Nintendo managed to bring the next generation of graphics and sounds without using expensive off-the-shelf components, the reason is simple: The Super Nintendo was designed with expandability in mind, in a world where CPUs are evolving faster than the speed of light, Nintendo depended on game cartridges to make its console shine.
The main processor is a Ricoh 5A22 running at ~2.86 MHz. It’s based on the Western 65C816, a 16-bit upgrade of the classic MOS Technology 6502. Since we have the same foundation of the NES’ CPU, there’s a slight possibility that the SNES was originally planed to be compatible with NES games.
The 5A22 features:
Apart from the extra registers, Ricoh customised the core design to include two exclusive DMAs (Direct Memory Access) that enables to move memory around without the intervention of the CPU (resulting in faster speeds).
For this design to work, regions of memory are referenced using two different address buses:
When a DMA is being set up, the origin must come from a different bus than the destination.
There are two DMAs to choose from depending on the needs:
The system provides eight channels to set up DMA transfers, thus enabling to dispatch eight independent transfers at once.
This console also features a special ‘anomaly’ called Open Bus: If there is an instruction trying to read from an unmapped/invalid address, the last value read is supplied instead (the CPU stores this value in a register called Memory Data Register or ‘MDR’).
Before we go in-depth I strongly recommend reading the NES article first since it introduces useful concepts that will be revisited here.
Nintendo improved their previous architecture by using two different PPU chips to build the graphics sub-system, both combined are known as Super PPU or ‘S-PPU’.
The system outputs a standard resolution of 256x224, PAL systems output 256×240 however most games don’t use the extra pixels and show a letterbox (black lines) instead.
Overall, both PPU packages are designed to serve different functionality:
This separation, from the programming point of view, is unnecessary since both chips are virtually treated as one.
Graphics data is distributed across three regions of memory:
For demonstration purposes, Super Mario World will be used to show how graphics are rendered.
Just like its predecessor, the S-PPU uses tiles to build sophisticated graphics, however there are significant improvements compared to the original PPU:
The Super Nintendo can generate up to four different background planes. Using either 8x8 or 16x16 tiles, blocks will take up to 32x32 pixels (2x2 tiles). That being said, the size of each background layer can be up to 1024x1024 pixels wide (32x32 tiles). The region in VRAM where these layers are configured is called Tilemap and is structured as a table (continuous values in memory).
Each entry in the Tilemap contains the following attributes:
As always, these planes are scrollable, however the amount of features available (colour, number of layers, independent scrolling region and size of selection) will depend on the Background mode selected.
This system features eight background modes to choose from, each one provides a different set of features:
As you can see, programmers now have the choice to prioritize between number of colours, layers, effects and resolution of selected area.
An area on memory called Object Attribute Memory (OAM) stores a table with references of up to 128 sprites with these properties:
The S-PPU can draw up to 32 sprites per scan-line (overflowing this will only make it discard the ones with lowest priority).
The S-PPU draws each scan-line on-the-fly by first processing the respective portion of each layer and then mixing them together.
One of the main constraints of NES games was the fact that they could only update their graphics during V-Blank, the moment from which the CRT’s beam was returning to the starting point provided with a reasonable time-frame to reshuffle some tiles without breaking the image.
Well, now thanks to the new capabilities of the SNES, this limitation gained a different meaning.
You see, because DMA/HDMA allows to perform memory transfers without waiting for V-Scan, games can now update tiles, colours and registers without waiting for the whole frame to be drawn. However, we can think beyond that: Since games can now change the S-PPU settings during mid-frame, this means that it’s possible to activate different backgrounds modes at different stages of the same frame, opening the door to new and original game designs!
Truth to be told, I still haven’t mentioned the most important characteristic of this console…
Introducing Mode 7, yet another background mode, but this time, with a completely different way of working. While it can only render a single 8bpp Background layer, it provides the exclusive ability of applying the following affine transformations:
These effects don’t include perspective, although by altering the rotation matrix at each HDMA call, a pseudo 3D effect can be achieved!
Due to the high number of calculations needed, the memory map is changed to optimise the pipeline of the two PPUs, the first one processes the Tilemap (where tiles are referenced) while the other fetches the Tileset (where tiles are stored).
This console provided some unique audio capabilities thanks to a dedicated set of chips designed by no other than Sony. The most important components of the audio subsystem are:
This sub-system functions independently: When the console is turned on, the SPC700 boots a 64 byte internal ROM that enables it to receive commands from the main CPU. After that, it stays idle.
In order for the S-SMP to start doing some useful work, it needs to load a type of program referred as Sound Driver that instructs the chip on how to manipulate the raw audio data that the main CPU just sent to PSRAM, the driver also directs how to command the S-DSP.
As you can see, the sound subsystem was a huge advancement compared to the previous generation, but it was challenging to program as well. The documentation that Nintendo provided was notably known for including unintelligible sections and skipping important features all-together, so it was up to the programmers to carry out their own research.
As a consequence, there were tons of different sound drivers found in the market, and some of them ended up uncovering impressive features. The flexibility that this system allowed meant that programmers could make their soundtrack shine or fade into oblivion…
Pitch modulation enabled to play different notes using the same sample, the S-SMP also included a useful bender to alter the pitch in a continuous manner. Take a look at this extracted channel from Mother 2/Earthbound, both examples come from the original soundtrack, however the first one has the pitch control disabled.
In order to demonstrate the evolution of sounds from the NES to the Super NES, here are two music scores, one from a NES game and another from its Super NES sequel. Both used the same composition:
Here’s a more instrument-rich composition that takes great advantage of pitch modulation, echo and envelope.
This combination of techniques allowed the music to only require five channels in total, leaving to other three for effects.
The DSP’s volume controls are organised in chunks of 8-bits signed values, this means that the volume can be set up with negative values. But hang on, if ‘0’ means mute, what would a number like ‘-1’ do? Well, it will invert the signal.
This is notably used for creating a special surrounding effect, which is accomplished by setting the stereo channels to output out of phase (one channel outputs the normal signal and the other outputs the same signal but inverted).
Unfortunately, abusing this feature results in very unpleasant results (e.g. the feeling that the music is coming from inside your head), so you will notice that most SNES emulators just skips this setting all-together.
Additionally, out of phase stereo gets cancelled out on mono devices, so games included the ‘stereo or mono’ option to avoid muting its own soundtrack.
Overall, games are written in 65816 assembly and when it comes to designing the cartridge, there are two ways of electrically connecting the address pins between the ROM and the CPU:
The modular architecture of the Super Nintendo allows for numerous type of Enhancement chips that are included on cartridges and provide extra features such as the ‘SuperFX’ for 3D polygon composition or the ‘SA-1’ for co-processing, some of these chips complemented already complex functions like Mode 7 (which allowed to transform the background but not the sprites).
Have you ever wondered what causes games to lag? When the V-Blank interrupt is called to allow graphics update, sometimes the game is still executing some heavy code and skips the V-Blank window, graphics can’t be updated until the next V-Blank call and since the frame wasn’t updated, this is manifested as a drop in frame-rate. It can also happen the other way around, extensive processing during a V-Blank won’t allow the PPU send video signal since the bus is blocked. Then black lines during a scan will be shown, although this is barely noticeable since the frames update 50 or 60 times per second.
Cartridges are physically different between regions, so they won’t fit on consoles from a different region. This was addressed by using third-party adapters.
This console, like the NES, still incorporates the 10NES system, which locks any non-authorised distributors. This was cracked when the CIC chip was successfully cloned.
To protect against bootleg cartridges, games also included a chain of piracy checks:
This could be defeated by manually removing these routines but would take a long time to find all them, after all they would be scattered around the game only to upset the player (and hopefully make them buy a legitimate copy…). Truth to be told, you’ll notice that most ROMs surfing the internet had all their piracy checks removed.
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