Hardware Focus - Super Nintendo
Posted by Corbie Dillard
Though Nintendo's domination of the 8-bit era - attained through a combination of the company's business acumen in entering the market when most other were hesitant at best and the practices employed post-success to ensure the monopolistic domination of said market - had, in terms of units sold, been their most successful, the 16-bit era brought with it a marked move away from the videogame practices of earlier generations, both in terms of market dynamics and the nature of the games produced. Previously, the huge hardware gap between home consoles and arcade machines, not to mention the limited storage and audio-visual capabilities of machines like the Atari 2600 and even the NES itself had severely limited the style of games that could be successfully designed and programmed. It is perhaps from this early stage that the even now extant focus of most Japanese developers on the actual gameplay of games, as defined primarily by their controls and the 'feel' of playing (as intangible as this was and is) arises. The 16-bit generation was perhaps the most significant in shaping the long-term identity of home video games versus their arcade counterparts, and it would not be erroneous to claim that the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was the console that defined, and benefited from, this paradigm shift.
Arcade games had long been held as the standard to which home games were compared. Even Nintendo themselves had, prior to their entry into the home market, been primarily recognised for arcade games like Donkey Kong. The limitations in porting these games, with their often dedicated hardware set-ups, to a generic platform like the NES, and the success with which this had been achieved (compromises notwithstanding), was an early and important factor in the sales success of both the NES and its software. 8-bit games, including even those that had no real arcade counterpart, were often reliant on the same type of quick-fix gameplay and emphasis on skill and practice that defined arcade cabinets.
Early experiments in creating games that outgrew these roots had not been unsuccessful (notably series like Zelda and Final Fantasy), but the vast majority of the games of the NES era fit this template; often, games were placed within a genre - be it platform or racing or any other - simply because this is what the hardware allowed to be done well. Though Sega had been the first hardware manufacturer to release a 16-bit machine with the Mega Drive/Genesis, that company's role as primarily a creator of arcade games had in and of itself limited the scope of much of the early releases for the system, most of which were ports of already-famous coin-ops by Sega's famous design studios, primarily Yu Suzuki's AM2.
Nintendo, on the other hand, seemed to immediately have a grasp of the differentiation needed to succeed in the face of competition that had simply not existed during the previous generation. Though it was the last of the 16-bit consoles to be released (the TurboGrafx-16 and Mega Drive had both been on the market for several years), the SNES was immediately and extremely successful. Designed as a true successor and superior to the NES (and arguably the competition) from a technological standpoint, its impact on release in Japan on November 21 1991 was such that the ensuing mayhem caused the police to ask for future console releases to be scheduled on weekends to minimise disturbances.
Nintendo laid down a marker for the quality expected of developers immediately; Super Mario World, bundled with the system, was not only immediately recognised as one of the greatest games ever made, but also demonstrated, with its emphasis on saving and continuing games at a later time, that home games could be seen as longer-term endeavours than their arcade counterparts, games not only to be enjoyed on an immediate basis, but to be explored over a number of gameplay sessions.
Previous games had implemented these very ideas, but never so successfully, and never within the envelope of a platformer, a genre Nintendo themselves had defined with Super Mario Bros. as being amenable to an immediate fix. The retention of a scoring system, as redundant as it was, might cynically be viewed as a nod to the previous generation's games. However, the statement had been made with admirable efficacy. The continued support Nintendo enjoyed from third-party publishers and developers also ensured the success of the SNES. By the time the machine was released in Europe in April 1992 (having seen a blockier fashioned redesign for the North American market and an equally successful release there 8 months prior), a number of era-defining games were already released or about to be released, chief among them Zelda: A Link To The Past and Street Fighter II, each a representative of what could be done with the machine.
While Zelda: A Link To The Past essentially defined the Zelda games, gaining little except for inspiration from the earlier games and expanding their scope monumentally, SFII was an example of a current arcade game being more faithfully ported to a current system than most people thought possible. The dropping prices of memory at this time, compared to the rather strict limitations of the previous generation, also aided developers. Companies like Square followed suit, and expanded on their ideas from the NES era to produce perhaps the greatest entries in the Final Fantasy franchise, IV, V and VI.
The SNES was also innovative in the sense of its hardware: while the CPU ran at a slower clock frequency than that of the Mega Drive (a fact reiterated by Sega repeatedly in their attempts to portray it as an inferior machine in their marketing), both its graphics hardware and sound hardware were quite a step above. Most famous of all the SNES's graphical tricks, perhaps, was the famed 'Mode 7', which allowed tiled 2D sprites to be rotated and zoomed in a manner that simulated 3D. The effect was used effectively from the very beginning in games like Pilotwings and F-Zero, and came to exemplify the perceived graphical prowess of the machine.
Later incorporation of the so-called SuperFX chip into cartridges also brought genuine polygonal 3D, as limited as it was, to games like StarFox, and the chip was used to great effect, though subtly, in the original Yoshi's Island, a game which together with the Donkey Kong Country games, kept the SNES relevant in the face of competition from Sega's new Saturn and Sony's PlayStation, itself a product of a failed collaboration between Sony and Nintendo to produce a CD add-on for the SNES called the Play Station.
The facts remain, however; Nintendo would never enjoy the sort of domination in the gaming market as it did with the SNES, a fact discussed elsewhere on this site. But it might be prudent, in these days of value-for-money concepts in videogaming defined by the number of hours one derives from a game, that the SNES was the console on which many of these ideas were fleshed out.
Maybe more importantly, its early games remain perhaps the first than can be enjoyed today without nostalgia tainting one's impression of their actual quality, the experience of playing them often as magical as when the games were first released; Nintendo itself seems to acknowledge this with the numerous direct ports it has released for newer handheld consoles of SNES games. Not for nothing is this machine remembered as one of, if not the, greatest consoles of all time.