Hacker Rewrites Crappy SNES Racer To Improve Its Framerate Sevenfold

Gif: Atari / THQ / Vitor Vilela

Brazilian software engineer Vitor Vilela has, for almost a decade, sung the praises of Nintendo’s SA-1 enhancement chip, but never before have the benefits of the souped-up Super Nintendo processor been more obvious than when applied to Race Drivin’, the lackluster 1992 SNES port of Atari Games’ 3D arcade racer that originally ran at a single-digit framerate on the home console.

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In a video released yesterday, Vilela shows just how powerful the relatively common SA-1 chip could be by comparing footage from the original Race Drivin’ to a conversion they developed for use with the more powerful co-processor. The upgraded hardware boosts the game from around 4 frames per second to upwards of 30, making it look more like an actual video game and less like a slideshow.

Unlike recent attempts to add ray-tracing to SNES games, however, these improvements don’t come from modern technology but a chip that already exists in a fair few cartridges of the era. A total of 34 SNES games used the SA-1 “Super Accelerator” chip, which features much faster clock speeds and RAM, between 1995 and 1997, including classics like Kirby Super Star and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

Vilela has spent the last few years showing how the SA-1 chip can benefit games that didn’t already include it in their cartridges, implementing similarly impressive performance upgrades for Gradius III, Contra III, and Super R-Type. Each conversion, Vilela says, takes over a hundred hours of work reverse-engineering existing code, remapping RAM, and adjusting the game to make sure it doesn’t run too quickly on the SA-1. In this case, Vilela estimates they touched some 90% of the game’s code.

All of Vilela’s work up to this point is available via Github, compatible with several SNES emulators as well as real hardware if you can manage to get the hacked code onto a cartridge.

Staff Writer, Kotaku

DISCUSSION

Outrider

I find this really cool. In a similar vein I’ve seen a number of videos on YouTube of people running the original Star Fox, which ran on the Super FX chip, on a cartridge with the Super FX 2 chip which gives it a nice performance boost. It’s not perfect - the game speed seems to be increased in a way that doesn’t feel right - but it’s pretty neat to see.

The expansion stuff on the NES and SNES is really fascinating because when it comes down to it you were able to get these weird performance upgrades throughout the lifespan of the hardware in a way that we haven’t really seen since.

Honestly, the closest I can think of it now is how games will presumably start offloading calculations to the cloud and could conceivably create more complex games running on the same hardware. To the best of my knowledge the only game that has really done that was Crackdown 3 and even then only in a specific multiplayer mode but it’s an interesting prospect.