The fourth generation of consoles produced some of the most divisive and bitter rivalry yet seen in the history of gaming. The two main contenders, Sega's Genesis and Nintendo's SNES, squared off against one another in a console war of a like not seen before or since.
Which side of the conflict did you take? Were you a Sega fan, or was the Super Nintendo your thing? That's what we want to know as we revisit the console battlefields of the early 90's and once again discuss which system was the best. Has your view changed over time, or are you still just as vehement now about your favorite system as you were back then?
While you formulate your response, here's what the USgamer staff have to say about the two leading machines of the 16-bit era.
This is such a difficult question to answer. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the epic console wars of the early '90s, and with it has come a lot of perspective. At this point, I find it almost impossible to discern between the two in terms of which is best. Both machines have an amazing range of games, and some of them are all-time greats.
If you'd asked me 20 years ago, I'd have said without doubt that the Sega Genesis was the best machine. It was the system I was playing the most at the time. I just loved more Sega Genesis games than I did SNES titles. The EA Sports games like FIFA, Madden, NHL, and PGA were all favorites of mine. Then there were the racing games like Super Hang-On, Virtua Racing, Super Monaco GP, Micro Machines, and, of course, all the Road Rash titles. And shooters? Oh yes. The Genesis was pretty much king of the shooter. While the SNES had some decent ones like UN Squadron, Gradius III, Star Fox and Axelay, the Genesis had a veritable smorgasbord of top-shelf shmups, including the Thunderforce games, Hellfire, Eliminate Down and Gynoug.
The Genesis was also the arcade port machine. Sega produced a ton of great arcade games during this period, and most of them ended up hitting their home system - and many of them were very good to boot. And I haven't even started to talk about platformers, brawlers and beat 'em ups… and all the weird and wonderful stuff like Michael Jackson's Moonwalker, ToeJam and Earl, Comix Zone, and Gunstar Heroes.
However, I've always felt that while the Genesis had the greatest amount of quality titles, the Super Nintendo's very best games are better than anything available on Genesis. I'm talking the likes of Pilotwings, Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, and Super Metroid. All of those are unmatched on Genesis in terms of sheer quality. However, for variety and breadth, the Genesis offers the better range of software.
So I guess to answer the question, it comes down to that choice: is it better to have a smaller range of games that are the very best of a generation, or a larger range of games that offers more breadth of variety and interest. I'm going back and forth between the two choices, but to settle it, I simply asked myself which system and complete range of games would I own if I could choose but one. And the answer I came up with is the same one I'd have given you 20 years ago: Sega Genesis. It's just a lot less clear-cut than it was back in the day.
I had my Sega Genesis first. For a while, I was a Genesis-only kid, surviving with whatever hit Sega's console platform. I admit, it was good. The Genesis had a number of amazing games, including Gunstar Heroes, Phantasy Star, Beyond Oasis, and Shining Force II. That's why I've picked up most of the Sega Genesis Collections on Steam. (Thanks for that, Sega.)
But one Christmas, I received a Sega CD. I played it for a day or two and then it went back to the store. The money was then used to buy a Super Nintendo and Super Mario Kart. That was the beginning of my long love affair with the Super Nintendo. Did it have Gunstar Heroes or Streets of Rage 2? No, but the Super Nintendo delivered it's own library of amazing titles you couldn't find on the Genesis. Led by Super Mario Kart, I also had A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, Yoshi's Island, Mega Man X, Super Metroid, F-Zero, and Demon's Crest.
All that is before you even get to the games that were better on the Super Nintendo. Turtles in Time is far superior to the Hyperstone Heist. Contra III: The Alien Wars is more enjoyable than the painfully hard Contra: Hard Corps. I prefer the Super NES version of Mortal Kombat II to its Genesis counterpart (even though the Genesis version of MKI was the one to beat.) Super Ghouls N' Ghosts outclasses its Genesis counterpart. And I'm sure I'll take some heat for this one, but I also think Magical Quest was a better Mickey game than Castle of Illusion.
Looking back, once I picked up my Super NES, I just had more fun overall on that platform. Yes, that era taught me why owning multiple platforms is key - there's always something on the other system you'll want - but if I had to choose just one, it would've been the Super Nintendo. Sorry, Sega.
Well this should be pretty obvious. The Super Nintendo was technically superior to the Genesis and had Square at its peak behind it. For the sake of argument, though, the Genesis can claim a few advantages over the SNES. It has better shoot 'em ups (Thunder Force) and better beat 'em ups (Streets of Rage 2 trumps even the excellent Turtles in Time). It has the best Phantasy Star games. And while it doesn't really matter now, Sega was by far the better sports console.
Comparatively speaking, though, the SNES has withstood the test of time in a way that the Genesis simply has not. Super Metroid and Chrono Trigger are consistently ranked among the 10 or 15 best games ever made. Yoshi's Island and Final Fantasy VI are beloved entries in their respective series. And there's Secret of Mana, Castlevania IV, Mega Man X, Earthbound, and lest I forget, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past - only the best Zelda ever made (I will brook no argument on this front).
The Genesis has its share of great exclusives, but the games I just listed shift the balance pretty decisively in the Super Nintendo's favor, and that's without even mentioning the fact that it had the best 16-bit fighting game (Street Fighter II Turbo) and one of the generation's best racers (F-Zero). But you know, hindsight is 20/20. Back in the early '90s, I wouldn't have blamed you for buying a Genesis over the SNES. Sonic 2, NHL 94, Mortal Kombat II, and Aladdin all presented compelling reasons to pick up Sega's console.
I think the best thing about the Genesis was how hard it pushed Nintendo to excel. The Genesis's selling points have become less relevant with time, but that doesn't diminish the fact that it was a hell of a time to be a gamer.
Listen, I respect the hell out of the Sega Genesis, and I will forever love the way its cold, FM synthesis audio chip makes every game feel like it transpires across some sort of alien vista, but nothing can replace the Super NES in my heart. I found the 16-bit era as a whole rather disillusioning — so often it felt like a prettier rehash of the 8-bit generation, lacking in the revolutionary new ideas that defined games in the '80s. But I think part of that was just my own teenage angst and the sensation, or the cultural expectation, that I should outgrow video games. The Super NES offered a bumper crop of greats, and all in a relatively short span of time.
The very first check I wrote with the bank account I opened for my very first summer job went toward buying a Super NES, and I still remember the sense of awe I felt when I plugged it in to my television and those graphics appeared on a screen that until then had been used for primitive NES games. I remember the sensation of playing (what seemed like) a perfect conversion of Street Fighter II at home — totally worth the huge price tag and frustrating summer-long search. Being stunned by the music of the Mist Cave in Final Fantasy II. Delighting in the bizarreness of ActRaiser and Super Castlevania IV. The melancholy delight of SoulBlazer.
And then, after spending a year away from video games upon deciding I had outgrown them, I remember being drawn back in by Secret of Mana, the perfect synthesis of Zelda and Final Fantasy I'd always wanted. By Super Metroid, the perfect sequel to the video game that taught me to love exploration and atmosphere in games. By Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, Illusion of Gaia, Breath of Fire, Yoshi's Island, EarthBound….
I don't want to argue technical merits between the two consoles. Genesis was faster and easier to program for, while Super NES offered all sorts of specialized hardware and an incredible sound chip. I don't want to argue about their respective libraries, because each had its own compelling qualities according to different tastes. It ultimately boils down to the personal experience: Super NES spoke to me on some primal level, and it was the crucible in which my lifelong love for the medium was fired to permanence.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have become such a Nintendo fanboy without the relentless marketing, merchandising, and propaganda (also known as Nintendo Power) generated by the company throughout the '80s and '90s. I guess I wasn't always faithful, though: When the 16-bit console wars began, I nearly found myself lured away from Nintendo by the siren song of Sonic the Hedgehog, then inexplicably asked my parents for a TurboGrafx 16. I ended up replacing this doomed console with a Super Nintendo the following Christmas, but those months and months with Bonk's Revenge? Not bad.
Thankfully, I never became tribalistic about consoles, even if the corporations behind them wanted nothing more than to whip kids into a fundamentalist consumer frenzy. While I stuck with the SNES throughout the 16-bit era, I had a few friends who opted for a Genesis, so I managed to play and appreciate most of today's classics as they released. Still, few Genesis games managed to wow me like my Super Nintendo favorites did, mostly because my love for RPGs had fully blossomed by that point. I was a huge fan of Shining Force, but games like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and EarthBound simply blew my mind. As long as Square stuck with the Super Nintendo, that's where you'd find me.
These days, it's nice to dip into Genesis games, if only because it's a world I've never fully explored. While the Super Nintendo's library has yielded most of its secrets over the past few decades, I can still look up the Sega Genesis' long list of games and find some avenues I haven't yet explored. In the end, I think the Super Nintendo comes out on top, though not because of the corporation it's attached to. The talent at Nintendo in the '90s was simply working at the top of their game, releasing titles I still think they've never topped. Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Super Mario Kart, Yoshi's Island, Super Punch-Out: twenty years later, it's tough to think of any console that had a better slew of games than the Super Nintendo's first-party software.