It wasn't that long ago that I was sitting in front of my SNES playing Starfox when a good friend of mine came up and said how bad the graphics looked to her. I was stunned! I have always considered Starfox to be one of Nintendo's all time best games. I asked what was wrong with them--that is when she hit on it... "Everything is all so blocky, and there is no detail or realism." Hmmm, taking a step back I could understand where she was coming from, but I have always considered polygon based games to be the leading edge of "realism." How do you explain why a polygon game is better? Or is it even better? I decided that I would search for some answers. It was not long before I found that even within the educated gaming community there are very many people who do not understand what a polygon game consists of, why it is different, or why they are such an advance forward. FX co-processor, SVP logic chip, or any slew of a number of new products from the major players in the video game market scream at players "We are better!" But what are these? And how can we benefit from them? And why am I talking about these chips in an article about polygon based games? These are all questions I hope to answer.
Well, what is a polygon game? Well, the easiest way to answer this is to explain how the video games that we are used to are made. Almost all of the current games are programmed two-dimensional bitmaps. What this means is that for each position that a character may be seen in, he is drawn and then a frame made. If you were to rotate this character in three-dimensions, you must quickly flip between all of the different drawn in pictures. This leads to one very large disadvantage--you can only rotate the character in increments equal to the number of frames that are drawn in. If you wish to have a very smooth/detailed rotation you must have many frames programmed in, and this leads to large games. This is where polygons come in. Polygons are mathematical; they are perfect shapes that the computer can deal with easily. And they are programmed in as three-dimensional shapes (Some polygon games still use 2-D, but this is rapidly changing) that the computer can rotate. Since the rotations are done by a mathematical formula that will project the shape at any angle of rotation, only one image needs to be stored in the game. Therefore, with a polygon game the programmers can still have very smooth rotations, and not go over their cartridge size limit.
Great! All the video game industries problems are solved--games can be smooth, fast, and detailed since each image only needs a little room in the cartridge, right? Nope. Sorry, it isn't that easy. Polygon games have one major disadvantage. Remember when in Star Trek Spock stopped the machine by giving it a very difficult math operation of calculating Pi? Well, that seems to be our problem as well. No, we do not have to calculate Pi--but we do need to do many math calculations for each step of the rotation. All these math computations bog down the CPU (The brain of the computer). Do we give up here and say that our machine is not fast enough to use polygon graphics? The brains at both Nintendo and Sega say no. This leads to the birth of the FX and SVP chips.
Polygon games are math intensive, and there are only two ways for a machine to deal with this. One is to build a machine that is blazing fast and can deal with them outright. This would require selling your old machines and upgrading, to say a 3DO. This is not practical for the video game giants. Instead they had to find a way to upgrade the machines that they already had. To do this they developed polygon specific processors that could be included in the games that needed them. These polygon specific processors are Nintendo's FX chip, and Sega's SVP chip. These chips are designed to deal with the polygons, so the CPU doesn't have to. Both Nintendo's and Sega's chips act as math co-processors. This means that they do all of the difficult math computation before giving any information to the CPU. Then the CPU only has to display the graphics. Both chips also boast added features. Nintendo's chip allows them to manipulate more images, while Sega's has built in trig functions that allow it to perform approximate 2-D rotations. Nintendo still has a large edge on Sega as far as rotation is concerned, but they are on equal ground with the math co-processors. Both the folks at Nintendo, and Sega, are very reluctant to give any real hardware specifics on their chips speed ratings--but I'm sure the test of time will tell the better made chip.
Of course there is never, ever, anything that doesn't come with at least a few strings attached. In this case it is the price. Sega's SVP games are expected to be in the $80 + range, and Nintendo games with the FX chip are expected to be $10-$15 more than their normal prices. Ouch. Is it worth it? I have to say yes. The polygon games that have been released on the home systems have not even began to scratch the surface of what can be done. The possibilities are endless, and there are a few major advances that we can expect to see coming very, very soon. So what does the future hold... Read on.
We come back to the number one complaint in polygon games- "But they just don't look real." Enter the wonders of Ray-Tracing. This is the backbone of high quality Computer Graphics (CG). What is Ray-Tracing? It was best described by Craig Linley, a professional programmer--
"Ray Tracing is a method for the generation of [photorealistic] three-dimensional images... [Ray Tracing] effects provide the depth information to the viewer's brain that enhances the three-dimensional effects..." --Practical Ray Tracing in C, 1992
What this means to the gamer is that you will see polygon games that are so real looking that you may have to hit pause just to remind yourself it is only a game. I am talking about fully interactive, 3-D, hair popping, speed filled wild adventures that just don't stop. When will we see these games? Well, we probably won't see them on the SNES or the Sega CD. But there is a chance that the first generation of ray-traced 3-D games will come out on the 3DO, Atari Jaguar, Sega Saturn, and definitely on Nintendo's Project Reality/Ultra 64. For now, the Nintendo and Sega machines, even with their FX and SVP chips are not yet powerful enough to produce real time rendered graphics.
So when will we see these games? I expect that to be very soon. As a matter of fact the first rendered game for the 3DO is being released now, MegaRace by Cryo Interactive Entertainment. The game itself is not a full 3-D rendered awesome game, but there are some intro, and cinema scenes that are. It is these scenes that will revolutionize gaming as we know it. MegaRace is on the leading edge, and I expect to see a slew of game companies following close behind. Although MegaRace is not quite there, I am of the firm belief that this will be the dominant trend in gaming in the next 2-3 years. But the advances certainly don't stop there.
The other major advance in the gaming industry is Virtual Reality. Virtual reality is simply an interface that works with 3-D games. Well, in case you didn't guess--it is only a hop and a skip away from mixing the 3-D rendered games coming out now, with the Virtual games in Cyberspace of tomorrow.
This has been Ferrari Man, Strap in, and prepare for the ride of your life...
Vector-Based Games You Might Recognize:
Starfox, Stunt Race FX, Virtua Racing, Tempest 2000, Cybermorph, Silpheed, Face Ball 2000, Virtua Fighter, Marble Madness, Hard Drivin', Stun Runner, Race Drivin', Steel Talons, Comanche, Falcon 3.0, Cybersled, and Robocop3 (Amiga).
[See related article "Making It All Move" for more information.]
Originally appeared Vol 2, Iss 5 (11-12/94)