It has been an exciting few months for fans of the Super Nintendo. Nintendo’s own SNES Classic Mini brought plug-and-play nostalgia to the masses, while the announcement of the Analogue Super Nt promises to introduce a brand new high-end SNES clone - not just any clone of course, but one featuring super accurate FPGA-based emulation. Even so, no matter how accurate emulation gets, only the original hardware is good enough for some retro gamers.
If only the real deal will do for you, just what is the best version of the original SNES hardware and how do you get the best results out of your gaming setup? Unfortunately, the decision isn’t as simple as just rushing out and buying the first SNES console you see on eBay. Join Video Game Perfection's Matt Buxton as he leaps feet first down the rabbit hole to hunt for the 'ultimate' SNES console.
The first step in choosing a SNES console for your collection is deciding which model you want. There were a total of three different designs of the SNES external casing. The European SNES and the Japanese Super Famicom both come in the same gently-rounded exterior case, while the US model comes in a more boxy, square-looking case. Later in the console's life, Nintendo also launched the SNES Mini/Super Famicom Junior (not to be confused with the recently released SNES Classic Mini, of course) in the States and in Japan. This redesign resembled the European/Asian style SNES, but was predictably smaller and also did away with the power LED and the eject button.
If the console is going to take pride of place in your collection, you will probably want to choose the SNES case design that you personally like the best. Unfortunately, each different revision has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, as we’ll see in a moment. If you decide to import a machine, you should also keep in mind that power supplies from European SNES consoles cannot be used on SNES/Super Famicom hardware from other regions. In particular, never try to connect a European NES/SNES power supply unit to a Japanese Super Famicom. Although the plug will physically fit, the European power supplies output in alternating current (AC) and this will damage the Japanese Super Famicom which requires direct current (DC). However, if you happen to have a Mk1 Sega Mega Drive PSU lying around, you can use that to your power Super Famicom as it outputs DC and also happens to be the correct voltage and polarity (negative tip).
Do you want chips with that?
Internally, the Super Nintendo hardware went through two major revisions. The later models consolidated some of the machine's custom hardware onto a single piece of silicon. These machines are referred to by SNES enthusiasts as “1-chip”. 1-chip consoles are highly sought after, because they produce a much crisper, sharper RGB image when used with a properly wired RGB SCART cable and suitable TV or upscaler.
Finding one of these rarer 1-chip consoles is tricky. While certain serial numbers indicate a strong likelihood of a 1-chip lurking underneath, the only way to know for sure is to open a console and check. RetroRGB has an article here that delves into finding and identifying 1-chip consoles.
Another way to guarantee you get yourself a 1-chip console is to buy the redesigned SNES Mini or Super Famicom Junior. Unfortunately, these consoles do not output RGB. Even the worst RGB output from a SNES is better and clearer than composite video, so this may seem like a lost cause - but we will look at how to overcome this limitation later in the article.
Finally, before you go hunting for the fabled 1-chip SNES, remember that the 1-chip has some minor drawbacks of its own. Usually this is restricted to very minor glitches in some games (Demon’s Crest and Aladdin for example). Typically this manifests as some junk pixels in the game's borders or similar such issues. Although completely official, you could consider the 1-chip SNES systems to be clones of the original hardware specification, if you wanted to get technical. Given that we’re using original hardware to get a completely authentic experience, this is something you need to take into consideration.
SNES software is region locked and as a modern day SNES enthusiast looking to explore the breadth of the console's library you will probably not want to be restricted to playing games from just one region. To get around this limitation, you could simply obtain a SNES console from each region, though that’s probably not desirable for most folks.
SNES region locking consists of two basic elements. On one level, there’s a physical incompatibility; US SNES cartridges are simply too wide to fit into Japanese or European consoles, while Japanese and European games are blocked from fitting into US hardware by two strategically placed plastic lugs. Internally, Nintendo also implemented a region lockout chip called the Checking Integrated Circuit, or CIC, which prevents Japanese or American games booting on European hardware (or vice versa), even if you can get around the physical incompatibility.
Starting with the CIC, an after-market modification called the “Super CIC” can be installed to any SNES or Super Famicom console. This sophisticated modification allows games from any region to load. More advanced versions of this modification, such as those offered by Video Game Perfection, also bring a host of other neat features, such as the ability to choose between 50hz (PAL) and 60hz (NTSC) refresh rates, or to reset the console all from the comfort of your controller. For the SNES Mini, the SuperCIC also restores the power LED.
To get around the cartridge slot incompatibilities, a simple adapter such as the “Protection Socket Slot” can be used. The other option is to break out the Dremel and tools and physically modify your SNES. This is easier on a US machine, as you simply have to remove two internal plastic lugs from inside the cartridge slot. On a Japanese or European machine, your only option is to physically cut and widen the cartridge slot. It’s a fiddly job and one little slip can ruin your classic console. Furthermore, when the work is done there is still a gap left around the cartridge slot as the cover no longer fits the entire opening. In short, it ruins the look of what is one of the most gorgeous retro consoles ever made.
We talked about differences in power supplies earlier in the article, so we should probably also mention that there is a small difference between SNES controllers manufactured for different regions. On European consoles, only European specific controllers will work, while Japanese and American consoles can use controllers from all over the world. Again, this limitation can be removed with a simple hardware modification.
Unless you’re feeling particularly nostalgic for the fuzzy RF or composite video connections of your childhood, you should take a moment to ensure you have the best AV cables for your classic SNES system. RGB is the best quality video signal available on the SNES (with the exception of the stock SNES Mini/Junior). High quality RGB cables are available from Retro Gaming Cables. In fine Nintendo tradition, the cable for the European SNES is not quite the same as the cable for the Japanese and American SNES, so make sure you get the correct one. Retro Gaming Cables' premium “Pack a Punch” cables are engineered for the very best quality audio and video.
If you’re using a multi-chip SNES, getting the right RGB cable is all you need to do to ensure the best possible picture from your system. For the 1-chip consoles, things get a little more interesting. We already told you that 1-chip consoles produce a sharper image, however it was discovered that this can be improved further by the use of an RGB bypass amp. These little boards replace the stock RGB amplifier on the console with something more modern, improving the quality of the picture even further. A further modification can be done to reduce the ‘ghosting’ effect that many 1-chip consoles exhibit, resulting in a truly dazzling image. Again, VideoGamePerfection can provide the necessary components for DIY fitting or upgrade a console on your behalf.
The SNES Mini/Super Famicom Junior can also have this RGB amp installed, restoring RGB output and making the little console into a formidable contender for the best classic SNES system available.
One complaint that SNES gamers often have is that, no matter what RGB or AV cables they use, there’s always some slight buzzing noise in the console's audio output. This is particularly noticeable during bright scenes in a game. There’s now a solution for this in the shape of the SNES digital audio mod. Install this little board into your console or have your favourite hardware modder do so on your behalf and you can then output pure, noise-free digital audio to your SPDIF/TOSLINK compatible amplifier, headphones or DAC. Note that the output signal from this modification is slightly off-spec and so won’t work on every available piece of audio equipment; the only way to know for sure is to try it.
Choose Your Display
After going to all that effort to find an authentic, classic SNES console, don’t ruin the experience by plugging it directly into your HDTV. Modern TVs simply don’t process retro games consoles correctly, resulting in a disappointing sub-par image, especially when in motion. If you’re using a HDTV, couple your classic consoles with either the Open Source Scanline Converter or an XRGB Mini. Both of these converters have their strengths and weaknesses, but both will improve the picture leaps and bounds over what any HDTV can do on its own.
The newest firmware in the OSSC, due out of beta test any day now, has a particularly compelling feature that can compensate for some of the blur added by the original SNES consoles. It’s still not as sharp as the SNES Mini, but still a marked improvement and of course requires no modifications to the SNES console itself.
The other option is, of course, to find an old-school CRT television or RGB monitor. Professional RGB monitors, like the Sony PVM range, cost obscene amounts of money back in the '80s and '90s but can now be obtained second hand for more modest sums. If you’re going for the kind of SNES experience that only the richest could afford back when the console was current, a PVM monitor can offer that. Otherwise, any good quality consumer CRT TV with either a SCART socket or component video input will give excellent results. For sets equipped with only component video inputs, a good quality SCART to component converter or HD Retrovision’s dedicated SNES component video cables will unlock the set's full potential.
As you can see, the path to the ultimate, authentic Super Nintendo isn’t as straightforward as you might have expected. Pushing the original hardware to its limits is going to require hardware modifications, and for some purists that’s a step too far. Nevertheless, perfect playback of the SNES’ software library remains a compelling argument for hunting down original hardware and jumping through the required hoops to modify and upgrade it.