Hacker Rewrites Crappy SNES Racer To Improve Its Framerate Sevenfold

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 lacklustre 1992 SNES port of Atari’s 3D arcade racer that originally ran at a single-digit framerate on the home console.

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 sub-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.

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