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Video: Learn More About the Technical Wizardry of Graphical Effects on Super NES

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

Mode 7, Super FX and more

The Super NES is still regarded by some as the finest home console ever created, helped by its cultural impact in the '90s and exceptional software library. What's striking is that it did sustain itself, like other examples of Nintendo home console technology, in the face of some flashier and more advanced rivals — this was noticeable in its later years.

Of course Nintendo's teams, and those of third-parties, came up with various ways to make the most of the system's capabilities. Just recently we learned from Brendan Gunn and David Wise, key figures of Rare from the NES era and beyond, about the investment and advanced technology that impressed Nintendo and eventually brought us the iconic Donkey Kong Country. The Super NES had other tricks up its sleeve, of course, with Mode 7 perhaps the best known and later add-on cartridge chips such as Super FX bringing more classics such as Star Fox to the system.

The latest video from well-known YouTube channel Did You Know Gaming? covers some of this innovative SNES technology, including efforts from third-parties such as Capcom. The script for this episode was also put together by Mario Castañeda, artist and co-developer of PC title The Bridge and currently heading up a crowdfunding campaign for Hex Heroes on Wii U; you can see how that funding is progressing on its official page.

Check it out below, as it gives some neat insight not only into the techniques used for visual effects on SNES, but also ways to spot the subtle limitations of the technical trickery.

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User Comments (40)

kyuubikid213

#1

kyuubikid213 said:

Always wondered what Mode 7 was before I saw this video. The Super Nintendo was pretty cool. Kinda upset I missed out.

ToniK

#2

ToniK said:

Awesome vid. Never knew how Mode 7 was used in various ways. Really interesting.

ekreig

#3

ekreig said:

This is pretty interesting. I bet the graphical jump from NES to SNES must've been pretty mind blowing to gamers back in the day. Graphically, Yoshi's Island is still my favorite SNES game. I swear it hasn't aged at all.

Pod

#5

Pod said:

Gotta love custom chips in cartridges. Things like Wario Ware Twisted and Kirby's Tilt'n'Tumble were created by putting the gyro sensors that would later be standard issue in the Wii remote inside the GameBoy cartridges.

Boktai comes to mind as well, with having a solar sensor built into the cartridge.

Experiments like these have become almost impossible with modern disc/card/download based systems, where even if retail isn't circumvented altogether, additional hardware would still need separate casing and attachment, like the Guitar Hero kit for DS.

JJtheTexan

#7

JJtheTexan said:

Very cool and informative... but the narrator lost me every time he said "Snes" (rhymes with "dress") instead of S-N-E-S or Super N-E-S. Nails on a chalkboard to me there.

unrandomsam

#8

unrandomsam said:

@Pod The Megadrive Virtua Racing I think is one of the more impressive ones. Especially because it was never designed to be done. Or Micro Machines building controller ports into the cartridge.

Those sort of things were also the reason always given as to why console games cost more. (Along with the cost of the cartridge itself but the custom ones had another premium added).

For 10$ worth of SoC you can get something better than the Vita.

Melkac

#11

Melkac said:

I knew most of these stuff before I saw the video, actually...I feel special!
I wonder, are you guys going to do anything to april 1st?

startropics3

#12

startropics3 said:

@ekreig What drew most including myself to the SNES was Super Mario World. I was enamored with it, though It wasn't so much due to the graphics. In my mind, Sonic the Hedgehog looked nicer, and it wasn't until Star Fox in '93 and Donkey Kong Country in late '94 that I was in awe of the graphics of the SNES.

The biggest leap in graphics for me was PS and N64. I'm not sure a leap that significant has occurred in consoles after the switch to polygons.

Williaint

#13

Williaint said:

I knew Yoshi's Island used scaling vectors, but I didn't know all that information.

dereq

#14

dereq said:

@JJtheTexan
Cool, I was wondering the same thing myself. I've never heard anyone call it the "sness". For me it's always been "super ness". But since we're on the topic, what is up with the Gamecube? N's official acronym for that was "GCN", which always drove me insane.

unrandomsam

#15

unrandomsam said:

@startropics3 The Dreamcast was the first acceptable one for me (Even the PS2 wasn't really because of the jagged edges). Plus great Arcade ports (All I ever wanted). Both the PS and N64 were poor compared to 3dfx.

Donutman

#16

Donutman said:

A simpler era of great button mashing gaming. Killer instint , mario kart , super mariozeldametroidcastlevania etc....even sega was a great console. There is a reason "indie" games exist and are thriving. Most are Super Nintendo era games. Braid, cave story, steamworld dig. I've been playing cloudberry kingdom last few days in my wii u gamepad . They will never go away. Asteroids ...geometry wars.

TheRealThanos

#17

TheRealThanos said:

@dereq Agreed on "Super Ness" but not on S-N-E-S like JJtheTexan stated. Maybe my experience is different because I've been living in Europe all these years, but both Super NES AND SNES (spoken as a single word, not a collection of capitals) are quite common here. As for the GameCube, this is what your friendly neighborhood online Nintendo database came up with:

"The console is officially abbreviated to the acronym "GCN" ("GameCube by Nintendo")."

Hope that helps. I Myself used to think that the N was either just tacked on or that it was because of the Japanese origin, resulting in a (for Western people) not so logical abbreviation, but nowadays I'm a bit smarter than that... ;)
@unrandomsam 3Dfx wasn't in the Dreamcast. The collaboration failed and they went with NEC instead, which resulted in the NEC-based Katana. And I'm not a big Sony fan, let alone Playstation, but jagged edges on the PS2? Probably not much more than on GameCube and Xbox at the time...

PinkSpider

#18

PinkSpider said:

Possibly the greatest console ever made, watching all those games just makes me want to go back and play my snes. It's a shame we won't get any of the SFX games on Wii U. :(
Star Fox on my snes is still my favourite game of all time, just a shame it looks so bad running though my TV

unrandomsam

#19

unrandomsam said:

@TheRealThanos I never meant to imply it was it was just it was what I had in my PC at the time. (Along with a Yamaha DB50XG). First time the PC was really good.

TheRealThanos

#20

TheRealThanos said:

@unrandomsam Ah, my bad. Thought we were talking about the Dreamcast there. It seemed like you were making a comparison between PS/N64 and Dreamcast, not the PC. For me personally, PC gaming wasn't that interesting back then. I wasn't impressed. Before Win98 I was ahead of PC gaming with my collection of Commodore Amiga systems (A500 & A1200), and in my experience early consoles were also ahead of PC gaming. One of the reasons for that was that for the general public, gaming rigs were next to unaffordable in the early days of really powerful PC's. PC technology has since raced ahead and now you can get a decent PC playing games at better resolutions and framerate for less or the same amount of money that buys you a current gen console.

3MonthBeef

#21

3MonthBeef said:

@ekreig Oh it was. I definitely felt like a proud owner. By comparison if I had a Wii U today, I probably would feel disappointed and let down.

AshFoxX

#22

AshFoxX said:

@TheRealThanos I always felt my Amiga had much better graphics than the equivalent games on IBM at the time. IMO had the best ports of Monkey Island and Lemmings especially.

TheRealThanos

#23

TheRealThanos said:

@AshFoxX Yeah, the Amiga had some great games of it's own and a lot of good conversions too. Current day developers might learn something from that. Then again, the reality of it is that it is a different world altogether and both teams and budgets are a hundredfold of what they were then. But the fact stands that teams back then, small as they may have been, were dedicated to the bitter end to give us conversions worth playing.

AshFoxX

#24

AshFoxX said:

@TheRealThanos I think that is why the Indie download scene is so popular today, smaller teams that work close together make the most interesting games. This was a huge factor for Rare LTD. in the 1990's as well. Unfortunately with how technical games are today it is impossible for a small team of about 14 people or so to make a game that fits in on a modern retail disk among the giant 200 person team with over 300 years of man hours among them. It's hard to imagine that one of my favorite games, Diddy Kong Racing, had a similarly small team.

The attitudes are more about selling product than having a new and interesting/fun experience these days. It also helps that these small intriguing indie games are a solid fraction of the price of a retail game, and can garner even more of my attention than the newest Assassins Creed or such. I also tend to live in the past because DK64 is much more fun than it's modern equivalents IMO.

TheRealThanos

#25

TheRealThanos said:

@AshFoxX agreed for the most part, but I do think that DK Returns and Tropical Freeze are solid and fun experiences. One of the reasons why, at 43 years old, I'm still a supporter of Nintendo. The only company that, in my opinion, truly has kept that fun factor, but of course same as like I said before, times have changed and they're all businesses in the end, so money is on the forefront and all the rest is (sometimes necessarily) put on the back burner. As for me, I can truly enjoy current gen games, but I'm also an avid retro gamer and play (whenever I get the chance) everything from 8 bit up to the GameCube and I also have a Sega Dreamcast with a nearly complete library of games. I also still have both my Amiga's.
Besides all that a Wii, an Xbox360 and a modest gaming PC. And except for the GBA micro and the DSI all handhelds of Nintendo since the original Gameboy, the 3DS XL being my latest purchase. Haven't invested in a Wii U yet because there are more pressing matters than buying a new console right now, but eventually I will get one and whatever comes next, both console and handheld or whatever they come up with...

AshFoxX

#26

AshFoxX said:

@TheRealThanos I have supported Nintendo at age 25 myself, and also have a few PlayStations, Segas and an Xbox in my closet, but for the most part Wii U, Wii, 3DS and N64 stay plugged in. Might decide to retire the N64 if Wii U releases some N64 VC. I support Nintendo for a number of reasons, I always come back to them in the end and they truly do seem to be the only game company that still makes me feel like I'm 10 years old again, being blown away by sheer fun factor, and the multiplayer experiences are always top shelf.

Also I hold the company in the highest regard because without them, we would likely have never recovered from the Crash.

TheRealThanos

#27

TheRealThanos said:

@AshFoxX Well, don't be surprised if, when you reach my age, you will still crack an ear to ear smile when you start up a Nintendo game. I know I still do. They may be making a lot of mistakes business-wise these days, but they sure know how to entertain people nonetheless...

ekreig

#28

ekreig said:

@startropics3 I think you're right. I'm too young to really appreciate it myself, but to play 2D games all your life and then see Super Mario 64 or FFVII for the first time sounds pretty awesome.

gsmaciel

#29

gsmaciel said:

@ekreig The leap from 8-bit to 16-bit was still mindblowing for many of us. Seeing games like Final Fight and Street Figher 2 on a home console was unbelievable. The synthesized voices, the huge characters, the smoother sounds, the softer colors were all amazing. And as a child, the impact was even stronger for me. Even Super Mario World looked and sounded like a dream.
The transition to polygons was also very interesting. Looking back, we didn't even notice that most of the games looked bad, simply because we were able to play with 3D characters and environments, which was something completely new and that's what mattered. To our eyes, they all looked stunning. I can't even describe how envious I was when I saw a man playing Mario 64 in a store for the first time...

Dr_Corndog

#30

Dr_Corndog said:

I've gotta say, as impressive as the tech was at the time, Star Fox does not hold up today.

Star Fox 64, on the other hand...

Kirk

#31

Kirk said:

I'm impressed with how they used Mode 7 backgrounds to trick me into thinking they were actually scaling and rotating sprites in early SNES games.

That was something new I learned today :-o

Love creative thinking and problem solving like that.

The jump from NES to SNES was big enough that it was basically when I was finally convinced that gaming was going to be my lifelong passion.

The jump from SNES to N64, specifically playing Super Mario 64 for the first time, was just mind boggling.

I personally don't think that game has held up anywhere near as well as good old Super Mario World however, especially the graphics, which just shows how truly brilliant and timeless the SNES imo.

Most of my all-time favourite games come from the SNES era and I genuinely don't believe that's just because it was the era I basically grew up with as a gamer but because so many of those games just got the perfect balance between every element of game design, that in the cases of the great games from that era still holds true even today.

I mean if Super Mario World was released for the first time ever today as a new indie platform game, I believe without any shadow of a doubt that it would be hailed as one of the best platform games ever made.

@Dr_Corndog
Star Fox on SNES holds up much better than Star Fox 64 imo.

Kafei2006

#32

Kafei2006 said:

@TheRealThanos PS2 didn't have any hardware AA, contrary to the Dreamcast and Gamecube AND a lot of games ran at sub regular 480p resolutions. For example FFXII runs at a weird native 448*512 or something like that for example, with much of the vertical resolution being in the overscan region and just filled with black borders.

TheRealThanos

#33

TheRealThanos said:

@Kafei2006 Thanks for the explanation. Never been a big Sony fan, so I wasn't that informed about it. At the time, most (multi-platform) software seemed to be more or less on the same level to me across the three platforms, with each console displaying strengths only in exclusive titles, as is still the case today, for the most part.
@Kirk I was gonna say that you must be somewhat of a retro gamer if you like the SNES version of Star Fox more, but it immediately dawned on me that the N64 also belongs in that category already, although to me retro gaming is from the seventies (Pong, Atari2600, Colecovision) up to the 16 bit era. I would sooner call everything after that, such as N64 and PS1 "modern retro" for lack of a better term.
Personally, I have to go with @Dr_Corndog as far as Star Fox is concerned, and not only because of my opinion. What makes a game hold up today seems to come down to graphics most of the time, which is why I think that 2D games score so well in that category, because we tend to compare older 3D graphics to what we have now and 9 out of 10 people will then call the first generation of "true" 3D games ugly or far less attractive than they used to be. The thing is that these graphics haven't changed at all (logically) so WE have changed, or at least our tastes/perceptions concerning what is good/bad/pretty/ugly. I do think that in this case, the game on a technical level looks better/smoother, sounds better and also plays smoother. I still like the SNES version as well, but also because of the memories that I attach to it, same as playing with a rumble pack for the first time on Star Fox 64.
Just for comparisons sake (with the video posted in the article), here are two videos. The first one is a Classic Game Room review and the second a gameplay video from the game as it must have looked on most of our TV sets.

Kafei2006

#34

Kafei2006 said:

Yeah well the PS2 definitely was lacking in proper anti-alisaing, a thing which the older hardware of the dreamcast supported easily. And it was also fairly limited in how it could render textures but I can't remember exactly the details of why it was limited in that area. It wasn't as bad as how huge the oversight was in the N64 hardware, but it was annoying for developers regardless, and left the PS2 only marginally better than the Dreamcast for textures (but could fit much more of them if I recall due to the much larger memory), and behind the Gamecube, and leagues behind the XBox.

If I could just find the article I read a while ago about it, I'd post a link

TheRealThanos

#36

TheRealThanos said:

@Kafei2006 Thanks for the info but honestly, I'm not that much into comparisons like that; I'm no techie. I just like to play games and could care less if one processor is 23Mhz slower than the other and in the first link there isn't even any PS2 info. I think your suspicions about the second link are right, though. The guy who made that list could have made it look a bit more professional/believable if he hadn't put so many "dunno's" in it...

Kafei2006

#37

Kafei2006 said:

That's what I had read about the PS2's ability to render textures:

"Why the Playstation 2 is so poor at texturing. Some facts to consider:

  • PS2 GPU's (GS) external bandwidth is 1.2 GB/s (64-bit @ 150 MHz bus to CPU (EE))
  • PS2 GPU cannot deal with compressed textures over the above bus in real-time, as the GPU has no hardware to deal with compressed textures. The CPU (EE) can support compressed textures, but cannot deliver those textures to the GPU compressed, it has to uncompress them and thus taking up lots of bandwidth over the GPU bus.
  • Will assume 4 MB for code, 8 MB for polygon and lighting information, so leaving 20 MB for textures out of PS2's 32 MB of total main memory.

PS2: 1.2 GB/s / 20 MB = 60 FPS with 20 MB of textures per frame

A 60 FPS result is not good enough! Any polygon processing will affect that rate, so the PS2 has to either render even less textures per frame or have the game run at a lower frame rate. The more polygons the PS2 wants to render the greater the impact will be against the amount of textures it can render each frame.

Note: the PS2's GPU has 4 MB of on-chip eDRAM, and after the frame buffers and z-buffers take up 3 MB, that leaves 1 MB for textures. This extra 1 MB adds a little more to the above result, but not a significant amount."

TheRealThanos

#38

TheRealThanos said:

@Kafei2006 Ehm... no offense, but I was already kindly letting you know in my previous comment that I am NOT into this kind of info... ? ("not into" meaning not being interested in it at ALL)

Pod

#39

Pod said:

@Kafei2006
I remember the scanlines from heavy interlacing becoming very clear in many PS2 games. Particularly when a lot was going on on screen. Some really choppy render output in general, until the later games like God of War and Soul Calibur 3, which really pulled all the machine could do.

In comparison, the image on GameCube games was much "calmer" and and the textures and colors stood out much better.

Kafei2006

#40

Kafei2006 said:

@Pod Yeah for a console heavily advertised prior to its release as the next big step towards movie-quality visuals, even going as far as proclaiming to be in totally different league from the Dreamcast, the end result was pretty underwhelming when compared to the Gamecube, although the XBox was an altogether much different beast. Nintendo offered by far the best value for money at the time in terms of tech that showed in the visuals department (the Xbox only rarely got the chance to show what it was truly capable of due to the system receiving a lot of multiplat games which had the PS2 being the lead platform for development)

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