Daily Tedium

Super FX Turbo Mode

How an enterprising console hacker figured out that the Super NES’ 3D graphics, seen in Star Fox, could look a whole lot better with a little overclocking.

By Ernie Smith

I’m going to come right out and say it: I want a Super NES Classic. I wanted an NES Classic, but that sold out too quickly and the variations on the market cost way too much money, so I have my finger on the trigger for potential pre-orders of the new device, expected to hit this week. I, like most of my other fellow retro geeks, can at least embrace the fact that we still have as much of a shot at getting these mini-consoles right now as we did Pearl Jam tickets circa 1994.

But even if I’m unable to grab one, maybe there’s a virtue in the old consoles of yore. They’re very hackable, with many of their mysteries getting unraveled by the day. For example: The intrepid console hacker Kevtris, who has revived the old-school NES in recent years by figuring out how to mod old consoles to give them an HDMI port that looks way better than the method I described in this early issue of Tedium.

Additionally, carts like the EverDrive, which adds SD card support, are definitely great ways of keeping the old consoles alive and fresh.

And while the new devices will likely have a degree of hackability, I have to imagine that, even with its existence on the Super NES Classic (complete with cancelled sequel), Star Fox might actually be cooler on the original console.

Here’s why: Star Fox was the first game to support the Super FX chip, which was Nintendo’s first stab at 3D graphics. (There was some debate in regards to the graphics chip’s ownership before the Super NES Classic came out, but Nintendo owns the chip.)

The problem was, because it was first and fairly early on the 3D graphics front, it was quite slow, and so, when you played parts of the game with a certain number of polygons on the screen (like Star Fox) things would get laggy.

But a few years ago, a YouTube user named TheDrakon decided that this wasn’t right, so he started hacking the Super FX chip, overclocking it to ever-faster speeds. The initial speed of the chip is 21.4 MHz, though halved to 10.7 MHz on the version that Star Fox used. (Later variations worked at the full 21.4 MHz speed, and had less slowdown as a result.)

Through much experimenting, TheDrakon was able to speed the graphics chip up to an impressive 57 MHz, which more than doubled the speed of the onscreen graphics. Above is a demo of his hard work—he went through numerous variations before hitting on this snazzy speed. (His version is on the left, versus the published version on the right.)

This can be done through emulation, admittedly, but TheDrakon used the actual hardware of the chip on a real console, proving the value of this strategy in the process, and pushing the console beyond its expected limits.

This stuff, obviously, isn’t cheap—especially as it’s being done with increasingly fragile physical hardware that costs money. But it’s an important reminder that, even though Nintendo put a period at the end of the sentence many years ago, its formidable fan community never did.

May the retro gaming community never lose this spirit even after Nintendo sells variations of its old products as hard-to-find trinkets.

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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