I missed one of my best friend’s birthdays this week – but belated best wishes are better than nothing. So, to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, my favorite console of all time, which arrived in the US on August 23rd, 1991, I wish you many happy returns.
The SNES wasn’t my first console. Like many kids of the ‘80s, I started with the venerable NES. But that system never quite felt like mine. I played it at friends’ houses for years before my parents relented and got me one for Christmas in 1989. While I don’t want to downplay my excitement, I had already played many of the platform’s classic games. So while it was a huge deal to have my own NES, I wasn’t exactly coming to it fresh.
But the Super NES, that console was mine. I didn’t get it on launch day, but I had been eagerly devouring details about it in Nintendo Power. I started saving my allowance, doing extra chores and monitoring weekly sales flyers for price drops. Finally, at some point in 1992, I brought it home – the console, two outstanding controllers whose design has stood the test of time and Super Mario World. (Remember how generous game companies used to be with the pack-ins?)
Obviously, one does not buy a console to ogle the hardware. It’s all about the games, and Super Mario World was an outstanding introduction to the system. I was plenty familiar with Mario at this point, but the sheer scope this time around was stunning. Individual levels were massive and crammed with secrets, and you could re-enter and play them again for the first time to find everything. New additions like Yoshi and the cape power-up offered new ways to navigate and explore these levels.
And, of course, the game both looked and sounded fantastic. Super Mario Bros. 3 pushed the NES about as far as it could go, but Super Mario World underscored how much more capable the new system was. Mario and some familiar enemies looked more vibrant and detailed than ever, and the system’s power was also evident in those sprawling levels and environments. It was the first Mario game with a save feature, and with good reason. There was no way to take in even half of what the game offered in just one sitting.
This underlines how video game development was changing with 16-bit consoles. Many NES games were ports of arcade mainstays, perhaps modified to make them more suitable for extended play sessions. But they were still games meant to be finished in one session, once you got good enough. RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, not to mention Nintendo’s own adventure game The Legend of Zelda bucked that trend with a bigger focus on exploration and a save feature so you could proceed at your own pace. But with the Super NES, developers were thinking bigger, regardless of genre.
For me, the finest example of this is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It was the second game I bought for the system, despite having never played the earlier NES Zelda games — the buzz around it was just too enticing. It was a smart choice, because it’s still on the short list of my favorite games ever. Its art style remains gorgeous 30 years later, the soundtrack is fantastic, and the freedom of exploration, combined with all the puzzles to unravel, was unlike anything I had played before.
The story’s twists and turns made me always want to keep pushing forward, but I also was happy to go off the path and search for secrets I hadn’t found. And there are still a handful of show-stopping moments that rank among the most memorable game experiences I’ve had. Striding out of the Sanctuary after the first hour or so of gameplay with the booming main theme behind me, getting the Master Sword and the final showdown with Ganon after months of play leading up to it are just a few parts of the game that I’ll never forget.
Besides these bigger titles, the SNES still had plenty of arcade ports – they were just much better than in the NES era. The SNES was far more capable of replicating the arcade experience, and games like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time were outstanding ways for me to get my arcade fix.
Broadly speaking, the SNES enjoyed strong third-party developer support from companies like Capcom, Konami, Tecmo, Square and Enix. And while I spent tons of hours on those aforementioned arcade games and other excellent titles like Capcom’s Mega Man X, the SNES allowed Nintendo to flex its muscles as one of the best game developers around.
The list of all-time classics that Nintendo published during the system’s lifespan is impressive. Aside from Super Mario World, games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country (and its sequels), Super Metroid, Yoshi’s Island, EarthBound and Super Mario Kart were critically acclaimed, hugely popular or both. Launch titles F-Zero and Pilotwings didn't hit those heights, but they still provided the SNES with a strong and varied lineup from day one.
All these games and many more have kept me coming back to the SNES over the many years since it launched. I played it throughout high school and when I came home from college; at some point I lost track of that console and all the games I had, though. It was a tough pill to swallow, but since I (like many Nintendo fans) have re-bought favorite games on the systems like the Wii and the Switch, not to mention the tiny SNES Classic Edition. Of course, you can’t be the real thing, so I picked up a used SNES about 10 years ago, too. I don’t play it often, but I’m happier knowing I can when I want to.
It’s not just for nostalgia, either. Somehow, I have never played Super Metroid – and with Metroid Dread coming out soon, I think it’s high time I finally try another of the system’s all-time greats. I never would have expected that I’d be playing the Super NES 30 years after it arrived in the US, but I won’t be surprised if I still go back to these games 30 years from now.