SNES Development
Grog's Guide to DMA and HDMA on the SNES

Introduction to DMA

Most computer systems have some form of Direct Memory Access controller, which is basically a piece of hardware that allows I/O devices to copy to and from main memory independently of CPU control. In the SNES, as usual, Nintendo came up with an odd design for their DMA system. There are 8 DMA “channels”, each of which can control a separate transfer from CPU memory to PPU register or PPU register to CPU memory. Using the Work RAM port in the PPU, it is even possible to do fast CPU memory to CPU memory copies.

Why use DMA? Well, its fast. Using DMA it only takes 8 Master Clock cycles per byte to copy data to PPU, whereas a LDA nnnn,X STA $21xx INX combo takes over 80 Master Clocks (too lazy to calc exact #) per byte. Even the MVP/MVN takes 56 Master Clocks per byte for a pure memory to memory copy.

A DMA transfer requires setting the Source address, Destination PPU register, and # of bytes to copy for one of the 8 channels. Once you’ve set these values, you start the transfer by writing a 1 to the bit in $420B that corresponds to the channel. Full details of the DMA registers are at the end of this doc, but here’s a quick example that copies tile data into VRAM at whatever address is currently set in $2116:

LDX #TILEOFFSET ;Source Offset into source bank
STX $4302       ;Set Source address lower 16-bits
LDA #TILEBANK   ;Source bank
STA $4304       ;Set Source address upper 8-bits
LDX #TILESIZE   ;# of bytes to copy (16k)
STX $4305       ;Set DMA transfer size
LDA #$18        ;$2118 is the destination, so
STA $4301       ;  set lower 8-bits of destination to $18
LDA #$01        ;Set DMA transfer mode: auto address increment
STA $4300       ;  using write mode 1 (meaning write a word to $2118/$2119)
LDA #$01        ;The registers we've been setting are for channel 0
STA $420B       ;  so Start DMA transfer on channel 0 (LSB of $420B)

This example illustrates the basics of a DMA transfer. Note that only 8-bits of the destination can be set; thus the destination MUST be in the $2100-$21FF range. In the LOADVRAM.ASM library, I use pretty much this exact code to quickly load tile data to VRAM.

For another quick example, here’s copying from ROM to Work RAM quickly:

   LDX #SOURCEPTR                   ;Get lower 16-bits of source ptr
   STX $4302                        ;Set source offset
   LDA #:SOURCEPTR                  ;Get upper 8-bits of source ptr
   STA $4304                        ;Set source bank
   LDX #SIZE                        ;
   STX $4305                        ;Set transfer size in bytes
   LDX #DESTPTR                     ;Get lower 16-bits of destination ptr
   STX $2181                        ;Set WRAM offset
   LDA #:DESTPTR                    ;Get upper 8-bits of dest ptr 
   STA $2183                        ;Set WRAM bank (only LSB is significant)
   LDA #$80
   STA $4301                        ;DMA destination is $2180
   LDA #$01                         ;DMA transfer mode=auto increment
   STA $4300                        ;  Write mode=1 byte to $2180
   STA $420B                        ;Initiate transfer using channel 0

Both of these examples use Write Mode 1 with automatic source address increment. The source address can also be decremented or stay fixed. One application of the fixed source mode would be to quickly clear WRAM or VRAM. DMA transfers can also copy from a PPU register to CPU address space. I really can’t think of a reason to do so, but if it is needed just set bit 8 of $43x0 to reverse the direction of the transfer.


DMA by itself is pretty useful, but Nintendo thought up another way of using the DMA controller that really made the SNES the great console that it is. Instead of immediately halting the CPU and performing the copy, they created “HDMA” mode, which performs one transfer during each horizontal blanking period. This allows you to do neat things like set a color every scanline, which is how the gradient fills in Chrono Trigger’s menus are done. Another common application is controlling the window mask registers, allowing non-rectangular masks (ie the round mask transition effect in Mario World). There are tons of demos out there showing what HDMA can do.

HDMA uses the same channel registers as normal DMA, but has its own activation register ($420C). There are other differences, particularly that the source data is stored in a specially formatted table. Once you set the bit in $420C for a channel, the next HBlank interval will read the next entry in the HDMA table for the source data and write it to the destination register just like DMA. Note that only ONE transfer can be done, either setting 1, 2 or 4 bytes at a time, during one HBlank. Thus HDMA is not really useful for mass copying of data to VRAM, but is great for special effects that only need up to 8 PPU registers (since there are 8 channels) to be set per scanline.

Another interesting thing is that the HDMA registers that track the current HDMA table address can be changed during a Vertical IRQ; thus some tricks can be played to enhance HDMA’s usefulness even further.

HDMA Table Format

The HDMA Table has any number of “cells”. Each cell tells the HDMA logic what value to send to the Destination register during the next N HBlanks, where N is any value from 1 to 128. If bit 8 of the N value is set, then the value is written EVERY HBlank; if bit 8 is zero, then the value is only written ONCE, the first time, and N-1 lines are skipped. The value $80 is a special case; it writes EVERY HBlank for 128 lines.

Note by bazz - I like to also think of it as moving to the Nth scanline from the current line. Maybe that will help you I dunno.

The data to be written follows the LineCount (N) byte; the number of bytes of data per cell depends on the HDMA mode set in register $43x0. There can be 1, 2, or 4 bytes depending on the mode. There is also a special “indirect” mode, where instead of having the data in the Table directly there is a 16-bit offset into the indirect bank selected by $43x4. The indirect mode is enabled by a bit in $43x0 as well. (the normal mode is called “absolute” mode). Here are some examples of cells for different modes:

;Absolute mode 000 (1 byte), write FF to dest then skip $2F lines
   .db $30
   .db $FF

;Absolute mode 100 (4 byte), write AABBCCDD to dest every line for $20 lines
   .db $A0
   .db $AA,$BB,$CC,$DD

;Indirect mode 001 (2 byte), write data at IB:(TBL) to dest then skip $10
   .db $10
   .dw TBL             ;TBL is a label somewhere in the bank set in $43x4
                       ;[note by bazz - if desired.. it can be in a different
                       bank which you can specify by writing bank# to $43x7]

;End Table
   .db $00

As the last example shows, the table must be terminated with a Cell of LineCount=0 (with no data). Also note that Absolute and Indirect modes cannot be easily mixed (I suppose it could be done during a vertical IRQ). Also note that the HDMA won’t quit until that 0 is received, so you can actually use one HDMA transfer over multiple frames. Normally though, you will want to setup a new HDMA transfer during the NMI handler, or at least reset the table address manually.

Another note by bazz - I questioned after reading this if the first line displayed would be affected because the hblank would come after it was scanned. However, the first entry in the table does affect the first line displayed. I have some theories of why this is so, but I’m not a hardware guru so I’ll keep it to myself. Just know that the first entry does affect the first displayed line.

DMA and HDMA Register Details

$420B: DMA Enable Register

Each bit enables one DMA channel; the moment you set a bit to one, the DMA transfer begins. Up to 8 transfers can be done at a time, but they do not actually occur concurrently. The first transfer is the lowest #ed enabled channel. Least significant bit==Channel 0, MSB==Channel 7

$420C: HDMA Enable Register

Each bit enables one HDMA channel; the moment you set a bit to One, the HDMA transfer begins. During each HBlank, a single transfer takes place per enabled HDMA channel. The lowest #ed enabled channel goes first. Least significant bit==Channel 0, MSB==Channel 7

Note that the DMA and HDMA channels use the same configuration registers (as outlined below), ie so if 4 HDMA are active then only 4 DMA can be done, etc.

There are 8 channels, so substitute the channel # (0-7) for the x in the register address:

$43x0: AB0CDEEE    DMA Setup Register [DMAPx]
         A -- Transfer Direction (0==CPU -> PPU, 1==PPU -> CPU)
         B -- HDMA Addressing Mode (0==Absolute, 1==Indirect)
         C -- CPU addr Auto inc/dec selection (0==Increment, 1==Decrement)
         D -- CPU addr Auto inc/dec enable (0==Enable, 1==Disable (fixed))
         E -- DMA Transfer Word Select
            For DMA: (B0-B3 are the source data bytes, $21XX is PPU destination)
               000 == Write 1 byte, B0->$21xx
               001 == Write 2 bytes, B0->$21xx B1->$21XX+1
               010 == Identical to 000
               011 == Write 4 bytes, B0->$21XX B1->$21XX B2->$21XX+1 B3->$21XX+1
               100 == Write 4 bytes, B0->$21XX B1->$21XX+1 B2->$21XX+2 B3->$21XX+3

            For HDMA: (B0-B3 are the source data bytes, $21XX is PPU destination)
               000 == Write 1 byte, B0->$21xx
               001 == Write 2 bytes, B0->$21XX, B1->$21XX+1
               010 == Write 2 bytes, B0->$21XX, B1->$21XX
               011 == Write 4 bytes, B0->$21XX, B1->$21XX B2->$21XX+1 B3->$21XX+1
               100 == Write 4 bytes, B0->$21XX, B1->$21XX+1, B2->$21XX+2, B3->$21XX+3

$43x1: nnnnnnnn    PPU register selection [BBADx]
         The byte written here is ORed with $2100 to form the source or
         destination (depending on bit 7 of $43x0) address for the DMA transfer. 
         This is the "$21XX" in the description of the DMA Transfer Word Select for $43x0.

$43x2, $43x3, $43x4:  CPU memory area address
            For DMA:
               The 24-bit address points to the source or destination CPU memory address for the DMA transfer.
               Whether this is the source or destination depends on bit 7 of $43x0.
            For HDMA:
               The 24-bit address points to the HDMA table in the CPU's memory space.
               The table format is outlined elsewhere in this document.

$43x5, $43x6, $43x7: Transfer Size or Indirect Address
            For DMA:
               16-bit value tells how many bytes to transfer; if zero, wraps around to 65536 bytes.
               Take care that this value is evenly divisible by the number of bytes in a single transfer;
               ie 13 bytes in DMA mode 4 is a BAD idea.
            For HDMA:
               Not usually read or written to directly.  Holds the
               final address of the HDMA transfer on completion.
               [Note by bazz - In Indirect mode, the bank of where addesses are in can be written to $43x7.
               However, if they are in the same bank as was written to $43x4, it is not needed to write to $43x7.]

$43x8, $43x9:  CPU Address
               At the beginning of a transfer, this is automatically set to the value of $43x2.
               It is used as the "active" address during the transfer.
               Rarely need to access this directly, but you can if you want to "reset" the transfer or something.

$43xA:  Number of lines to transfer
            HDMA only:
               No need to set this directly; stores the # of lines during
               HDMA transfer, corresponding to the current entry in the
               HDMA table being processed.

Complete Source Code: SNES HDMA, Window Mask and Fixed Color Subtraction Demo

© 2001 Realtime Simulations and Roleplaying Games by Grog

Ye old Disclaimers: I could be wrong, so don’t trust my info blindly. Test it yourself with small demos until you understand it all. Nintendo and SNES are registered trademarks of Nintendo of America. RSR and the author are not affiliated with any company mentioned in this document. Please don’t sue us, we’re poor.

Just some typos and things fixed by Bazz - some asm directed to WLA format