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Lost Satellaview F-Zero Tracks Return

BS F-Zero Deluxe

It's time for a brief history lesson.  Back in 1994, Nintendo began creating video gaming content for the BS-X Satellaview satellite modem add-on for the Super Famicom.  This device connected to the console's AUX port and allowed players to download games and other content via satellite.  Much of the content was recycled from retail Super NES releases, though some of it (such as an Excitebike sequel featuring Mario or a remake of the original The Legend of Zelda) was brand new.  Curiously, some of the new content took the form of expansions of retail games.  Consider F-Zero, for instance.  The Sattelaview service offered a semi-sequel to the game that went unreleased on cartridge.  While considered for international release on a cartridge, ultimately nothing more came of the project and when the Sattelaview service shut down for good in 2000, those new tracks were lost. 

F-Zero fans are a committed bunch though and have never let a little something like "lost to time" stop them, and so after six years of work and offering a $5,000 bounty for the lost data, the F-Zero hacking community has created what it calls BS F-Zero Deluxe.  Containing all ten of the new BS-X tracks split over two cups, four new cars, and a mode where you race against a course ghost, the Deluxe content is seamlessly added to the retail F-Zero cartridge data to create the ultimate Super NES F-Zero experience.  You can download the patch files from Archive.org and load the resulting ROM into the emulator or original hardware of your choice.  I've been talking with project programmer Guy Perfect about the effort that went into recovering the lost tracks and adding them to the base F-Zero game.  You may remember him from such previous F-Zero hacks such as adding the 64DD tracks exclusive to the F-Zero X Construction Kit to F-Zero X and adding the lost e-Reader courses to F-Zero GP Legend.  I'm going to turn things over to him because he can explain it much better than I can.

Satellaview with Super Famicom
By Muband - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2899439
In the 1990s, Nintendo became the primary stakeholder in St. Giga, a satellite content broadcaster. They then developed the Satellaview as a hardware expansion for the Super Famicom that enabled the console to receive broadcasts from a satellite receiver. In addition to conventional radio programming, St. Giga also delivered software broadcasts in this manner, which in the days before the internet's ubiquity, allowed players to download video games into their Super Nintendos. From space. In the 1990s.
Software broadcasts were saved to special memory cartridges. Technically, there was a cartridge containing the system software called BS-X, and memory paks were inserted into that cartridge similar to the way the Super Game Boy worked. Memory paks were 1 megabyte and it was possible to store multiple broadcasts on it provided they didn't take up too much data. When a new broadcast was desired, older ones could be overwritten. For this reason, Satellaview is no stranger to lost content. If broadcasts weren't preserved by someone in the know and with the right equipment, it's not like we can just go find unopened copies and dump them ourselves.
Certain distributions combined data broadcasts with audio broadcasts in a format called Soundlink. These broadcasts were once-and-done: although the data was stored on the cartridge, it didn't register as a saved title that could be launched and played later. Rather, the game portion of the presentation was synchronized with the audio, and once the event concluded, the menu would report that the cartridge was empty. Except it wasn't empty: the broadcast data was still on there, and could be obtained by someone with dumping equipment. It's not surprising that Soundlink broadcasts are among the most slippery and hardest to find. Someone has to dump the cartridge before reusing it for any other broadcasts after the fact.
There were eight Satellaview broadcasts related to F-Zero. One was the retail game, which could be played at any time. Four were for a Soundlink event that aired over the course of four weeks. One was a "practice" game promoting a second Soundlink event, then the remaining two were for that second Soundlink event. The first six were preserved--against all odds, all four broadcasts for the first Soundlink event made it to the internet. The final two, however, are lost. In the research we've done, we found no evidence that anyone ever had them, let alone is hoarding them.
The first Soundlink event was called BS F-Zero Grand Prix. The four classic machines were swapped out for four new ones: Blue Thunder, Luna Bomber, Green Amazone and Fire Scorpion. Each week had the same format: five timed races, the first four on courses from the retail game and the fifth on a brand-new course. Commentary was provided by radio personalities and CD-quality music (much of it remixed F-Zero music) played. The four weeks were set up as follows:
Week 1 (Knight): Mute City I, Big Blue, Death Wind I, Silence, Sand Storm
Week 2 (Queen): Mute City II, Port Town I, Sand Ocean, White Land I, Sand Storm II
Week 3 (King): Mute City III, Death Wind II, Red Canyon I, Port Town II, Silence II
Week 4 (Ace): Mute City I, White Land II, Red Canyon II, Fire Field, Big Blue II
I suspect that Nintendo originally intended to make a simple standalone version of F-Zero that contained the new machines and a league of new courses from the Soundlink event, and that this standalone game was repurposed into a promotion for a second Soundlink event. A software broadcast called BS F-Zero 2 Practice was distributed that contained only one League, along with a fifth brand-new course to round it out:
Ace League: Mute City IV, Big Blue II, Sand Storm I, Silence II, Sand Storm II
BS F-Zero Grand Prix 2All five courses were announced to be present in the second Soundlink event, and the software contained instructions for players to send a passcode with their times to an address in the mail. Eventually the time came for BS F-Zero Grand Prix 2, which was conceptually the same as the first Soundlink event, although it only came in two installments and used a lot of licensed rock music from the likes of Deep Purple and Van Halen. The four machines were the same as in the first Soundlink event.
Week 1: Forest I, Big Blue II, Sand Storm I, Forest II, Silence II
Week 2: Mute City IV, Forest III, Sand Storm II, Metal Fort I, Metal Fort II
Of interest here are the Forest and Metal Fort courses, which appeared only during this Soundlink event and nowhere else. And since the data for those broadcasts was lost in the sands of time, we don't have these original F-Zero courses. The F-Zero community has issued a $5000 USD bounty for this data (half for each week's broadcast).
In 2018, YouTube user kukun kun uploaded recordings of all of the F-Zero Soundlink broadcasts, recorded in Japan on a real Super Famicom+Satellaview when they originally aired. Complete with audio, we know what the experience was like. The videos uploaded to YouTube appear to have been captured from a direct signal feed from a VCR, so the image and color accuracy are fairly good all things considered. With the right techniques and ample free time, it should be possible for someone to use them to accurately reproduce the missing courses.
Not long after, YouTube user FlibidyDibidy began a project for Super Mario Bros. that he called the "living leaderboard". The idea was to take videos of people playing the game and, using fancy technology, determine where Mario was and what he was doing in order to overlay them all on one image. This was ultimately done with a hardware mod during live competitions, but along the way he tried to make it work with machine learning while analyzing the actual game image. While doing THAT, he put together a tool he called Graphite for use with training the AI model. Graphite had two images in its display: an emulator on one side and a video player on the other. The user could seek both simultaneously frame-by-frame, and specify an input sequence that caused the emulator to produce the same frames as the video file.
Inspired by FlibidyDibidy's tool, I made a tool that I was able to use to reproduce the controller input sequences in the kukun kun video clips. Feeding the inputs through the game logic gives the player's location and viewing angle on every frame. From there, it is known which pixels from the underlying course memory map were used to produce the output image, so the colors could be taken from the VHS footage, sent through the projection process backwards, and plotted into the map (see attachment). This technique was largely helpful in piecing together the missing courses. For those bits and bobs that don't come out super clearly in the resulting map image, I did a lot of toggling back and forth between the VHS footage and an output render in order to ensure the correct course features were present in every area.
Once the parts that belonged to the track surface were identified, everything else could be merged into a pretty clear picture of the scenery that appears off to the sides.
The missing courses were the three called Forest and the two called Metal Fort. These were entirely recovered from the VHS footage, with Power Panda's help for the sky/horizon graphics. The other courses were preserved through other means. If legitimate dumps ever turn up, we won't have to live with approximations for these. However, despite being approximations, they're still north of 99.99% accurate, so they shouldn't be regarded as fan works. If legitimate dumps ever turn up, I'm definitely interested to see what exactly was different in the ones we did.
BS F-Zero DeluxeI had been searching for a way to recover the missing F-Zero courses using kukun kun's videos, and the Graphite concept provided the insight I needed. I did the same basic thing for F-Zero, and to make a very long story short, was able to accurately reproduce the courses from the VHS footage. I can't guarantee it's a 1:1 match, but it might be. It's certainly north of 99.9% accurate. One thing I couldn't do with computer help was the background graphics in Forest and Metal Fort. Those needed the help of an accomplished artist, and it turns out those are hard to come by. That's the reason the project has gone unfinished for a year and a half. Someone finally reached out after F-Zero 99 was a thing, though, and we were at last able to finish the project. What we have as a result is very nearly what was originally present in BS F-Zero Grand Prix 2 all those years ago, and it is now preserved for the future of gaming.
What we wound up making is a mod for the retail version of the game that incorporates all of the Satellaview content. It's like an expansion pack, or a DLC. It boosts the game to 8 machines, 25 courses, and a Ghost feature that lets you race against yourself on your quest to break records.  The people who helped me put this together were Porthor, who is offering half of the $5000 and did some course and graphics work; and Power Panda, whose prowess with pixel art saved the day and got those sky graphics put together for us.
We have tested that this mod works on original SNES, SNES Classic, 3DS Virtual Console and every desktop emulator we tried. Would have tested on Wii Virtual Console as well, but there were bricking concerns so we haven't gone for that yet. Presumably also works on Wii U Virtual Console, but hasn't been attempted.
I have lots of neglected projects I'd like to give more attention to. I can't make any promises about which will receive proper treatment first, but there's a pretty high likelihood that it's related to either preservation or reverse engineering/emulation. I'd like to do some R&D with Nintendo 64--bought the Everdrive for prototyping, but haven't found the time yet.
If there's one thing I hope people come away with, it's this: "BS" stands for "broadcast satellite", referring to the method of distribution, and NOT "broadcast Satellaview". This bothers me for all the same reasons as people who think the Microsoft paperclip is named Clippy and people who think "extravert" contains the letter O.

BS F-Zero DeluxeSo, what do you get in F-Zero Deluxe?  Plenty!  Four new racing machines have been added (yes, that's added; the new cars don't replace the original four): the aforementioned Blue Thunder, Luna Bomber, Green Amazone, and Fire Scorpion.  Two new leagues have been added to accommodate the ten new tracks.  There's BS-X 1 League which contains Forest I, Big Blue II, Sand Storm I, Forest II, and Silence II; and BS-X League 2 which features Mute City IV, Forest III, Sand Storm II, Metal Fort I, and Metal Fort II.  The Records screens have been updated to include results for these leagues as well.  There are even alternate versions of these tracks available, as some of them underwent minor changes over the life of the Sattelaview broadcasts, and the Practice mode allows players to take those alternates for a test drive.  Finally, players can save ghost data of one practice race and then compete against it as we've all grown accustomed in other F-Zero games and racing games in general.  The included readme.txt file goes into much more detail on all of these new features.

I've been playing the game for the past few weeks and am amazed at what this team accomplished.  Deluxe feels like a proper polished Nintendo release from the 1990s.  They even created an instruction booklet and box art!  It's passionate projects like this one that show the best the community has to offer and it's efforts like these that are important to preserving the history of video gaming.  Without accomplishments like BS F-Zero Deluxe, these tracks would have been lost forever and relegated to the world of rumor and miscellaneous trivia.  I can't wait to see what comes next!