Super FX Arwing

Super FX FAQ


What is the Super FX chip?
The Super FX chip is the marketing name for the "Mario Chip" that was employed in StarFox to make that game's 3D polygon graphics feasible. There's no way the Super NES by itself can handle that kind of math fast enough for a good framerate. At the time the Super FX was an attractive, reasonably low-cost solution to math-intensive, per-pixel graphic effects on the Super NES. StarFox was released in 1993 as the result of years of work, both on the game and on the Super FX itself.

The Mario Chip is the brainchild of Argonaut Software in the U.K., who specified its functionality. Ben Cheese Electronic Design implemented the chip's design. It was prototyped using Actel FPGAs and manufactured by Sharp.


What made the Super FX special?
Math power and pixel plotting. If there's one thing 3D graphics need alot of, it's fast multiplication. Polygons, for example, are alot like playing connect-the-dots, but before you draw them to the screen they need to be moved, animated, rotated, scaled, and placed in camera perspective. That needs alot of matrix calculation.

The Super NES, by itself, has limited math prowess, except for its renowned "Mode 7" which can only scale and rotate a single 2D background. Consider this: the Super NES' main processor, the CPU, doesn't even have a command for multiplication!

And then you need to draw the graphics, pixel-by-pixel. Here again the SNES falls flat. The graphics hardware only understands tile maps, and you don't want to bog down the pokey CPU.

The Super FX can draw graphics to background images the SNES can understand and/or to sprites images the SNES can understand.

Nintendo hyped the Super FX as a "16-bit RISC" chip with "DSP functions." The first chip used in StarFox and Super Star Fox Weekend ran at 10.74 MHz. Later versions ran at 21.477 MHz. Below is what the original chip looked like, with a 100-pin package, 1 MByte ROM, and 32 KB SRAM. Note that it is indeed called the "Mario Chip 1".

Super FX cartridge

Okay, so what does the Super FX do for StarFox?
StarFox's game engine showcases the Super FX in many ways. I'm still amazed at how much that game does on a 10.74 MHz chip:

  • Objects move and rotate in 3D. The game plays well even at its lowest frame rates, and the camera never gets in the way of the game itself. (Something most N64 games could learn from.)
  • Many objects are well-animated, like the creatures in Sector Y and Fortuna, not to mention the end boss on Venom!
  • Some polygons are lit--they change shade with respect to a virtual light source. The Spinning Core on Macbeth is an example of this.
  • It can handle points (like stars), line segments (as seen on communications towers, for example), and polygons (just about everything in the game).
  • It can also scale sprites in 3D space. Asteroids, for example, are done like this, as are the ring lasers.
  • Some polygons have basic point-sampled texture mapping.

    Can't N64 and all modern consoles do all that and more?
    Absolutely. Alot has changed since 1993. Today's systems are much more suited to making believable 3D worlds with even more complicated effects. They do this by running faster and having extra special circuitry that handles polygons directly. This may surprise you, but the Super FX has no specific "polygon hardware." It's all about software; it needs a good programmer to make proper use of it. Not to belittle today's more complicated games, but all a system like N64 needs to do is have a game engine generate a list of things to display and tell the graphics chip to draw it. On the Super FX, however, you also need to write software telling the Super FX how to draw stuff---a software rasterizer. Something of a lost art nowadays.


    So can the Super FX do other stuff, too?
    It can do whatever you program it to do, basically. That doesn't mean it's going to be ideal for everything. (I'm not sure I'd want it doing tons of graphics AND sound together, for example!) But that's a nice thing about it. Different games can do different things. Yoshi's Island does some simple polygons, but most of the time the Super FX is used for complicated 2D graphic effects like sprite scaling. DOOM, as many people know, doesn't use polygons at all for its graphics. Commanche was to have used a voxel engine.


    What are its limits?

    Of course alot depends on how good your program is. You also have a limited amount of memory on the cartridge. (Typically 64 KBytes or 128 KBytes of RAM and under 2 MBytes of ROM for the game program.) The images drawn by the FX fit in the RAM on the cartridge itself, and the Super NES itself is told to periodically stop the Super FX in its tracks and read the finished image. This is then shown on your TV until the next is ready. (A form of double buffering.)

    Even in the worst case (16-bit x 16-bit multiply) it can return a result within a handful of cycles. Pixel plotting is faster than that. So performance, if doing nothing but math, is still in the millions of operations/second. There is no instruction-level paralellism, so don't expect more than 1 operation per cycle in the best case. For the math-impaired, that means AT MOST 21 million operations/second on the fastest Super FX 2. Today of course $10 will buy you a chip that can do tens of billions of operations/second and decode a DVD but that's progress for you.

    This means if you want 20 frames per second in a game you have a budget of--at most--a million or so operations per frame. Actually less since the Super FX has to be halted when the SNES is reading the results.

    The other limit is the SNES itself. You can only read so much from the cartridge in a given amount of time.

    Another limit is the size of the image the SuperFX can draw to: at most, 192 lines high, which is less than the SNES itself displays. Consequently, most SuperFX games have a black border around the screen or cleverly use regular SNES graphics as a wrapper around SuperFX-generated graphics.


    How many polygons per second can it draw?
    See above. I have no idea where Nintendo pulled the 76458 number from.


    What is the Super FX2 chip?
    The followup to the Super FX was a double-speed version that could also access more RAM and ROM. It is not two chips in one. That would cost alot more because the chip would have twice as many parts. The Super FX costed alot as it is. The initial cost to developers was reported to be $10 at the time, which is probably why so many third party games had such small memory sizes (4 megabits)--they wanted to reduce cost in other ways.

    Below is a picture of the Super FX2. AKA "GSU-2". Notice the larger chip package, with 112 pins. Although the glare hides it, the board has a 64KB SRAM installed and could support a 128 KB SRAM.

    Super FX 2 cartridge

    Did other games have extra chips?
    Games like Pilotwings and Super Mario Kart have fixed-program NEC DSPs for extra math power. F1-ROC2 had a custom-built DSP as well.

    Super Mario RPG has a much more general-purpose SA1 chip as a second CPU, and Street Fighter Alpha 2 has the SDD1 chip for graphics decompression. In this generation of games, coprocessor chips were not very common mostly due to cost, unlike on the NES where small, cheap MMC chips were required to access larger games on almost every cartridge. While the Super FX only added $10 to the cost of the cartridge, that price tag was enough to turn off most developers. There was a slightly reduced cost cartridge available--at least at a reduced price to Nintendo--that used simpler glop-top packaging, but that still didn't popularize it beyond a handful of games.

    Super FX glop-top cartridge

    What games had FX chips?

    Original Super FX chip games:

  • StarFox (8 megabits of ROM, 1993, Nintendo/Argonaut)
  • Super StarFox Weekend (8 megabits, 1993, Nintendo/Argonaut)
  • Stunt Race FX (8 megabits, Nintendo/Argonaut)
  • Vortex (4 megabits, Electrobrain/Argonaut) [originally called "Citadel"]
  • Dirt Trax FX (4 megabits, 1995, Acclaim/Sculptured Software)

    Super FX2 games:

  • DOOM (16 megabits, Williams)
  • Winter Gold (16 megabits, 1996)
  • Yoshi's Island (16 megabits)

    Were there any other games?
    A number of FX2 titles are missing in action. Many were even nearly done before they were canned. The Super FX2 is required for 16 megabit games.

  • Star Fox 2 (16 megabits, Nintendo/Argonaut)
  • FX Fighter (16 megabits, GTE Interactive)
  • Commanche (16 megabits, Data East)
  • Powerslide (by Elite)
    In one interview it was said that Mr. Miyamoto's first experiments with the Super FX at Nintendo involved a 3D Mario game somewhat along the same lines as Super Mario 64

    I was looking forward to StarFox 2, although I preferred the original corridor flight formula instead.
    FX Fighter was released on PCs and was thoroughly forgettable.
    Commanche used 3D voxel graphics.


    How did the Super FX compare to the Super NES CD-ROM drive?
    Of course Sony helped Nintendo with their CD drive, and later on Sony intended to combine the two together into one unit. THAT was the Playstation. The actual Super NES CD-ROM unit is NOT the Playstation. Moreover, the Playstation of today is NOT the Playstation from back then. The two are totally different, using different designs and even different CPUs.

    The Super FX and the Super NES CD drive worked similarly in that they had extra RAM and chips on a cartridge. The Super NES could be told to stop what they were doing and periodically read the results to send them to the TV. The CD drive took it a little further to compensate for the CDs. CDs were slow, so Nintendo added more RAM. 8 megabits of main memory, 4 megabits of extra memory, and 1 more megabit for the Super NES itself, to be exact, whereas Super FX games typically got no more than 1 megabit total. Although 8 megabits of main memory is less than what the Super FX could have for program space (16 megabits), more data can always be paged from the CD drive.

    The CD drive also had extra stereo sound channels that Super FX games lack.

    The coprocessor itself was a 32-bit RISC chip, the NEC V810, running at 21.477 MHz. A slightly slower version also powered Virtual Boy. It isn't as specialized as the Super FX, but is just as beefy in the performance department and a little more friendly to work with, so I would have expected 2D/3D games at least as good as on the FX2 and better-than-Sega CD FMV. Possibly more 2D games using scaled sprites and 256 colors. It would have been nice for the time.


    What is the Super FX's legacy?
    There was a time when there were millions of Super FX chips in the world. After fading from the limelight, the Super FX was retired quietly. It does not live on in any new form, but the success of the venture drove Argonaut and Ben Cheese to new heights. Argonaut RISC Cores, now called ARC International, supplies configurable CPU cores to other chip makers who can include them in their own designs. They compete alongside venerable names like ARM, MIPS, and Tensilica.

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