Of argonauts, vectors, and flying foxes: the rise of 3D on Nintendo consoles.

 

   

 

 

 
 
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Back at Argonaut's first meeting with Miyamoto and company in Japan, Jez's second demonstration was a sample of another 3D title based on his own Starglider, this time running on a NES and accordingly codenamed NesGlider. In response, Nintendo then decided it was time for Jez and Dylan to take a look at their newest project: a very rough prototype of the then-unknown Super Famicom system, running an early sample of Pilotwings. This title, executives said, was Nintendo's first shot at 3D on the future hardware, and could greatly benefit from the young programmers' 3D knowledge.

Enter the chip:

Argonaut's next step was a shot at trying to port their NesGlider demo to Miyamoto's unfinished 16-bit hardware. Years later, Jez commented in an interview:

"I told them that this is as good as it’s going to get unless they let us design some hardware to make the SNES better at 3D. Amazingly, even though I had never done any hardware before, they said YES, and gave me a million bucks to make it happen."

Argonaut then hired a team of expert chip designers from Cambridge to make the first ever 3D graphics accelerator and one of the first RISC microprocessors. "The entire 3D acceleration market that NVidia and ATI now dominate, Argonaut was there first...", Jez expresses, "...and we’ve got the patents to prove it."
The poorly-documented Super Famicom prototype had to be reversed-engineered to integrate the chip into the 16-bit hardware as much as possible, in an effort to improve the entire system's performance. They succeeded, but had to settle with mounting the unit on the game cartridge (which would raise the game's price, but not the console's). The result was the "Mathematical, Argonaut, Rotation & Input/Output" or "MARIO" chip, later renamed "Super FX" by Nintendo. "It wasn’t just a graphics chip, though. It was a microprocessor built to run graphics software, but it also did other things (like fast math)", explains Jez.

Technically speaking

- U.K.-based Ben Cheese Electronic Design was the company that implemented the chip's hardware design.

- The Super FX GSU-1 is clocked at 21 MHz, but the internal clock speed divider halved it to 10.5 MHz. It also has 100 pins. The Super FX 2, on the other hand, runs at a full 21 MHz, has 112 pins, and is able to access even more SRAM.

- Game cartridges that contain Super FX chips have additional contacts that connect to the extra slots in the cartridge port that weren't normally used. Cartridge adapters such as the Game Genie did not have a connection to these previously unused slots, which meant that Super FX games could not be plugged into these devices.

- In addition to rendering polygons, the chip was also used to assist the SNES / Super Famicom with advanced 2D effects.

 

 

StarFox

Players: 1
About: 3D Shooter
Courtesy of: Argonaut / Nintendo
Back in: 1993
Originally on: SNES
Also on: N/A

Dylan's work on X happened at the same time the Super FX's development was underway (sometime between 1990 and 1992), with both projects' completion coinciding in 1992. After Argonaut's only monochrome title hit Japanese streets that same year, Dylan joined Giles Goddard and Krister Wombell as a co-programmer in Argonaut's and Nintendo's next joint venture: the first game to utilize the newly developed 3D accelerator chip.

American cover

What is nowadays the well-established Nintendo series known as Starfox began development as Starglider 3, a sequel to the popular Amiga space shooter. As such, Argonaut once again provided the interstellar battleground theme they were by now so fond of. Nintendo's part was, this time around, to present it in a more "arcadey", less simulator-like package than they did with X.
Adding charming characters and a lighthearted script was only half the job. They also did away with complex controls and free-roaming stages characteristic of previous Argonaut titles in favor of more user-friendly, "on-rails" arcade action inspired by Namco's Starblade and Solvalou. These conventions and decisions might have offended some of Argonaut's fans (Dylan himself wishes Starfox's stages weren't linear), but as we all know the final product's gameplay turned out to be close to excellent nonetheless.

Trademarks and copyrights
Starfox was renamed Starwing in Europe by Nintendo. According to Dylan and the British Nintendo Official Magazine, this was to avoid confusing the game with an unrelated European company called Star Vox (the letter "V", in some languages like Dutch and German, is pronounced as the letter "F"). Alternative explainations talk about legal issues concerning a 1983 Atari title trademarked in Europe under the title of Star Fox.
 

The plot follows the Starfox elite mercenary unit (composed of "Falco" the falcon, "Peppy" the hare, "Slippy" the toad, and the player's character and team leader "Fox" the ...well, fox) on their way to defeat the evil "Andross". Commanded by General Pepper, Fox's team must defend their home planet Corneria and the rest of the Lylat system with their space ships (called "Arwings") by launching a counter attack that will take them through any of 3 selectable routes on their way to the evil planet Venom. Each route (called "levels" in the game) varies both in difficulty and stages, encompassing the system's different planets, asteroid fields, deep-space sectors, and even a mysterious black hole and hidden alternate dimension.

Characters:
Team leader trained by Peppy, and only playable character. Fox's father disappeared in the mysterious black hole.
Former wingman of Fox's father. The experienced, gentle mentor of the team.
Fox McCloud
Peppy Hare
The team's best pilot, with the shortest temper. He doesn't need your help.
A timid pilot whose repeated brushes with death bring both comic relief and frustration.
Falco Lombardi
Slippy Toad
The commander in chief of the Cornerian forces guides the team throughout the whole game.
A scientist gone mad, Andross was exiled to planet Venom by General Pepper, where he amasses an army and tries to take over the system.
General Pepper
Andross
 

As previously mentioned, the freedom of movement that characterized Starglider and X did not carry over onto Starfox. Instead, the player's Arwing automatically follows a predetermined path through each stage while blasting away enemies and avoiding many obstacles before reaching the correspondent boss. It may sound confining when compared to previous Argonaut titles, but its 3D engine still leaves enough room for the player to dodge and move around while the camera follows panning up, down, and to the sides.
The game starts with a full energy gauge and 3 lives. It's armed with an upgradeable main laser, limited screen-clearing bombs, and can barrel-roll to avoid shots and even break or turbo-boost for a few seconds to navigate through tricky gates and tight spaces.
Enemy variety includes not only the typical space-opera assortment of small fighter ships and huge carriers and destroyers; but also overgrown insects, dragons, water serpents, and maintenance robots among others. The most impressive ones are, of course, the giant end-of-level bosses, which take quick reflexes and sometimes a little bit of thinking to defeat.

European cover

Stages are more varied than any conventional shoot'em-up's, and some of them even feature up to 3 different selectable camera viewpoints (the most interesting one being right inside the Arwing's cockpit). This is because Starfox's gameplay is geared towards a very distinct, continuously shifting balance between skillful steering and fast shooting. You'll be busy infiltrating enemy tunnels, dodging asteroids, and navigating safely through enemy space-stations all while frenetically trying to shoot down as many targets as possible.
You are not alone though. Possibly the best idea Nintendo had for Starfox was having Fox's 3 other teammates constantly guarding his Arwing's rear, following the player in tight formation. They communicate using silly, deformed voice samples (the game's most ridiculed feature), and will even flee while asking Fox for help when their own energy gauges are being depleted by chasing bad guys. This team interaction, although limited, greatly reenforces the feeling of belonging to the squadron, making you care more about them and keeping them around.
If they do fall, though, you'll surely notice the lack of back support.

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The capabilities of the tiny 10.5 MHz Super FX chip are still very impressive despite its limitations being unacceptable by today's standards. Most notable are its incredibly jerky frame rate (not very evident in emulators) and low resolution video output that translates into a black border around the screen. Still, these issues don't affect the gameplay in any serious way.
Interestingly, Starfox's world isn't all about polygons. Backgrounds are beautiful still and animated images, and the Super FX chip also handles vectors and even scales and rotates 2D sprites such as ring lasers, asteroids, and Andross' final form itself.
Sound-wise, the game's great soundtrack was composed by then Nintendo composer Hajime Hirasawa. Strangely, he left Nintendo upon completion of this project and is rumored to never have composed music again despite how well-received his last work for Nintendo was. Hirasawa's only other soundtrack was for the Famicom Disk System title "Time Twist: Rekishi no Katasumi de...".

 

 

 

 
Mathematical, Argonaut, Rotation & Input/Output chip
Argonaut's first version of their graphic accelerator unit.
 
 
Super FX GSU-1
Final version of the processor used in Starfox, Stunt Race FX,
Vortex, and Dirt Trax FX.
 
Super FX 2 GSU-2
Second-generation chip used in games like Super Mario
World 2: Yoshi's Island and the unreleased Starfox sequel.
 
Ben Cheese
Super FX's hardware designer.
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
Game map showing the three available routes, all
converging at planet Venom.
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
Slippy is very high maintenance, make sure you
you keep an eye on him if you want him to stick
around.
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
 
 
Starfox Super Weekend:
 
   
 
   
  A Starfox competition was held in 1993 in Europe and the U.S. as part of the game's marketing campaign. The contest had competitors play for assorted Starfox merchandise and even trips to various destinations around the world on a modified version of the game entitled Starfox Super Weekend, which was supplied to participating stores in limited run cartridges labeled "Not for resale". This special version has modified stages and scoring, is only 3 stages long, and has a time limit of 4 minutes for the entire game. Prizes were handed out according to scores.
   
 


Starfox's success was the result of an expertly achieved balance between Argonaut's 3D experience and innovative technology and Nintendo's traditional attention to detail and friendly presentation. The different camera angles and short but now classic "Scramble" intro sequence are just some examples of Argonaut's 3D expertise; while its uncomplicated controls, teammate dialogs, and excellent soundtrack are clearly Nintendo's doing.

Life after Starfox

After Starfox's huge success, Dylan was assigned to develop a SNES sequel. Starfox 2 was in its final beta stages when Nintendo decided to scrap it altogether due to the advent of superior 3D capabilities of the upcoming N64. After that, Cuthbert quit Argonaut to join Sony Computer Entertainment America, where he was involved in the development of the Playstation title Blasto. Years later, he transferred to Sony's Tokyo branch, developed Ape Escape and in 2001 left the company to found Q-Games, his own development studio. He still lives in Japan to this day, his company currently working on various Playstation 3 and Nintendo DS projects.

Starfox 2 (unreleased) - SNES
Project Starfox 2 was canned, but Dylan and his team were in the last stages of debugging when Nintendo pulled the plug. A handful of beta versions were leaked, the last of which is fully playable when combined with a fan-made patch. Download away...

Both Starfox but more so its Super FX chip brought a significant increase of work to Argonaut. Jez and his team designed chips for other game consoles like Philips' "GreenPiece", Apple's "VeggieMagic", and Hasbro's "MatriArc", none of them ever released. Frustrated by this, Argonaut finally came up with its own microprocessor (the "Argonaut RISC Core") and sold its design in a non-exclusive manner.
In 2002, Jez received an OBE (Order of the British Empire), the first ever awarded for services to the computer game industry. Two years later, Argonaut Software Ltd was sadly liquidated due to substantial losses.
Jez can nowadays be found working as president of PKR.com, an online poker company he founded in 2005.

Sources:

- 1UP's video interview with Dylan Cuthbert
- Jez San interview at www.armchairempire.com
- Jez San interview at www.arwinglanding.net
- "Starglider - Memories" at www.birdsanctuary.co.uk
- Dylan Cuthbert interview at www.arwinglanding.com
- Dylan Cuthbert's profile at www.n-sider.com
- Everything Faceball 2000, at Faceball 2000 GB
- Everything Starfox, www.anthrofox.org
- Also everything Starfox, www.arwinglanding.net

Special thanks to www.vgmuseum.com for the screenshots.

     
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
This giant slot machine is the boss of the secret
stage named "Out of this Dimension", where many
other strange things (like paper airplanes) are found.
 
Starfox - SNES
 
Starfox - SNES
The other secret stage is the "Awesome Blackhole",
where you'll only find lots of junk and some power-
ups floating around.
 
Starfox - SNES
 

 

Starfox bosses:
 

Attack Carrier


Rock Crusher

Atomic Core
   
 

Dancing Insector

Phantron: First Form

Phantron: Second Form
   
 

Professor Hanger

Plasma Hydra

Metal Smasher
   
 

Galactic Rider

Destructor

Blade Barrier
   
 

Monarch Dodora

Spinning Core

Great Commander: First Form
   
 

Great Commander: Second Form

Andross: First Form

Andross: Second Form
   
 

Andross: Final Form
   

 

   
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