back to article Starwing: Nintendo, Argonaut's Brit boffinry and the Super FX chip

For every cock-up or failed venture made by Nintendo, the company has made some bitingly shrewd moves along the way. Hold the orthodox-looking SNES cartridge for the game Starfox in your hand and you may not realise the significance of the custom circuitry and chips contained therein. The title was Nintendo’s first big push …


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  1. Alex Walsh


    A small British start up? Argonaut were 10 years old when Starfox came out. And Star Fox had been preceded 5 years earlier by Argonauts Starglider 2. Home computers were regularly doing 3D that dumped on consoles from a great height.

    I loved Starfox when it came out, it was good fun, in an arcadey way we had to wait for Colony Wars or G-Police on the PS1 to beat. Revolutionary for consoles, not so much for gamers generally.

    1. lurker

      Re: Eh?

      Just what I was thinking.

      There were graphics akin to this (ok not quite so pretty, but still filled polygons) in Zarch/Lander back in 1987 on the Archimedes

      In 1993, when this was released, the Amiga was nearing the end of it's lifespan, but back in 1989 I was playing Stunt Car Racer - with not drastically worse graphics than this - which even had a "networked" multiplayer mode over a null serial cable.

      The GPU-in-the cartridge trick is quite neat though, if a bit bizarre :).

      1. Shades

        Re: Eh?

        "In 1993 [...] the Amiga was nearing the end of it's lifespan"

        Really? I must be imagining this then!

        1. lurker

          Re: Eh?

          Pretty sure you know what I mean. There are likely still jaquard loom enthusiasts out there too, but that doesn't prevent it, or the Amiga, from being very much legacy technology.

          I loved the Amiga, and at the time both the hardware and the O/S were way ahead of the competition. But those days are gone, and now it's of interests to retro computing enthusiasts (who I understand and applaud) and small minority of cranks who refuse to accept that things have moved on.

        2. John Sanders

          Re: Eh?

          That is not an Amiga

          And yes, the Amiga as we knew it was done around that time.

          This comes from a hardcore fan. I switched off my A4000 around the year 1999, but it was apparent in 1993-94 that the Amiga was no more.

    2. Cornholio

      Re: Eh?

      Ah. Starglider 2 on the Amiga. Happy days Painting with Rolf :o)

    3. DaneB

      Re: Eh?

      If you're comparing Argonaut to Nintendo, they were definitely small and a relative start-up.

    4. John Sanders

      Re: Eh?

      First 3D filled polygon game? No way Jose!


      Dark Side

      Castle Master II

      The Sentinel

      Those are some I remember from the 80's and those ran on the C64 and on the good ol' Speccy

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  3. Kebablog

    I always thought that Starfox was renamed in europe because of the spectrum/c64/amstrad game with the same name (published by Ariolasoft)

    1. Piro

      Lylat Wars, maybe.

    2. M Gale

      I always thought that Starfox was renamed in europe...

      Yep. To Starwing.

      Me and mates used to play Starfox anyway, via one of the wierd adapters where you shoved a UK game (or a game where the region lock matched the console) on one slot, and the game you want to play in another slot. Seems I can still get to the Black Hole pretty reliably on the emulators, and Out Of This World is as painful a secret level as it's always been!

      1. DaneB
        Thumb Up

        Didn't Starfox have extra little connectors on the bottom of the cartridge? They had to release new adaptors to get over it.

        Nintendo always had an extra trick to keep the import gang on their toes... or in business maybe!

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Err... you mean SKYfox?

  4. AceRimmer

    This was the game

    That convinced me to buy a SNES.

    Many papers were delivered to achieve that goal!

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

      Re: This was the game

      Many papers were delivered to achieve that goal!

      Huh? How did playing lots of Paperboy help achieve your goal?

  5. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge


    If my memory hasn't betrayed me, couldn't you also play 4-player onscreen at once as well? This was more of a free-roaming affair*

    *albeit in a wrap-around box

    1. Tom 38 Silver badge

      Re: Sir

      I think, but am not 100% certain, that feature came in Star Fox 64, the version for the N64, which incidentally introduced the (hated) rumble pack to the world.

      1. DaneB

        Re: Sir

        Yep, definitely Starfox 64, or Lylat Wars as known in the UK

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    SuperFX and N64 sequel

    My 2nd experience of the SuperFX chip (after Mario Kart) was renting Stunt Race FX from the video shop.

    Up until this point, the only 3D racer I'd played had been a Hard Drivin' arcade game, and found it to be overly complex (clutch control if I recall, as an 8 year old was a bit confusing).

    Stunt Race FX blew me away.

    Though this was just months before Ridge Racer came out on the PS1 and moved the goalposts into another era.

    Indycar Racing / NASCAR Racing on the PC were of note too.

    Of Starfox, why was the N64 sequel known as 'Lylat Wars'? Thought it was a daft name (though Lylat being the star system). StarWing 64 would've sounded better.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: SuperFX and N64 sequel

      Yeah, i remember playing Nascar on a 386 and 486 linked by a null modem cable... all but one of the tracks was a boring ellipse, though. yYu could paint your cars different colours, and the car damage was pretty impressive for the time, especially detached wheels bouncing down the track. Setting one's car to 'indestructible' and speeding the wrong way down the track was always a hoot... perhaps we could have an antique code show dedicated to the fun we got from abusing computer games?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Thumb Up

        Re: SuperFX and N64 sequel

        Ah yes, 4 floppy install had ovals of various shapes with Watkins Glen being the only 'road' course.

        I later got a CD drive and picked up the CD version which contained a few more tracks - Sears Point being the 2nd 'road' course. (And a 'high resolution' 640x480 SVGA '-h' option)

        Later mods allowed for the courses from Indycar 2 to be used - Including Long Beach, Surfers Paradise, Vancouver etc.

  7. ratfox Silver badge
    1. HippyFreetard



      "Yibbity yibbity! Yip yip yibbity!"

  8. Joefish


    The console didn't have a 'frame buffer'. The RAM on the cartridge was the frame buffer, for layering up the polygons one-by-one. To display it, the frame was then dumped by DMA into the console's video RAM as a series of tiles, which the SNES then displays as a map as if those tiles make up one fixed level of a game.

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

      Re: Technically...

      the frame was then dumped by DMA into the console's video RAM as a series of tiles

      DMA? You were luuucky!

  9. Paul Shirley

    the MegaCD, FAIL all the way through

    It's hard to understate just how mind numbingly bad the MegaCD was, little more than a bare CD drive with no useful firmware or tools, most annoyingly no file system - you had to write your own ISO driver and file system builder. Acceleration functions barely faster than using the 68K CPU, probably unavoidable in a system without direct frame buffer access.

    A system doomed for failure, painful to work with and I was very glad when the project I'd been working on got cancelled.

    The FX chip had a big advantage, even sitting on the wrong side of a cartridge, it had more direct access to memory, instead of injecting graphics through a narrow write port. Hardly surprising it did the job so much better. If they really did pull out of Playstation because MegaCD failed, that's really unfortunate, it should have performed much better.

    Still, we did get the Sony version out of that withdrawal.

    1. DaneB
      Thumb Down

      Re: the MegaCD, FAIL all the way through

      I had just about every console around during this period... but so glad I didn't fork out for a Sega Mega CD. Do you remember how bad those 'full-motion video' games were?????

    2. M Gale

      Re: the MegaCD, FAIL all the way through

      The Mega CD started out with some shit games that used all the storage of the CD but didn't advance playability beyond a flashy version of Simple Simon. Unfortunately this seemed to tar its reputation for the rest of its existance.

      Those of us who actually bought one, know about games like Battlecorps and Thunderhawk. These are two games that showed off the sprite-warping ASICs in the Mega CD, and the advantages of having what was basically a two-system cluster working together to calculate and render the different bits of a game. Even Silpheed, relying heavily on FMV for background graphics, was still a good Galaxians clone. As for Snatcher, that's a damned huge adventure-type title along the lines of Mass Effect, that ended up with me and a friend spending 36 hours straight just beating the shit out of the game.

      What Sega did wrong was have shit FMV games as the vast majority of launch games, and charging what they did (£260 IIRC) for something that then needed a £100 console to work, with no bundle offers for getting the two together.

      1. Epobirs

        Re: the MegaCD, FAIL all the way through

        There were some gems in there, that is true. Sega screwed up in not getting more games developed that took good advantage of the hardware. So many were just cartridge games with some FMV bits strapped on or just awful FMV exercises entirely. The people behind Battlecorps also did Soul Star, another showpiece for the hardware features.

        The worst thing about the failure of the Sega CD was that it gave Nintendo a scare and caused them to cancel their very promising SNES-CD. This had much better specs and was intended to launch at $200 in the US at a time when the Sega-CD listed for $300. In addition to the much deeper palette of the SNES being far better for FMV, the CD add-on was going to have a FX Chip built in. This meant any developer could make use of the chip without having to worry about the expense or have a game with very low ROM usage to make up the cost. With CD it didn't matter how big your game was, the cost was the same. (Unless, of course, it needed more than one disc but that was usually limited to awful FMV games.)

        There were two games ready to go at launch for the SNES-CD. Konami's Xexex was a Gradius-type shooter with polygonal objects. That one was never released in any form. And Square's Secret of Mana was an action RPG with FMV sequences. The FMV was removed so that the game could be released on cartridge and there are places in the game where it is really obvious something expository is missing.

        If the SNES-CD had been launched as planned, it could have altered history quite a bit. 3D would have become a major game feature years earlier, and the N64 would probably have been CD based and more competitive, both in terms of software costs and developers already accustomed to working with polygons.

        1. DaneB
          Thumb Up

          Re: the MegaCD, FAIL all the way through

          That's a really interesting idea about the SNES CD... I'm just not that convinced that any add-on to a console system would ever be that successful. You buy the console, play the games, that's it. Add-ons are only ever going to be niche products, surely? Or are there any exampes out there of tech add-ons that have been HUGELY succesful.

        2. DaneB

          Re: the MegaCD, FAIL all the way through

          Would have loved to have seen a SNES CD though, if I'm honest!

          For me, the SNES was the greatest console of all, not least because it remains to this day to have the best designed game controller ever. Period.

  10. 1Rafayal

    If memory serves, Nintendo wanted to put this chip directly into the US version of the SNES.

    Also, when Argonaut showed the prototype to Nintendo, it was running on a NES

    1. DaneB
      Thumb Up

      That would have been great... though bit confusing for companies producing games for worldwide release? Must be why they decided against.

  11. Amorous Cowherder

    "Never the same again." Say that again, the games market is full of FPS clones all basically DOOM knock-offs. Don't kid yourselves, it's linear gameplay, you shoot anything that moves, it's a DOOM knock-off!

    1. DaneB

      IMHO, I thought Doom was a very different game to Starwing. Not least the freedom of flying around, and the fact that it was about avoiding buildings / enemy fire as well as shooting down enemies.

  12. Ness

    It was mentioned during an interview with the developers

    Falco... is a Phesent

    1. DaneB

      Re: It was mentioned during an interview with the developers

      Pheasant peasant?

  13. kyza

    First real 3D?

    Even if you're only talking about shaded vectors, I'm pretty sure Driller on the C64 & other 8-bits was in there in about '88. Or indeed The Sentinel in 1986.

    1. Joefish

      Re: "First real 3D?"

      Perhaps the title could read "World except those who've played Starstrike II, Driller, Total Eclipse, Castle Master, Midwinter 1/2, Hunter, Simulcra or any version of Elite since 1988 + Fox introduced to true 3D".

      1. kyza

        Re: "First real 3D?"

        Starstrike II - that's the one I was trying to remember!

        I was a C64 owner and bought a speccy solely to play that game. Amazing visuals for it's time.

        I also had no idea that Realtime made one of my all-time faves, Carrier Command.

    2. Irongut

      Re: "First real 3D?"

      Yup by 1993 this kind of 3D was old hat to us Speccy & Commodore gamers.

      Driller was released in 1987. It was pre-dated by Starstrike 2, released in 1986 and directly copied by StarFox 7 years later.

      1. Joefish

        Re: "...old hat to us Speccy & Commodore gamers..."

        I was really going for the ST/Amiga, which were doing entire 3D worlds well before Starwing. Damocles managed an entire solar system where you could fly to any planet, dive into the atmosphere, find a continent, fly low over a city, park your spaceship and go up in the lift of a block of flats and watch the sun set and the planet you just left rise in the night sky. Though for fast and smooth filled 3D, Interphase was hard to beat.

        Argonaut actually built the 3D chip off the back off their 16-bit 3D computer work like Starglider and Starglider II.

        And as for people slating the Mega-CD add-on, the Megadrive had a 68000 and didn't need assistance to do 3D filled vectors - it managed a perfectly credible home conversion of Hard Drivin'. The 32X add-on was even more advanced, though too rushed and too late to make any impact.

    3. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

      Or indeed The Sentinel in 1986

      +1 to that, though if you look it up you'll see that it wasn't true 3D as it fudged the proper perspective transform. Still looked pretty good.

      Elite is the best exemplar of true 3d of the time (and before), but it wasn't shaded, at least on C64. Also on C64 was Quake Minus One (basically features on either side of the "road" scaled and translated as they approach, so I guess it's 3D, but simple). Space Harrier was highly touted as 3D but gameplay left a lot to be desired. Someone's already mentioned Zarch/Virus for the Archimedes and Amiga, so I'll leave it at that.

    4. Epobirs

      Way Out was a real-time 3D maze on the Atari 800 way back in 1982. Even before then there were some wireframe games on the home computers inspired by Battlezone in the arcades. The original version of Stellar 7 on the Apple ][, IIRC.

  14. HippyFreetard

    My little brother had Starfox for the SNES, but there was an arcade simulator too. It was called Starwing. Its screen was a big angled magnifying mirror pointed at a TV above your head.

    It was a great game!

  15. Dave 126 Silver badge

    Argonaut... didn't they do a game on rails called 'Creature Shock'? I would consult Wikipedia, but I'm drunk and it sems more fun to ask you guys. Certainly the Argonaut name is familiar from the time I used to read PC Zone. And wasn't there some parachute simulation game out around the same time as Starfox? Skywings 3D or somesuch?

    1. M Gale

      Skywings 3D?

      Never heard of it, but I have heard of Pilotwings. It wasn't really a "simulation", but it did implement a sprite-stretched Mode 7 floor and flying vehicles like a biplane, glider, jet pack and yes, parachutes.

      Also released as Pilotwings 64 for the N64. As far as I'm aware, neither version used any kind of cartridge-based coprocessing.

      1. Epobirs

        Re: Skywings 3D?

        I believe you are correct. Both games ran on the base hardware with nothing special in the cartridge.

        Pilotwings started out as a hardware demo and IIRC there was source code in the early Japanese developr kits. We used to get imported Japanese gaming and home computer mags at the company I worked at in the late 80s and we spent a fair amount of time translating the article where Nintendo was making their first official showing of their next generation hardware to the press. What would become Pilotwings was the main demo for the Mode 7 features. This was in 1989, quite a while before the Super Famicom shipped in Japan.

        1. DaneB

          Re: Skywings 3D?

          Pilotwings was an awesome title, though my fave for mode 7 rotation was the release title of F-Zero. All played with the Japanese text giving a few confusions but nothing too hard to work out. The graphics were impressive and it was all very arcade like... but it was the gameplay that sealed those gmes as classics.

          1. DaneB
            Thumb Up

            Re: Skywings 3D?

            I believe the Super Famicom had a sound chip developed by Sony which is why there was some great music all round. Interesting how Sony was dipping toes into consoles before going big with the Playstation.

  16. Anonymous Coward
  17. BlueGreen

    tech question

    This is really tangential, but watched a bit of the youtube vid and noticed a scrolling 'floor' (that's easy) and what looked like a fixed bitmap backdrop. This backdrop appeared to rotate somewhat when yer spacecraft rolled. Did some googling but only got opengl & similar hits, basically how to do it with a library, which isn't what I want, so, roughly speaking, at a low level, how is smooth rotation a bitmap done? If you can throw in scaling as well all the better.

    Any links appreciated, ta.

    1. Joefish

      Re: tech question

      Presumably the background was done using the SNES's Mode 7 rotatable map on a layer behind all the polygon work. So the gameplay polygons would be rendered in the frame bufer in the cartridge, then dumped into just one of the SNES's screen layers. A Mode 7 layer is placed behind it, for the horizon and backdrop, and a fixed map layer is placed in front of it for scores, shield status, lives etc.

      If you want to do it on modern hardware, it would be done with two textured triangles making up one big rectangular background image, which you could then rotate and resize. The SNES's Mode 7 let you do one big flat texture, based on a tile-map, and rotate it and tilt it with perspective. Some games used it as a floor or roadway, others to make the scenery tilt and turn, others to do a big screen-sized monster.

      1. Joefish

        Re: tech question

        Very technically, most modern 3D games use a giant textured ball that surrounds the player, and the sky and horizon texture is painted on the inside of that. So whichever direction you look in, you're seeing the inside of the skybox behind all the other game objects.

        If you want to see 3D that doesn't, take a look at SEGA's original Daytona when you take a corner - everything on the screen tilts sideways except for the cloud texture used as the background.

        1. BlueGreen

          Re: tech question @ Joefish

          Thanks for the info, I hope to look into this stuff at some point so that was useful. But question I was really after was, how is rotation/scaling of a bitmap done *in software*? Doing it in hardware or libs kind of sidesteps the 'how'. I'm rather curious because it seems to be a very heavy duty process but apparently can be done very fast.


          1. Joefish

            Re: tech question @ Joefish

            At its crudest, you fill your triangle as a series of horizontal lines. And for each line, you map the end points of that line and the width of a screen pixel onto your textured bitmap. Then you copy one pixel at a time, moving the requisite distance in whatever direction across your texture bitmap each time, until you've painted a whole line of texture on the screen. Then you repeat for your next line.

            It's best left to graphics hardware as if you want to do perspective properly you're dealing with quadratic equations and the like.

  18. Vociferous

    Ah, the happy innocent days before the web...

    ...when I could see a cover like this and not instantly think "furries".

    1. Dive Fox

      Re: Ah, the happy innocent days before the web...

      And just what's wrong with furries, eh?

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