A well-known trick used by Nintendo to keep its slowly aging SNES console fresh against newer competition was to produce new games with additional supporting chips in the cartridge to drive out previously unimaginable performance. Chips like the famous SuperFX gave us 3D polygonal graphics, but it would be a few more years before even much faster platforms could achieve real-time ray tracing. Nintendo may not have succeeded, but here in 2020 [Ben Carter] has an SNES on its couch that depicts a complex 3D ray-traced world.
Ray tracing refers to the practice of rendering a scene with accurate lighting by following the rays of light that go to each pixel. It can achieve results even close to photorealism, but it remains an extremely computationally intensive task for any computer. To do this with an SNES, he hasn’t resorted to a modern computer like the excellent Raspberry-Pi-based NES DOOM cartridge, but instead tried to create something that might be a modified Nintendo in the 1990s. chip. The tool may be a thoroughly modern DE10-Nano FPGA development board, but what it implements could possibly have been made as a 90s ASIC. It contains three ray tracing cores that do the job, but the final playback is handled by the SNES itself. At 200 x 160 pixels and 256 colors, it’s not a graphics powerhouse, but the maximum frame rate of 30 fps makes no slouch for the day. The video below the break provides additional detail.
Perhaps an unexpected takeaway from the scene featured lies in what it looks like from its era. It comes from a time when chessboard floors, mirrored balls and azure skies looked like so futuristic, and just for people like Toy Story redefined what the general public can expect from 3D rendering. If Nintendo had made a ray-traced SNES game with a chip like this, that would certainly have been a defining moment for gaming in that decade.
Thanks [Mark] for the tip.