What is Mode 7?
Mode 7 was a graphical style used on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) that allows background layers to rotate and scale on each scanline to create many different effects. Perhaps the most common and well-known use was transforming the background to produce what appears to be a three-dimensional background, specifically with movement.
Mode 7 Background
The SNES actually did have eight ‘modes’, starting with zero and through to seven. The modes had different display properties:
Mode 0 - Four backgrounds of Four colors each.
Mode 1 - Four background layers but each background can only use four colors per tile.
Mode 2 - Two backgrounds of 16 colors each. In this mode, the 'tile data' for BG3 actually encodes a replacement horizontal and/or vertical value for each tile of background 1 and/or background 2.
Mode 3 - One 256-color background and one 16-color background.
Mode 4 - One 256-color background and one 4-color background with horizontal and vertical offset-per-tile functionality.
Mode 5/6 - One 16-color background and one 4-color background, and in Mode 6, you have only one 16-color background, and its has offset-per-tile functionality.
Mode 7 - Layer 1 is able to stretch, move, and rotate a image and has 256 colors.
How Mode 7 Was Used
Mode 7's primary feature is to rotate sprites. Mode 7 spins the background image left or right in a preset manner or in relation to how the player is controlling the game. It creates the illusion that you are moving around the the track in a game like F-Zero. The perception is that the racer is moving around the track, but in fact it is the opposite.
Mode 7 was designed to specifically take advantage of televisions of the The lasers that were shot into the screen had a short delay while it moves down and back to the left drop right. This delay is called a horizontal blank. When the beam reached the lower-right and need to reset its aim back at the top that created a delay called a vertical blank. Mode 7 creates the appearance of a background scaling into the distance by taking the 2D, top-down version of that background image and converting each pixel to a set of coordinates that generates that 3D-ish effect. Without emulation, Mode 7 won't appear the same on an LCD screen as it did on the TVs it was specifically designed for.
Mode 7 as a Marketing Tool
Mode 7, much like Sega's "blast processing," was used as a selling point for the SNES. Unlike "blast processing" however, Mode 7 was an actual technical achievement and not actually a gimmick. It truly did something new and original that other consoles before it, could not do. While Nintendo themselves did it push it as hard as Sega's "blast processing" advertisements, it was a common showcase of its games, most notably in Star Fox (which also had the Super FX chip), which was so graphically advanced compared to Sega's offerings that there was no argument. Mode 7 was the perfect way to settle a console war argument on rhe playground.
Competitors with Mode 7
Nintendo's biggest competitor at the time, Sega, and specifically the Sega Genesis which competed directly with the SNES, did not have a comparable graphics feature to Mode 7. There were a few games on the Genesis that attempted to mimic Mode 7, but was programmed directly into the software as opposed to being a hardware feature/ Instead, Sega created "extension" peripherals to the Genesis to help boost its graphical power and compete on the level of SNES. The Sega CD and 32X peripherals add such a feature that accomplished the same feat as Mode 7, among other graphical improvements. These peripherals did not prove to be successful, however, and were never considered direct competitors to SNES.
Games Featuring Mode 7
F-Zero utilized Mode 7 to create pseudo 3D environments, in what also happens to be one of the early uses of it with F-Zero releasing in 1990. The rotation helps the game achieve a sense of speed which is the F-Zero franchise's calling card. This game was a precursor for many other of the Super Nintendo's racing games including the next one on our list.
Super Mario Kart
Super Mario Kart improved upon the Mode 7 adding in several key elements to create a larger scale such as obstacles and the query pads that grant your character a power-up. Mode 7, while still performing the rotating of the track in the background, one that offers more detail, the improved appearance of distance was added to help these sprite-based obstacles standout.
Not the grounded racer of the aforementioned, Pilotwings is a combination of the techniques used in F-Zero and Super Mario Kart, but also the world map of Squaresoft's RPGs, with a more complicated horizon. Unfortunately, it's probably not as effective or impressive as any of them.
Tales of Phantasia
One of the few games that uses the principles of Mode 7, but in software instead of hardware. Tales of Phantasia re-rendering of sprites is done on the fly. This technique is used when a player sprite stretches vertically when stepping onto a save spot.
The other games to utilized Mode 7 in software as opposed to hardware; Star Ocean's simple use of Mode 7 is only deployed to animate objects opened from a treasure chest. It's a small detail, but an impressive one.
Secret of Mana
Secret of Mana wasn't the only RPG to used Mode 7 in their world map, but it probably looks the best. It's the same concept of Mode 7 featured in the racing games except that the horizon is slightly more complicated.
Super Castlevania IV
Because Mode 7 can only be used on backgrounds and not sprites, the sprites in Super Castlevania IV were used for the foreground elements like platforms and instead it was the background that rotated. There is even a boss in Super Castlevania IV that is part of the background that takes advantage of Mode 7 as it scaled and rotated.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Mode 7 was used to create a pseudo-3D environment in the main part of the game but also several standout sequences such as Moleville mines that have a scaling and rotating background.