b / $c
rem $a, $b, $c Remainder (modulo) $a = $b % $c
and $a, $b, $c Bit-wise And $a = $b & $c
or $a, $b, $c Bit-wise Or $a = $b | $c
xor $a, $b, $c Bit-wise Xor $a = $b ^ $c
nor $a, $b, $c Bit-wise Nor $a = ~($b | $c)
slt $a, $b, $c Set-on-less-than $a = ($b < $c)
slti $a, $b, N Set-on-less-than-immediate $a = ($b < N)
move $a, $b Move (copy) register $a = $b
clear $a Clear (erase) register $a = 0

Memory instructions

Instruction English name Meaning
lw $a, N($b) Load word Load 32-bit value into register $a from memory location computed as $b + N; often, N=0, and can be omitted: lw $a, ($b)
la $a, label Load address of a label $a = label, where label is some label in code or .data section (see below)
li $a, N Load immediate value $a = N, where N is just a number, like 52
sw $a, N($b) Store word Store 32-bit value from register $a into memory location computed as $b + N; often, N=0, and can be omitted: sw $a, ($b)

Jump instructions

In most processors, including MIPS, there are two kinds of jumps: those known as jumps, and those known as “branches.” When both terms are used, jumps are always unconditional, while branches are always conditional.

When a number N is used below, that number can be an actual integer (e.g., 52) or, more likely, the name of a label from your code.

Instruction English name Meaning
jr $a Jump register Jumps to address in $a
j N Jump Jumps to address N (often N is a label)
beq $a, $b, N Branch on equal Jumps to N if $a = $b
bne $a, $b, N Branch on not-equal Jumps to N if $a != $b
blt $a, $b, N Branch on less-than Jumps to N if $a < $b
ble $a, $b, N Branch on less-than-or-equal Jumps to N if $a <= $b
bgt $a, $b, N Branch on greater-than Jumps to N if $a > $b
bge $a, $b, N Branch on greater-than-or-equal Jumps to N if $a >= $b

Data and RAM

Unlike the assembly language from our textbook, a MIPS chip does not have separate ROM and RAM sections of memory. Instead, in each program, you declare (at the top) what your RAM memory will be (indicated by .data), and your program code will automatically occupy ROM (indicated by .text).

You can label the different parts of your program’s RAM. Here is an example:

count: .word 20  # make 'count' a variable (32-bits, 1 word) with initial value 20
vals:  .word 8, -2, 3, 7, 2 # make 'vals' an array of 5 words, with initial values given

To access these values, use lw on regular values (not arrays), and la on arrays:

lw $t0, count    # load value of 'count' (20) into $t0
la $t1, vals     # load address of start of array 'vals' into $t1
lw $t2, ($t1)    # load first element in array 'vals' (8) into $t2
lw $t2, 4($t1)   # load second element (4-bytes beyond first address)
lw $t2, 8($t1)   # load third element (4-bytes beyond first address)

You can also iterate through an array but using another register as the address, and always adding 4 to it to get the next address:

la $t1, vals
lw $t2, ($t1)     # load first value
addi $t1, $t1, 4  # generate next address
lw $t2, ($t1)     # load second value
addi $t1, $t1, 4  # generate next address

In order to save values back into variables, load the address first and then store the value:

la $t0, count     # get address of count variable
sw $t4, ($t0)     # save value in $t4 to count variable (using its address)

Template of a MIPS assembly language program

# sepecification of program's RAM data...

.globl main

main:             # this label is required; your program starts here


       jr $ra     # always need this at the end; it terminates your program

SPIM simulator

Download the QtSpim MIPS Simulator. The tool’s main page is here.

In the following example, I load and run this (pointless) program:

        count:  .word 52
        vals:   .word 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
.globl main

        lw $t6, count
        addi $t0, $zero, 3       # a = 3
        addi $t1, $zero, 2       # b = 2
        add $t2, $t0, $t1        # c = a + b

        jr $ra                   # terminate


  1. Start up QtSpim
  2. Load your program with the second-button-from-the-left (folder with a blue icon inside it).
  3. Look at Data tab and Text tab to examine your loaded program.
  4. Run single-step through your program using icon that looks like a bulleted list (right-of the stop icon). Watch your registers on the left panel.
  5. Check your results in the data tab.

QtSpim loading program

QtSpim looking at code

QtSpim looking at data

QtSpim single-stepping code

CSCI 201 material by Joshua Eckroth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Source code for this website available at GitHub.