Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Liquid Nostalgia #8

The Super Nintendo:

   A Look Back

 

Six weeks.

That's how long I had to wait. Hell, I suppose I had been waiting even longer than that. It had already been two years my my recollection. What was six weeks more?

Everything.

Palms were sweaty that day. Six goddamn weeks. My parents told me it was to help teach me financial responsibility and budgeting by putting in layaway. To me, it was the store taking my money I me with a still empty shelf next to my TV; a shelf that wad dusty and sat right between the yellowed gray box from 1987 and the sleek black one from '91.

I suppose I can't blame them. "How many game systems do you need?" was a common question.  They asked me that every time I asked them, or at the very least that Kringle fellow, for a new one.

"Didn't you just get a new one?" was the other.

Yeah, I did. This was different, though. The minute bits and pieces  I got a taste of at friends' houses couldn't sustain me anymore. I couldn't explain it to them, it was like an elephant trying to talk to fern. I was addict. Now I had my fix. That day finally came and I coddled it on the drive home from the store like a newborn. I wiped of those sweaty palms and cut off the tape, tenderly not harming the drug inside. Man, I felt like I just discovered a lost Pharoh's tomb or discovered fucking Atlantis. I was shaking.

The single greatest videogame system to ever be created was now mine: The Super Nintendo.

Oh, yes. I say that without a hesitation or eyelash bat.  Kid's loved "new" toys. The Super NES was not only the newest toy I could get my hands on, it was, and will always be, the best one. It wasn't my first gaming console and it wasn't my last. It might as well have been, tough, because everything else that tried to live up to it failed.

Videogames were a part of our society now, now being about 1993. It was tough fight that claimed numerous victims on the way; game companies faltering, anti-trust suits, consoles being created only to die shortly thereafter. When the Super NES was released, though, all those were now put to rest. The 16-bit generation was in full force with it and the Genesis in every child's home. It was eden. The foundations were set with the NES and Atari, but this was something completely different. The graphics were beautiful, games more complex (even moving emotionally), music and sound gorgeous and the variety almost intimidating. There literally was something for everyone. 

While there was  rift between Sega and Super Nintendo owners, it was all in rather good fun for the most part. Each system had their share of great games. Often the riffing and bantering came out of jealousy: deep down the owner of one badly wanted to play the games on the other. It's a thing of the past now, at least in terms of the 16-bit era...the arguing still continues with today's console fans and, in another decade or so, we'll look back at it as well and wonder what the problem was. I was lucky enough to own a Genesis and a Super Nintendo. I'm not going to lie, I backed Nintendo 100% and the Genesis gradually faded from my self-designated playtime. Now I'm just glad I got to experience both and talking bad about either one is completely useless.

The 16-bit era brought games to a new level. The PC was still relatively young, the 8-bit NES seemed ancient in comparison and all anyone had were the two little competition consoles. Its games still hold up even today and are just as fun to play, many are simply timeless with beautiful graphics and sound and just pure, simple fun. I think that's lost in games today. "Beautiful" isn't "cool" anymore nor is simple fun a passing grade for a game. When I say "simple" i don't mean a few blips and bloops and moving from point A to Point B...just gameplay that was streamlined, often easy to pick up and play and that will draw you in, get you lost, and take you away to lands of Triforces, planets of aliens, islands of dinosaurs and jungles of gorillas. It all felt natural and perfect, a bliss rarely matched like a kid getting a videogame console after painstakingly saving, waiting and hoping for six weeks to finally pass.


 

 

A Brief History of the Super Nintendo

 

-Knowing that technology was advancing and seeing the success of up-and-comer Sega with their 16-bit Mega Drive (Genesis). Nintendo's head of research and development team 2 (R&D2) began designing the Super Famicom, the next generation of gaming consoles from Nintendo. The Super Famicom was released in japan in November of 1990. It sold out in three days.

-The Super Famicom was relabeled the Super NES for North America release and was unleashed on September 1, 1991. It retailed for $199 and came with two controllers and the game Super Mario World (which is also the system's biggest seller thanks to the pack-in). Other games available on release were F-Zero, Pilotwings, Sim City and Gradius III.

-Despite being more expensive than the Genesis (Sega dropped their price when the SNES was released), the fans and popularity of the NES carried over and the SNES gained ground quickly. This began what many refer to today as the "console wars."

-The "Console Wars" is mainly made from the fans of both consoles taking sides on which is superior. however, the heads of the companies, not to mention the advertising campaigns from Sega, didn't help matters and added fuel to the fire. One good thing did emerge: as Sega was a legitimate competitor, the monopoly-like practices Nintendo flourished with during its NES days were long gone. Licenses were easier to acquire and not as restrictive, many game developers could now release games on both the SNES and the Genesis.

-One aspect that did not change, however, was Nintendo's censorship policy. Early in its lifespan many Japanese games were altered or violent video games censored. Most notably the original port of the arcade hit, Mortal Kombat. Sega, however, did not have such a policy and the separation of the Sega and Nintendo fans went even further. Nintendo now had the stigmata of being "kid-friendly" or, as many use to this day, "kiddie."

-Despite the demeaning title, Nintendo's system pushed the boundaries of graphics and sound for the era. It was first noted for utilizing, what Nintendo dubbed at least, a process called "Mode 7" which allowed for scaling of 2D textured images and gave the illusion of 3D. It's most popular addition is the creation of the Super FX (and Super FX 2) chip which allowed for full 3D polygons for its game. Only a select few games utilized this chip, as it was expensive to manufacture and the games were more expensive for consumers. Their biggest success, however, was with the developer Rare's advancement of using fully rendered graphics utilizing SGI technology and produced some of the best looking game of the era including the Donkey Kong Country series and Killer Instinct.

-The SNES was redesigned in 1997 with a new style and look. It came with the game Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. By this time, however, new consoles were on the market and the 16-bit era of gaming was dying off. Nintendo themselves had a new console on the market: the Nintendo 64.

-Sale of the SNES was halted in 1999. The final result was 49.10 million units sold worldwide. Japan did not stop producing the Super Famicom until 2003.

 


 

Top 10 Super Nintendo Games

The library of quality games on the Super Nintendo is staggering. I even had to leave some personal favorites of mine, such as Mario RPG, Secret of Mana, Actraiser, Turtles in Time and Mega Man X off simply because that would mean having to remove another one. That simply can't happen and considering the list of games below, you'll see why.

 


10: Earthbound

(Nintendo, 1995)

 

The Super Nintendo was known for two things it did better than any other system: platformers and role playing games. While the Genesis was often great for arcade style games and sports titles, it's platformers and RPGs simply weren't up to par outside of a handful of gems. The SNES not only consistently shelled out role playing games, it also pushed the genre forward with original and unique titles that had never seen (mainly because they were stuck in Japan). One of those it he Mother series and Earthbound (Mother 2 in Japan) is one of the quirkiest and purely enjoyable role playing games to be found. The elements are relatively the same. You go on quests, gather items and get into fights. But there's a certain charm to it all. You play as children, your weapons are the likes of baseball bats and frying pans and it all takes place in modern day setting here on Earth (or modern-like setting on something earth-like). It's humorous and fun and there really is no other game like it.

My Experience: The term "graphic whore" might be a realtive new phrase, but there were those that would look at the back of a box in the mid 90s and say the exact same thing - judging a game based on a few screens on a box. I was one. I admit I was spoiled by the likes of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger and, let's be honest, Earthbound isn't going to wow anybody graphically. Only until I matured up years later did I come to appreciate it and loved every minute. One day it was being discussed, I thought back and said "you know...I liked it but never beat it." That changed.


9: Super Castlevania IV

(Konami, 1991)

 

To many, this is still the best Castlevania game ever made. Before the series took a drastic turn in style with Symphony of the Night, Castlevania IV is classic Castlevania through and through. One reason being it's a reimaginating of the very first game on the NES, only now you have gorgeous 16-bit graphics, new stages, bigger bosses, even better controls and a whip that you had a ton more control over (you can whip in any direction or hold down the button to flail it or block attacks. As one of the earliest games on the console, it showcased early on what the Super Nintendo was capable of and, at the same time, what 16-bit gaming was all about. The elements from the 8-bit, NES era were still around, but it was simply done better, if not perfected, with better sound, control, graphics and just overall polish. 

My Experience: I liked Castlevania on the NES. I even played through Simon's Quest multiple times. Castlevania IV made me love it. It was one of the first titles I recall playing and I was blown away by the background effects, character animation and fantastic music

 


8: Super Mario Kart

(Nintendo, 1992)

 

There aren't too many games I would label as "changing" the way people played games. Super Mario Kart did something that, really, was rare for games with co-op. Pit you against your friends. Outside of fighting games, many games (especially on home systems) didn't really let you do it while still trying to beat the game yourself at the same time. Lost of pushing,  shoving, and eventually laughing would ensue. While the formula was perfected with the N64 (Goldeneye, Mario Kart 64), that doesn't mean Super Mario Kart is a lesser game. In fact, it's one of the purest forms of just being plain "fun" you'll ever see. Easy to pick up and play for anyone, sometimes difficult to master...especially if some asshole keeps dropping banana peels. 

My Experience: Never say die. Oh, how many times did it look like I was down and out with no possible way to catch up. Then my competitor drops off the side and I get a speed boost. I suppose that's my fondest memory. Mario Kart had players on their seat's edge to the checkered flag. It was suspense to the very end. Playing it with friends was the key, though. Single-player was nice, but Mario Kart is the first game I can recall that quadrupled the enjoyment when you played it with someone else...and hopefully won. 

 


7: Donkey Kong Country

(Rare, 1994)

 

Donkey Kong Country proved a couple of things. One, platformers were still very viable. This is significant considering the saturated market with so many cheap and bad Sonic and Mario knock-offs. And two, it pushed the limits of what a little 16-bit system could do and arguably extended the lifespan of the entire generation. it was all about presentation and Donkey Kong Country had it in spades. Graphics, as mentioned, were the best that could be delivered. It turned heads and amazed with its vibrant colors and animation. Music, too, was superb and gets every bit of the SNES's capabilities and the control was just a perfect match. The sequels continued the trend, some preferring them even to this original, but the original was far to influential and important to leave off this list. It didn't reinvent the platformer, it just reminded us how great they can be. 

My Experience: This level sold the game for me. It takes you a different place and world better than most games could dream of. Playing this at a kiosk at Toys R Us with everyone staring in awe is what games used to do to people.

 


6: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island

(Nintendo, 1995)

 

One of the best platformers on the system, and it actually stars Mario's sidekick, Yoshi. (in fact, Super Mario World, the lone original Mario title, is probably not in the top 5 or so for the system's platformers which is saying quite a lot considering that game is great). It's really about as perfect of a side-scroller that you can create. Gorgeous graphics and absolutely perfect controls, it has the usual jumping and dodging but also puts in a unique "shooting" element where Yoshi can gather eggs and line them up to throw at enemies. This might seem insignificant today, but it was great contribution to adding a new level to an already great formula. It was a perfect balance in design and makes Yoshi's Island not only one of the best games on the SNES, but really one of the best platformers ever. 

My Experience: It's amazing the best Mario game on the SNES doesn't even feature Mario. What sets Yoshi's Island apart, other than the fantastic graphics that are arguably the best on the Super NES, is the amazing level design. Platformers really do not get better than this and is rivals the ingenious Super Mario 3 for the title. The graphics are what hooked me and most other players. They're so vibrant and just beautiful. The level design mixes a perfect blend of challenging, exploration and fun and it's easy to just pick up and play but not so easy to master and find all the secrets.

 


5: Contra III: The Alien Wars

(Konami, 1992)

  

Frantic, fast and fun, the contra series are known for two things: being difficult and being addictive. Contra III is no exception. In fact, it perfects the Contra formula of "move right, shoot stuff, move right, kill boss." It wasn't quite as hard as the original Contra titles on the original NES, but that was a good thing because it struck a rare balance between being challenging but no much to make you stop playing. It eventually became your (and your friend in co-op) mission to beat that level or defeat that boss just to prove you can do it. This time you had bombs and could carry two weapons, allowing for a little bit of strategy and makes for a good "last ditch" with the bombs if you know you're being surrounded. Oh, and you climb around on missiles in mid-air. You just can't beat that.

My Experience: Less controllers were broken when compared to the first two contra titles, but what set Contra III above many games of the 16-bit era were the elaborate and screen-filling bosses.  These things were just impressive. Large, well-animated and with multiple places you would have to hit or defeat. The levels were secondary to them.

  

4: Final Fantasy III

(Squaresoft, 1994)

 

Who would have thought it possible to bring human drama to videogames? Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI, actually) is like a classic tale of myth combined with Shakespeare. It's an adventure, often tragic and teaches us about our own human spirit (and, at the same time, our own human faults). As one of the greatest games to ever be made, it still resonates to this day with its enthralling story, memorable characters, music and, of course, its theatrical masochistic villain that is like the love child of Hitler and the Joker. I think I covered the game more than enough elsewhere, the case is made, the jury is back from deliberations, the verdict is one of the greatest games ever made. 

My Experience: I was moving right along. I didn't think it too spectacular and at least on par with Final Fantasy II before it. Then a little clown shows up and killed an entire kingdom by poisoning its water. Genocide? In a videogame? Oh...but that was just the beginning for him and the game had my attention to the very end. The legendary opera scene, the end of the world, the subtlety of the characters and their personal struggles. This is what RPGs should have stayed as...instead they changed drastically around the late 1990s to appeal to a, I suppose, younger audience that likes shiny objects and cheesy flashy action.

  


3: Super Metroid

(Nintendo, 1994)

 

Darkness. Isolation. Minimalist presentation. These are the qualities of the Metroid series. You are alone on an alien world, you journey into its depths to unlock its secrets, find your way to the end and discover new abilities while doing so. It's literally you versus the world all in a strange, quiet tone where you could hear a pin drop. The graphics and animation is some of he best on the little 16-bit powerhouse, artistic and beautiful, music subtle and used at perfect times, and control that is so intuitive you feel like you could kill anything. Which is good considering you'll need to kill everything to find your way out.

My Experience: There weren't a whole lot of games that would be classified as "scary" during the 16-bit era. There were atmospheric games and dark, violent ones, but none that would get you out of your seat. Instead, we made do with something being "ominous." Super Metroid was just that and it often caused me to take a deep breath when I entered a new section and the lights slowly faded up and it ends up being a massive boss I had to take down.


2: Chrono Trigger

(Squaresoft, 1995)

 

I don't think I need to say too much about Chrono Trigger. Most of the details can be found in my retrospective. To put it mildly, Chrono Trigger is a perfect game. Wait, that's not mildly at all. How can one say such a thing? Perfect? is anything really perfect? Unless you want to be nitpicky then no. But I think the music, story, characters, graphics and overall design speaks for itself and to say otherwise is rather foolish. Foolish, I say! It's beloved by many, critically acclaimed and compared to and judged to other games even today. In otherwords, it's considered a standard (along with its SNES brother Final Fantasy III) to which all shall be judged...I don't think you can get any better than that.

My Experience: I don't need to detail my history of it again, but I'll say it was a game that perfected what a role playing game should be. It's rich in detail and artistry, presents its story with a perfect balance of "telling" it to you and you figuring out on your own and does it all in a relatively short amount of time. It gets rid off the crap that can ruin many RPGs and just streamlines it, makes it accessible and doesn't sacrifice its integrity to do so. Final Fantasy III showed that RPGs can reach new levels of depth and story, Chrono Trigger had fun while doing the same.


1: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

(Nintendo, 1992)

 

I think it goes without saying that one of the most popular, polished and praised game series is that of The Legend of Zelda. There are few games that give you the sense of true adventure, the world at your disposal, the overall joy of exploration and taking sword in hand to rid the world of evil. They're valued for the simplicity and, at the same time, their endearing nature. No better example can be said of this than the third Zelda game, A Link to the Past. It ushered in a new idea for Zelda, overshadowing the two previous NES installment, and set the standard for the series to come. You gather items, solve puzzles and defeat enemies and bosses. yes, that remains true. But it does one thing else: adds in complex puzzles, more than just finding an item to pass or go on fetch quests, it has both a light and dark version of Hyrule to explore and you can warp freely between them, what you do in one can affect the other, and lastly it ups the narrative into something akin to a classic Greek myth or, at the very least, a charming fairy tale. It's dramatic, sometimes dark, and we even learn of the lore of Hyrule and its people that hadn't really been explored outside of instruction manuals and strategy guides. 

 

 My Experience: While I had played the Super NES at other friends' homes, relished in Mario and F-Zero when I could, A Link to the Past was the first game I really played on the system. It was a pack-in with the system and I played it non-stop for days. It was gaming at its finest. The first early moments as you exit your hut in the pouring rain to track down your uncle will not be forgotten.

Take us home, Link...


 

It's still there, sitting on a shelf on top of my NES. It's a little dustier now and the controllers have seen better days, but it still plays the same as that first day I dragged it out of layaway. Some of the games, too, have seen better days with box-edges ripped and inserts missing, but most are in the same condition I bought them in, even the Nintendo advertisements and fold-out maps. I have seen consoles come and go, games get lost or sold in garage sales...some I regret getting rid of, but it was never a question that I would hold on to the Super Nintendo and the games I have to my dying days. I might even leave it my Will, if it's not a museum by then. I still play it, too, although the use of PC emulators I sometimes prefer for convenience.

Is it the greatest game system ever made? For those that got into the world of videogames after its run, that might be a hard pill to swallow. They would probably go with the Playstation or even N64. For those that have been around a while, have seen systems come and go, the pure joy of the Super Nintendo has never been matched. Some have come close (the Genesis and the original NES) but just slightly touched it.

The Super Nintendo staked its claim. It earned its spot. Nintendo didn't have to prove themselves like they did the the NES, the fans and install base were already there. They just had to make sure they didn't let anyone down. Luckily enough, they didn't. The company learned form their mistakes with the NES (notably the anti-trust suits) and grew as a console manufacturer that opened the doors and let more publishers and developers in with more freedom (although the Nintendo censorship was still in place early on, Sega helped change that). More importantly, though, is Nintendo did not miss a step as a game developer. It's no coincidence the Top 10 on this list is dominated by Nintendo. That also shows, though, that there were still a ton of games not on it and the Super NES's library is so large, diverse and vast that trying to pin down ten of them is impossible (I played it safe, for the most part).

I don't know if videogames will be as simple and innocent as they were back during this era. I think games and consoles are too popular now and the fans demand too much of them.  For a few years, though, gamer were in unison, no matter what console they owned, and in agreement that it was the greatest time to be playing videogames. I think it's safe to say that hasn't changed as most would toss aside any large-spec console with it's amazing graphics and complicated controls in an instant to relive one day of gaming during the 16-bit era...whether they lived through it or not. It's not about nostalgia, despite the title of this article, but it's more about a celebration. Hell, that's what this whole series is about. When it comes to the Super Nintendo, though, it's also about the impact and staying power of a system that still means a lot to a lot of people and will mean a lot for generations to come.

 

 

 

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