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Retro Corner – The SNES

The SNES – Nintendo’s finest hour

In the days long before the Wii and the DS, when Sony was still (mostly) just a Walkman, TV and VHS manufacturer and when anything X-shaped was still just a twinkle in Bill Gates’ eye, the mighty Nintendo were top of the videogaming tree, eclipsing Sega’s plucky efforts with the Mega Drive (aka Genesis) and – certainly in terms of sales and revenue – outperforming the gaming computers of their day, the Amiga 500 and Atari ST.

Released in the US in 1991 and Europe in 1992 (1990 in Japan) as a reluctant successor to the phenomenally successful Nintendo Entertainment System (the NES, aka Famicom), the Super Nintendo was a remarkable console for many reasons. Although it suffered from a relatively underpowered CPU (at around half the performance of the Mega Drive), it could throw around nearly twice as many colours as its bitter nemesis and had much better sound quality. But it was in the quality of the software where Nintendo really succeeded; they had an outstanding first-party line up with the likes of Mario, Zelda and Metroid, as well as enviable third-party support from Japanese heavyweights like Capcom, Konami, Squaresoft, Tecmo and Enix.

The console eventually sold almost 50 million units worldwide, and kept selling strongly well into the subsequent generation, after the release of the 32-bit forerunners the 3DO and Atari Jaguar, then later the Sega Saturn and Sony’s PlayStation (which, as you may know, was originally intended to be a supplement for the SNES as orchestrated by Sony’s Ken Kutaragi, before a fall out between the two Japanese giants). Nintendo were the last console manufacturer to follow suit into the successive generation, eventually following with the impressive N64 in 1996 – 97.

Five of the best:

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Super Mario World – a timeless classic, and without doubt one of the finest platform games ever created, the SNES was subject to the massive benefit that this game actually came bundled with the console for free(!). Featuring a huge adventure, fantastic designs and wonderful graphics, this was an evolution on the established and revered Super Mario Bros. franchise, and at least as brilliant as its predecessors.

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Super Mario Kart – the first of many which almost single-handedly spawned a popular sub-genre, Super Mario Kart is arguably still better than all who have tried to emulate it. There’s a surprising amount of speed and fluidity to the graphics, there’s a wonderful collection of brilliantly-designed (Super Mario-themed) racetracks and the battle mode was inspired, offering countless hours of fun and competition.

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – possibly the highest point in one of the most revered series ever, A Link to the Past was one of the most in-depth and extensive games ever to grace Nintendo’s classic console. It featured a huge gameworld, a varied assortment of weapons and items and a line-up of wily dungeons and bosses. ‘Timeless’ has rarely sounded so apt.

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Super Metroid – something of a surprise hit for many, Super Metroid was a beast of a game, and one that tantalisingly revealed more and more on successive plays. Its depth and variety has never been bettered by a 2D action adventure, and it has extremely intelligent structuring, along with a fantastic mystique behind the Metroid universe and some great characters and creations.

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Street Fighter 2 – almost without doubt the most significant and influential fighting game ever (certainly of the 2D era, at least), Capcom really perfected the formula with this title, which still hasn’t really changed fifteen years down the line. Although it appeared on other systems, the title was always synonymous with the SNES, and became one of Capcom’s biggest and most bankable franchises of the 2D era.

Other notable titles:

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Starwing (aka StarFox) – the first 3D title ever to appear on a Nintendo console thanks to the UK-developed Super FX Chip (from the sadly now-defunct Argonaut Games), Starwing was and is a fantastic and beautiful shooter, with some superb bosses, great controls and utterly chaotic action. It also introduced some new icons for Nintendo, in the form of Fox McCloud and his team.

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Flashback – an early game from publisher Sony, and still one of the best platform adventures from the 2D era, Flashback was outstanding for a number of reasons. The ‘rotoscoped’ graphics allowed for marvellous graphics and cutscenes, and the animation on main character Conrad was excellent, with beautiful, flowing and realistic movement. It also featured a surprisingly in-depth plot, with intelligent and often devious level design.

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Secret of Mana – often considered to be Square’s finest hour of the 2D era, Secret of Mana was the perfect accompaniment to Nintendo’s own Zelda franchise. Although more stat-heavy and with more character development than Zelda’s protagonist Link, Secret of Mana featured wonderful style, an enormous gameworld and a myriad of strategies and depth.

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Earthworm Jim – definitely Enter the Matrix developer Shiny Entertainment’s finest hour, Earthworm Jim encapsulated everything that was great about classic platformers, replete with buckets of humour, gorgeous visuals and brilliant characterisation. The franchise found considerable success and went on to become a cartoon, although unfortunately the sequel wasn’t up to scratch.

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Donkey Kong Country – a late SNES release from UK veterans Rare, Donkey Kong Country was incredibly impressive graphically, and really was a smooth, consistent and enjoyable platformer. It may not have aspired to re-write the rulebook, but did present a solid entry from the videogame stalwarts.

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Pilotwings – notable for being a unique and calming gaming experience, Pilotwings was based around performing a collection of airborne stunts such as hangliding, flying through rings or skydiving. A very melancholy and original concept coupled with addictive and compulsive gameplay.

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Chrono Trigger – another classic from RPG masters Square, this embodies all that is wonderful about old-school turn-based RPGs in one neat little package. Featuring a crazy plot, more time travelling than the whole Back to the Future trilogy and a cast of wonderful characters, Chrono Trigger is everything you love and hate about JRPGs in one fell swoop.

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Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island – often forgotten next to its prequel, but still a true platforming classic, Yoshi’s Island was another wonderful and beautiful title which appeared relatively late in the day on the SNES. Notable for giving everyone’s favourite green dinosaur a shot in the spotlight, the twist here was that you had to babysit the young Mario.

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F-Zero – could easily be considered the precursor to Wipeout, this was another smooth and attractive racer from Nintendo. It featured a large selection of varied courses, a roster of different characters and vehicles and all manner of championships to work your way through, as well as the same drift-friendly gameplay adopted in countless racing games thereafter.

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Super Mario All Stars – a collection of the Super Mario Bros. games 1 though 3, plus the never-before-released outside of Japan Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels. Put simply, how can a collection of perhaps the greatest platform series ever be anything less than essential?!

In the future, when consoles are capable of ever-more-lifelike graphics and people look back on the 2D era with warm fondness, hopefully the SNES will be recognised for what it was – and still is; a titan amongst console greats.

Without it, our beloved hobby might be a very different place today, and Nintendo would not have half the retro reverance they command. They owe a lot to this classic console, and so should we.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2007.

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