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Next Gen Graphics, Part 1: NES, Master System, Genesis, and Super NES

USgamer takes a look at the graphical leaps between the beginning and end of a generation.

Article by Mike Williams, .

Every time there's a new generation of consoles, there's a certain amount of skepticism as to whether game graphics can get any better or if the console is worth the upgrade. It's a pretty subjective measure and nostalgia can muddy up the waters a bit - who doesn't remember and love the first console they really wanted for Christmas? - but graphics do improve with every generation. Developers become more adept with each console and begin to learn the tricks and shortcuts to make amazing things happen.

This series, Next Gen Graphics, is about the jumps each console generation makes when it comes to graphics. We'll look at some of the early games on each major console in each generation and contrast them with similar games on that console when the next generation hit retail.

Part 2: PlayStation 2, Dreamcast, Nintendo 64, and More

Part 3: Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

We'll be kicking the series off with the third and fourth generations of home consoles, which include the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, and Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Yes, there are other systems within these generations, like the TurboGrafx-16 and Neo-Geo, but in the interest of article length, we'll be sticking to the major systems. Being that this is USgamer, we'll also be focusing on the North American lineups and release dates. Click on images to enlarge, where applicable.

Generation 3

Nintendo Entertainment System

Nintendo's amazing little box launched in the United States on October 18, 1985. It's launch lineup totaled 18 games, including Super Mario Bros. Duck Hunt, Excitebike, and Kung-Fu. The NES was a big step-up from the previous generation, and the first big system to come after the video game market crash. It had six years on the market before its successor touched down.

Sega Master System

Sega's answer to the NES was technically superior, but failed to stop Nintendo's domination of the North American market. It launched on June 1986, only nine months off from the NES, but they were a big nine months. Especially since the Sega Master System only launched with Hang-On and Safari Hunt in our region. It had a shorter time on retail shelves before its successor dropped, only three short years. As such, the graphical leap in Master System titles isn't as pronounced.

Generation 4

Sega Genesis

Sega cut short the Master System's time due to the poor sales performance the system had in North America and Japan compared to its rival, the NES. Instead, the company adapted its 16-bit Sega System 16 arcade board into a home console called the Sega Genesis. The Genesis released on January 9, 1989 with six launch titles, including Altered Beast, Thunder Force II, and Space Harrier II. It was considerably more popular than its predecessor and spent six years on the market before its successor touched down.

Super Nintendo

After the success of the NES, Nintendo decided to follow up with its own 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The Super NES launched on August 23, 1991, with a five game lineup that included Super Mario World, F-Zero, Pilotwings, and Gradius III. Despite the one year headstart given to the Sega Genesis, the Super Nintendo was able to close the gap while Sega produced add-ons like the Sega CD and 32-X. The Super Nintendo had five years on the market before Nintendo released the Nintendo 64.

Next Gen Graphics Part 2 can be found here, where we'll cover generations 5 and 6, which include the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, and Nintendo 64.

Images sourced from VideoGameCritic, MobyGames, Let's Play SNES, Console Classix, Ramburglar, and Wikipedia. Thumbnail image via Kenneth Eaton.

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Comments 18

  • Avatar for Keldorek #1 Keldorek 4 years ago
    Just curious: no Sega Saturn for tomorrow's edition?
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #2 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @Keldorek I may do Sega Saturn/Dreamcast for tomorrow's edition.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #3 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    Excellent shot selection. Just really interesting to look at... yep. I forgot how gorgeous Sonic 3 and Knuckles was. I think it's time to fire up the old Genesis Collection...
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #4 pashaveliki 3 years ago
    Funnily enough, each platform saw massive leaps between earlier games and later games, but the SNES looked good in the beginning and good in the end.
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  • Avatar for matthewyoung47 #5 matthewyoung47 3 years ago
    You should think about doing a article about the custom chips they put in a lot of nes and snes games. That why the first few rounds of games and the last few on the nes and snes, do not even look like they could have came from the same console. nes more so than the snes but it is still a noticeable thing.
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  • Avatar for Y7748837 #6 Y7748837 3 years ago
    Am I the only one who didn't think there was much of a difference in the pics for the 16-bit section? Compared to the NES section, it doesn't seem that jarring of a difference to me. Also, why are the 2 Final Fantasy games listed as an "honorable mention"? Maybe I missed something.

    For laughs you could line up some barely-upgraded-from-NES garbage like Secret of the Stars to one of the late chipped out SNES RPGs like Star Ocean.Edited November 2013 by Y7748837
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  • Avatar for GustinHardy #7 GustinHardy 3 years ago
    1. Please please please give us more articles like this one. Leverage the power of the staff's retro-abilities because this was a nostalgic blast to read. Maybe a monthly feature taking a look at some gaming history?

    2. Anyone else think some of the older Genesis games looked better than the later ones?
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    Super NES is weird, because a lot of its best and most ambitious games were front-loaded into its first year. On the whole, its library improved by leaps and bounds over time, but there were about a dozen memorable games from year one that never really got improved on and blow the curve.
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  • Avatar for ob1 #9 ob1 3 years ago
    One should note the NES used a lot of dedicaded chip inside their games, enabling lots of optimizations on later games. That explains the giant leap between early and later games.
    Special chip were obvisouly used on SNES (Starfox/Starwing anyone) but on a less stellar scale.
    Virtua Racing (and SVDP) apart, I don't see any wide use of this technology for systems this generation.
    Can't wait for the next systems, as dedicaded chip couldn't be used on CDROM technology. Obvisouly.
    PS : Saturn and N64 RAM excluded.
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  • Avatar for alexb #10 alexb 3 years ago
    No Phantasy Star II/Phantasy Star IV comparison?
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  • Avatar for docexe #11 docexe 3 years ago
    Nice retrospective, brought back many memories and helps to put graphical leaps in a better context.

    I’m also curious: Why are the Final Fantasy games referred as an honorable mention?
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #12 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @docexe Final Fantasy II fits the article's timeline, but Final Fantasy III was two years before the N64 launched. I try to stay within one year of both milestones, but some systems make it hard.
    @alexb Good point! I'll add it.Edited 2 times. Last edited November 2013 by MHWilliams
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  • Avatar for metalangel #13 metalangel 3 years ago
    Good that there's comparison, because I can think of plenty of games I'd pick that don't really have an equivalent that really show off the systems. Stuff like Battletoads, Galaxy 5000 and Ultimate Air Combat on the NES; Ranger X, Subterranea and Comix Zone on the Genesis.

    I remember EGM saying how TMNT 3: The Manhattan Project on the NES looked better than some of the SNES launch titles!
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #14 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    @touchofkiel Side note: There is a Genesis plug-and-play console out that comes pre-loaded with many of the Sega 1st party titles, and a cartridge slot for, well, cartridges. I've seen them at Target and Bed, Bath, and Beyond.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #15 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    @metalangel I dunno if it's THAT good-looking, but TMNTIII is definitely one of the most attractive NES titles. Leaps and bounds above TMNTII: The Arcade Game port, anyway.

    Also, an interesting comparison would be cross-genre titles that were released for (for example) both NES and SNES. What immediately comes to mind is Batman Returns, which looks like TMNTII on NES and is a gorgeous brawler on SNES.

    Are there many other ports from one gen to the next? Battletoads/Double Dragon, maybe...
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  • Avatar for metalangel #16 metalangel 3 years ago
    @touchofkiel You'd have to ensure it was actually trying to be the same game, and not just something with the same title but completely different gameplay. Hardcore Gaming 101 often compares different versions like that.

    You're right, though, you could have some fun with it. I have both the Genesis and 32X versions of Virtua Racing, and the difference between them is immense. I've never played the Saturn version but I'm sure it's something else. I also quite enjoyed the bonus disc that came with Ridge Racer Type 4, with both the original and 'here's what we've learned in five years' versions of the original Ridge Racer game.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #17 LBD_Nytetrayn 3 years ago
    I'm kind of surprised there were no Donkey Kong Country games here for Super NES. Seems like that might have been an interesting leap from Super Mario World.
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  • Avatar for NDsnivy #18 NDsnivy 3 years ago
    Grapics- one thing that makes games that good. With my fave music game music, graphics seems equally important. Just shows how much it improves with each gen!
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