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The Technology Behind Nintendo’s Consoles: 1983-1996

Nintendo has released a bevy of interesting, innovative, and imaginative consoles over the years. The tech behind them deserves a deep dive.

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[UPDATE: A previous version of this article misrepresented the developers of the 6502 and 65816. They were both developed by Ricoh. Goomba Stomp regrets the error.]

In recent years, Nintendo has been known more for the eccentricity of its hardware more than anything else. From the Wii’s motion controls, to the Wii U’s dual-screen gameplay, and the Switch’s portability, many analyses have focused on the physical design of Nintendo’s hardware while ignoring the systems’ most critical underpinnings: its architectural design. While Sony and Microsoft have been locked in a fierce war over console specifications for the past three generations–pitting each others’ machines in an ever-evolving battle for supremacy–Nintendo has focused on the software.

That’s a shame, though. As the progenitor of the modern games industry and a talented hardware manufacturer, Nintendo deserves a closer look at technology behind their consoles and what makes them unique. In part one of a three part series, we dive deep into Nintendo’s design choices for their first three major consoles: the NES, SNES, and Nintendo 64. 

Nintendo Entertainment System (NES): The E-cycled Titan

Released as the Famicom (Family Computer) in Japan, the NES was, by no means, a technical powerhouse. Powered by the legendary, but aging, Ricoh 6502 (also known by its chip ID, the 2A03) clocked at 1.79MHz (1.66 MHz PAL), which had powered systems from the Atari 2600 to the Commodore 64, the NES utilized an aging chipset to accomplish Nintendo’s core goal with the system: creating a faithful home console port of the arcade hit, Donkey Kong. It also succeeded in attracting the talents of a young programmer, Satoru Iwata, one of Japan’s few programmers to have extensive experience with the 6502.

Nintendo

The core Ricoh 6502 accomplished this, and more, by creating a bevy of interesting and creative games that peaked with 1985’s Super Mario Bros. However, Nintendo wasn’t finished there. The NES’ flexible design, enhanced by a dual ROM chipset and expandability through more expensive cartridges, allowed the NES to tackle much bigger, and more intense games. Arguably the peak of NES graphical design came near the end of the NES’ lifespan when a young developer, Masahiro Sakurai, released Kirby’s Adventure, weighing in at a whopping six megabits (750 kilobytes) and pushed the aging console to its limits.

[The Ricoh 6502] also succeeded in attracting the talents of a young programmer, Satoru Iwata…

For all its potential, the NES had some critical limits. A relatively slow processor and hard sprite limit of eight meant that some game genres (such as shmups–Summer Carnival ‘92 Recca notwithstanding) were very difficult to pull off without slowdown. Color, sound, and controller limitations all held back what was capable on Nintendo’s first successful console. Despite its limitations, however, the NES dominated the marketplace, selling over sixty-two million units worldwide and shipping over half-a-billion units in software sales, taking Nintendo to the top of the games industry in the process. For a console that leveraged such outdated technology, the NES’s impact was incredible catapulting Nintendo to the heights of its popularity. 

Super Nintendo Entertainment System* (SNES): The Aging Prizefighter

Despite riding on the NES’ popularity, the SNES nevertheless marked a notable jump in performance from the aging NES. Packing sixty-four times the work RAM and a 16 bit custom Ricoh 65C816 (also known by its chip ID, the 5A22) clocked at 21.47727 MHz (21.28137 PAL), the SNES provided a much needed boost for game developers. Suddenly, genres that had struggled on the NES, like shmups and RPGs, were no longer held back by hardware limitations and saw an incredible boost in gameplay quality. Even other genres like platformers, which had ran fine on the NES, saw an enormous increase in visual fidelity, allowing for parallax scrolling and more impressive sprite work among other features. 

Facing off against its biggest competitor, the Sega Genesis, in the “console wars” of the 1990s, the SNES’ major advantage didn’t come from graphics, but from its sound.

For all it’s technical wizardry, the SNES suffered from what games historian Dominic Arsenault calls a “decentralized architecture.” Following in the footsteps of famed Nintendo developer Gunpei Yokoi’s motto of “lateral thinking with seasoned technology,” SNES designer Masayuki Uemura focused on surrounding the relatively weak 65C816 with powerful components that “cluttered and complicated the programming process.” Similarly, Nintendo’s claims of 21 MHz represented a best-case scenario. Most of the time, the SNES operated at “an effective operating speed […of…] 1.79 to 3.58 MHz.” Such a slow CPU (at least when compared to the available options on the market at the time), meant that developers needed to harness all of the SNES’ various “specialized components” in order to produce quality games. 

Facing off against its biggest competitor, the Sega Genesis, in the “console wars” of the 1990s, the SNES’ major advantage didn’t come from graphics, but from its sound. Rocking a custom Sony audio chip (designed by none other than the legendary Ken Kutaragi) as one of its central components, the SNES allowed composers to create much more varied soundtracks than the comparably stunted NES. Games like Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy VI (III in the United States), F-Zero, and Super Mario World pushed the SNES’ sound chip hard, and it showed. 

Nintendo-History

Like the NES, the SNES’ adaptability was one of its greatest strengths. Add-on technology like the DSP-1 (PilotWings and Super Mario Kart), SA-1 (Super Mario RPG and Kirby Super Star), CX4 (Mega Man X2), and a myriad of others, augmented the system in ways not possible before, allowing for experiences that were faster and better looking than on the base console. Still, Nintendo pushed for more. While the SNES’ Mode 7 allowed for backgrounds to be manipulated, stretched, and flipped around in order to simulate a 3D environment, but the base SNES was still incapable of true 3D gameplay. Nintendo wanted to change that. 

To address it, Nintendo assigned the development of a SNES add-on chip to Argonaut Software, an upstart British programming team, to develop a 3D capable chip for the SNES, after seeing their spectacular work on the Game Boy game X. The result was the Super FX Chip, an incredible piece of engineering that introduced groundbreaking polygonal 3D gameplay for the first time on a Nintendo console. Both the Super FX chip, used in the original Star Fox (Starwing in PAL regions), and its successor, the Super FX 2, used in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island and Doom, were powerful chips that came too late in the SNES’ life to make a substantial difference. By that time, Nintendo was already competing against the Sony Playstation, a revolutionary new system capable of much more complex 3D output than what the SNES could muster.

The SNES, ultimately, would prove to be a financial success, just like the NES before it, selling 49 million consoles and 379 million software units before being discontinued in 2003. While some, like Arsenault, see it as the beginning of the end of Nintendo’s iron grip over the gaming industry, others see it as the apex of Nintendo’s creative genius, a golden age of game design, and the perfection of sprite-based graphics. 

*All citations, unless otherwise noted, are from Dominic Arsenault’s Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Platform Studies) published by The MIT Press. You can find it here.

Nintendo 64 (N64): The Crippled Giant

That would change with the next generation, with the ever-divisive Nintendo 64. As the company’s first 64 bit, 3D focused console, the N64 took Silicon Graphics impressive MIPS architecture and introduced it to the world of video games. Operating its 64 bit NEC VR4300 CPU at 93.75 MHz and its famed Reality Coprocessor at 62.5 MHz, the N64 allowed for impressive 3D rendering that theoretically allowed the console to outperform Sony’s nearly two-year-old PlayStation.

Some of the N64’s hardware gave it an advantage over the competition. Built in trilinear mipmapping allowed for cleaner textures than the competing PS1 and Saturn, edge-based anti-aliasing paved the way for today’s FXAA and MLAA equivalents, real-time lighting was revolutionary, and its fully-programmable GPU allowed some developers to harness its true potential through tweaking microcode. Similarly developers on the N64 pioneered several techniques still in use in modern, 3D game design, including level of detail scaling, clipping, large environmental textures, and advanced texture streaming. Indeed, for developers talented (and stubborn) enough to work with the N64, great things could be achieved.

Unfortunately, flaws in the N64’s design crippled its potential. With only 4 KB of texture memory, developers were forced (at least until late in the hardware’s lifetime), to make “serious concessions in texture design.” They faced either smearing small textures across large surfaces or using Gouraud shading to make up for the console’s insane limitations. While this was a decent workaround, it resulted in a notably cartoony look that didn’t match up to the “more realistic look of competing PlayStation games.” Additionally, a flaw in hardware design made the Reality Coprocessor, the N64’s GPU, go through the CPU to access memory, an inefficient design decision that crippled the N64’s polygonal output to a tenth of what was theoretically possible.

Nintendo-Console-History

Nintendo’s decision to adopt cartridges, however, was perhaps the biggest blow to the N64’s technical prowess. Frightened by piracy, Nintendo stuck with the cartridge, a storage medium whose range of 4-64 MB left much to be desired when compared to Sony’s 650 MB CD. Where PlayStation games like Final Fantasy VII had entire FMV cutscenes spread across multiple disks, N64 games had to settle for real-time cutscenes instead. While cartridges were much faster at loading, the vast disparity in storage capacity coupled with increased cost made cartridges yet another roadblock for the N64’s popularity. 

for developers talented (and stubborn) enough to work with the N64, great things could be achieved.

Despite its many successes, the N64 failed to capture the magic of either the NES or SNES, selling 32 million consoles to the PlayStation’s 102 million. It sent Nintendo home empty-handed, rewarding Sony’s innovation and consumer communication and punishing Nintendo’s stubborn reticence. After spending most of the late 90s in a desperate attempt to catch up with Sony, Nintendo decided that it had to take a few chances and compete with Sony directly on power…

Be sure to check out the second part of this series where we discuss the technical history behind both the GameCube and Wii.

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Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Games

‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.

RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.

resident_evil_3_psx_marvin_branagh_by_danytatu-d812bgk-768x480

Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.

The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.

resident-evil-Nemesis-768x402

The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.

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