Take 10 minutes to learn how Super Nintendo graphics work

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I must admit that when I used this term as a kid, I never really knew what “Mod 7 Graphics” meant. By reference hints, I combined that it refers to games that had a Fox-3D look. But I had no idea what was really going on under the hood of Super Nintendo to make it possible – so far.

A new video from Modern Vintage Gamer on YouTube breaks down how Super Nintendo renders its visuals. In just 10 minutes, MVG covers a tile system that brings background layers as well as various graphical modes into memory (Super Nintendo actually had eight “modes”).

While Mode 7 was definitely the most popular graphical mode on Super Nintendo, many games used Mode 1. These mods refer to how many colors and effects developers can apply to the system’s four display layers. Mode 1 supports three levels. Super Metroid, a good example of Mod 1 Visual, had a 4-color third layer for its HUD with a 16-color front layer and a 16-color background.

Other mods can add more colors or more effects but usually by sacrificing those extra layers.

Mode 7, meanwhile, had support for only one background layer. But that layer can use 256 colors and, more importantly, it can support a number of scaling and warping effects. This enables the layer to scroll behind the player’s viewport which creates the Fox-3D effect.

Imagine how mode 7 graphics works

MVG does a great job of showing exactly what is happening with the Mod 7 graphics in Super Mario Kart. See this:

Mario Kart is running to the left and to the right are the tiles that Super Nintendo is pulling. The highlighted area is the current part of the map that is in the player’s viewport. But with Mode 7, Super Nintendo flattens those flat tiles and makes them flat. This makes it look like Mario is driving on a 3D course.

Of course, this too has its limitations. You cannot create verticality using mode 7 because, again, the console is pulling all the data from the flat tiles. Even Super Nintendo could not scale and convert the Sprite layer with the background layer, which is why it could not play 3D games natively. For that, Nintendo needed SuperFX graphics chips built into the cartridge.

The video contains much more information on how Super Nintendo has faked transparency by averaging multiple layers of color. You can see the whole thing for yourself by clicking on play above.

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