After streams and streams of platform games (all exactly the same, bar the name), Jez San from the Argonaut team thought it was time to give Super NES owners something a bit more realistic than all these unoriginal shoot 'em ups, and produce a 3D vector game under the name of StarFox. Fine, but there was a slight problem - how could the SNES cope with loads of filled-in vectors, seeing as the CPU is so slow? Easy - produce a high-speed chip to cope with all the calculations. The name? The Super FX Chip. (The working title was called The Argonaut Chip, by the way.)
The chip was fitted into the StarFox cartridge, and the game was then coded.
The press raved on and on about the thrills, the speed, and the enjoyment that could be had with StarFox - and rightly so.
The good news is that console owners will soon see vectors make a regular appearance in their games - StarFox isn't a one-off.
The idea of StarFox is quite simple - it's just a 3D shoot 'em up at heart - but the vectors certainly look quite impressive when moving.
According to the Argonaut team, the game updates at around 15 frames per second, and sometimes 25. This sounded like a respectable frame rate, so I thought I'd pop along and try out
the game (which, upon being released in this country, was called StarWing) at the national competition, which was held on the 29th of May in software stores around the country.
Upon first seeing it, I was quite impressed. It was a tiny bit jerkier than I had expected (believe me, if this game was running at 50 frames per second, you'd say it was the best game ever), and it took a bit of time to find out exactly what was going on; but after a short amount of time, I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that I went out and bought the game on its 'star-date' - the 5th of June - when it was officially released in this country.
I didn't do incredibly well in the actual challenge - notching up a mere 70 to 80,000 points at the end of the day - but I had a great time, and I'm sure other people did if they went to see the game.
The StarWing game revolves around controlling Fox McCloud amongst a team of 'top' 'professional' 'pilots', in the form of (ahem) animals; and they're sent by General Pepper on a mission to destroy the planet Venom. And do they succeed? Well, it's up to you of course.
Anyway, I think that's quite enough about the actual game - indeed, you can read our definitive review of StarWing, the game itself, in a couple of pages.
So, the Super FX Chip, then? Well, it's basically an accelerator fitted into the game cartridges themselves, as opposed to the actual machine. The down-side with this, is that when you actually buy a Super FX Chip game, you're actually paying for the chip as well; so if you purchased 3 Super FX Chip games, you'll have 3 identical chips inside the 3 different games - which, if we're being honest, is a bit of a waste of resources, and a bit of a waste of your money.
Still, there's no denying the good specifications of the actual chip. It's slightly restricted by the sub-16-bit architecture of the SNES, but still runs at over 10 MHz. (which makes it slightly faster than the MegaDrive). And here's the crunch - it's based around the RISC chip (which actually stands for Reduced Instruction Set Chip) - employed by the Acorn Archimedes computers. This chip makes a significant difference to the accelerator, and one which you'll notice in Super FX games.
So as it's actually an accelerator, 3-D games will be smoother, faster, and more graphically pleasing than anything else you've seen on the SNES. Say goodbye to shoddy vector efforts like Race Drivin', or poor Mode-7 flight simulators, which fail miserably to mimic proper 3-D.
The Super FX Chip isn't the Nintendo Digital Signal Processor (used in Pilot Wings and Mario Kart), nor is it the new Seta DSP (used in Formula One Exhaust Heat 2), but a completely different chip. The afore- mentioned DSP chip used by Nintendo will no doubt be replaced by the Super FX Chip in their future games, seeing as it's so much more versatile. (Mind you, having said that, games that aren't too processor intensive may still feature the cheaper DSP chip.)
When comparing it with other machines, the Super FX Chip comes out well - it's faster than the Atari ST, the Amiga 500/600, most (if not all) other cartridge-based consoles, and beats a 286 PC.
It can't really touch high-end Amigas or very high-end PCs, but, being fair, these can cost over 5 times as much as the SNES. It's almost on par with the Amiga CD≥≤, but not quite as fast. Odyssey, for example, features between 100-200 colours, texture-mapping, and gouraud shading - things which you don't see often in StarWing; but again, the A1200 weighs in at over twice the price of the SNES. You won't, then, be seeing 213 gouraud-shading, or any other incredibly doozy effects, in Super FX games - well not for the foreseeable future anyway. What you can expect to see though, are incredibly playable 3-D vector games, similar to StarWing, with loads of different enemies and novel twists. StarWing itself doesn't look that impressive if you take away the Mode-7 backgrounds - apart from the end of level guardians, most of the enemies look rather plain, but StarWing is just the start. Already, companies like Elite are planning new games featuring the chip, and although little has been confirmed at this stage, they promise to be even faster than StarWing!
The next Super FX title is FX Trax - a neat looking 3-D racing game by Nintendo which promises to be something special - one which Super NES owners
can really look forward to. Nintendo also inform us that FX Trax will feature an even faster model of the Super FX
Chip inside the cartridge than StarWing. Start saving...
Polygons, vectors, 3-D, simulators, etc.... isn't there going to be a decent arcade- style game featuring the Super FX chip? Well, yes, there probably will be. Super R-Type and Gradius slow down horrifically when there are many sprites on screen. There's very little chance of that happening with Super FX games - I just bet Konami and Irem can't wait to get to grips with the new chip!
Games I'd like to see? Well, for a start, a sequel to StarWing wouldn't be a bad idea at all. And indeed, there are rumours floating around already that a sequel is planned. I'd certainly welcome additional weapons - stuff like 3-way lasers, or massive homing missiles, but I may be over-optimistic in saying this - the chip can only go so fast.
Perhaps an RPG or adventure game would be a good idea - something like Dungeon Master, or Legends of Valour, featuring lots of depth and gameplay. Going to the other type of adventure game - you know, the Zelda type - there could be more interaction with the characters. I mean, if the Japanese are queuing up for miles for something like the Dragon's Quest series, how will they react to something even more interactive, fun, and just downright more impressive? Only time will tell...
Now, if Konami are listening, I'd recommend producing a sequel to Axelay utilising the chip. There'd be little or no slow-down, and more sprites on-screen than you can shove into a massive hoover! It's definitely feasible because of the increase in speed.
Axelay isn't all that large a game, which is why the Super FX chip saves the day again.
You see, it can quite easily compress a 16-Megabit game down to just 8-Megabit! In fact, StarWing does just that!
There is just a slight cost to pay for all this, though - yes, it's the expense. StarWing costs £50 which isn't too bad, but this game was produced entirely by Nintendo. What happens when companies like Capcom start using the chip, and Nintendo demand royalties for their quality- control business? The price will go shooting up of course, to Street Fighter 2 -like proportions. Oh well, we'll just have to hope for the best, won't we?
Now, we've talked about what speed the chip is capable of, and how it can compress data and all that, but what else can the Super FX Chip handle? Well, it can certainly do a lot more than what you see in your average Super NES game. It can do many things simultaneously for a start. For example, it can combine Mode-7 with bitmaps and vectors - plug in StarWing and you'll see evidence of this! The enemies and your ship are vectors, the backgrounds are done in Mode-7, and the asteroids, explosions and things are bitmapped! Really, there are all sorts of possibilities with the Super FX Chip, and a lot of companies are aware of this.
With the Super FX Chip, platform and shoot 'em up games will almost reach the peak of perfection (without them turning into vector games, that is - read the future feature later on in this mag). No slow-down, terrific graphics, larger games - gamesplaying heaven, basically.
And while vector games could just go that little bit further, there's no denying that StarWing is impressive. So a big 'hurray' for the Super FX Chip, then.