Nintendo 3DS graphics chip revealed

DMP PICA200 powers new handheld.

Japanese graphics specialist DMP has confirmed that it is supplying the graphics core for the new Nintendo 3DS, with its 2006 vintage PICA200 GPU at the heart of the E3 showstopper.

With NVIDIA out of the picture for 3DS, we targeted DMP as the most likely suitor for the graphics acceleration gig in last week's Digital Foundry piece on the new handheld, and the PICA200 chip is an interesting choice.

In some respects it is showing its age. The design was complete five years ago, and so in terms of industry standards it is some way behind the likes of the PowerVR SGX535 found within the iPhone 3GS and iPad, and a couple of generations behind the multi-core graphics chip rumoured for the forthcoming PSP2.

PICA200 has support only for the older OpenGL ES 1.1 standard, but DMP has supplemented its capabilities with bespoke hardware extensions that allow it to handle effects such as "gaseous object rendering", soft shadows, per-pixel lighting, procedural textures and refraction mapping.

These custom extensions help mitigate the absence of the programmable pixel shaders had Nintendo opted for a graphics core with the full OpenGL ES 2.0 feature set.

DMP says that the PICA200 is capable of rendering 15.3 million polygons per second, with pixel throughput of 800 million pixels per second. While the numbers are interesting, they actually tell us very little since they all assume that the GPU is operating at its peak of 200MHz. Since Nintendo has a history of prioritising battery life, it wouldn't be surprising at all if the company downclocked the part, especially bearing in mind the relative low resolution of the screen. Nintendo 3DS renders at 800x240, essentially splitting the screen into two 400x240 images: one per eye.

Futuremark, creators of the 3DMark benchmarking tools, put together this tech demo for the PICA200 some years back:

Futuremark's demo exercises many of the features of the 3DS GPU and is particularly heavy on lighting and shadow, something that wasn't quite so apparent in the demos and games we saw at E3.

It's an interesting demo, showing off a number of effects that the hardware is capable of, though the overall performance is somewhat beyond the existing 3DS demos, none of which have anywhere near the kind of quality in the shadows and lighting seen here. That's the beauty of tech demos: they can be created to showcase graphical features without having to incorporate game logic and characters, larger environments, and other RAM/CPU-sapping elements.

That said, it's worth bearing in mind that almost everything we've seen on 3DS so far is first-generation code derived from actual game assets. Obviously the best is yet to come, and yet already with the likes of Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid we are seeing some pretty impressive visuals.

DMP's PICA200 is more than just an interesting choice for the 3DS GPU. It's another example of how Nintendo has taken mature, existing tech and repurposed it into a brand new, fresh offering. With the absence of any kind of PSP2 announcement at E3, combined with the apparent lack of technical innovation on the OpenGL ES 2.0 aspects of iPhone software, Nintendo has managed to propel itself to the forefront of mobile gaming with its new offering.

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