Fall 1990, ground zero for the modern games industry. The six-year-old Nintendo Entertainment System (eight if you count the time since its Japanese launch), with its box-like chassis and dated visuals, looked like a relic of another era. Nintendo's arch-rival Sega was killing it with the Genesis, thanks to an aggressive philosophy of price cuts and in-your-face advertising. In Japan, the pricey (but powerful) Neo Geo console loomed on the horizon, promising unparalleled arcade performance, while the consumer electronics giants were all tinkering with CD-ROM technology to bring interactive movies to the home.
Then Nintendo changed everything.
Launched in Japan in November 1990 as the Super Famicom, the SNES represented a whole new approach to the console business. It was not an attempt to elongate the lifespan of an older machine like the failed Intellivision II or Atari 7200, neither was it a completely fresh start like the Genesis or Neo Geo. Designed by NES architect, Masayuki Uemura, the Super Nintendo continued the ethos and brand image of its predecessor without obsessing over backward compatibility.
When fans started queuing outside electronic stores throughout Japan on November 20th, they knew they were getting an entirely new platform, not some continuation or add-on; yet they were assured that the experiences they loved – Mario, Zelda, Metroid – would all be returning. In his seminal book, The Ultimate History of Videogames, Steve Kent writes about the chaos that hit when it was clear only 300,000 units would be available. "All of Tokyo was slowed down by the crowds," he wrote. "The pushing and shoving were so chaotic that the Japanese government later asked Nintendo and other video game companies to restrict future hardware releases to weekends." What these consumers were witnessing was the birth of the modern sequential console business, where each generation of hardware is related but discrete. This is where the future started.
It was a slower start in the U.S. When the Super Famicom launched as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System on August 23rd, the Sega Genesis had over 100 titles, a lower price point, and an infamous line in TV commercials that had kids all over the continent yelling, "Sega!" at each other, replicating the screamed brand identity that ended every ad. Though the SNES never quite beat the total sales of its rival in the United States, while Sega had attitude and credibility, Nintendo had craft and artistry. With its two custom graphics chips and powerful audio unit, the Super Nintendo was built to an industrial design philosophy that valued beautiful audio-visual performance over sheer processing grunt. This was not a console designed to simply replicate the experience of going to an arcade, it was a machine intended for a whole new era of broad, complex gaming experiences.
The shape and structure of games changed. This was obvious in the very first title, Super Mario World, which further expanded the whole notion of a scrolling platformer with its vast array of interconnected environments, varied enemies and plethora of new skills and features. Pilot Wings too showcased a new form of console game – half action, half simulation – with graded levels of player challenge and expertise designed to test for months as you pitted your hang glider skills against increasingly unforgiving courses. The great role-playing game producers discovered grand new narrative possibilities in the systems's rich color palette and musical synthesis. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy VI, Earthbound and Dragon Quest V, all had their roots in the NES era, but their creators revelled in possibilities the SNES provided, writing rounded characters and orchestral scores.
These were narrative adventures of true emotional depth and aesthetic charm – and alongside the likes of Super Metroid and Super Castlevania IV, they taught modern game studios like Bioware, Blizzard and Naughty Dog how to think about story, pace and structure in longform design. Their innovations are still being discovered and explored in the indie community, via the "Metroidvania" and retro RPG genres. "For me, these were the first games to show how deep an experience gaming could provide," says Graham Smith of DrinkBox Studios, creator of the 2014 SNES-inspired brawler Guacamelee. "They pushed design and narratives much farther than the previous console was able to; they created a real emotional experience for the player, elevating what games could strive to be."
The SNES was a platform for experienced Nintendo craftspeople. It teased miracles from old cohorts like Capcom (Street Fighter II, Breath of Fire, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts) and Konami (Contra III, the Castlevania titles, International Superstar Soccer), and it opened up fresh avenues for Western developers like Acclaim, Interplay and Rare. "The NES and Gameboy were similar in the way the architecture was set up, in the number of sprites, the character cells, et cetera," explains Chris Sutherland, lead programmer on the Donkey Kong Country titles, now working on SNES-inspired adventure, Yooka-Laylee. "Nintendo clearly thought, well if we take the NES architecture but make a bigger chip, we can give you twice as many colors, more sprites on screen, less limitations: it literally was a Super NES. By then, developers were wringing all sorts of stuff out of the NES, so when they moved on to the SNES it was easy – they knew all the tricks already, they didn't have to relearn everything from scratch."
Furthermore, the stability of the platform allowed creativity to flourish, so while Sega muddied the legacy of the Genesis with its attachments, updates and the Saturn – its underpowered follow-up – the SNES was able to boast astonishingly assured releases to its dying days. Even when the PlayStation arrived in 1994, heralding a brave new era of 3D polygonal graphics, the SNES was still dropping masterworks like Chrono Trigger, Yoshi's Island and Harvest Moon. "For me, the SNES was a joy to work with," says veteran coder, John Pickford, who, while working at Software Creations in Manchester in late 1990, received the first SNES development kit outside of Japan. "What really struck me about the SNES was that it was truly designed for making fast 2D games. Whilst it's true the CPU was quite slow – and I later learned it was deliberately under-clocked due to an aborted NES compatibility mode – this wasn't really a huge problem."
That's because the dedicated graphics chips did all the hard work of drawing the images to the TV screen, allowing the CPU to focus on raw data like where the Mario sprite was in relation to the rest of the objects in play. "For a ZX Spectrum coder like me, that almost felt like cheating!" says Pickford.
The SNES, then, occupied a unique place in the history of games, straddling the inventive chaos of the Eighties and the technological confidence of the Nineties. It closed the era of pixel art and computer-generated music, and welcomed 3D visuals with the Super FX chip, (which was housed in the game cartridges themselves). If there is no classic Super Nintendo title in your past, if you did not willingly submit hours of your life to Super Mario Kart, Star Fox or Street Fighter II Turbo, a game designer you respect certainly did. Blizzard started out making interesting hybrid role-playing platformers like Lost Vikings and Blackthorne on the console. The creators of Cave Story and Shovel Knight hark back unselfconsciously to the era. Naughty Dog founders Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin cite the character platformers of the SNES era as a major influence on Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter. "We were most derivative of Donkey Kong Country," he admitted to industry news site Gamasutra. "That was the game that we really looked at, if you look at the way the levels were structured."
Ryan Lee of Cellar Door Games, the creators of Rogue Legacy, is keen to emphasise that the influence of SNES games is about more than their quaint pixelated visuals. "We had a huge soft spot for the RPGs from back then," he says. "The great thing about them was how varied they were in their gameplay. People remember the story, the music, etc. But people don't give enough love for how much depth there was to their combat systems. They were much more nuanced in their design compared to many RPGs nowadays which, to me, feel superficial."
The SNES taught us that home consoles could be more than home arcades or toys – they could be an accessible medium for story and experience – for everyone. You play the games you do because someone somewhere played something on the SNES.
Want video game stories like these delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up now for the Glixel newsletter!