Only a few weeks ago, the Nintendo Entertainment System celebrated its 30th North American release anniversary. In many ways, this is also the anniversary of the modern video game industry. The NES’ arrival overseas ended console generations that saw companies completely plummet in value. It revitalized a flailing medium of entertainment and proved to everyone that there’s big money to be found. Of course, we know all this now with our huge library of games and multiple different options. Back then, this wasn’t what people expected. The NES could very easily have been a one time event, fading away and taking this future out with it. Making a great new console was obviously important, but you can also say making a worthy follow up was even more necessary.
25 years ago, Nintendo did just that with the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The SNES boasts a lot of similarities to the NES, which makes the two similar names extremely fitting. It was literally the NES but more enhanced. Franchises that began on the past console continued with this new one. Nintendo, emboldened by their recent success, also used this new era to create brand new classic properties. Third-party developers did the same of course. Where the big difference came was appearance. The SNES presented games that were much cleaner in design and more intricately detailed. There was a greater sense of fluidity, almost making your character just glide across your screen. Greater technological leaps would come in future generations, making the changes brought upon by the SNES almost seem small. Yet at the time these were groundbreaking, and it contributed to the SNES being one of the most popular consoles in history.
The SNES was part of the fourth generation, commonly known as the 16-bit era. People now adore the 8-bit style of the NES and consider that to be the definition of retro gaming. 8-bit was very impressive way back then too. Yet in all honestly, it’s almost as low as a console can go with graphics. This lead to incredible limitations on character movement, what type of colors can be shown on screen, the detail of an environment, and even restricted gameplay. Without enough prior knowledge or experience, the jump down to 8-bit can actually be too jarring for certain players.16-bit isn’t a walk in the park either, but the differences are very noticeable. Pixels aren’t as prominent, giving characters and environments much smoother textures. More colors could be shown which allowed settings to become much intricate and alive. This also allowed greater range of movement, suddenly opening brand new avenues of gameplay. You could play a franchise that is home to both graphical eras, but the difference between the two lead to entirely unique experiences.
An excellent example is with Nintendo’s own flagship property. The Mario games on the NES are all excellent and improved with each new iteration. Super Mario Bros. 3 was the last to appear on the system and many consider it to be one of the best Mario games ever. The franchise’s first SNES game, and rightfully a system launch title, was Super Mario World, and the changes are staggering. It’s apparent from the very first level too. Mario is suddenly a much better looking protagonist with more defined features. The playable levels look bigger and have many more characters and obstacles. The world map idea was carried over from Super Mario Bros. 3, and it received a necessary overhaul. On top of this was the newly added multiplayer with Luigi, newer power ups, and the introduction of Yoshi, a now classic character. It really was the Mario experience everyone loved before but in a better package. People now consider Super Mario World one of Nintendo’s best games.
“The same but better” was a principal many other SNES hits followed if they appeared on its predecessor. Nintendo was still the most popular company so a lot of third-party developers continued on this console. Metroid and Legend of Zelda were excellent franchise starters, but Super Metroid and A Link to the Past are the favorites. Final Fantasy would be nothing without its first three NES games, but people fawn over Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI. Capcom made its biggest success off Street Fighter and Mega Man, but Street Fighter II and Mega Man X are fondly remembered.
The SNES also had its fair share of major property creation. A select group of incredibly talented people came together and created Chrono Trigger, one of the most influential JRPGs ever. Nintendo introduced the world to Star Fox which quickly became an iconic first party title. Mario based spin-offs received their most popular game with Mario Kart. In an incredibly smart move, Nintendo teamed up with Rare to bring back one of their most iconic characters: Donkey Kong. This great ape was absent since 1983 and back then he was an antagonist. The SNES reintroduced him as a hero in 1994 with Donkey Kong Country to enormous critical acclaim. Kong and his entire family have since become Nintendo icons and a premier company franchise.
It’s impossible to talk about the SNES without addressing the infamous Console War. Every generation is filled with competition, but few has become as heated and legendary as Nintendo vs. Sega. Sega’s Master System directly competed with the NES, and when that failed to take a global market share, they rebounded with the Mega Drive/Genesis. The Genesis took on the SNES in a brutal marketing campaign with claims that “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” and mascot creation. Sonic the Hedgehog is definitely not an Italian plumber, but his intended purpose was the same. Sega needed a character to rally behind just like Mario and this blue speedster was their answer. It really worked in their favor too. On the back of Sonic, Sega kept Nintendo on their toes throughout the fourth generation. Plenty of people took sides too as both consoles were truly great. The SNES would go on to win though, cementing Nintendo’s place as gaming greatness while the Genesis was Sega’s last great console success (though definitely not the last great console).
I didn’t get my own SNES until closer to the end of its principal lifespan. To prove this point, there’s actually a picture of me excitedly holding my new console with its first game: Donkey Kong Country. That’s right folks. The game that helped the SNES stay popular after the fifth-generation officially began in 1993 was the first SNES game I ever owned. I can’t remember if this was for my birthday or Christmas, but either way we were still very late to the party. Doesn’t mean we didn’t have fun though. Holy crap, this was an awesome system. I dumped hours into Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy II (how FFIV came overseas), and a deep personal favorite, Pilotwings. A memory I will never forget is when my Mom, a teacher, told me she had a student who wanted to get rid of some games. I eagerly agreed to take a few, definitely not expecting her to come home with a pillowcase filled with free games ripe for my choosing. I cannot confirm, but I might have died from happiness.
25 years later, the SNES is still regarded as one of the best systems ever. None of the revitalization brought upon by the NES would have stuck around without a worthy follow up, and that’s what we got. A lot of its most popular games were “the same but better” with improved graphics, smoother gameplay, and more detailed environments. Some of the most beloved series came during this time too with Chrono Trigger and Donkey Kong Country. In terms of competition, the war between Nintendo and Sega reached unparalleled heights with this system as the big winner. Unfortunately for them, the SNES was the last generation winner until the Wii as Sony’s PlayStation later took over.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.