GameSpite Journal 10 | F-Zero

Mode 7 | Dev.: Nintendo | Nature: Hardware Gimmick | Debut: Simultaneous with Super NES hardware

Nintendo’s design for the Super NES’s hardware innards was unconventional, to say the least. Where most hardware of the era was built on the principle that faster equals better, the Super NES was constructed around a processor best described as “sluggish,” and that’s being charitable. Its custom Ricoh chip ran at a miserable 3.58 MHz, less than half the clock speed of the Genesis’ 7.67 MHz Motorola 68000. For reference, the Genesis chip was the same processor that powered early Macintosh computers, running a mere fraction of a megahertz slower than the 8.0 MHz chip in a machine that had cost $2500 six years prior—meaning it was powerful and affordable, but hardly bleeding-edge.

Rather than focusing on raw speed, the Super NES was predicated on the idea of specialization. Its chip wasn’t fast, but the hardware was custom-built to create video games. Developers who sought raw speed tended to shy away from the console, and it’s no coincidence that the Genesis and PC Engine are regarded as the home of classic shooters while the Super NES is better known for leisurely-paced platformers and role-playing games.

For those who took the time to understand its inner workings, the Super NES hardware boasted an impressive array of specialized libraries and functions. The most famous of these, of course, is Mode 7. In fact, Mode 7 is a hardware feature that transcended the console itself. People refer to similar visual effects on other systems as “Mode 7 graphics,” despite the fact that by its very nature Mode 7 was intrinsic to the Super NES silicon.

Nintendo’s 16-bit console offered eight different graphical modes for developers to use for various effects. No one ever talks about Modes 0 through 6, though, because their value was generally technical in nature: Each one offered a differing number of screen layers, sprites, or color palettes. Mode 6 allowed the Super NES to output high-resolution graphics, a feature seen in only a handful of games. Mode 7, on the other hand, was the system’s flashy show-off feature. The tricks enabled by hardware Mode 7 let the Super NES do things that no other home console could do (at least not without expert programmers like Yuji Naka or the wizards at Treasure working against the metal). Nintendo Power magazine—which still had a ridiculous reach in those days—smartly seized on Mode 7 and made constant reference to games’ “Mode 7 graphics.”

And what was Mode 7, exactly? According to Wikipedia: “1 layer of 128×128 tiles from a set of 256, which may be interpreted as a 256-color one-plane layer or a 128-color two-plane layer. The layer may be rotated and scaled using matrix transformations. HDMA is often used to change the matrix parameters for each scanline to generate perspective effects.” In English, Mode 7 allowed the system to rotate and scale backgrounds, resulting in things like the 3D racetracks of F-Zero and Super Mario Kart, the sensation of flight in Pilotwings and Final Fantasy?’s airship sequences, the spinning dungeon rooms of Castlevania IV, and countless bits of silliness like ActRaiser’s title screen. Mode 7 could be used to great effect and went a long way toward bridging the gap into 3D.

Sega caught on to Mode-7-as-marketing and followed with “Blast Processing,” but unlike Mode 7 that wasn’t a tangible feature. No doubt that’s why you still hear people refer to “Mode 7” effects on systems like Game Boy Advance and DS despite the fact that those systems didn’t actually have a separate mode for bitmap manipulation. They had power enough to produce real 3D visuals and didn’t need to fake it. Such is the impact of marketing on impressionable young minds.

By Jeremy Parish? | Nov. 6, 2011 | Previous: F-Zero | Next: Pilotwings