Nintendo, still riding high on the tidal wave of success that was the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) , or Famicom (FAMIly COMputer) in Japan, were understandably reluctant to enter the 16bit gaming console era, and wanted to support its 8 bit platform for as long as possible.
In 1988, both NEC and Sega launched their new 16bit gaming systems – the PC Engine and Mega Drive respectively. This prompted Nintendo to start work on its next gen console, the ‘Super Famicom’. Initially, it was intended to be backwards compatible with the ageing NES’s huge back catalogue of games, but hardware differences were too great – and so it was up to Shigeru Miyamoto and his team to come up with some killer launch titles. They came up with 3 titles: F-Zero, Pilotwings and Super Mario World, all of which exploited the much vaunted “Mode 7” chip, (allowing sprite zoom, rotation and scaling on a level never before seen on a home console).
The Super Famicom was launched in Japan in Nov 1990, and was so popular (pre-orders exceeded supply ratio over 5:1) that there was fear the Yakuza would hijack shipments, to sell on the black market. The SNES was also launched in the USA in 1991 to similar success.
For the UK launch in June 1992, priced at £150, Nintendo decided to bundle the console with Super Mario World, which helped sales dramatically. However, the Sega Mega Drive had already been available in Europe for 2 years and had proved very popular. It took until the Xmas 1992 exclusive release of Street Fighter II on the SNES for the tide to turn in Nintendo’s favour (the Mega Drive not getting a conversion for another full year).
As time passed, Nintendo’s console started to show its age, and it looked to third parties for new ways to improve the games graphics, but still maintain the original hardware. One of these partnerships, with UK software company Argonaut, led to the development of the “Super FX” chip – allowing the SNES to display true 3D polygon graphics for the first time. Miyamoto was again responsible for the first Super FX title – Starfox, which was met with both critical and commercial acclaim.
Another successful partnership was with the UK software house, Rare (previously known as ‘Ultimate Play the Game’ for those with fond memories of the ZX Spectrum). Whilst working on the Silicon Graphics Workstations to emulate Nintendo’s next console (codenamed the Ultra 64), Rare discovered that they could pre-render high quality graphics on the SNES. This led to the creation of the beautiful Donkey Kong Country (yay) and an arcade conversion of Killer Instinct (hmm).
From the very start of development, Nintendo had always planned to release a CD-ROM drive add-on for the SNES, and had courted both Sony and Philips to produce it. Nintendo has always had held tight reigns over their licensing model, and when they realised that Sony would have the licensing rights for the CD-based games, they immediately jumped ship and publicly announced that Philips would be producing the system instead. Lots of legal wrangling, production delays and development issues ensued, which ultimately ended up with Nintendo aborting 32 bit consoles and focussing on the Nintendo 64, Philips releasing the CD-i (along with some Mario and Zelda games), and Sony using a modified version of their prototype to launch their own game console – the Sony Playstation – and the rest as they say, is history!
As a footnote, Secret of Mana was originally planned as a CD release for the SNES, but it all fell through and got cut considerably to fit onto a cartridge. This convinced Squaresoft that CD’s were the future, and they moved development of Final Fantasy VII from N64 over to Playstation – how different would Webby’s world be if this hadn’t happened?!
Ahhhhhh – the ‘golden age’ of videogaming. I was fortunate to be a teenager at this time: schoolyards across the country were full of Sega vs Nintendo arguments, and whether Sonic was better than Mario. I was firmly in camp Nintendo: partly because I felt they had the better quality titles, but mainly because I had a SNES.
The whole NES/Super Mario 3 thing had completely passed me by, so the FREE bundled Super Mario World on the SNES was my first foray into all things Mario – and what an introduction! I was bowled over by its colourful graphics, its annoyingly addictive soundtrack, but most of all its unparalleled playability.
I even paid £75 for Street Fighter II on US import (along with one of those adaptor things to bypass the region lockout). But it was worth it – an outstanding conversion, and shoving it in the faces of those Mega Drive losers. I remember thinking I was some kind of demi-god the first time I did Zangief’s 360 spinning pile-driver, and spent the next hour trying to do it again.
I’m trying hard to think of things negative to say about the SNES……I guess the controller was nothing to shout home about (although still better than the MD one in my opinion) – the trigger buttons used to break quite easily……..ummmm……..it didn’t look as “sexy” as the other consoles………….errrrrrrr………….oh yeah, there was Pitfighter. Agreed, if you wanted a top notch sports game, or to be seen as ‘cool’, then the Sega was the place to go. But if you wanted innovation, originality and quality then it was Nintendo every time – plus all the games were prefixed with ‘Super…’ so they had to be better right?
I had innumerable SNES games over the years, but some standout titles that I played (not including the Top 3 below):
Legend of the Mystical Ninja – quirky Japanese RPG/platformer/mini-game hybrid.
Contra III – hard as nails, awesome Mode 7 bosses.
Super Smash TV – “Big Money, Big Prizes, I LOVE IT!”, perfect controls for the SNES pad.
Super Castlevania IV – the chandelier bit – need I say anything else?!
Super Bomberman – included as it’s the ultimate 4 player experience. I played once after knocking back a bottle of ‘Strawberry Mad Dog 20/20’ (anyone remembers that shite?!) – leading to the one and only time my old man has ever beaten me playing a game.
When the SNES was reaching the end of its life, I managed to get hold of one with a ‘Super Wild Card’ peripheral. This basically allowed you to play games off a floppy disk, or link to a PC and play then off a CD-ROM. So there I was, with every possible SNES game under the sun to play – but something was missing, a lack of passion, too much choice……gaming was becoming a throw away commodity instead of a true ‘investment’.
And this brings me back to the point about the ‘golden age’ of videogaming. To me, the ‘golden age’ was – saving up for; paying for; playing to death (no matter how bad the game was); and getting immense satisfaction out of gaming. Every console and computer that has come since has been ravaged by piracy, to the detriment of the industry (if not my bank balance). And now I’m all grown up ‘n’ mature ‘n’ stuff (?) I’ve got the surplus cash to be able to buy a game in an impulsive, casual, almost lackadaisical manner. Back in those times, it was akin to purchasing a car nowadays –
a) you are going to be skint for the foreseeable future,
b) you are going to have to keep it for a long time,
c) you will learn to love it even though its riddled with annoyances,
d) you will give it a girl’s name
(well, maybe not the last one – although I do call Super Mario Kart “Jemima”).
Top 3 Games
1. Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
My favourite RPG of all time. The dungeons were incredibly well crafted, the new weapons were genius, the musical score was incredibly atmospheric, the difficulty level was pitched to perfection – mind you I did get stuck for AGES at the point where you first need to transport into the ‘alternative’ world – this was way before gameFAQs and YouTube walkthroughs.
But the best bit of all was at the end…..BEST….ENDING….EVER. You’ve shed blood, sweat and tears to save the kingdom of Hyrule, and are then rewarded with a ‘proper’ conclusion (seemed to go on for about 20 minutes), panning across all the major locations you had been to, seeing all the characters you’d helped and them waving at you in thanks….it tugs at the heart strings even now. 2.
2. Super Mario Kart
The most intense 2 player action I have ever experienced. Once you had your fill of the single player experience: awesome circuits (especially the ghost tracks), cheating bloody AI, Rainbow Road – how the f**k am I going to do that?: you move onto the 2P battle mode, and I spent many an hour playing this. My favourite track was the straightforward one that looked like a maze. We had all become so proficient at dodging shells, balloon preservation, and jumping U turns that games became a battle of attrition, and it was deceptively strategic.
Then once you had earned your stripes on the battle arena, the final conquest was the ‘Time Trial’ mode. This meant taking control of Bowser or DK Jr – very different handling beasts to my favourite Koopa. You’d have to plan your slides way in advance, and would basically spend the whole race sliding from one corner to the next. A time of 1’00” was entered in one of the magazines of the day as the world record for Mario Circuit I, and I then spent an age trying to beat it – the best I did was 1’02”, but then realised that mine was PAL (slower) and there’s was NTSC (Jap) – so (in my head) I claimed to be the best Mario Kart racer ever!
3. Super Mario World
Best platformer ever! Simple graphics, crisp and vibrant colours, catchy tunes – nothing too distracting from the absolute Ace up its sleeve – PLAYABILITY. I have played the recent 2D Mario reincarnations on the Wii, but they try too hard, by adding more and more features – in this case less is definitely more.
The introduction of the new feather power up gave the levels a completely new perspective. But even more importantly was the introduction of Mario’s new sidekick Yoshi – this added a new dimension of gameplay that was developed even further in the equally as brilliant sequel – Yoshi’s Island.
Finishing the game was a relatively simple affair, but the real fun was trying to find all the levels in the game. I was stuck on 95 out of the 96 levels for 100% completion, and couldn’t for the life of me see what I had missed out on. It was after weeks of head scratching, and replaying levels again and again that I realised it was to do with a certain level whereby you can ‘fly’ under the end gate to discover a secret level. I’d done this but never completely the level normally, hence I was one level short – doh!
There is a debate as to whether this or Mario 64 is better, and whilst the N64 gem was truly ground breaking and changed the gaming landscape forever, only one can be considered timeless (it’s as modern now as the day it was released) and the pinnacle of its genre, and that, my friends, is Super Mario World.
Written by Paul Whittingham