(The SNES is one year older than it was last year, so we updated our birthday tribute article, and by ‘updated’, we mean ‘changed a number in the title and re-posted it’. Come at us.)
The hype was unreal. The tension was palpable. The gaming press couldn’t print information, rumor, speculation, and screenshots fast enough. As the August 23rd release date approached in 1991, the question on every gamer’s mind was simple: “Could Nintendo do it?” After giving Sega a two-year head start with the Genesis, after suffering the slings and arrows of mockery courtesy of Sega’s ad department chronicled in Blake J. Harris’s Console Wars (must-read material for any retro gamer serious about her 16-bit history), how could Nintendo possibly compete in the 16-bit market? The answer: start with software focused on everything Ninten-could-do that Genesis, like M.C. Hammer, was unable to touch.
Nintendo launched the Super Nintendo in the US with a mere five titles in its library, but each one of these was hand-picked to showcase something the Genesis couldn’t do as well, or couldn’t do period, thanks to the SNES’s custom hardware. Titles like these right here:
SimCity showed Nintendo was serious about attracting gamers who weren’t all about twitch, who enjoyed careful planning, and could be enticed away from their PC or Mac by the bold, colorful designs of the 16-bit version. Nintendo also added personal touches unique to this edition, like a SimCitizen-stomping Bowser for a disaster, and a giant Mario statue to commemorate your city’s Megalopolis status. Sega was weak in the simulation department at this point, so you can’t really blame Nintendo’s choice to capitalize on this front.
Gradius III was a direct response to Sega’s arcade-to-home conversions, using the power of the SNES to prove it could do coin-op translations just as well as the other guys. Suddenly the choice of system for the superior SHMUP experience wasn’t quite so clear, especially with the SNES’s expanded palette showing off all those pretty explosions plucked from a selection of 32,768 different colors.
Pilotwings was nothing less than a giant middle finger extended at the competition. Sega’s hardware, while powerful, lacked hardware scale and rotation abilities. Nintendo made this a focal point of their launch campaign by touting Mode 7 which let programmers pull off all sorts of tricks that were impractical or impossible on the Genesis or TurboGrafx-16. The game was hard as balls, but it served its purpose for Nintendo fanboys of the era, and gave them something to rub in the faces of their Genesis-owning friends on the playground.
F-Zero took the Mode 7 effects from Pilotwings then piled on a ferocious dose of ludicrous speed to add insult. Sega’s campaigns about their fast, detailed and awesome graphics suddenly looked pedestrian when this behemoth came tooling down the road. With tracks composed of gigantic bitmaps rotated and scaled in real-time, F-Zero made every racing game before it (and Sega’s own Sonic the Hedgehog) look like last year’s model. But Nintendo saved the best for last with…
Super Mario World. We just…we don’t even need to say anything about this, do we? Mario’s the gaming world’s most iconic star–if Super Mario 3 blew gamers away on the NES, then Super Mario World stuck vibrators into their eyes and ears and cranked them up to max. With tons of Mode 7, multiple background layers scrolling at different speeds, and a gaming world larger than anything previously seen on a home console, Nintendo aimed this haymaker right at Sega’s nose. Genesis could field nothing close to it, and Nintendo had no problem sweetening the pot by offering this as their pack-in game. Suddenly that $200 investment in Nintendo’s dream machine didn’t seem so intimidating.
None of these games by themselves were enough to guarantee Nintendo’s market dominance, as Sega ran roughshod over everybody with their strategy of branding the Genesis as the ‘cool underdog’ for several years after Nintendo’s 16-bit debut. But they showed Nintendo was serious about following up the success of their NES, even if it took them a couple years to figure out how to dismantle Sega’s advantages. Without any of them, Nintendo could have quickly wound up a has-been in the American market. As it is, they gave Nintendo enough traction to engage in a raging, swaggering, dick-waving, feces-flinging console war of epic proportions for the next eight years. The result: a metric ton of happy gamers who enjoyed some of the best software ever developed for home systems to this day.
And what trip through time would be complete without a retro ad supplement? We wrangled up this one from Software Etc. promoting their SNES demo kiosks: