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Top 6 SNES Innovations (That Left Nintendo's Competitors in the Dust)

Articles in Computer Hardware | By Louis J. V. Cicalese

Published 9 months agoThu, 24 Jan 2019 12:14:45 -0800 | Last update 5 months agoMon, 27 May 2019 10:31:14 -0700

The SNES was a console ahead of its time. From graphics to audio to controls, here are the top Super Nintendo innovations.

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Widely considered one of the finest gaming consoles of all time, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is fondly remembered for its beautiful pixel graphics, infectious soundtracks, and a plethora of amazing games of various genres and diverse styles of gameplay.

At the time of its release, the SNES was a hallmark of innovation. Nintendo, considering both its own history and the work of their contemporary rivals, managed to devise a number of ingenious hardware advancements that pushed their console to new heights.

With their impressive color palettes, use of digitized graphics, and pseudo-3D effects, SNES games were a visual (and often near-miraculous) treat to behold. The unique sound chip allowed the countless memorable themes on the system to be played in their full glory, and the SNES controller improved on the old NES design and became the template for controllers to this day.

Some of the SNES-era innovations were mere glimpses of the direction that gaming was going, and the technology itself would soon be replaced with still more advanced leaps forward. Other designs would stick around, and in some form or another are still used in the development of new games and consoles to this day.

Top 6 SNES Innovations (That Left Nintendo's Competitors in the Dust)

Mode 7 Graphics Setting

Right out of the gate, the Mode 7 graphics setting was one of Nintendo’s biggest selling points for the SNES. The console was developed with a total of eight graphics modes for displaying background layers, numbered from 0 to 7. Mode 7 was a single layer that could be scaled and rotated on different scan lines in order to create a basic faux-3D effect. The ability to scale and zoom in on different elements was unlike anything that gamers had seen before and helped to create immersive environments and experiences.

One application for Mode 7 was displaying massive overworlds in games like Final Fantasy VI. With this technique, the expansive landscapes seemed to reach all the way back to the horizon. It also provided a major upgrade for racing games and other vehicle-based games, such as F-Zero, Pilotwings, and of course, Super Mario Kart. Whereas previously it was difficult to convey depth in racing games, Mode 7 allowed these games to showcase an exhilarating depiction of distance and speed. 

To see Mode 7 at work as the player approaches and crosses the finish line, skip to 2:55 in this video.

Or watch one of these video clips / not-gifs:

Mode 7 did have some major limitations, one being that it could only be applied to backgrounds, and not sprites. The background encompasses everything that is completely behind the field of gameplay but does not include fixed objects that the player interacts with, such as platforms. If necessary, developers could create sprites with the same appearance as background objects, so that they could apply Mode 7 effects to these objects while also making them interactive.

Because Mode 7 does not work on sprites, objects that approached the camera had to be pre-drawn as many different sizes of sprite in order to give the illusion that they were drawing nearer. This can be seen in Super Mario Kart, as different items and obstacles subtly jump between sizes as they approach the player.

For a clear view of this, skip to 31:25 in this video and keep an eye on the pipes as they approach. It is even easier to see if you slow down the video to 0.75 or 0.5 speed.

    There is no question that Mode 7 is outdated by today’s standards. True 3D graphics would soon arrive on Sony’s PlayStation, and soon after on Nintendo’s own Nintendo 64. However, Mode 7 was unlike anything else at the time of its release. The pseudo-3D allowed for a caliber of depth that lent itself well to thrilling racers, world-spanning RPGs, and atmospheric action-adventures such as Super Metroid and Super Castlevania. Mode 7 has since been outdone by more advanced techniques, but when the SNES arrived it was one of the most thrilling innovations the console brought to the table.

    Super FX Chip

    Though Mode 7 was able to create a pseudo-3D effect, the Super FX chip finally brought about the real thing, albeit to a limited degree. One weakness of the SNES was its Central Processing Unit, which ran at only 3.58 MHz, and at times caused the SNES to struggle with fast-paced scrolling. For reference, the main rival of the SNES, the Sega Genesis, had a more powerful CPU that ran at 7.6 MHz.

    However, the slower CPU was a conscious choice made by Nintendo, who opted not to use a much more expensive chip that would still become obsolete within a few years. Nintendo planned to overcome this shortcoming by supplementing the CPU with special chips included in specific game cartridges. Though there were many different enhancement chips used in many different games the Super FX chip was by far the most advanced and remains the most famous to this day.

    The Super FX chip, developed by Argonaut Games, was able to convincingly render 3D worlds using polygons, allowing for the first truly 3D experiences on the SNES. Most famously, the Super FX chip was used for the 3D starfighter rail-shooter Star Fox, which was also co-developed by Argonaut along with Nintendo.

    Check out the Star Fox opening, and the first stage of the game beginning at 1:50, for some true polygonal action.

    The other primary function of the Super FX chip was to enhance 2D graphics. In Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, the Super FX was used for sprite stretching and scaling that in part allowed for huge bosses to take up the entire screen. It was sort of like Mode 7, but for sprites.

    Check out this video to see the giant Yoshi's Island bosses made possible by the Super FX chip (and the dark magic of Kamek).

    Nowadays, 3D graphics are the standard for gaming but when the Super FX chip first made itself known in the likes of Star Fox, people had never seen anything like it before. It was a rare glimpse into the future of video games.

    Pixel Art and the SNES Color Palette

    Mode 7 was not the only factor that helped make SNES games visually stunning. Its 16-bit graphics allowed for a level of complexity in its pixel art that was not possible on the NES. The console hosted an impressive palette of 32,768 colors and was able to display 256 colors simultaneously. Conversely, the Sega Genesis, the arch-rival to the SNES, had a palette of 512 colors and was only able to show 61 on-screen at a time.

    The SNES’ 16-bit architecture and impressive color palette allowed for beautiful scenes such as these to be shown: 

    Although the standard for modern video game graphics has since moved beyond pixel art, the aesthetic is still popular. It is in a large part due to the gorgeous art in games such as A Link to the Past (above image, top left corner), Chrono Trigger (top right), Secret of Mana (bottom left), Harvest Moon (bottom right), and others that the art style retains such a large and dedicated fanbase.

    Nowadays, the art style is showcased (albeit in higher resolutions) in indie games such as Stardew Valley (see image below, top left), Celeste (top right), Terraria (middle left), and Owlboy (middle right), as well as in releases from major development studios, such as Sonic Mania (bottom left) and Octopath Traveler (bottom right).

    Digitized Graphics

    Although the SNES is most closely associated with the pixel art style that it perfected, it also offered a platform for developers to incorporate digitized sprites. These were external images, such as photographs or hand-drawn artwork, that were converted into sprites in place of the more traditional pixel sprites. Digitizing graphics had been done before in some TurboGrafx-16 and arcade games, but the SNES helped them find a new level of prevalence.

    This technique could be used to translate different textures, materials, or people into sprites. Some famous examples included digitizing clay figures in Interplay’s Claymates and Clayfighter (see image below, top left corner) series, still figures of actors in games like Pit Fighter and Mortal Kombat (top right), and screenshots of pre-rendered digital models in the Donkey Kong Country (bottom left) series and Super Mario RPG (bottom right).

    As mentioned, this digitization of photographs had been done before on other systems. However, Rare Limited pioneered the process of implementing pre-rendered CG into games as purely an SNES innovation. Rare had previously developed many successful games for the NES and invested their profits in sophisticated (and expensive) Silicon Valley workstations that allowed them to render 3D models. This acquisition made them the most technologically advanced UK developers and led to a partnership with Nintendo, who quickly acquired 49% of the company and set them on developing a reimagined version of a dormant, but well-known, Nintendo franchise: Donkey Kong.

    Using the Silicon Graphics Challenge workstation, Rare rendered the Donkey Kong Country sprites as wire models and then gave them shading and texture mapping to bring them to life. Rare developed a new compression technique which allowed them to preserve more detail in the sprites and animation than had previously been possible on the SNES. This allowed them to lose much less detail when converting the pre-rendered models to 2D sprites than if they had used a different technique. Altogether, the new technique used to create the DKC graphics was referred to as Advanced Computer Modelling (ACM).

    Take a look at this promotional video sent out by Nintendo ahead of the Donkey Kong Country release. Discussion of the Silicon Valley workstations begins at 5:30.

    The SNES Audio Subsystem  

    Despite its underpowered CPU, the SNES was capable of playing some amazing audio tracks. As just one example from hundreds of great songs, here is Donkey Kong Country 2's Stickerbrush Symphony, which is widely considered to be one of the best pieces of music on the SNES, or otherwise.

    The SNES was the last of the three main 16-bit consoles to be developed and released, meaning that Nintendo was in a good position to learn from its rivals, Sega and NEC, both of whom took a different approach to designing the audio for their consoles. 

    Sega’s sound generation was done with FM synthesis, and a Programmable Sound Generator (PSG). The Sega Genesis’ PSG, the Yamaha YM2612, improved on old designs with its inclusion of 6 sound channels. Most PSGs until then only had 3 or 4 channels, each of which was able to produce a basic soundwave form. The Yamaha YM2612, however, could produce four separate sine waves at a time and layer them on top of each other to produce an impressive range of instrument noises. One downside was that it struggled with imitating natural sounds.

    For their TurboGrafx-16 console, NEC used a technique called wavetable-lookup synthesis for their audio, which essentially entailed recording digital audio. Due to size limitations, cartridges merely contained short samples of notes, which could be sped up or slowed down to make the other notes used in the track. This design allowed for the reproduction of a wide variety of notes and noises, but typically only at low resolutions.

    That leaves Nintendo, which decided to team up with Sony itself to create its audio chip. The Sony engineer in charge of the project was Ken Kutaragi, who would later become the “Father of the PlayStation.” Kutaragi decided to base his design on wavetable-synthesis, but rather than merely creating a sound chip for the console, as Sega and NEC had done, developed an entire audio subsystem for the SNES called the Nintendo S-SMP, which had its own 8-bit processor and RAM.

    The S-SMP allowed the SNES to play longer and more complicated samples of audio than its rivals, and because it used a whole separate system it did not need to rely on the console’s relatively low-powered CPU. With 8 sound channels, which essentially amounted to 8 simultaneous instruments, and a sampling system for sound effects, the SNES had a lot going for it.

    However, one major limitation was that it had only 64 kilobytes of RAM to play all the music for a given game, an obscenely small amount for today's standards. Similar to the TurboGrafx-16, the SNES got around this by storing only tiny audio samples, often down to a single cycle waveform. The larger melodies were then composed of these tiny samples, which could be manipulated or arranged in succession. This video gives a much more thorough breakdown of the limitations and workarounds of the S-SMP.

    The unique audio subsystem of the SNES would allow for some brilliant and well-executed soundtracks to appear on the system. Quite famously, Super Star Wars included a faithful rendition of the franchise’s iconic orchestral theme. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that the held notes are actually looped sections of audio.

    Some of the other most beloved soundtracks on the system include the atmospheric jungle melodies of Donkey Kong Country and DKC 2, the eclectic and fast-paced tracks from Mega Man X, the tense and ominous Super Metroid score, and the epic themes from RPG offerings like Final Fantasy III, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger. At the time, the sound on the SNES was some of the best that players had ever heard on a home console, and set a new standard for sound chips.

    Check out this page for some more great SNES music samples.

    SNES Controller Innovations

    Though we take them for granted now, shoulder buttons were a brand new innovation when the SNES controller came along. Though the SNES controller mimicked the general layout of the NES controller, it added two additional buttons (X and Y) to join A and B on the front of the controller, thereby doubling the number of action inputs. Adding the L and R and shoulder buttons to the controller took it one step further and brought the total amount of action buttons on the controller to six. The extra buttons proved instrumental for games like Street Fighter II that needed more options for button combinations.

    The four face buttons were arranged in a diamond formation, a format that is now widely imitated. Although the other four action button were all pressed by the player’s right thumb, the L and R button got the left and right pointer fingers, respectively, all to themselves. This design became the prototype for nearly all major video game controllers that would come after it, not just those from Nintendo.

    Although Nintendo would remain innovative and continue trying new things with their controllers, including the tri-handled N64 controller, Wii remote, or removable Switch Joy-Cons, the general SNES controller layout (with shoulder buttons included) would continue to make appearances again and again, including on their Gamecube controller, Wii Classic Pro controller, Nintendo Wii U Pro, and so on. Shoulder buttons would also be a staple of Nintendo’s handhelds starting with the Gameboy Advance and carrying over to the Nintendo DS family.

    More telling still is that PlayStation and Xbox would also adopt the diamond button layout and shoulder buttons for their controllers, some iterations even including two buttons on each shoulder.

    These SNES innovations have become a ubiquitous part of gaming and can be seen on nearly every major controller and handheld system since. Of course, joysticks were the main component absent from the SNES controller that would need to be added to create the true modern template.

    The SNES Legacy

    Almost 30 years after its original Japanese launch, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is fondly remembered for both its innovative spirit and wealth of great games. Some of its features, such as the Mode 7 graphics setting, digitized 3D-rendered sprites, and the sound subsystem, looked and sounded like the future. Others, such as its colorful pixel art and revolutionary controller, are still built upon by developers and manufacturers today.

    Far from outdated, plenty of SNES games are still absolute joys to play today. Whether you have access to a genuine SNES console, the Nintendo Virtual Console, the 2017-released SNES Classic system, or a third-party emulator on your PC, it is never too late to sit back and enjoy some old-fashioned SNES magic.

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