In the early 1990s, debates were raging in playgrounds across the land about which was better: the Super Nintendo or the Sega Genesis. I was in Nintendo's corner, defending their legendary 16-bit console to a group of friends who had sworn their allegiance to Sega. I didn't know exactly why it was the best. I just knew it was.
"It's got more colors!" I'd claim, not really knowing what that meant. "Yeah, but has it got Sonic?" they'd reply. It was a losing battle. I was outnumbered, and they were convinced that a blue hedgehog was the pinnacle of modern video games. I'd go home, defeated, but then I'd plug in Super Metroid and I'd know, deep down, that I was right.
The SNES as it appeared in Japan
Twenty-three years later, I still think I'm right. The Genesis was undeniably a great console. It had more raw power than the SNES, but Nintendo had it beat in every other respect. That might be an opinion swayed by deep-seated adolescent bias, but I think the evidence speaks for itself.
I was right on the money with the colors thing. The Genesis had a palette of 512 colors and could display 62 of them on screen at any one time; the SNES had over 32,000 and was able to simultaneously display 256. That's why most Genesis games look muted and murky, while SNES games are striking explosions of vivid color.
Advertising for 'Donkey Kong Country'
Then there's the Sony sound chip, the S-SMP, designed by PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi. The music this little square of silicon generated remains fantastic, and had a distinct sound that the Genesis's YM2612 chip couldn't dream of producing. Listen to "Corridors of Time" from Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong Country's "Aquatic Ambience," or "Terra's Theme" from Final Fantasy VI and you'll hear what I mean. Video game music doesn't get much better.
Another way the SNES made up for its lack of muscle compared to the Genesis was its ability to twist, bend, rotate, and layer pixels, creating a convincing 3D effect. Games like F-Zero used this to create the illusion of driving down a three-dimensional track. This was called Mode 7, and further set the SNES apart from Sega's console.
'F-Zero' was the first SNES game to use Mode 7 graphics
SNES games could also include additional graphics hardware in the cartridges, like the famous Super FX chip. This was capable of producing actual 3D graphics, powering games like Star Fox and Stunt Race FX—primitive by today's standards, but mind-blowing at the time. The dazzling polygons of Star Fox got me through a particularly heinous bout of chickenpox.
But it was the games themselves that really defined the Super Nintendo. Technology can only get you so far if the games aren't any cop, and the SNES library is just insane. There's the peerless Super Metroid, an open-world platformer that's a master class in pacing, level design, and atmosphere.
'Super Metroid' is still a classic today
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is a grand, sweeping adventure with a neat time travel mechanic. And SimCity brought the PC town-builder to consoles for the first time, losing none of its depth in the process.
Super Mario World is a staggeringly well-designed platformer, and arguably the best game in the plumber's long-running series. It came bundled with the console at launch, meaning it was many SNES owners' first game—and what an introduction. This was the only game I had when I got my SNES at Christmas, but it was all I needed.
Donkey Kong Country used pre-rendered sprites to create the illusion that your SNES was pumping out high-end CG visuals, and it worked. I remember thinking graphics would never get any better. Nintendo boasted about how the game's models were created with the same computers that did the CG effects for Jurassic Park. This hella 90s making-of documentary is a fascinating glimpse into its development.
If your dad brought this home for you, you were very, very lucky
And Street Fighter II… well, it's Street Fighter II. The king of fighters. I can't think of another console that boasts such a broad, varied selection of genuine classics. I haven't even mentioned Castlevania. Or Mega Man. Or EarthBound. Or Super Mario Kart. Or Timecop. Actually, forget that last one. There were, of course, plenty of stinkers on SNES too, mostly in the form of lazy Hollywood tie-ins
The SNES was home to a vast collection of amazing RPGs too, the best of which were from Japanese publisher/developer Squaresoft, now better known as Square Enix. The lavish Final Fantasy VI is considered by many fans to be the highlight of the series. Everything about it—the music, the combat, the story—is just a class act. After this the series defected to PlayStation, but some of the best entries were on the NES and SNES.
Chrono Trigger (check out VICE's 20th anniversary piece on it here) is an epic journey across several time periods, weaving a compelling story with a cast of rich characters. At school I'd sit and fantasize about rushing home and escaping into these worlds, in which I must have spent hundreds of hours. RPGs are still my favorite genre, and I got my first taste of them here.
SNES controllers for the Japan (top) and North America (bottom)—in the console's home country it's known as the Super Famicom
And let's not forget the controller, whose influence is still felt today. Look at a PS4 DualShock or an Xbox One pad and you can see the DNA of the SNES. It was the first console to introduce shoulder buttons, which have become an industry standard, and the extra inputs allowed for more complex control schemes. The six-button setup made the SNES the absolute best home console to play Street Fighter on.
There was even a mouse for the SNES, designed especially for Mario Paint, an impressive drawing, music, and animation suite that people are still making tunes with. I spent hours doodling with that chunky mouse, playing the fly-swatting mini-game, and listening to the amazingly chill music, which made good use of Sony's sound chip.
Art from 'Secret of Mana,' another impressive Square RPG
The Nintendo 64 is a strong contender for Nintendo's best console, but the blocky polygons have aged terribly. SNES games still look great thanks to its intricate, detailed, and colorful pixel art. Pixelated visuals are making a comeback in the indie scene, but I've yet to see anything as pretty as Secret of Mana.
Writing this, I feel like I'm in the playground again, furiously defending the SNES. But I don't really have to, because history has vindicated me. It wasn't just a pivotal, formative gaming experience for me: it was a true pioneer, setting the rules for consoles to come and showing Sega that power isn't everything.
The same could apply to the Wii U today. It might not have the processing might of the PS4 or Xbox One, but it compensates by having some of the most innovative, well-designed games of this generation in its admittedly limited library. I like to think there are kids out there now, like me, bravely defending their Wii Us to scoffing PlayStation and Xbox fanboys.
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