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I’ll admit that I never really knew what “Mode 7 graphics” meant when I used the term as a kid. Through context clues, I pieced together that it referenced games that had a faux-3D look. But I didn’t know what was actually happening under the hood of the Super Nintendo to make that possible — until now.
A new video from Modern Vintage Gamer on YouTube breaks down how Super Nintendo renders its visuals. In just over 10 minutes, MVG covers the tile system that brings background layers into memory as well as the different graphical modes (the Super Nintendo actually had eight “Modes”).
While Mode 7 was definitely the most famous graphical mode on Super Nintendo, a lot of games used Mode 1. These modes refer to how many colors and effects developers could apply to the system’s four display layers. Mode 1 supported three layers. Super Metroid, a good example of Mode 1 visuals, had a 16-color front layer and a 16-color background along with a 4-color third layer for its HUD.
The other modes could add more colors or more effects but usually by sacrificing those additional layers.
Mode 7, meanwhile, only had support for one background layer. But that layer could use 256 colors and, more importantly, it could support a number of scaling and warping effects. This enables the layer to scroll past the player’s viewport creating that faux-3D effect.
Visualizing how Mode 7 graphics work
MVG does a great job of showing exactly what is happening with Mode 7 graphics in Super Mario Kart. Look at this:
Mario Kart is running on the left and on the right are the tiles that the Super Nintendo is pulling from. The highlighted area is the current part of the map that is in the player’s viewport. But with Mode 7, the Super Nintendo is able to warp and transform those flat tiles into something that skews out flat. This makes it appear as if Mario is driving over the a 3D course.
Of course, this also has its limitations. You cannot create verticality using Mode 7 because, again, the console is pulling all of the information from flat tiles. The Super Nintendo also couldn’t scale and transform the sprite layer simultaneously with the background layer, which is why it could not natively do 3D games. For that, Nintendo needed the SuperFX graphics chips built into the cartridges.
The video has a lot more information including how the Super Nintendo faked transparency by averaging the color of multiple layers. You can watch the whole thing for yourself by clicking play above.
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