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Home » Retrogaming, Technology

Super NES — a 16-bit classic

By: 25 December 2010 6 Comments

'The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past" -- regarded by some as the greatest game ever released for any system.

Every year around this time, it’s easy to start thinking of great video game systems of the past.

A lot of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s wished for, hoped for and asked Santa Claus to deliver the latest video game console on Christmas morning. Back in 1991, the Super Nintendo (also called the Super NES or SNES). That system came out in August 1991 as Nintendo really needed a console that would do two things — build on the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and compete with the Sega Genesis. Nintendo achieved both of those goals with the Super NES and kicked off a nasty console war, to boot.

To get an idea of why it was necessary for Nintendo to release a console that was a major success, let’s have a look at the company’s history and its situation in 1991. We’ll start with the video game crash of 1983, which wiped out a lot of console manufacturers and game designers. It also caused more than a few investors and industry analysts to assume video game consoles were obsolete and had bee replaced by computers that allowed people to both play games and do a lot of things video consoles could not.

Ah, but the so-called video game crash was pretty well isolated to North America. Nintendo was having great success in Japan with its Famicom and wanted to release that system in the U.S. Ironically, Nintendo wanted to release its hardware as an Atari-branded system, but negotiations fell apart. Nintendo decided to go it alone and released the NES in North America in 1985.

Nintendo went on to dominate the market with its little 8-bit NES. Sega released the Genesis, a 16-bit console, in 1988, but it took some time for that system to catch on with the public. In fact, the NES still ruled the console market until 1991 — a little game called Sonic the Hedgehog was a major hit for the Genesis and the company really started to cut into Nintendo’s profits.

Thus, the decision was made to design a system that would restore Nintendo’s reputation as the dominant console manufacturer. Although Sega got a head start with the Genesis. the Super NES was an impressive system that cut into that lead in a hurry. And, my, but the competition between Nintendo and Sega was fierce.

Sega fans bragged about the fact their console could handle more objects simultaneously on the screen and the Genesis’ CPU ran a little hotter. Super NES fans responded by claiming their system was capable of more detailed graphics and even offered almost three-dimensional graphics through the systems famed “Mode 7.” Nintendo fans bragged of great exclusive titles and characters such as Link and Mario and Sega acolytes responded by saying that console boasted plenty of exclusive titles and characters, too, and mentioned the Genesis featured more “mature” games than Nintendo. Nintendo fans said the Super NES audio was superior to what the Genesis could produce and voice synthesis sounded a lot better on that system. Genesis fans didn’t have of a response to that claim at all — the Genesis’ audio just isn’t up to par with the SNES’ and anyone who is familiar with both consoles knows it.

Now, we’re not going to wade into the console wars here because the whole thing seems a bit silly in retrospect. The Genesis and SNES are the cosoles that defined the 16-bit era of gaming and both have a lot to offer. Video game collectors would be wise to pick up both systems — if you only have one, then you only have access to half the games that made the 16-bit era such a great one.

So, what made the Super NES so great? In addition to some pretty advanced graphics (the thing could get close to the quality of graphics offered by machines in the 32-bit era), the SNES is all about the games. We saw an impressive refinement to the two-dimensional platformers through exclusive franchises such as Mario and Kirby. Furthermore, the SNES is the platform for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to The Past, which has been hailed by some critics as the best game ever released for any system (and, yes, it does live up to the hype).

"Hey, Junior. We're not done yet!"

And, speaking of great games, let’s not forget about Donkey Kong Country, a platformer which was released in 1994 and demonstrated the Super Nintendo had a lot of life left even in the face of more advanced 32-bit machines. That particular game, by the way, is a thing to behold — lush backgrounds, very detailed characters and a very convincing three-dimensional look to the whole package. Yes, the gameplay is still two-dimensional, but the thing looks great and the tight, precise controls kept gamers coming back for more. In fact, gamers kept buying the SNES well into the 32-bit era — Nintendo didn’t pull the plug on the system until 1999.

In all, over 500 games were released for the SNES and they ranged from arcade titles to role playing games to, well, just about anything you can imagine. The only time the SNES came up short was when it came to sports games, but don’t worry — there are enough of those to keep most people happy.

The overall quality of the games for the system meant the SNES and the Genesis jockeyed for position for years. Gamers benefited as a result of all that competition as a slew of incredibly fun games were released for both the Genesis and the SNES. Again, to get an idea of what the 16-bit era was actually like, you need to get your hands on both systems. get a stack of games for each and spend a few years doing research.

The SNES offered a few innovations, too. In addition to the typical RF output, the SNES was set up for both S-video and composite video, resulting in a clearer picture than what is possible with typical RF video. While the picture is better, there is a problem in hooking the SNES up to an HDTV set — the thing just won’t look that good. That should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with those old consoles. As long as you’ve got an old tube television set around your house, however, you’ll be just fine.

Also, the controller was an innovative piece of work. Nintendo took the time-tested design of its classic NES controller and expanded on it. The SNES controller features convenient shoulder buttons and four action buttons rather than the two NES fans had. The controller is comfortable the directional pad is very responsive and no third party company really improved on the original design (although several tried).

Now, the SNES isn’t without its flaws. For one thing, that huge power switch tends to break over time if not treated with care. For another, some of the consoles turn yellow with age over time. Apparently, that has something to do with the plastic used on them. Finally, the SNES is tough and durable, but the tank-like construction of the Genesis means those systems tend to take more abuse and last longer.

Still, the complaints against the SNES are very minor. A lot of titles for it have the “timeless fun” angle nailed down and both consoles and games are plentiful. The only problem an owner will have is deciding which games to buy, and The Video Game Critic has made that process easier by offering up a steady stream of capsulized reviews of it over the years.

Any fan of the 16-bit era lacking an SNES is missing out on a lot of fun. While the Genesis is a great console, the SNES is, too. Those of us who were playing games back when the Genesis and SNES were duking it out benefited mightily from the competition as great titles were released for both systems.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email =


  • The Genesis was far superior for voice synthesis said:

    There’s no f*cking way the SNES’ sound chip is better than the Sega Genesis’. The Sega Genesis was far superior in the sound/voice synthesis department — compare the SNES version of The Lion King to its Genesis counterpart… the former lacks any voice samples, whilst the latter has some Playstation-quality voice sampling. The SNES also tends to have muddy, muffled audio (again, play TLK to hear). I’d take the high-treble/sometimes-tinny Genesis sound over the muffled sh*t the SNES tried to pass off as audio. Granted, neither console used voice samples extensively, but the Genesis was always best when it came to the ability to even feature voice synthesis at all. Sega Does What NintenDon’t.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Seriously? I honestly didn’t see this coming. Hey, I’ve played both systems for years and like the heck out of both of them.

    In terms of sound, however, the Genesis has always come up short compared to the SNES. Sure, you might find a game or two made for both systems where the Genesis version sounds better, but those are few and far between. The Genny — great though it is — tends to crank out tinny sound and scratchy voice synthesis.

    Honestly, I thought the Super Nintendo’s superiority was a given, even among die hard Genesis fans…

  • Tim Komor said:

    First off, I have to complain about the Zelda screen shot. To see someone getting stomped by Hyrule soldiers like that when I could never even find that last damned 1/4 of the last heart… well, it’s a slap in the face.

    One very important thing I think you neglected to mention in the article regarding the Console Wars: Nintendo is still here, cranking out new consoles. Sega isn’t.

    The Genesis’ claim to having more “mature” titles, I’m pretty sure, boiled down to their release of Mortal Kombat including blood, while the SNES’s didn’t. Other than that, I never really have heard of any concrete examples of a higher maturity level from the Genesis.

    As far as sound goes, I would say the SNES can credit it’s superiority more toward the talent of the musical composers for the SNES-exclusive titles. Sonic 3 & Knuckles is the only game I ever played on the Genesis that could compare to the amazing music you found in games like Final Fantasy 6, Super Metroid, Yoshi’s Island, of course Zelda (I’m humming the Hyrule overworld song right now…), F-Zero, and… well, the list goes on.

    On the topic of controllers, I’d almost claim it’s blasphemy to say Nintendo just “expanded” on the thumb-muscle-annihilating brick of a NES controller to make the near-perfect design they had with the SNES. Only Sony ever figured out what little steps had to be taken to perfect the console controller with the original PlayStation, and they use almost the exact same design today, three consoles later. Meanwhile Nintendo took good and sensible controller design, decided they wanted nothing to do with it, and made the N64 abomination. The Genesis controller, on the other hand, was big and clunky, which they almost fixed with the Saturn, and then screwed up again with the Saturn’s analog controller. It’s the same mistake Microsoft made with the stupid fat Xbox controller, which was thankfully corrected with the 360.

    Oh, and one more thing that sucked about the Genesis: Sega’s love of gimmicky, over-priced, under-supported peripherals. Sure, the Sega-CD and the 32X had the little kid version of me going “That’s awesome! I want it!” And, in retrospect, I’m glad no Christmas or birthday money was wasted on them, since hardly any real quality games were released for either Genesis add-on.

    I’ll admit it, after reading this article and thinking a bit, I do prefer the SNES over the Genesis. Of course, both are sitting in boxes in my closet, waiting for the day I decide to cave into nostalgia and hook them up again. Sitting next to my SNES is my Super Mario World cartridge with it’s three 96* saves from when I got bored one week a few years ago, nestled right up against the Zelda cartridge with the save that has 19.75 hearts found (grr…)

    Well, at least I now know my SNES discoloration is normal, and it isn’t just nicotine stained…

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Tim — Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Bear in mind that when I say “expanded” on the original controller, that’s shorthand for saying the SNES controller has always struck me as one that’s based on the design of the latter NES “dogbone” controller. It was, quite simply, an evolution and a very good one, too.

    I wasn’t going to mention Sega’s demise and love of gimmicks as that was covered in the post about the Genesis. When the 16-bit wars were raging, Sega did a lot of things right and I wanted to focus on that specific period of time. Of course, Sega also did a lot of things wrong (the Sega CD and 32x) which caused a lot of resentment and hurt the sales of both the Saturn and the Dreamcast. In the end, one can trace the company’s exit from the console-manufacturing business back to the mistakes the company made. That’s a shame, too — the Dreamcast is a fine piece of work

    Hey, pull that SNES out again and go for that last quarter-piece of heart. YOu know you want to…

  • KENNETH said:

    for me the best video game consoles are the gba,snes,ds of nintendo and no other consoles can beat them

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