Founded in San Jose, California in 1994 by a trio of former Silicon Graphics employees, 3Dfx got its start making hardware for arcade machines. The company’s first-gen Voodoo chipset powered arcade hits like San Francisco Rush, ICE Home Run Derby and Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey. But by the second half of 1996, memory prices had dipped significantly which turned 3Dfx's attention to the consumer PC market.

3Dfx's Voodoo graphics consisted of a 3D-only add-in card that required a VGA cable pass-through from a separate 2D card to the Voodoo, which then connected to the display. The cards were sold by a large number of companies. Orchid Technologies was first to market with the $299 Orchid Righteous 3D, a board noted for having mechanical relays that “clicked” when the chipset was in use. That card was followed by Diamond Multimedia’s Monster 3D, the Canopus Pure3D, Colormaster Voodoomania, Quantum3D Obsidian, Miro Hiscore, Skywell Magic3D, among others.

Voodoo Graphics revolutionized personal computer graphics nearly overnight and rendered many other designs obsolete, including a vast swathe of 2D-only graphics producers. The 3D landscape in 1996 favored S3 with around 50% of the market. That was to change soon, however. It was estimated that 3Dfx accounted for 80-85% of the 3D accelerator market during the heyday of Voodoo’s reign.

Eventually most of 3Dfx's competition came from companies that were already established in the market producing 2D graphics, and were meaning to produce combo cards capable of 2D and 3D. While these products didn't match the image quality or performance of Voodoo, their lower price points and ease of use made them a hit with many OEMs. Demand and public's interest was there for the taking.

At the time, 3Dfx appeared to be in a unique position where it didn't make graphics cards directly, but sold its chipset to third-party OEMs to use in their own branded cards. The company thought this was an issue which would attempt to address later in its life, but more on that in a bit.

3Dfx's answer to the combo card came a year later with the launch of the Voodoo Rush, which paired its original Voodoo accelerator with a 2D graphics chip on the same board. The Rush carried the same specifications as a standalone Voodoo but because it had to share memory bandwidth with the 2D chip, performance suffered. 3Dfx attempted to remedy this with later revisions featuring more memory and higher clock speeds but it was all for nothing. The Voodoo Rush was discontinued less than a year after launch.

On a personal note...

The December 1995 issue of GamePro magazine featured a piece on DigiPen, a school in Vancouver that teaches video game programming. News of this "Applied Computer Graphics" school couldn’t have come at a better time as my computer teacher had just issued an assignment regarding our dream job and how it might relate to technology. I knew right then and there what I was destined to do.

I’d been into video games for as long as I can remember. For a brief period in the mid-80s, my aunt owned and operated a video rental store. It was the sort of shop you’d find in any small town before Blockbuster monopolized the industry, with a respectable selection of movies and – most importantly for us kids – Nintendo games. This only further solidified my interest in gaming.

I was fully enveloped by the late 90s, having laid claim to nearly every major console on the market. Nary a week would go by that I didn’t receive at least a few issues of the latest gaming mag in the mail. Heck, I even circled release dates on my calendar and counted down the days until launch in earnest.

So there I was, an impressionable 13-year-old in computer class with his entire life already charted out. I’d finish grade school, get accepted into DigiPen, graduate with some sort of degree and start living the dream of making video games.

In hindsight, that’s probably how it would have played out had my other interest – the personal computer – not intervened.

I got my first computer in 1998 and it literally changed the entire trajectory of my life. I was still into gaming, mind you, but the focus immediately shifted from consoles to the PC and it didn’t take long to realize that my AMD K6-2 CPU with 3DNow! instruction set needed some help in the graphics department.

Enter 3Dfx Interactive.

The pinnacle of 3Dfx’s relatively short run – and where my story intersects with them – came in 1998 with the launch of the wildly successful Voodoo2. Built on a 350 nm manufacturing process, the Voodoo2 upped the ante with faster core and memory clock speeds of 90 MHz, respectively, up from 50 MHz on the first-gen Voodoo. There was simply nothing that could compete with it, let alone when a game had implemented the proprietary Glide API (before Direct3D and OpenGL were seen as standard).

3Dfx also added a second texture mapping unit in Voodoo2, which allowed two textures to be drawn in a single pass without a performance hit. They went back to being a pure 3D accelerator, and the work put in resonated with gamers.

3Dfx's Voodoo and Voodoo2 chipsets are widely credited with jump-starting 3D gaming. Some even consider this period to be the golden era for PC gaming with titles like Quake, Quake 2, Need for Speed II: SE, Virtua Fighter 2, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Diablo II, Unreal, and Rainbow Six all effectively making great use of the Glide API.

As Shamus Young so eloquently put it, "it was after the stone age of DOS, but before the four horsemen of bugs, DRM, graphics fixation, and console-itis came in and made a mess of things." For a deeper dive on this subject, check out our compilation of some of the best 3Dfx Glide games ever created.

The Voodoo2 was also noteworthy in that it introduced SLI (Scan-Line Interleave), a process in which two Voodoo 2 cards could be linked together and run simultaneously to theoretically double the graphics processing performance. SLI allowed for higher resolutions, up to 1,024 x 768, but compatibility issues and the sheer cost associated with buying two high-end graphics cards kept the feature squarely in the arena of enthusiasts and hardcore gamers.

SLI would get a mulligan years later courtesy of Nvidia. Now known as Scalable Link Interface, the idea behind the modern implementation is the same although technology that powers it is quite different than what 3Dfx first introduced.

"... we were doing tests on a very popular game called "GL Quake" and it was running at 120 frames per second, which is just silly, I mean nobody's going to run a game and add at that kind of frame rate or want to, but what it illustrates is the headroom that's available for developers"

3Dfx would revisit the 2D / 3D combo card idea with the Voodoo Banshee and even submitted a design for Sega’s Dreamcast game console, but was ultimately passed over in favor of a chipset from NEC. Things only went downhill from there as 3Dfx decided to acquire video card manufacturer STB Systems for $141 million in a bid to make its own video cards rather than continuing to serve as an OEM supplier.

In raw 3D performance, the Voodoo 2 had no equal, but the competition was gaining ground fast. Amid increasing competition from ATI and Nvidia, 3Dfx looked to retain a higher profit line by marketing and selling the boards themselves, something that was previously handled by a lengthy list of board partners. That's where the STB acquisition made sense, but the venture proved a giant misstep as quality and cost of manufacture from the foundry used by the company could not compete with TSMC (used by Nvidia) or UMC (used by ATI).

Many of 3Dfx’s former partners formed ties with Nvidia instead.

The first of 3Dfx’s Voodoo3 series arrived in 1999, backed by an extensive television and print advertising campaign, a new logo – now with a small “d” – and vivid box art. The company’s Voodoo3 and subsequent releases were not made available to hardware partners, effectively turning third-party manufacturing partners into rivals that had no choice but to source chipsets from competitors such as Nvidia.

Various models featuring 3Dfx's Voodoo3 hit the market, catering to multiple price points. Nvidia returned fire that summer with the GeForce 256, which it billed as the world’s first GPU (graphics processing unit).

The revolution that 3Dfx had ushered in three years earlier was now passing it by.

3Dfx's last hurrah came in the form of the VSA-100 graphics processor that was to serve as the backbone of the company’s next generation of cards. Only two, the Voodoo 4 4500 and Voodoo 5 5500, would ever make it to market.

But where 3dfx was once a byword for raw performance, its strengths around this time laid in its full screen antialiasing image quality. The Voodoo 5 introduced T-buffer technology as an alternative to GeForce 256's T&L capabilities (transformation and lighting), by basically taking a few rendered frames and aggregating them into one image. This produced a slightly blurred picture that, when run in frame sequence, smoothed out the motion of the animation.

3Dfx’s technology became the forerunner of many image quality enhancements seen today, like soft shadows and reflections, motion blur, as well as depth of field blurring. That however was not enough to keep them out of financial trouble.

The Voodoo5 5000, which was to resemble the 5500 but with half the RAM, never launched. Neither did the Voodoo 5 6000, a hulking card packing four VSA-100 processors and 128MB of total memory. 3Dfx reportedly made around 1,000 prototype cards for testing purposes, but again, none were ever sold to the public. Some of these fabled pre-production cards did survive although very few working examples are known to exist today. They’re considered among the holy grail of gaming hardware. If you can find someone willing to part with theirs, be expected to pay several thousand dollars.

3Dfx pulled the trigger on a $186 million acquisition of graphics IP provider GigaPixel in March 2000 in an effort to help get products to market faster but it proved to be too little, too late.

Shortly after the first Voodoo4 products hit the market later that year, 3Dfx's creditors initiated bankruptcy proceedings. With few options, 3Dfx waved the white flag in December 2000 and sold most of its assets to Nvidia. Nearly 13 years later, 3Dfx's founders reunited for an oral history on the company hosted by the Computer History museum. It's an admittedly lengthy piece although if you've come this far, what's another two and a half hours?

And if you’re in the mood for a bit of retro gaming, you’ll be happy to learn that second-hand Voodoo-based video cards are readily available through outlets like eBay. They’re a bit more expensive than you likely would have guessed (nostalgia will cost you), but they’re up for grabs if you’re in the market.

On a personal note...

The December 1995 issue of GamePro magazine featured a piece on DigiPen, a school in Vancouver that teaches video game programming. News of this "Applied Computer Graphics" school couldn’t have come at a better time as my computer teacher had just issued an assignment regarding our dream job and how it might relate to technology. I knew right then and there what I was destined to do.

I’d been into video games for as long as I can remember. For a brief period in the mid-80s, my aunt owned and operated a video rental store. It was the sort of shop you’d find in any small town before Blockbuster monopolized the industry, with a respectable selection of movies and – most importantly for us kids – Nintendo games. This only further solidified my interest in gaming.

I was fully enveloped by the late 90s, having laid claim to nearly every major console on the market. Nary a week would go by that I didn’t receive at least a few issues of the latest gaming mag in the mail. Heck, I even circled release dates on my calendar and counted down the days until launch in earnest.

So there I was, an impressionable 13-year-old in computer class with his entire life already charted out. I’d finish grade school, get accepted into DigiPen, graduate with some sort of degree and start living the dream of making video games.

In hindsight, that’s probably how it would have played out had my other interest – the personal computer – not intervened.

I got my first computer in 1998 and it literally changed the entire trajectory of my life. I was still into gaming, mind you, but the focus immediately shifted from consoles to the PC and it didn’t take long to realize that my AMD K6-2 CPU with 3DNow! instruction set needed some help in the graphics department.

Enter 3Dfx Interactive.

TechSpot's Gone but Not Forgotten Series

The story of key hardware and electronics companies that at one point were leaders and pioneers in the tech industry, but are now defunct. We cover the most prominent part of their history, innovations, successes and controversies.