Starwing: Nintendo, Argonaut's Brit boffinry and the Super FX chip

World + Fox introduced to true 3D: gaming never the same again


Antique Code Show For every cock-up or failed venture made by Nintendo, the company has made some bitingly shrewd moves along the way. Hold the orthodox-looking SNES cartridge for the game Starfox in your hand and you may not realise the significance of the custom circuitry and chips contained therein.

The title was Nintendo’s first big push into three dimensions, and in many ways the start of 3D console gaming. Sure, the polygon count in Starfox looks pretty dismal these days, but 20 years ago such visuals were a genuine jaw-drop revolution for teenagers across the land looking for a Star Wars-style treat.

Starfox

Watch your wingmates

Yet Starfox could quite easily have appeared on another format entirely. Back in the pre-millennium days – the era of the Sega Megadrive versus Super Nintendo – both companies wanted to give their widely successful consoles another shot in the arm before moving on to the next generation of hardware. Sega showed its hand first, with the over-priced and under-specced Mega-CD peripheral, which produced suitably underwhelming sales figures to match.

So with Sega having done all the painful real-world market research, Nintendo had time to re-think its strategy. It ditched the CD peripheral it had been co-developing with Philips and Sony. In a revelation few would have predicted, the Big N revealed that it had been working alongside UK-based developer Argonaut Software for the past couple of years to create a powerful graphics accelerator chip and a game to go with it: Starfox.

Starfox

Master your controls

The “Super FX” chip as it would become known, came built into the cartridge itself, and many a joke would be uttered by Argonaut’s staff to the effect that the Super Nintendo console was now simply a box for their chip to operate through.

The unlikely pairing of the Japanese giant with a small British biz came into being when Argonaut’s founder, Jez San, showed off his company’s technical wizardry to Nintendo at a Consumer Electronics Show meeting. Within months, half of Argonaut’s staff had been relocated to Kyoto, with San promising Nintendo a chip that could perform 3D routines at least ten times faster than the main CPU could – without, he freely admits, being entirely confident that this could actually be achieved.

Starfox

Not like dusting crops, boy

San called on his UK hardware designer contacts to come up with the goods. Sure enough, they did. The 10.7MHz RISC-based co-processor, along with its 32KB of RAM and 1MB of ROM, sped up 3D graphics by a staggering 40 times - and 3D maths calculations up by a factor of almost one hundred. It worked by plotting polygons into the console's frame buffer using hardware-accelerated functions.

Whether such figures highlight how poor the original SNES hardware was for 3D is another matter, but the graphical prowess now evident sent the title it was first designed to run flying off shelves and into eager hands. European gamers got the re-titled Starwing version, Nintendo fearing that German company Starvox would throw a wobbly over the similarity in name. Well, try saying it with a German accent...

Starfox may be two decades old, but despite its low polygon count it feels surprisingly modern. You head up the team as Fox McCloud in his Arwing fighter – think X-wing and you won’t be far off. He’s your Luke Skywalker figure in the mix, with three other anthropomorphic characters who fly in diamond formation throughout each mission – Slippy the toad, Peppy the rabbit, and grumpy old Falco the ... er ... falcon. Every so often one of these buddies will swoop in to lend a hand shooting down enemy craft or, more often than not, call on you to shoot down foes on their tail.

Starfox

Slippy needs help or he’ll croak

There’s a nice bit of intercom babbling and written text to keep you up to date, with characters blasting out bitchy comments when you do something wrong. Of course, it is quite amusing to shoot at your compatriots from time to time, but it gets you much further into the game if you don't.

Gladiatorial showdowns provide extra gusto, with bosses looming into view in spectacular overhead entrances. Destroy these chunky, multi-faceted foes by targeting their frustratingly elusive weak-points and you’re left blinking at the horizon for a few seconds with nothing but your ship’s whistling engine and respirator confirming that you’ve made it. Congratulations come over the intercom from dog-face General Pepper and the filmic sci-fi illusion is complete.

Starfox

Bitmaps were still used for backgrounds and certain sprites

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