F-Zero courses from a dead Nintendo satellite service restored using VHS and AI

Key Takeaways:

– Nintendo’s Satellaview was a satellite add-on for the Super Famicom that housed ephemeral games.
– F-Zero, a popular Super Nintendo racing game, had eight weekly broadcasts on the Satellaview with live “Soundlink” music and voiceovers.
– Memory cartridges used to store game data would report themselves as empty after broadcasts, leading to data being overwritten.
– Some untouched memory cartridges were found and used to re-create some of the content, including 10 reverse-engineered courses.
– F-Zero Deluxe is a patched version of the game that includes new racing machines, resurrected Satellaview race tracks, and ghost data.
– The release of F-Zero Deluxe is a notable feat of game preservation.
– The tool Graphite, used for the release, is currently missing from the author’s website and GitHub.
– A fan named Guy Perfect used the data from the original Grand Prix broadcast to recreate the missing second Grand Prix using a VHS recording.
– The courses were fine-tuned with manual frame-by-frame authoring and the backgrounds were completed by a pixel artist named Power Panda.
– The work of these individuals has brought a nearly lost moment in gaming as close as possible to its original state.
– The results are fan-created and non-commercial, and hopefully, they will remain accessible for a while.

Ars Technica:

Enlarge / BS F-Zero Deluxe sounds like a funny name until you know that the first part stands for “broadcast satellite.”

Guy Perfect, Power Panda, Porthor

Nintendo’s Satellaview, a Japan-only satellite add-on for the Super Famicom, is a rich target for preservationists because it was the home to some of the most ephemeral games ever released.

That includes a host of content for Nintendo’s own games, including F-Zero. That influential Super Nintendo (Super Famicom in Japan) racing title was the subject of eight weekly broadcasts sent to subscribing Japanese homes in 1996 and 1997, some with live “Soundlink” CD-quality music and voiceovers. When live game broadcasts were finished, the memory cartridges used to store game data would report themselves as empty, even though they technically were not. Keeping that same 1MB memory cartridge in the system when another broadcast started would overwrite that data, and there were no rebroadcasts.

Recordings from some of the F-Zero Soundlink broadcasts on the Satellaview add-on for the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo in the US).

As reported by Matthew Green at Press the Buttons (along with Did You Know Gaming’s informative video), data from some untouched memory cartridges was found and used to re-create some of the content. Some courses, part of a multi-week “Grand Prix 2” event, have never been found, despite a $5,000 bounty offering and extensive effort. And yet, remarkably, the 10 courses in those later broadcasts were reverse-engineered, using a VHS recording, machine learning tools, and some manual pixel-by-pixel re-creation. The results are “north of 99.9% accurate,” according to those who crafted it and exist now as a mod you can patch onto an existing F-Zero ROM.

A re-creation of the “Forest I” level from the lost Satellaview broadcasts, running in a modified F-Zero ROM.

F-Zero Deluxe, as the patched version is called, includes four new racing machines on top of the original four. There are two new “BS-X” Leagues with all the resurrected Satellaview race tracks. And there is “ghost data,” or the ability to race against one of your prior runs on a course, something that F-Zero games helped make popular and was subsequently picked up by other racing games. There is even box art and an instruction booklet. It is a notable feat of game preservation. It thereby makes us nervous that Nintendo and its attorneys will take notice, but one can hope.

Speaking of which, a key tool used for the BS F-Zero Deluxe release comes from engineer FlibidyDibidy. In his efforts to create a “living leaderboard,” he wanted to show every Super Mario Bros. speedrun all at once. That required a side-by-side speedrun tool that could analyze game footage and show exactly what input was being pressed during that frame, then produce an emulation of that footage that was frame-perfect. That tool, Graphite, is currently missing from the author’s website and from GitHub, though a GitLab copy remains. We’ve reached out to FlibidyDibidy for comment on this and will update the post with new information.

A frame from the machine learning tool Guy Perfect used to read inputs from a VHS recording and re-create long-lost <em>F-Zero</em> courses.
Enlarge / A frame from the machine learning tool Guy Perfect used to read inputs from a VHS recording and re-create long-lost F-Zero courses.

Guy Perfect

Using Graphite as inspiration and having the data from the original Grand Prix broadcast as a baseline, an F-Zero superfan going by Guy Perfect built a tool that could reproduce the controller input from a miraculous VHS copy of the missing second Grand Prix. Following this reverse-project process, Guy Perfect re-created most of the courses and then fine-tuned them with manual frame-by-frame authoring. The backgrounds on the courses required the work of a pixel artist, Power Panda, to finish the package, and Porthor to round out the trio.

Their work means that, 25 years later, a moment in gaming that was nearly lost to time and various corporate currents has been, if not entirely restored, brought as close as is humanly (and machine-ably) possible to what it once was. Here’s hoping the results, which by all indications are fan-created and non-commercial, stick around for a while.

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AI Eclipse TLDR:

BS F-Zero Deluxe is a fan-created mod for the Super Nintendo racing game F-Zero, specifically designed to preserve content from the Satellaview add-on for the Super Famicom. The Satellaview was a Japan-only satellite add-on that allowed users to receive weekly broadcasts of games, including F-Zero, with live CD-quality music and voiceovers. However, the memory cartridges used to store game data would report themselves as empty after each broadcast, making the preservation of these games difficult.

Using data from untouched memory cartridges and a VHS recording of the broadcasts, a group of preservationists was able to reverse-engineer and recreate ten of the lost F-Zero courses. The results are said to be “north of 99.9% accurate” and can be patched onto an existing F-Zero ROM. The mod, called F-Zero Deluxe, adds four new racing machines, two new leagues, and the ability to race against one’s own prior runs on a course.

The preservation effort utilized a tool called Graphite, created by engineer FlibidyDibidy, that analyzes game footage and reproduces the controller input frame-by-frame. The mod was further enhanced by the work of a pixel artist named Power Panda and another contributor named Porthor.

While the preservation of the Satellaview content is a remarkable feat, there is concern that Nintendo and its attorneys may take notice of the fan-created mod. However, for now, the results stand as a significant achievement in game preservation.