Though gaming historians have disagreed on this in the past, August 23, 1991, is generally accepted as the official launch day of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in North America. Yes, the SNES 25 years ago had a huge impact on gaming, hitting the United States months after it launched in Japan. The system had its ups and downs, but, ultimately, it won the console generation, and Nintendo is still feeling the effects of the SNES 25 years later.
And so, as we celebrate a quarter-century of the Super NES being one of the greatest video game systems ever made, it’s also time to reflect on the consoles lasting legacy. Just how did it change Nintendo and gaming in general since it first went on sale in 1991? Well, let’s start with how it put Nintendo in a position it wasn’t too comfortable being in…
Nintendo’s First Console War
Thanks to the NES, Nintendo made console games a viable market once again in the United States, and the 8-bit system ruled the industry into the 1990s. Nintendo was doing so well it didn’t rush into the 16-bit era even as Sega launched the Genesis in 1989. When the SNES finally came stateside in 1991, it had an unexpected challenge from Sega’s edgy advertising, like the commercials above. At the head of the pack was Sonic the Hedgehog, appealing to the slightly older generation who had aged since playing Super Mario Bros. The 16-bit console war had begun in earnest.
Despite a launch lineup that included all-time classics like Super Mario World and F-Zero, the SNES was trailing behind the Genesis in the U.S., and Nintendo wasn’t ready for it. As detailed in the book Console Wars by Blake J. Harris, Nintendo expected its high-quality games and committed third party developers to maintain its lead, but Sega’s aggressive ads sold Genesis as the cooler alternative. The SNES was further hurt by hip games like Mortal Kombat getting censored on Nintendo’s console, thus making the SNES look even more kiddie. It put Nintendo on the defensive, forcing them to age up with their market and find fresh games to sell to that audience.
Nintendo’s biggest advantage against Sega in the 1990s is also why the SNES is still beloved in the 2010s. As Sega focused on hiring big name celebrities like Michael Jackson and Joe Montana, the SNES netted more exclusive games from Japanese developers who weren’t as interested in supporting the Genesis. On top of Nintendo’s internally developed titles, game makers like Capcom, Konami, and Squaresoft got behind the SNES with top-tier titles, as did the U.K. developer Rare. Together, they’d make SNES home to many unforgettable experiences.
The 16-Bit Renaissance
Nintendo’s own SNES games are still why people discuss the console to this day. So many “Best Games Ever” lists feature SNES hits like Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid near the top, and for good reason. Those games remain genre-defining titles that cast a long shadow over gaming, as do hits like Super Mario Kart, F-Zero, Yoshi’s Island, Earthbound, Star Fox, Tetris Attack, and so much more. Nintendo’s developers took what they learned from the NES and improved on those titles in just about every way possible. The music, graphics, and gameplay were all better than ever.
And Nintendo had help from many other great developers, especially Rare. The British devs became partially owned by Nintendo thanks to the massive sales of 1994’s Donkey Kong Country and the very ’90s fighting game Killer Instinct. Meanwhile, Capcom was doing some of its best work ever with games like Mega Man X and Breath of Fire debuting on the SNES along with the arcade port of Street Fighter II. Konami brought over such hits as Contra III and Super Castlevania IV, while Hudsonsoft put out Super Bomberman and Super Adventure Island. There was such a diverse library of hits on the SNES.
For a particular collection of American gamers, the SNES was the console that introduced them to role-playing games, particularly the ones developed by Squaresoft. Final Fantasy II and III (known as IV and VI in Japan) earned a sizable following for the franchise, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for SNES RPGs. The likes of Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, Lufia II, and Harvest Moon along with many great RPGs that never saw release outside of Japan like Dragon Quest V and Fire Emblem. Though even now, all these years later, Chrono Trigger remains the best of the bunch. To this day, many RPGs are still trying to capture its great storytelling and combat.
How SNES Won the Generation (and Defined the Next One)
With so many fantastic games on the console (alongside improved marketing), the SNES would ultimately win the console war against Sega. A big part of it was Nintendo of America’s new “Play It Loud” ad campaign for the SNES. As embarrassingly dated as it seems now, it did successfully rebrand the system for kids of the time. “Play It Loud” was also helped by more edgy content from Nintendo’s new partner Rare, whose Killer Instinct and Donkey Kong Country games took on Sega’s core audiences.
It also helped that Nintendo could sell games like Donkey Kong Country as futuristic on current consoles. As gamers were reading rumors of polygons and CGI graphics, DKC gave the illusion of 32-bit action on the SNES. While Sega was burying the Genesis in add-ons like the 32X, Nintendo marketed that you could just plug-in cartridges for titles like Star Fox or Stunt Race FX and see the future now. In the long run, it paid off, though it did lead to Nintendo dumping its planned add-on with Sony, codenamed The Play Station, but that’s a story for another day.
The next set of consoles pioneered 3D gaming, making the SNES the pinnacle of classic, pixelated action, and it remains that to this day. Even when the Game Boy Advance popularized the look again in the early 2000s, it did so with many ports of SNES hits. No matter how old the Super NES gets, it’ll still define its era of gaming, inspiring developers and gamers for years and years to come. Happy birthday, SNES, and may your games remain as ageless as ever.