Super Powered: Charting The Lasting Legacy Of The Super NES

In the ‘80s, Nintendo saved the video game industry with the release of the NES. That console ushered in a renewed enthusiasm for interactive entertainment and established a series of brands, such as Mario, Zelda, and Metroid, which remain relevant today. Over the course of only a few years, Nintendo’s name became virtually synonymous with video games, and its characters grew so popular that they worked their way into breakfast cereals, lunch boxes, and Saturday morning cartoons.

However, by the early ‘90s, Nintendo’s chokehold on the industry had started to slip. More powerful 16-bit consoles like the Sega Genesis and the TurboGrafx-16 had begun to challenge Nintendo’s dominance. To stay relevant, Nintendo needed to update its hardware.

A skunkworks team inside Nintendo’s research and development department began crafting a successor to the NES. The system would be surprisingly underpowered, but it would contain several modern gaming concepts and ultimately help cement Nintendo’s place in the industry. That console was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and many consider it to be one of Nintendo’s crowning achievements.

Suping Up The NES

Masayuki Uemura was an engineer working for the Sharp Corporation when Nintendo approached him about making video game consoles. At Sharp, Uemura had built photosensitive cell technology, and Nintendo wanted to use this technology to build a light gun that could interact with televisions. Not only did Uemura help build Nintendo’s light gun, but he went on to design the original NES console that it was bundled with. Over the years, Uemura produced games like Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Ice Climber before finally moving on to work on Nintendo’s next big console. However, designing the SNES would prove to be more complicated than Nintendo’s ­original ­console.

Uemura centered the SNES architecture on a custom-built 3.58-MHz CPU. Even for the day, this wasn’t incredibly impressive. Sega’s Genesis console, which released more than two years prior to the SNES, housed a faster processor. However, Uemura designed the SNES’s chipset for maximum visual and audio performance, which helped disguise its lack of horsepower. For example, while the Sega Genesis could only display 512 different colors on a television screen, the SNES had a color palette of over 32,000 colors and could display more than 128 ­sprites ­simultaneously.

The Super Nintendo’s lack of power likely came from Nintendo’s original desire to allow the SNES to be backward compatible with NES cartridges. The NES was the most popular video game console on the market, and it had amassed an impressive library of titles, so allowing the SNES to run all of the NES’s software would have given Nintendo’s new console an impressive head start. Unfortunately, this feature was axed as the system progressed ­toward ­launch.

Fortunately, the SNES had a few unique graphical effects up its sleeve, which made it worth the upgrade. Nintendo designed the SNES to allow for seven different graphical display modes, but only one of these modes reach widespread acclaim. Before the system’s release, Nintendo’s marketing department began trumpeting the graphical feats of Mode 7, a display setting that allowed developers to rotate and scale background layers in their games. This faux 3D effect – seen in games like Super Mario Kart, Pilotwings, and Super Castlevania – became one of the SNES’ distinguishing features and helped set the console apart from its competitors.

Mode 7 – seen in games like Super Mario Kart, Pilotwings, and Super Castlevania – became one of the SNES’ distinguishing features and helped set the console apart from its competitors.”

After establishing the SNES’s internal guts, Nintendo began to think about how its new system should look and feel. Early in the concept phase, Uemura thought that the SNES might function a bit more like a personal computer. In Japan, the NES was called the Famicom, a portmanteau of family and computer. Uemura felt that he might expand on this family computer concept by giving the system a keyboard and card reader, but these input devices eventually fell away in favor of a more traditional video game controller. However, Nintendo’s new controller received a drastic remodel, and the studio design a more ergonomic controller that players could hold comfortably ­for ­hours.

Further inspiration for the SNES controller came from an unlikely source. Fighting games were incredibly popular in arcades at the time, and Nintendo felt that it needed six button inputs on its controller to accommodate console ports for games like Street Fighter II. During focus testing, however, Nintendo discovered that players were easily confused by six face buttons. Four face buttons, tilted into a diamond shape, were much easier for thumbs to navigate, so Nintendo shifted two of its face buttons to the controller’s shoulders. The SNES featured several major innovations, but this controller design, which has been the basis for nearly every controller since, may have been the SNES’ biggest contribution to ­the ­industry.

Coming To America

In Japan, the SNES (called the Super Famicom) had a plain, square design and rounded edges. However, before shipping the console overseas, Nintendo of America believed it need to redesign the case for the western market. Nintendo of American passed the project to an in-house designer named Lance Barr, who felt that the Japanese design was too toy-like.

“The Super Famicom was maybe okay for the market in Japan,” Barr told Nintendojo back in 2007. “For the U.S., I felt that it was too soft and had no edge. We were always looking at future modular components (even the NES had a connector on the bottom), so you had to design with the idea of stacking on top of other components. I thought the Super Famicom didn’t look good when stacked and even by itself, had a kind of ‘bag of ­bread’ ­look.”

The American redesign was also a reaction to feedback on Nintendo’s previous console. The original NES was a relatively simple gray box, and Nintendo of America had received several complaints from NES owner who had placed drinks or bowls of cereal on top of their consoles only to spill liquid into the vent at the top of the unit. To prevent SNES owners from the same fate, Barr made sure that the U.S. version of the SNES had an uneven surface. Barr also gave the console a more muted color scheme, and changed the controller’s X and Y buttons so they had a concave curvature, which offered a better haptic distinction between all four ­face ­buttons.

Top 10 SNES Games

  1. Final Fantasy III – Known as Final Fantasy VI in Japan, Final Fantasy III perfected the 2D role-playing game. An amazing cast of characters with unique abilities gave random battles unprecedented depth, the plot was filled with incredible twists, and the soundtrack set a new standard in video game music. Packed with legendary moments like the opera-house sequence, Final Fantasy III was the best role-playing game of its day and it remains one of the best almost 30 years later.
  2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – The original Zelda had a tremendous impact on gaming, but the franchise’s SNES debut polished and improved upon its core elements to a degree few could have expected. Link still scoured dungeons for keys, bested giant bosses, and saved the girl, but it was done on a much larger scale. Thankfully, gamers had access to an arsenal of fun weapons and gadgets to help them on their quest to defeat Ganon.
  3. Chrono Trigger – This ground-breaking JRPG eschews many of the elements that drive people away from the genre. Between the lack of random battles and the surprisingly well-written time-travel story, there’s plenty here for even those who typically dislike JRPGs. If the great plot and fast-paced fights aren’t enough, Square also used Chrono Trigger to introduce the idea of a “new game plus,” opening the game up to multiple replays with a dozen possible endings.
  4. Super Metroid – Samus Aran’s first adventure broke barriers, but her outing on the Super Nintendo established a framework that would inspire franchises from Castlevania to Batman: Arkham Knight. Super Metroid delivered a perfect storm of upgrades and secrets, and provided players with an unparalleled freedom to explore an entire world of unearthly curiosities.
  5. Street Fighter II – People crowded into arcades to watch frenzied bouts between Street Fighter II’s world warriors, waiting for a turn to demonstrate their skills and put their quarters on the line. All eight fighters had a diverse arsenal of special moves that could be executed in a flash with specific joystick motions and button presses. It may not sound revolutionary now, but that’s because every fighting game since owes its existence to Street Fighter II.
  6. Super Mario Kart – Combining wacky combat racing with adorable characters and inventive tracks was so successful that Super Mario Kart created a genre that remains a gaming stalwart to this day. The design skillfully walks the tightrope between “fun for all ages” and “victory is determined by a die roll” that makes it endlessly playable. Super Mario Kart remains one of the all-time greats at entrancing a group of friends on ­a ­couch.
  7. Super Mario World – Since players could finally save their progress, Nintendo crammed Super Mario World with loads of content and pitch-perfect controls. Stages had multiple exits that unlocked secret paths – most notably the unusual and challenging Star Road. And don’t forget the first appearance of Mario’s dino pal, Yoshi.
  8. Super Bomberman – Before it became a genre, “party game” was synonymous with Super Bomberman. In fact, Super Bomberman often created the party in the first place. If you bought a multitap, it was probably for Super Bomberman. The game has reappeared on countless platforms thanks to the endless gratification that comes from trapping friends in the middle of a string of bombs, and laughing maniacally as ­they ­explode.
  9. Final Fantasy II – None of the early console RPGs captured gamers’ imaginations like the adventures of Cecil and his band of heroic friends. A huge cast of characters kept this story of redemption and love compelling for hour upon hour of monster-slaying goodness. The expansive game world included everything from an underground landscape of stone and lava to a thrilling conclusion on the moon.
  10. Tetris Attack – While the name may be misleading since it barely resembles the classic puzzle title it’s named after, Tetris Attack could make even the most quiet and reserved friends turn into smack-talking competitive freaks as they swapped colored gems and created cascades of exploding blocks. Tetris Attack’s core concept was so brilliant that it’s inspired a million phone games, but we’ll take the original any day of ­the ­week.

Now You’re Playing With Super Power

When Nintendo released its original NES, the video game market was in the middle of a large-scale recession, and Nintendo had to trick retailers into putting its new console on their shelves by marketing it as a toy. Five years later, those roles had reversed, and retailers were begging Nintendo for larger shipments of the ­Super ­NES.

More than 1.5 million fans rushed out to pre-order the system before it launched, and Nintendo’s initial shipments sold out in about two hours. In Japan, the Super Nintendo was such a hot commodity that the consoles were reportedly shipped to stores secretly and under the cover of night, for fear that the Yakuza might rob retailers. The SNES’s launch day became an international media circus as thousands of people lined up in front of electronics stores hoping to get their hands on ­a ­console.

“Many parents called in sick to work so that they could join the lines of waiting shoppers,” wrote Steven L. Kent in his book The Ultimate History of Video Games. “All of Tokyo was slowed down by the crowds, and a frenzy began when news spread that Nintendo had shipped only 300,000 consoles. 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.”

All of Tokyo was slowed down by the crowds, and a frenzy began when news spread that Nintendo had shipped only 300,000 consoles.”

The fervor over Nintendo’s new console is even more surprising in light of the fact that the console only had two launch titles in Japan: F-Zero and Super Mario World. For the U.S. release, the following year, Nintendo added the amateur flight simulator Pilotwings to that lineup. Three games might seem paltry today, but Shigeru Miyamoto and his team of designers were only given 15 months to design and code the entire launch library from the time they saw the first ­machine ­designs.

Over the years the Super NES amassed a library far more impressive than any of the system’s technical specifications (see sidebar for our favorites). Nintendo continued to support its console with some of its most beloved products, such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, and Super Mario Kart. Meanwhile the world’s most prolific development studios, such as Square, Capcom, and Konami, rushed to release their titles on Nintendo’s new hardware. Even near the end of its lifespan, the Super Nintendo was turning out graphical powerhouses like Donkey Kong Country, Star Fox, and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, which seemed to push the limits of the hardware to ­new ­heights.

The Super Nintendo proved that Nintendo wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and it cemented the company’s place in the video game industry. Much of the nostalgia surrounding Nintendo’s brands was built up during the SNES’s lifespan as its meager launch lineup grew into a library containing some of the most beloved games of all time. The Super NES was never the most powerful system on the market, but Nintendo understood that developers didn’t need to possess the most powerful hardware to be a market leader. The Super Nintendo helped shaped the industry like few consoles have before or since, and it created a foundation for our modern ­gaming ­landscape.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Game Informer.

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