clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

An absolutely wild mod has brought real-time ray tracing to the SNES

New, 10 comments

It offers a new look at a unique art style

Ray-tracing technology, available for a few years on PC, has finally come to consoles: the PS5 has it, the Xbox Series S and X have it, and, 30 years after its release, the SNES is getting it. No joke — the Nintendo console from 1990 has had ray tracing run on it, thanks to an incredible mod by programmer Ben Carter (via Gizmodo). And it’s done by a chip he’s calling SuperRT.

Ray tracing is usually used to make games look more realistic by simulating the way light bounces off of surfaces, leading to color bleeding from bright objects and reflecting off of shiny surfaces. As you can see from the video demo above, the tech on the SNES isn’t pushing any graphics boundaries, but come on — it’s an SNES.

Well, technically, it’s a Famicom, which is the same hardware in different packaging for Japan. The real magic, though, is that it’s a totally stock console (except for the fact that the top has been taken off to make room for a ton of wires): all of the processing is being done by a chip Carter programmed and added to a game cartridge.

Adding processing power to the SNES by adding another processor to the game cartridge isn’t something new: Nintendo did it with both Star Fox and Yoshi’s Island. (Of course, it was adding 3D functionality and special effects, not ray tracing.) To achieve real-time ray tracing, Carter couldn’t just use the old Super FX chips that Nintendo did.

Instead, he had to use a modern field-programmable gate array chip (FPGA), which allowed him to take information about the scene being rendered by the SNES and process the ray tracing for it. If you want an in-depth look at how it’s done, Carter has a blog post explaining how he did it. He also has a video explaining his methodology, embedded below.

This mod is super cool, not just from an engineering and hacking perspective, but because it offers a look at an alternate reality — not the one where ray tracing was magically created in the 1990s, but one where ’90s low-poly 3D games are remastered but keep the art style. As someone who grew up around that time, I love seeing 2D and 3D games get modern-looking remakes, but I’d also love to see the art style come back with modern tricks like ray tracing and anti-aliasing. And if I had to imagine what it would look like, it’d be a lot like Carter’s demo.