The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), the successor to Nintendo’s wildly popular Nintendo Entertainment System, was initially released in North America on August 23, 1991. Some argued that the release of this console would usher in a golden age of video games — an argument that I support.
While newer consoles with their better hardware have provided us with great experiences that the SNES could not, I would argue that, in terms of the sheer number of absolutely incredible games that changed everything, the SNES has yet to be equaled.
Those who were around in the heyday of the SNES will remember the vicious console wars of the time. Part of the impetus for the SNES being released at all was the fierce competition the NES was receiving from the then-new Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive, as it was known in Europe).
With a slick marketing campaign by Sega, including such gems as “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” and “blast processing” (which, to this day, has never been defined), the Genesis had Nintendo on the back foot for the first time. It was clear that Nintendo could not rest on their laurels and expect to maintain the near-total dominance of the video game market they had enjoyed during the NES era.
Enter the SNES. A console that not only was a worthy successor to the NES but which would arguably remain Nintendo’s magnum opus even today, almost three decades after its initial release.
(I should mention that I only know the above from a historical perspective. I did not grow up with the SNES; my first console was its successor, the Nintendo 64. I never played a SNES game (barring a couple of remakes on the Game Boy Advance) until I got into the emulation scene as a teenager. So never let it be said that nostalgia for the SNES blinds me!)
Inside the Beast
From a technical standpoint, SNES was a marvel for its time, an improvement on the NES in basically every way. Just looking at the specs, the SNES was obviously far superior to the NES, and in most aspects, it was superior to the Genesis, too (see here for a detailed comparison between the two consoles).
However, looking at the specs alone doesn’t tell the whole story, and doesn’t do justice to the ingenious design of the system. The SNES made it easy for developers to include special enhancement chips in SNES cartridges, which allowed for games to achieve things that you wouldn’t expect such a console to do. This was more efficient than having a more powerful CPU (as the Genesis did), which would become obsolete in a few years anyway.
This brought about a system of diverse titles and genres that didn’t exist anywhere else. The SNES had 783 officially licensed games, many of which would be impossible to replicate on other consoles in the 16-bit era. And obviously, had Nintendo rested on its laurels and stuck with the NES, these games would never have existed. Games like STAR FOX and F-ZERO, while a little dated today, were breakthroughs that showcased the advanced hardware of the SNES.
And let us not forget the controller. Improving on the NES controller by adding two face buttons and two shoulder buttons, the SNES controller’s design is the ancestor of many modern controllers like the PlayStation’s.
All in all, the SNES offered experiences that, from a technical standpoint, the hardware of other consoles couldn’t have achieved. Needless to say, Sega soon found themselves unable to use the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” slogan anymore.
Of course, the best hardware in the world means nothing if you don’t have good games to play on it. Lucky for us, the SNES had many of the best games ever made. Games which would set the standards for future games; games that would change gaming forever. There are so many such games on the SNES that it is hard to decide where to start. Some of gaming’s most well-known franchises (like MARIO and FINAL FANTASY) began or had their definitive installments on this console.
As an example, let’s talk about SUPER METROID. A strong contender for not only best METROID game, or even best SNES game, but the best game ever made.
METROID 1, released on the NES in 1987, was undoubtedly an incredible game for its time. It introduced a number of new concepts, including the radical idea of moving the screen in an unthinkable direction: left. Unfortunately, METROID 1 has aged like milk. It’s only worth playing today to experience a piece of gaming history.
The same is not true of 1994’s SUPER METROID. To this day, it is the game people think of when they think METROID. In terms of series legacy and popularity, few games come close.
You may have heard of the genre “Metroidvania.” It’s a genre that emphasizes exploration, non-linearity, and free-form gameplay. SUPER METROID spawned that genre. While later games in the genre such as CASTLEVANIA: SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT for the PS1 (which is where the “-vania” part comes from) would evolve and improve on the gameplay of SUPER METROID, the latter is, to this day, the gold standard of the genre. Few games can claim to have spawned an entire genre. It’s a gaming staple with a level of perfection that no prior console could have achieved.
I first played SUPER METROID on the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2008, nearly 15 years after the game’s initial release. Long story short: to say I was blown away would be one hell of an understatement. It is just as amazing now as was nearly a quarter-century ago. While some say the controls are weird, it can easily be picked up and enjoyed by gamers of any generation. If you haven’t played it, do yourself a favor and fix that. Buy it, rent it, borrow it from a friend. Just play it.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST
Of course, SUPER METROID was hardly the only game to revolutionize gaming that would grace the SNES. Pictured below is an iconic scene from THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST, released in 1991. Like METROID, the original ZELDA for NES was great for its day, but it hasn’t withstood the ravages of time.
That is not the case with A LINK TO THE PAST. This game codified so many things that we take for granted in the ZELDA series today. The Master Sword? First appeared in this game. Ganon(dorf)’s iconic theme tune (along with many other staple tunes of the series)? Started here. Even the basic plot structure and the overall gameplay formula for virtually every succeeding ZELDA game can trace its origin to A LINK TO THE PAST.
In many respects, while THE LEGEND OF ZELDA for the NES was the one that started it all, A LINK TO THE PAST was the true start to one of gaming’s most revered and influential franchises. It codified so much that not only ZELDA but action-adventure games as a whole take for granted.
As with SUPER METROID and Metroidvania, A LINK TO THE PAST came to define an entire genre, both for its own time and for future consoles to come. And it could not have been done on any other console before and during the 16-bit era. It’s not my favorite ZELDA game, but there’s no denying that it’s one of the most influential, both for the series and gaming as a whole.
Thank you, SNES
I could go on and on and on. There are so many amazing games for the SNES that revolutionized everything just as much as the ones I listed. And, of course, there are much more that weren’t as revolutionary, but were just great games that were fun to play.
I could gush about games such as SUPER MARIO WORLD, EARTHBOUND, SUPER CASTLEVANIA IV, FIRE EMBLEM 4 & 5, but if I were to list everything, I’d be here all night. You’re simply spoilt for choice. Suffice to say, the SNES was a watershed in gaming history. While the debate for greatest console ever rages on, it’s clear that SNES is definitely up there.