Implementing MegaTextures On Real Nintendo 64 Hardware

As amazing and groundbreaking as the Nintendo 64 was, over the years it has also become synonymous with blurry textures and liberal use of Gouraud shading as its most strongly defining visual features. In a recent video, [James Lambert] covers how the system’s minuscule 4 kB texture memory (TMEM) can be circumvented using mipmapping. By loading progressively more detailed textures (each in 4 kB chunks) in a level-of-detail (LoD), the visual fidelity can be maximized while keeping rendering speeds relatively zippy, as the real-time demo proves.

Determining which textures are visible to the player.

This project was made for the N64brew 2023, with the source code available on [James]’s GitHub account. Although impressive, it bears noting that mipmapping was not an unknown approach in 1996, and many approaches were used to work around the N64’s physical limitations.

In the case of mipmapping, [James]’s demo perfectly demonstrates the problematic nature of mipmapping, as it dramatically increases the storage requirements for the textures, hitting 40 MB just for this one single room, for a system that supports up to 64 MB cartridges.

Ultimately, this shows that the 4 kB TMEM was not the only issue with the N64, with the limited (and expensive) mask ROMs for the cartridges proving to be an insurmountable obstacle that systems like Sony’s PlayStation largely did not have to contend with. With roomy 650 MB+ optical storage, the PS1 got instead tripped up by the glacial access and loading speeds of optical media and its soggy-potato-powered GPU.

Seeing demonstrations like these manage to wonderfully highlight the bottlenecks in these old consoles, and makes one wonder about what could have been, even in an era before 1 TB solid-state drives and direct resource streaming between GPU and said storage.

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A Nintendo 64 controller with a USB adapter

Play N64 Games The Right Way With This Classic Controller Adapter

Game consoles typically support a limited number of input devices, meaning that console games are often completely optimized for the default controller supplied with that platform. Nintendo’s tendency to completely reinvent their controllers pretty much every generation can therefore become a little irritating, especially when they also enable their newer consoles to play games from their back catalog. So when [Robson Couto] found that using the Switch’s Joy-Cons was a bit awkward for playing emulated Nintendo 64 games, he decided to figure out how to connect real N64 controllers to a Nintendo Switch.

While you can buy modern N64-style controllers for the Switch, even straight from Nintendo themselves, [Robson] thought it would be way more interesting to reuse an old controller and implement the translation step from scratch. In the video (embedded below) he takes a deep dive into all the timing details of the N64 controller protocol, which is basically a 1-wire setup, and explains how to use an STM32F411 BlackPill board to read out the controller’s buttons and joystick.

Next, he explores how to map the resulting data to the USB HID protocol used by the Switch. Most of the buttons have a clear one-on-one mapping, but since the “minus”, “capture” and “home” buttons are missing on the N64 controller, he chose to map these to button combinations unlikely to be used during regular gameplay. [Robson] also ran into the common issue of the analog joystick having a poorly-defined maximum range, for which he added a rudimentary auto-calibration feature.

Finally, he designed and 3D-printed a neat enclosure for his system with an N64 controller port on one side and a USB port on the other. By 3D-printing the whole thing he also avoided having to either source the non-standard connector or permanently modify his hardware. The end result of [Robson]’s project is an unobtrusive gadget that connects classic controllers to modern hardware – but of course, the reverse process is very much possible, too. If you want, you can even play N64 games with a mouse and keyboard.

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Java Is Now On The Nintendo 64!

Whether it’s your favorite programming language, or your favorite beverage, there’s no denying Java is everywhere. Now, it’s even on the Nintendo 64, thanks to the valiant efforts of [Mike Kohn]. Even better, he’s coded a demo to show off its capabilities!

The project took plenty of work. [Mike] went all the way down to the assembly level to get Java code running on the N64. The project builds on the work that he did previously to get Java running on the PlayStation 2. Notably, both the Sony and Nintendo consoles do have some similarities — both are based on MIPS CPUs.

The demo itself is a work of art. It features the typical “3 billion devices run Java” screen, followed by some truly chunky bass and wailing guitar sounds. It’s followed by all the dancing shapes, sinusoidal text, and bright colors you could shake a stick at.

For those interested in the nitty gritty, [Mike] delves deep into the details of what it took to get everything running. That includes both using the code in an emulator, as well as how to get it going on real Nintendo hardware, something we’ve looked at before.

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What Do You Get When A Raspberry Pi Pico Flashes A Nintendo 64

The joke was when the Nintendo 64 first hit the streets around a quarter century ago, that the 64 in the name referred not to the technology on board, but to the excessive cost of the cartridges. Whatever the truth in that, it’s something now completely laid to rest by [Konrad Beckmann] with his Nintendo 64 flash cart powered by a Raspberry Pi Pico (Nitter Link).

The schematic is surprisingly simple, in that the Pico does everything required to both interface to the N64 and to an SD card to hold the software. The clever work is done by the RP2040 firmware, which can be found along with the hardware details in the “develop” branch of the project’s GitHub repository. And while the earliest version was a Raspberry Pi Pico with a host of jumper wires, the more polished version focuses on a custom PCB and bare RP2040 chip.

Perhaps the N64 hasn’t received the attention it should have over the years, overshadowed as it was by its competitors such as the original PlayStation, but it’s projects like this one which remind us that there’s still life in Nintendo’s ’90s flagship. Speaking of which, if you were on Team Sony back in the day but still want to put your Pi Pico to use, check out this DIY PlayStation Memory Card we covered recently.

One Coder Is Porting Portal To The Nintendo 64

When Portal came out in 2007, developers Valve chose not to release the groundbreaking title on an obsolete Nintendo console long out of production. Nobody cared at the time, of course, but [James Lambert] is here to right that wrong. Yes, he’s porting Portal to the N64.

The port, or “demake,” as [James] calls it, has been under construction for some time. The project has posed some challenges: Portal was developed for PCs that were vastly more powerful than the Nintendo 64 of 1996. Thus, initial concerns were that the console wouldn’t be able to handle the physics of the game or render the recursive portal graphics.

However, hard work has paid off. [James] has chipped away, bit by bit, making improvements to his engine all the while. The latest work has the portals rendering nicely, and the companion cube works just the way you’d expect. There’s also a visible portal gun, and the engine can even render 15 recursive layers when looking through mirrored portals. Sixteen was too much.

Of course, there’s still lots to do. There’s no player model yet, and basic animations and sound are lacking. However, the core concept is there, and watching [James] flit through the not-quite-round portals is an absolute delight. Even better, it runs smoothly even on original Nintendo hardware. It’s a feat worthy of commendation.

We had no idea what [James] had in store back when we featured his work creating real-time shadows on N64 hardware. Now we know! Video after the break.

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Optimized Super Mario 64 Offers Exciting Possibilities

When working on any software project, the developers have to balance releasing on time with optimizations. As long as you are hitting your desired time constraints, why not just ship it earlier? It’s no secret that Super Mario 64, a hotly anticipated launch title for the Nintendo 64 console in 1996, had a lot of optimizations left on the table in order to get it out the door on time. In that spirit, [Kaze Emanuar] has been plumbing the depths of the code, refactoring and tweaking until he had a version with┬áserious performance gains.

Why would anyone spend time improving the code for an old game that only runs on hardware released over two decades ago? There exists a healthy modding community for the game, and many of the newer levels that people are creating are more ambitious than what the original game could handle. But with the performance improvements that [Kaze] has been working on, your budget for larger and more complex levels suddenly becomes much more significant. In addition, it’s rumored that a multi-player mode was originally planned for the game, but Nintendo had to scrap the feature when it was found that the frame rate while rendering two cameras wasn’t up to snuff. With these optimizations, the game can now handle two players easily.

Luigi has been waiting 26 years for his chance to shine.

[Kaze] has a multi-step plan for improving the performance involving RAM alignment, compiler optimizations, rendering improvements, physics optimizations, and generally reducing “jankiness.” To be fair to the developers at Nintendo, back then they were working with brand new hardware and pushing the boundaries of what home consoles were capable of. Modeling software, toolchains, compilers, and other supporting infrastructure have vastly improved over the last 20+ years. Along the way, we’ve picked up many tricks around rendering that just weren’t as common back then.

The central theme of [Kaze]’s work is optimizing Rambus usage. As the RCP and the CPU have to share it, the goal is to have as little contention as possible. This means laying out items to improve cachability and asking the compiler to generate smaller code rather than faster code (no loop unrolling here). In addition, certain data structures can be put into particular regions of memory that are write-only or read-only to improve resource contention. Logic bugs are fixed and rendering techniques were improved. The initial results are quite impressive, and while he isn’t done, we’re very much looking forward to playing with the final product.

With the Nintendo 64 on its way to becoming a mainline-supported Linux platform, the old console is certainly seeing a lot of love these days.

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Realtime Shadows On N64 Hardware

Although the Nintendo 64 console has in the minds of many been relegated to the era of ‘firmly obsolete graphics’, since its graphic processor’s (GPU’s) lineage traces directly to the best which SGI had to offer in the 1990s, it too supports a range of modern features, including dynamic shadows. In a simple demo, [lambertjamesd] demonstrates how this feature is used.

As can be seen in the demonstration video (linked after the break), this demo features a single dynamic light, which casts a shadow below the central object in the scene, with a monkey object floating around that casts its own shadow (rendered into an auxiliary frame buffer). This auxiliary buffer is then blended into the main buffer, as explained by [ItzWarty] over at /r/programming on Reddit.

This effectively means that the main scene uses a shadow volume, which was used extensively with Doom 3. The primary reasons for why the N64 didn’t use shadow volumes all over the place was due to the limitations this places on the shadow caster (objects) in the scene, such as the need to be convex, and overlap is likely to lead to artifacts and glitches.

Doom 3 would fix this with the use of a stencil buffer that would further refine the basic dynamic lighting support on the N64, which ultimately would lead to the fancy video game graphics we have today. And which no doubt will look properly obsolete in another decade again, as usual.

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