GameSpite Journal 10 | The Super FX Chip

Super FX Chip | Dev.: Argonaut| Maker: Nintendo | Function: Add-on Processor | Debut: March 1993

The coolest graphical Super NES trick owes its existence, to some degree, to the Game Boy.

In 1992, a bunch of British whiz kids working under the name Argonaut designed a 3D shooter called X. A 3D game was hardly a novelty a mere year before the advent of Doom, but the fact that it was designed for the Game Boy -- a system running in four pukey shades of grey on decidedly 1970s technology -- made Nintendo sit up and notice. Argonaut was brought into the loop to help develop Nintendo’s new MARIO chip, a cart-based co-processor that would go miles beyond the memory mappers that had extended the life of the NES so effectively. The most ambitious NES cart -- well, technically Famicom cart, since Nintendo of America disallowed third-party memory mappers, presumably out of spite -- was Konami’s VRC7, which incorporated an FM synthesis audio channel and enhanced graphical capabilities. The MARIO chip, on the other hand, was a self-contained RISC coprocessor that granted the system the ability to produce real-time polygonal graphics.

Granted, MARIO could churn out all of a few hundred polygons per second, but keep in mind the Super NES was clocked at about 3 MHz (roughly one-thousandth of the speed of a single core of the multi-core processor running the laptop this article was written with) and was optimized for awesome 2D effects. It wasn’t until the Dreamcast came along nearly a decade after the Super NES’s launch that any console had the horsepower and RAM to render both 3D and 2D visuals with any sort of parity.

Eventually, the MARIO chip -- whose name was a painfully contrived acronym for Mathematical, Argonaut, Rotation & I/O -- was redubbed Super FX, and it debuted as the electronic brain behind Star Fox. Though its simple, flat-shaded polygons are laughably primitive by today’s standards, Star Fox was amazing to behold on a home console in the early ‘90s; its graphical output was more impressive than Atari’s Hard Drivin’ (a 1989 arcade machine) and not too far behind Namco’s Air Combat cabinet (1992).

The Super FX’s legacy is in large part one of disappointment and empty promises, though. Roughly half of the announced library of Super FX-enhanced games never quite materialized. The hot-looking Star Fox 2 was quietly taken out behind the woodshed and shot in the head, along with the ultimately mediocre FX Fighter and the enticing Super Mario FX. The prevailing theory is that Nintendo was loath to publish great-looking 3D games on Super NES so close to the debut of the Nintendo 64 for fear that Star Fox 2’s chunky, low-frame-rate triangles would somehow diminish the appeal of Super Mario 64 or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, never mind that the Super FX was a pricey add-on that made third-party carts insanely expensive. (Nintendo, of course, abused the benefits of being the sole manufacturer of Super NES carts and didn’t need to factor licensing markup into its own pricing.)

Despite being touted -- and not without justification -- for its 3D capabilities, the Super FX’s enhancements ultimately hold up best in a game that uses no obvious polygons at all. Yoshi’s Island used the coprocessor strictly to enhance its whimsical hand-drawn visuals by rotating, scaling, and generally warping the living daylights out of them—effects that its 32-bit remake on Game Boy Advance couldn’t quite imitate. Games like Star Fox and Vortex were important stepping stones in 3D game design, of course, but Yoshi’s Island is proof that sometimes it’s best to stick with what you’re good at.

By Jeremy Parish? | Jan. 2, 2012 | Previous: Star Fox | Next: Bubsy