Killer Feature: Mode 7

You need to launch a console with something that makes jaws drop and chins wag – few have done a better job of that than F-Zero, which launched with the SNES in Japan in 1990 (and the US in 1991, and Europe in 1992).

How? Why, through the miracle of pseudo-3D effects carried out by rotating and scaling background layers, using one of the console’s built-in hardware graphics settings, of course. Or Mode 7, if you want to shorten it a bit.

Yes, it was a marketing term thrown about to get us all excited about this so-called ‘Super’ Nintendo machine, but the fact is it was a graphics mode in the SNES architecture, numbered seven. So there was truth to the marketing gumph.

Additionally, it was a) obvious when Mode 7 was being used, so easy to show off, and b) really quite brilliant at the time. It’s impossible to say it was purely the utilisation of Mode 7 that made F-Zero so special and, in turn, was the sole factor behind the revitalisation of the racing genre – but at the same time it’s not a stretch to make the claim.

By rotating and scaling an otherwise static, non-interactive background image, F-Zero gave the impression of vast, three-dimensional courses big enough to fit these vehicles travelling at hundreds of miles an hour. The sense of speed was palpable; the trick worked.

Nobody with a technical mind truly believed what they were seeing was 3D, but it genuinely didn’t matter. And when we fell to the ever-growing earth in Pilotwings, or skidded around a Mario Kart track, the belief in such a natty feature just grew.

Over 60 games in the SNES library ended up using Mode 7 – the Game Boy Advance even introduced its own version of the effect when it launched – so this was by no means just a promotional tool, or an overhyped tech spec. Mode 7 made a lot of SNES games look like SNES games, and so had a huge hand in defining the visual character of an entire console.

The Mega Drive never had Mode 7-alike features natively, though the odd title did pop up here and there that managed an impersonation of the rotate-and-scale backgrounds. Dick Vitale’s “Awesome Baby!” College Hoops – yes, that is what it’s called – is a good example to take a look at. But as all these solutions had to be entirely written in software, it was a laborious, difficult, and ultimately pointless task. Better to spend time elsewhere.

And that, looping back handily, is what helped to make Mode 7 on the SNES stand out so very much. It was easy to implement, being a standard hardware feature, meaning developers could either use it in a standard fashion quickly and easily, or spend a bit more time and mess about to get some more special effects.

A particular favourite has to be Super Castlevania IV’s rotating level, which not only took advantage of the visual aspect of the tech, but made it an integral part of that particular stage’s mechanics. No, it wasn’t really 3D, but Mode 7 was a brilliant, memorable, and striking feature all of its own.

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