[Retro] Return of a Supermodel

In the mid-nineties the arcade industry was beginning to die. Newer and more powerful home hardware was catching up with the advanced hardware in coin-ops and huge, expensive cabinet designs were reducing the number of machines operators could afford to buy. Before things finally imploded altogether though, Sega would give the industry one last hurrah with a system that produces some of the greatest videogames of the decade – very few of which have ever seen home conversions.

The company debuted its Model 3 hardware in 1996. The system was the result of a link up with aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, who helped develop the 3D technology, and at the time it was comfortably the most powerful arcade machine on earth. Capable of pushing hundreds of thousands of texture mapped polygons around at 60 frames per second, Model 3 left older 2D-based systems in the dust, and made sure coin-op hardware was still significantly ahead of 3D-capable home consoles like the PlayStation and Saturn.

Several great titles were released on the system, including Virtua Fighter 3, Sega Rally 2 and, in my opinion the second greatest arcade racer of all time – Scud Race (Sega Super GT in the US). The cabinets sold well, and many can still be found in the few remaining British arcades, alongside newer machines like Outrun 2 and Time Crisis 3. Sadly by the time home technology caught up sufficiently to allow home conversions to be mooted Sega was in major trouble. The Dreamcast was beginning to falter, despite becoming the first of the 6th generation consoles to hit the market. Sega did announce a version of Scud Race for the machine – but it never saw the light of day and was lost amid Sega’s panic restructuring at the turn of the century.

Like many of the more recent arcade systems, the sheer power of Model 3 and it’s inbuilt anti-piracy measures make it hard to emulate. Reasonable progress was made between 2003 and 2006 on an emulator called Supermodel, but – faced with a number of difficulties – the development team decided to fold their work into the much broader MAME, multi-arcade machine project. Since then various versions of MAME have come and gone, first adding, then removing Model 3 playability. At no point though did games like Scud Race ever run well, or smoothly, even on top end systems.

Scud Race, image by Stuart Pearce

Scud Race, image by Stuart Pearce

Since then, despite the occasional plea on emulation forums for someone to take the helm and launch a new Model 3 emulation project, nothing of note has ever happened. Until now.

Step forward Bart Trzynadlowski. Part of the original Supermodel team alongside Ville Linde and Stefano Tiso, the electrical engineering grad student has decided it’s high time the project saw the light of day again. In January 2011 Bart took part of the original Supermodel’s source code, and began rebuilding the project. Now, just three months later, his progress is impressive. Though there’s no sound, and the emulator runs from the command line only, many games are perfectly playable. Some titles feature fairly off-putting texture or geometry issues, and others don’t run smoothly, but some – like Scud Race and Le Mans 24 are simply beautiful to behold.

Scud Race running on Supermodel 0.1a

Scud Race running on Supermodel 0.1a

For fans of great Model 3 games, news of Bart’s decision to revisit the Supermodel project can’t have come soon enough. It’s been eight years since work began on the emulator, and the fact this latest push has required one of the original trio of developers to get back to the coalface shows just how few talented emulation coders are out there.

Right now you can download version 0.1a of Bart’s masterpiece from his website. There, he says he’s keen to keep working on the project, and will probably look next at implementing sound emulation. That would be fantastic, but there’s also a cautionary note. Bart says he’s expecting to have less free time to work on the project over the coming months. Given the tortured history of Supermodel until now, here’s hoping that the community gives him enough support to keep improving his magnum opus until everyone can experience titles like Sega Rally 2 and Virtua Fighter 3 without having to hunt down the last few dusty arcade cabinets.

Update: Bart has now (April 3rd) released a 64-bit Windows version of Supermodel 0.1.1a which includes a very small update and runs faster on 64-bit machines.

Update 2: Having spoken to Bart he’s told me that the geometry errors in the Sega Rally 2 footage above shouldn’t be happening. It’s possible therefore that you might not see them if you run the emulator on your own machine. Also it should be noted that the slowdown exhibited in that video is almost entirely the result of running Fraps to record the footage. My relatively middle of the road Core i7 + Radeon Mobility setup gets 60fps on almost every title when Fraps isn’t running.

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Categories: Retro

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