The Super Nintendo: A Retrospective

Every time I write about a game it seems like I'm pulling out a dusty box of memories and reminiscing like scratched vinyl. But unless you’re the God Emperor of Dune (sorry, been marathoning through these novels), we look to the past to contextualize the present. Older, canonized games have inextricably become reference anchors for so many of the new ones we play today — So much so that they have become ever more relevant with the direction the industry is tracking towards. Just like cinema, we have a lot to appreciate from the generations before us.

My gaming reverie started earlier this month when I finally completed an apartment move to yet another neighborhood in Chicago. Packing your entire life into boxes and plastic bins, stacking carefully padded glassware, and knocking on wood that nothing goes wrong over the course of 24 hours is an exercise in stress no one should submit themselves to more that once every few years. But rediscovering older gaming consoles you have lying around? That's satisfying.

I actually had just brought the Super Nintendo to Chicago after my most recent holiday visit to Minnesota. While I hadn't kept a ton of cartridges from that era, all of my favorites are with me now. Unfortunately, one of the two controllers didn't make it, so I had to order a new one off eBay for the girlfriend. But having everything set up at our new apartment has us itching to play some retro titles.

But it wasn't just packing and unpacking the Super Nintendo that had me clamoring for a return to 1990s gaming -- it was that expected blip in Internet service from Comcast (until a rep came out to "properly install" things) that had us removed entirely from connecting the various devices like Apple TV and PS3 to their digital ecosystems. So it was a nice, quiet lull that brought out the analog devices for a good time: the record player, iTunes libraries, books, Super Nintendo.

Luckily, my Super Nintendo had been cared for kindly over the last decade. I remember when I first purchased it, eager to own my first console through cold, hard saved cash from the piggy bank. (It was also a way to play some single player games without having to visit my neighbor’s house.) And so I made the investment back in 1994 as a nine year old kid. With the console all set up and Zelda: A Link to the Past sticking out of the top of the cartridge bay, I was ready to burn a hole into the couch that summer.

From the sizzling sounds of rain pattering on Link’s ludicrously small house to the heroic MIDI score infusing my sword twirls and dashes across the plains of Hyrule, the game would be one of many that captured my imagination. Revisiting the game today, its world(s) still feels huge and dense, its story every bit as poignant a fairy tale, and its challenge an escalating symphony. As you can already guess, I consider this game —among other genre-defining titles from that era — as the best kind of game experience you can have. And why is that?

The Pinnacle of 2D Imagination

Most of us can remember screaming at the screen when having steered Mario into one of the many deadly hazards along his single-plane universe in the original Super Mario Bros. on the first Nintendo console. The same challenges arrived with his newest outing (circa 1991), Super Mario World, the premiere release title for the Super Nintendo. But something had changed. While Super Mario 3 for NES, the last game from the first Nintendo era, was superbly imaginative and broad in scope, Super Mario World took things in an optically different direction. Something about the graphics, colors, and level depth gave the impression of playing something very different from its predecessors. It was also the first leap into a new generation of consoles, and so the expectation of something incredible and new was front and center in our minds.

In actuality, the console was more than just optically more powerful than its predecessor, but it was the small things that made the most immediate impact. Notably, the original Nintendo console had an available color palette of just 48 colors and 6 grays. This severely limited what developers could paint on the screen. When 1991 came around, the Super Nintendo was able to pull colors from the 15-bit RGB color space, which meant a total of 32,768 possible colors could be represented on-screen. This change alone allowed for a shocking leap in terms of character sprite depth and environment variation. Microprocessors and RAM aside, the other biggest optical change was the resolution: the NES could output 256 by 240 pixels, but the SNES supported a number of resolutions, most notably 512 × 448 and 512 × 478. Obviously, the colors and resolution were significant enough to make the Super Nintendo era of gaming remarkably more detailed than that of the previous generation of consoles, and, leaping forward to now, became the reference point for so many of the “retro”-styled indie games on mobile, PC, and download centers of current generation consoles.

Mario Bros. on NES

Super Mario World on SNES

The emergence (and solidification) of genres was also an important development during this era of gaming. Sure, genres were dappled in prior to this, but the following games gave definition to them more so than any other period (and yes, I’m skipping over the parallel evolution of PC games):

  • Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (action RPG/adventuring)
  • Super Metroid; Castlevania IV (adventure platforming)
  • Final Fantasy VI ("III"); Chrono Trigger; Mario RPG (RPG)
  • Super Mario World; Donkey Kong Country (platforming)
  • Super Star Wars series (movie tie-ins done right)
  • Turtles in Time; R-Type III (home arcarde ports)
  • Street Fighter II Turbo; Killer Instinct (fighting)
  • Starfox (simulated 3D flight gaming)

Sure, the list isn't exhaustive, but you get the idea. And if you take a look at the inventory of indie games modeled in the retro fashion of parallax scrolling, character sprites, and MIDI musical scores, so many of them borrow designs and aesthetics from these games. The recently released Shovel Knight is a great example. Even though it was actually modeled off NES, albeit with a much larger color palette, it far exceeds other efforts in this scene and unequivocally captures the magic of old school platforming. But its basis is grounded in the foundation that games like Super Mario World, Mega Man, and Super Metroid set forth before it: We recognize elements like world maps, item collection/usage, and level progressing because they've been imbedded into gaming culture as jazz standards to structure.

Another example of this is Braid, an indie game that was released several years ago. Aside from its pedantic storyline, the game revisited the platforming genre so many of us were familiar with, but twisted its notable elements (e.g., the ability to unwind your actions and scroll backwards in time). It also approached retro gaming with a bit of a deconstructionist lens (ahem, the ending). The graphical approach with this game was, as you'd expect, very much rooted in the styling of so many Super Nintendo era games. Sprites, color palette, two dimensional scrolling, basic control schemes. It's all there, and it's all easily accessible. Thus, the recognizable elements were in place for us to calibrate certain expectations, and our surprise and enjoyment stemmed mostly from the way the game approached those elements.

Accessibility & Enjoyment

Now that I bring it up, perhaps accessibility is one of huge defining characteristics of this era in gaming as well. Most Super Nintendo games, along with its straightforward controller, can pipe picked up and played by just about anyone (based on my limited empirical evidence and general assumptions). The same can’t be said of what I'd consider a modern-era genre: first-person shooters. Two analog sticks controlling two different axis in a three-dimensional space? Not going to happen for some people. It's also an incredibly different control scheme for mobile touch devices, which is one of the reasons so many developers design games in the mostly 2D space -- easy for folks to control with essentially two inputs (your thumbs). Any game or classic title port that requires a virtual gamepad be embedded in the lower part of your touchscreen immediately complicates things. A modern-day console genre is going to be so much more difficult to implement and play that it confounds me that so many developers try.

My last remark on this whole thing is budget. While this can be argued ad nauseum, I believe it is likely much cheaper (and more developer friendly) to create a game styled in the Super Nintendo era than it is to build something on a three-dimensional scale with a modern game engine. The expectations of graphics, sounds, physics, and interactivity are so much more relaxed with most 2D gaming configurations that I believe we will continue to see games modeled after the classic era for years to come.

So. With booting up that old console comes more than just a nostalgic session of gaming. It opens up colorful, genuinely fun and accessible games that you have to physically clamp down into a bay inside an old beige box and flick to power on; it removes you from all the modern distractions (notifications, online buddy lists, co-op matches with assholes half a world away); it requires you to sit a little bit closer to the screen so that the the controller cord isn't stretched too far to rip the consoles out of your media center; and it beckons you to sit next to another human being, trading turns or competing against one another, in the same room, on the same couch, for hours into the night.