Sometimes whe you have a big success, like Nintendo had with NES, it’s difficult to prove once again to be the best. But Nintendo did it and in 1992, exactly today April 11th, Europe saw for the first time the brand new japanese 16-bit console, an item that made history as one of the best ever released and capable to run some of the best games of the 90s.
The story in a nutshell
In the late 80s, Nintendo was synonim of video games console. The NES, its most famous specimen back then, was a tremendous success and sold more than 60 millions of units. However toward the end of the decade, other brands started to take the measures to Nintendo phenomenon and to develop their firsts 16-bit consoles: the forerunner in this case was NEC that released in 1987 the PC-Engine. The console sold rather well in Japan and was later exported in Europe and Americia and re-branded TurboGrafx-16. After NEC the biggest Nintendo rival, SEGA, developed and released in 1988 the Sega Mega Drive that hit the american market the year after under the name of Genesis. All of these consoles, more capable that the old fashionable but less powerful NES was stealing precious shares of market to Nintendo so the Japanese firm decided to update their range and in 1990 they released their first 16-bit home console, named Super Ninendo Entertraiment System or SNES, the natural evolution of NES.
The console, known in Japan as Super Famicom (being Famicom the original NES name in Japan) was sold in two different “shapes”: the “curvy” for the japanese and european market and the “rectangular” (and in my honest opinion less beautiful) for the american market.
With the release of SNES, officially began the second act of the consoles war against SEGA, that ended up with a victory of Nintendo in the battle between NES and Master System.
The SNES proved to be a huge success from the very beginning since the first 300000 units prepared for the launch were sold in a few hours. In Japan the console impose itself over the others (namely old NESs and PC-Engines) but Nintendo had a bit more difficulties in America where SEGA got a trusted community who already bought the Genesis. However, the Big N catched up its rival company and outclassed it in 1993 becoming the reference point in gaming world among the 16-bit home consoles.
The SNES was first Nintendo 16-bit system and supported a Ricoh 5A22 Microprocessor, based on a version of WDC 65C816 used in the Apple IIGS
As usual for most of Nintendo consoles, the SNES run with cartridges, more compact than the NES ones but a bit bigger that what N64 cartridges will be. The cartridges were different in America and in Europe and not because of the regional lock (in Japan, an NTSC region, the cartridges were the same as in Europe): following the lines and shapes of the consoles, in America the carts were slightly larger and more squared that the rounded european ones.
The “dogbone”, how it was renamed the SNES controller, is claimed to be one of the best, if not the best controller ever made. Nintendo decided to soften the angular design of NES and, while keeping the same philosophy (D-pad on the left and buttons on the right) produced a more ergonomic controller and added two more buttons tilting them of 45° in a shape that will be as a father for the well known PS controller.
The dogbone came in two different variants: the euro-japanese with coloured buttons that recalls one of the SNES logos and the american, with the buttons in a different shade of violet (and again I still prefer the european one).
But the dogbone wasn’t the only peripheral for the system. Nintendo developed and released controllers such as the Super Scope (a version of NES Zapper filled with steroids), the SNES Mouse, used mainly for Mario Paint, the Multilap to connect up to four controllers at the same time and the oddest of them all the BatterUP, a baseball bat-shaped controller.
The SNES GPU consisted of two coprocessors, Ricoh 5C77 (PPU1) and Ricoh 5C78 with the possibility to render up to the huge number of 128 sprite at the same time (32 per line) with a maximum resolution of 64×64 pixels.
A total of 32.768 colors are available in total and 256 of them can be displayed at the same time. The screen resolution is 256×224 / 256×239 / 512×224 / 512×239 pixels (progressive scan) or 512×448 / 512×478 pixels (interlaced scan).
Technical data apart what we all fondly remember about the SNES were the great capabilities, the colourful sprites and the innovations in terms of graphics.
The most important example was Donkey Kong Country, released in 1994 when the first 32-bit consoles were starting to become popular (3DO, Atari Jaguar, Sega Saturn and PlayStation were all on market in December 1994, even if in their embrional phase). In 45 days in 1994, during the Christmas holidays the game sold more that 6 million of units making it the fast selling games of all all times and launched a clear message to the competitors: Nintendo was still the ones to beat. Eventually DK Country became 1994 best selling game considering all platforms.
A lot of enhancement chips were developed for the SNES, especially Super-FX, used for the animations in Star Fox, CX4, for Megaman X2 and Megaman X3 and SA1, used for a lot og games among which Kirby ‘s Dream Land 3 and Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars.
A total of 783 official games has been released for SNES. A lot of them are some of the most iconic games ever released, taking advantage of the powerful 16-bit engine of the console. When the console was originally released in America, on August 23rd, 1991, only five games were available: F-Zero, Gradius III, Pilotwings, SimCity and, obviously Super Mario World (F-Zero and Super Mario World were actually the very first games released in Japan for the Super Famicom in November 21st, 1990). After seven years and other 777 games the last one was put on the market, Frogger, a port of the PS game with the same name.
Just a few words regarding the first five: F-Zero showed to the world the new Mode 7, the graphic mode that simulated a 3D environment scaling and rotating the track around the vehicle; Gradius III was the first 16-bit sequel of the famous arcade game of 1985, released also for NES with a great success in 1986 and proposed again as one of the 30 featured games of NES Mini; Pilotwings is an amateur flight simulator, someway a “rival” of MS Flight Simulator; Simcity is a colourful port of 1989 Mac city building simulator, made famous by its sequel SimCity 2000. And then there was Super Mario World (sometimes credited as Super Mario 4). What else I can say about it that you’ve already heard? Nominated one of the best games ever made, more than 20 millions of copies sold, an overwhelming critical success. One day for sure I’ll have time for a complete review. 🙂
Among the other top games for SNES it’s impossible not to cite other great gems. First of all the “impossible” port of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, thought to be super hard to port from the arcade, that definitely showed the power of Nintendo brand new console. Then there was Super Metroid, another big piece, considered one of the best game on the SNES and one of the best of all time, with its arcade style graphics which have been, for some time, the most demanding (in terms of memory) game released with its 24 Mbit cartridge. There was Donkey Kong Country, whose astonishing graphics were considered impossible to achieve on a 16-bit console (if you haven’t tried it, you HAVE to, the visuals are simply amazing!), Final Fantasy IV, considered one of the best RPGs of all time and in terms of RPGs The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the third installment of the Zelda franchise, one of Nintendo most important.
Even the sport games, usually the less considered games (at least among the collectors) saw some big improvement: FIFA International Soccer (or FIFA Soccer 94) for example revolutioned the perspective and gameplay of soccer games, introducing an isometric view, prelude of the further revolution of FIFA 96 (but here we’re talking about a PC game…).
Some super famous franchises got their starting point on the SNES, such as Star Fox, Donkey Kong Country, Chrono Trigger and Mario Kart which is, as of today the 13th highest grossing saga in video games history which spawned a swarm of sequels, being the last one Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Nintendo Switch.
Here’s a short list of the best selling SNES games (source wikipedia)
- Super Mario World (20.6 millions)
- Donkey Kong Country (9.0 millions)
- Super Mario Kart (8.7 millions)
- Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (6.3 millions)
- Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (5.0 millions)
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (4.6 millions)
- Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting (4.1 millions)
- Star Fox (4.0 millions)
- Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (4.0 millions)
- Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Reverie (3.2 millions)
During its lifespan, the SNES was “updated” in order to stay in step with the competitors. Nintendo released some (sometimes) odd devices, peripherals and enhancements that actually didn’t really boost the sales of the console but that are nowadays very desired by the collectors not only for their intrinsic value but mainly for their particularity.
Among them the most popular was the Super Game Boy, an adapter that allowed Game Boy games to be played on the SNES, even enhancing their quality. In Japan Nintendo released also the Super Game Boy 2 to connect two different Super Game Boy.
But for sure one of the strangest devices released was the Satellaview that transformed the SNES in a bulky internet console to download games, news and specially designed titles and allowed players to compete agains other players in other countries. The add-on sold 2 millions of units in 5 years, between 1995 and 2000 and became obsolete by the mass advent of the internet.
Nintendo SNES wasn’t immune by hacks, clones and third parties unlicensed peripherals: as it was for NES, a SNES Game Genie was released, along with other useful devices such as Bung’s Professor SF, that allowed to make a back-up copy of the cartridge (and to play on SNES ROMs download from the internet). An add-on device to run CD-ROM games on the SNES in joint venture with Sony, unfortunately failed, and paved the way to the success of PlayStation.
SNES was officially discontinued (at least in Europe) in 1998 but was still on retail in Japan along with the old NES until 2003, although in a restyled version; in total sold slightly less that 50 millions units: a great number but less than its predecessor, the NES. The hard times were about to come for the Big N, especially after the missed opportunity with Sony. Nintendo tried to re-gain the market shares stolen by them with its new console, the N64, released in 1996 but until the release of Nintendo Wii, the japanese company won’t have anymore the chance to compete at the top levels of console world.