Why the Super Nintendo is the Best Console Ever Made

STARTING SCREEN | Paying tribute to Nintendo's creative peak. Plus: A mini-review of Star Trek: Discovery, the Switch's true killer app, and more.

The first time I saw a Super Nintendo was at a Target demo kiosk. A group of kids were crowded around Super Mario World, and even from a distance, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was just so beautiful.

I spent the bulk of the next five years actively pining for a Super Nintendo (a Sega Genesis would have been accepable, too), even as I played PC games that were technically much better looking. The PC was great, but those consoles had a certain mystique to them. I spent much of that generation paging through copies of EGM and Nintendo Power and ogling at the Super Nintendo's massive sprites and vibrant colors.

On the flat page, the images looked like cartoons come to life. It made the NES look hilariously dated by comparison. I was convinced that 2D graphics could never be better (I was wrong, obviously).

This was simply incredible in 1991.

This is all to say that, yes, I was a rabid Super Nintendo fangirl in my day. I could even recite the damn thing's specs. I've mellowed considerably since then; but as I've grown older and wiser, my appreciation for the Super Nintendo has also deepened.

It was a console born of a very different Nintendo than we know today—one that was confidently dominent. The SNES was built to be the biggest and best console around, outstripping the competition with a superior sound chip and a more vibrant color palette. Its ambitions were reflected in its more complicated controller, which added two new face buttons and then-novel shoulder buttons—a surprisingly forward-thinking innovation. It was the triple-A console of its day.

But the launch of the SNES was not without controversy. Parents groused about its lack of backward compatibility, and programmers were stymied by its comparatively slow CPU—a surprising advantage for the older Sega Genesis. It also had an image problem. When Sonic the Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat burst on to the scene in the early '90s, Nintendo suddenly found itself out of fashion with the kids who comprised their core demographic.

Still, the Super Nintendo wound up doing just fine, even if Nintendo no longer enjoyed a total monopoly on the American gaming industry (in Japan, the Super Famicom was dominant as ever). Donkey Kong Country earned Nintendo final victory on the sales front; and by and large, historians have looked more favorably on the SNES than they have the Sega Genesis thanks to its incredible library. As great as the Sega Genesis was, it hasn't quite had the same legs as the SNES, perhaps because its strongest genres—shooters and sports games—haven't translated quite as well to the modern era.

That's the Super Nintendo's real advantage: its timelessness. In hindsight, the Super Nintendo marked the end of what you might call the first phase of console gaming. This was the period that began before the crash of 1983—an age dominated by Atari, Colecovision, and most importantly, arcades. It was a world of high scores and shoot 'em ups; one where power players like Jaz were melting Asteroids machines.

Classics like Final Fantasy VI still hold up incredibly well today.

When the NES came around in the mid-1980s, it was still very much informed by Nintendo's history as an arcade developer. But there were subtle shifts happening just below the surface. Games became more ambitious on the NES, with traditional PC genres like RPGs making the jump to home console.

Today, we live in a world where games are considered online platforms—a front of endless monetization for publishers. Fall releases like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War are treated like big budget summer blockbusters. The older genres are still very much with us, but there are now indie games and niche releases that cater to hardcore audiences too.

The problem these consoles have is that they are very much "of the moment." Microsoft treats their systems as disposable home entertainment devices not much different than VCR or a DVD player. A Sony executive wondered openly who would want to play old games. With triple-A games leaning so heavily on graphical fidelity, they can't help but feel dated and clunky after a generation or two has passed. With so many older releases getting remastered for newer consoles and PC, systems like the PS3 and the Xbox feel almost totally non-essential.

While the Super Nintendo was very much the "triple-A console" of its day, leaning heavily on graphical tricks like Mode 7, its games have managed to transcend the period in which they were made. Indeed, the high-quality sprites in Street Fighter, Yoshi's Island, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are still gorgeous by today's standards. Play Super Metroid now and you'll find a game that's every bit as spooky and atmospheric today as it was in 1994.

Where the graphical glory of other games have faded with time, SNES games are just as rich as ever. And where other retro games struggle to entice modern gamers with clunky controls and interfaces (have you played Goldeneye in 2017?), the best of the Super Nintendo sets the standard for accessibility even today.

It's striking just how relevant the cream of the SNES crop remains in the modern age. It's not just that people are nostalgic for these games, though that's certainly part of it. Playing Chrono Trigger earlier this year, I was amazed by how modern it felt. It was smart, ambitious, and incredibly well-designed, not to mention gorgeous. It was the kind of game that I could easily play without the usual caveats of, "Well, you have to remember that this game came out in 1995..."

Super Metroid is spooky and beautiful as ever thanks to its haunting soundtrack and pitch perfect world design.

Granted, the same can be said for many NES games—Super Mario Bros. 3 is just as relevant as it was back in the day—but gaming had definitely matured by the advent of the SNES. As I wrote in my hands-on with the SNES Classic, it will inherently have more staying power than the NES Classic simply because the games are more ambitious.

Super Metroid, Secret of Mana, and even Super Mario World aren't games you knock out in a single sitting: they demand a level of engagement nearly on par with modern gaming. They are indicative of a period when consoles were beginning to shed their ties to arcades and truly come into their own.

Looking at the murder's row of great games on the SNES Classic (which we reviewed!), it's self-evident that the SNES was the best console ever made. Its library isn't just good: it's essential. Final Fantasy VI, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Mario World are all firmly ensconced on every best ever list, and can make a strong argument for being in the top five.

Naturally, every console has its strengths. The Sega Genesis is home to plenty of classics of its own, from Sonic the Hedgehog to Phantasy Star II, and its raw, gritty sound chip has gone from a weakness to a strength. The NES is loaded with amazing, eminently playable arcade games and platformers. The Dreamcast, the PS2, and even the Sega Saturn have all had their moments.

But the SNES was really where gaming came into its own. It saw Capcom, Konami, Square, and many more developers at the top of their respective games. One way or another, the Super Nintendo is still one of the most influential consoles around.

When the SNES Classic releases on Friday, I will be among those waiting at Target to pick one up (not the same Target where I saw it for the first time, though that location still exists). Even if I don't get one immediately, I'll suck it up and pay a scalper. It's worth it.

In the end, I wound up passing on the NES Classic because I knew in my heart it was just a novelty—a collector's item for my desk. But I plan to put some serious time into Super Metroid, Secret of Mana, and Kirby's Super Star. It's not about nostalgia: it's about giving proper time to some of the best games ever.

That's how I know the Super Nintendo is still the best. And given where games are headed, I don't think that'll ever change.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Old World from Steamworld Dig

I spent most of my weekend playing Steamworld Dig 2, and I regret absolutely nothing. A little while ago I talked about how the original Steamworld Dig seemingly came out of nowhere and sank a pickaxe into my heart. Well, Steamworld Dig 2 proves Image & Form is no one-trick steam-pony—though I guess the Swedish studio already proved as much with Steamworld Heist.

Looking back, I think the Old World track is one big reason why Steamworld Dig first hooked me. You first hear this haunting, twanging "song" when you dig deep enough for things to get weird. The Steamworld universe doesn't offer many explicit explanations about how steam-powered robots took over the world from humankind, but the background graphics in Old World sure offer some jarring clues.

Again, I first played Steamworld Dig during a huge ice-storm wherein I lost power for hours on end. Shockingly, Old World's keen, wailing BGM is an amazing accompaniment to a dark, cold winter afternoon.

Mike's Media Minute

This weekend, the buzz was all Star Trek: Discovery. The show finally premiered its first two episodes, airing on CBS All Access in the United States and Netflix for the rest of the world. (Someone clearly won out in that regard.) Critics have seen up until episode 3, which makes sense, given the structure of the show.

So far, it's hard to tell how Discovery will shake out. I'd say this is probably the strongest set of pilot episodes for any Trek show, but folks tend to forget that most Trek pilots are pretty bad. Hell, many Trek first seasons are pretty bad. Discovery has a story it wants to tell and a canvas it wants to paint before it gets to the Star Trek-style "wander the cosmos and tackle random big ideas".

The best was to explain Discovery is through the lens of Deep Space Nine, which stands as my favorite Trek. Imagine if Deep Space Nine started Emissary, which explained how career Starfleet officer Benjamin Sisko ended up on the backwater station. A lot of that was flashback to the loss of Sisko's wife. Discovery essentially blows this flashback up into the first two episodes of the show. As such, these first two episodes only feature 2 folks from the main cast.

Starting from there, now imagine that Deep Space Nine actually began in season 5, with Sisko beginning to turn away from the Federation's ideals in order to win his war. That's great, compelling stuff, but it works because you've seen the rule-abiding Sisko in the previous four seasons. Here, we just hit the ground running on a main character who is making some questionable, if not outright villainous decisions. She's not very enjoyable or charismatic at the moment, but there are hints of a better character early on in the first episode.

This is why I say it's hard to see where everything is going. Discovery will be a redemptive arc for the primary character, but we have no clue if the writers can pull off that arc. We've yet to meet the rest of the ensemble cast, which is a big part of Star Trek. And for fans of the more hopeful, optimistic, and light Trek shows, Discovery won't be your cup of tea. This seems like a show where people strive towards those ideals, but trudge through the muck on the way there.

So, it's worth watching. Is it worth subscribing to CBS All Access? Not sure on that one. $5.99 a month gets you access to Discovery and all of CBS' considerable backlog, but I don't watch much CBS stuff. Worse, that $6 fee doesn't get rid of ads. No, you have to pay $9.99 a month to go ad-free. I don't pay for ads—I canceled Hulu Plus on day 2, because the subscription fee didn't get rid of ads—so I can't in good conscience recommend it. Suffice it to say, international fans get the better end of the stick on Netflix.

Caty’s AltGame Corner

There's always something delightful about hand-illustrated games. Maybe they feel more tangible, real. Maybe they just feel far more intricate than something a computer could ever construct. In Melbourne, Australia-based illustrator Alexander Perrin's latest interactive project Short Trip, a hand drawn railroad track comes to life. The interactivity of the game is as minimal as it gets; you direct a train back and forth using arrow keys, sometimes halting at stations to pick up other anthropomorphic kitty cats who have, as the description states, "places to be." You can try out the calming, endearing pen-drawn world in Short Trip from your browser on itch.io.

This Week's News and Notes

  • In celebration of the SNES Classic launching on Friday, we will be holding a multi-hour marathon starting at 11am PT on September 29! Come hang out with me as I play Super Mario World, Kirby Super Star, Star Fox 2, and whatever your heart desires. As always, subscribe to our Twitch channel, and join us every Tuesday and Thursday at 2pm ET/11am PT for the USgamer Lunch Hour. We're racing in Mario Kart this week! The rest of the team is unaware that they are doomed. DOOMED.
  • I don't know if I'll get to write about this later, so I'll say this here: Puyo Puyo Tetris is the Nintendo Switch's killer app. Swap mode is almost criminally addictive, especially if you happen to have four friends with you. I haven't played so much local multiplayer since Smash Bros. in college.
  • The Switch's true killer app.
  • For some reason, there was an argument over what constitutes a "core Mario game" on Twitter today. I would posit that the "core games" are 1, 2, 3, Land, World, World 2, 64, Sunshine, Galaxy, Galaxy 2, and Odyssey. What do you think?
  • Danganronpa V3 is out tomorrow, and Caty really likes it. If you're wondering why people are so hyped, I suggest checking out her handy explainer on the subject.
  • The NBA 2K18 community is an uproar at the moment due to some pretty massive bugs, including glitches that erase progress and remove Virtual Currency. It hasn't been pretty. This isn't the first time that NBA 2K has had problems; but it is the first time that people have really taken notice, and it seems like things have really come to a head. Fans are fed up with the glitches, the microtranscations, and the server problems, and are no longer willing to put up with them for the benefit of high-quality gameplay. Is this it for 2K as the dominant basketball sim of note? Maybe not, but 2K's formerly sterling reputation has definitely taken a major hit, and that may ultimately open the door for NBA Live to make a comeback in the near future.
  • In case you missed it, we kicked off a brand new report on Axe of the Blood God: The Final Fantasy IX Report! As with Chrono Trigger and Persona 4 Golden, we will be following Nadia's progress and breaking it all down as we go. Even better, we'll have a written companion with it this time. Stay tuned for the first part tomorrow!
  • Man, I'm glad that Yoshio Sakamoto stuck to his guns with the climactic scene in Super Metroid.
  • We've hit a small lull in the holiday season; but with FIFA, the SNES Classic, and Cuphead all out this week, and Middle-earth: Shadow of War just around the corner, things will be picking up again very soon. Are you enjoying the holiday season so far? Are you holding out for any particular game? Let us know in the comments!

Tagged with Feature, Nintendo, Starting Screen, Super Nintendo, Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Classic Edition.

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