SUPER SCALER Monograph (Introduction)

The search for representing three-dimensional universes has been an obsession of designers and programmers from almost the beginning of video game history. The need to provide spatial depth to simulate, for example, driving or riding any kind of artifact, predated for many years the availability of the necessary technical tools.

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Night Driver (1976) A technical wonder.

Historically, the solution was, in theory, to use vector graphics, but the capabilities of the processors available at the time made the implementation of this technique unfeasible. However, there were programmers with enough courage to face this challenge. Pioneers who faced this problem and managed to finished works of great merit, but which never saw their effort rewarded with an according business result.


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3D graphical representation

Alternatively, several programmers and designers opted for a pragmatic approach: draw the same bitmap in multiple sizes and move them on the screen so that the volume of the object would scale, generating a sense of depth in the player. The desired effect was to have that object’s sprite moving along the z axis of the stage; what today is known as 2.5D, and in those days as scaling.

The first traces of this technique date from the mid-1970s. Exponents of it can be found both in home systems and, above all, in the arcades (a true showroom for the most advanced and pioneering technical innovations until not long ago). In general, this kind of programming techniques and tricks where of a more or less gimmicky nature, but always meritorious. While going deep into the origins of this technique is not one of the objectives of this monograph, we recommend the Wikipedia entry dedicated to the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2.5D

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Pole Position (1982) and Thunder Ceptor (1986), leading exponents in 8 bits.

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WELCOME TO THE FANTASY ZONE!

Japan, 1985. The main companies belonging the JAMMA lobby, were concerned about one of the main problems existing in the field of arcade video games: the preconceived notion that associated this kind of products with dark places, brimming with nicotine and populated by people, in some cases, disreputable. The Japanese Space Invaders boom had passed, but the image of the machines in wooden table format was still there.

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Among the decisions taken to tackle the problem and continue to expand this young business were to create video games with esthetics or themes aimed at new player profiles (such as females or children), as well as taking a 180 degree turn in the design of the cabinets, making them more cheerful and friendly looking, or more spectacular and complex in the case of simulation game cabinets. We will be focusing on the latter ones for this dossier.

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A typical Japanese Game Center from nineties.
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Monaco GP flyer (1979)

The design and development of simulation cabinets (sometimes even with active movement) had no secret for the big Japanese companies, such as Namco, SEGA or Taito, as they had been making them evolve for many years. The challenge was to get the audiovisual and gaming experience played on the video monitor to be, at least, up to the felt physical experience when riding the cabinet.


Using vector or polygonal graphics was not an option, given the technical means available at the time and the rawness of the results obtained in previous experiences. The solution was the scaling or zooming of sprites, which by then was already achievable with appropriate hardware, without having to resort to massive amounts of manpower.

1985 was the year when a combination of factors triggered the creation of the fascinating works we will be discussing in this monograph: on one hand, the most popular microprocessor of all time (Motorola 68000) and on the other, the creative talent of many young employees at SEGA, with the today famous Yu Suzuki on the lead. A new and exciting era in video game design was about to start. A technique christened by SEGA as Super Scaler was responsible for starting it all, and their rivals soon followed suit by replicating it: Konami was first to do it, through external collaborations, and was followed by the two other major players in the industry: Namco and Taito.

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WEC Le Mans 24 (Konami, 1986) Out Run (SEGA, 1986) and Metal Hawk (Namco, 1988)

In the coming chapters, we will analyze in detail the main games that used hardware-based sprite scaling and rotation. It will not be a comprehensive list, as we will only be covering those titles designed with this technique in mind, discarding games with a traditional design that only used scaling for small details. We will however cover every release of SEGA from the beginning up until the last throes of scaling, which almost coincide in time with the first polygonal and texture mapping games, such as Ridge Racer or Daytona USA. Ten years of vertigo, fascination… and even dizziness.

You are invited to join this trip.

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