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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ranking Nintendo's Systems: Part 9

We continue our look at Nintendo's best and worst systems. Click to read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7 and part 8.

Super NES

History: The NES was a juggernaut, but toward the end of its lifespan it was vulnerable. New games were barely trickling out, and other hardware bypassed it. Sega's MegaDrive, or Genesis, marketed itself as the cooler alternative to Nintendo's fuddy-duddy NES, and they quickly started to take over in Europe.

What would Nintendo do? They couldn't stick with the NES forever, no matter how successful it was.

1991 saw the release of the Super Nintendo. Whereas the Sega Genesis could display 512 colors, the Super Nintendo could display 32,768. The Genesis had 136 KB of total memory, while the Super NES had 256 KB. The Genesis' audio had six channels, and the Super Nintendo had 8. This led to some of the richest sound and graphics of the generation.

Results: Nintendo won the battle once again, selling almost 50 million units compared to the MegaDrive/Genesis' 25 million.

That's not the only reason the Super NES was Nintendo's best system, though. In the past,
developers had used the NES as an experimental ground, learning what worked and what didn't in games. Now that they had several years of design under their belts and had made their mistakes, they were able to create masterpieces that still hold up remarkably well today.

With the Super NES, we were finally able to see what games could do, and it was glorious.

What Went Right: Nintendo was at the height of their powers during the Super NES years. They opened up with Super Mario World and never let up, with SimCity, F-Zero, Pilotwings, Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario Kart coming one right after the other.

Third parties also made the Super Nintendo great. Street Fighter II, Super Castlevania IV, Contra 3, Secret of Mana and others launched almost immediately, with many, many more great games to follow. Even middling offerings showed promise, like The Lost Vikings and Joe & Mac.

Of special note were the offerings by Square. RPGs were popular in Japan, but were still very primitive during the NES years, with lackluster stories and little characterization. In essence, they were level-up simulators, with little depth. It wasn't until the Super Nintendo era that RPGs finally came in to their own, and Square was at the forefront of this new movement. Finally they could tell honest-to-goodness stories, and with the shackles off, games like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger and others could spin amazing stories with deep characterization and amazing music that sticks in your head for years.

The graphics were also unparalled. When Donkey Kong Country was released, there was shock that such a detailed game was being released on a 16-bit system. It was that sort of thing that led Sega down the path of addons as they desperately tried to keep up with Nintendo, but they simply couldn't. The Super Nintendo, with transparent layers and seamless colors, just plain outclassed Sega's Genesis in every way.

The hardware was also solid. Super Nintendo consoles still work 20 years later, no matter what abuse they've dealt with. The gamepads hold up remarkably well, too, due to their ergonomic feel and having just enough buttons so as not to overwhelm new players.

We haven't even gotten to the murderer's row released by Nintendo in the system's waning days, with two excellent Donkey Kong Country games, a sequel/prequel to Super Mario World, Kirby Super Star, Super Mario RPG, and a raft of other games exploding onto the scene right before the system gave way to the Nintendo 64.

Plus, it had Super Metroid, only one of the best games of all time. Seriously, just about any game you're looking for was on the Super Nintendo.

What Went Wrong: There was no rating system in place during these years, which became a problem with the release of Mortal Kombat. Nintendo didn't want to release a violent game like Mortal Kombat with no rating or warning, since games were still primarily purchased by parents for children. To that end, all blood in the game was replaced with "sweat" and fatalities were removed. Sega came up with their own rating system, relieving them of responsibility. They released Mortal Kombat virtually intact with the inclusion of a "blood code" to unlock every fatality.

That sealed the deal for Nintendo's status as a "kiddie" company. As the advertising tagline went, Sega did what Nintendidn't, and that's an accusation that's dogged Nintendo for years. Even in 2010, it was major news when Nintendo released Zangeki no Reginleiv in Japan, since it was a game with honest-to-goodness blood.

Never mind that Nintendo had perfectly good reasons for not releasing Mortal Kombat intact, and when a rating system was adopted shortly thereafter, Nintendo indeed allowed Acclaim to release Mortal Kombat II whole. Nope, Nintendo is a kiddie company, and forever it shall stay in the eyes of many gamers.

The Super Nintendo's processor also wasn't quite as past as the Sega Genesis, clocking in at 3 Mhz instead of the Genesis' 7 Mhz. That affected sports games, primarily, meaning that faster sports games were on the Genesis. This hurt the SNES at the time, but in retrospect the only sports game anyone seems to remember is NHL '94, while the rest have become a blur.

Lessons Learned: Once again, Nintendo had it pounded into their head that their advantage lay not in the hardware they produced, but in the games they created. If they continued to release quality games at a good clip, no one could stop them.

However, they also got too big for their britches. As stated in the article about the Nintendo 64, instead of teaming up with Sony for the next step in gaming, they assumed they knew more than anyone else about consoles. They kept their heads firmly planted up their butts until it was almost too late.

Fortunately for all of us, Nintendo has realized their mistakes of the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube years, and the future appears bright. Here's to 100 more years, Nintendo.