10 Game-Changing Facts About the Super Nintendo

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After dominating the video game landscape throughout much of the ‘80s with the NES, Nintendo needed to start the new decade with a more advanced console, one that would reinvent old favorites and give birth to completely new franchises. The world wouldn't have to wait long.

In November 1990, gamers in Japan got their hands on the company’s latest marvel, the Super Famicom; the following August, it was released in North America as the Super Nintendo. It was an instant success, becoming Nintendo’s third-best-selling home console (not counting handhelds) with the help of an impressive game library that included Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, and Donkey Kong Country.

1. IT WAS LATE TO THE 16-BIT PARTY.

Though the Super Nintendo won the 16-bit console war, the system certainly took its time getting to the battlefield. It was the summer of 1989 when the Sega Genesis was released, and for two years this pixelated juggernaut had the next-gen consumer base all to itself.

Nintendo, on the other hand, was in no rush. The NES was still selling incredibly well in North America, so the idea of a Super Nintendo wasn’t the first thing on the company’s mind. Soon enough, that dominance started to slip, most notably when Sega struck gold with its Sonic series in 1991. It may have been late, but the SNES quickly started taking back its dominant share of the marketplace once it hit stores.

When the console war was over, the SNES had sold 49.1 million units around the globe, compared to the Sega Genesis’s 29 million. While impressive, the system sold considerably fewer units than its predecessor, the NES, which came in around 61 million. Its two successors, the Nintendo 64 and GameCube, would each sell less than the SNES. Only the Wii packed enough punch to dominate an entire home console generation again, topping out at more than 101 million sold. (And please note a young Paul Rudd playing the role of Fascinated Gamer in the SNES commercial above.)

2.THE NORTH AMERICAN MODEL WAS DESIGNED TO HAVE A BIT MORE HEFT THAN THE JAPANESE ONE.

North America's SNES model is, well, not pretty. It’s about the games, after all, so you can excuse the fact that the system has all the charm of a first-generation VCR. But it looks noticeably clunky when compared to the smoother and more colorful Japanese version.

A lot of thought went into that grey and purple brick from your childhood, though. Nintendo of America product designer Lance Barr was tasked with making an SNES model for American audiences, and he had a clear vision of what he wanted. Upon seeing the Super Famicom, he decreed that they looked like bags of bread when stacked up and didn’t have enough of an edge. This led to the system looking like a hefty piece of electronic hardware in the U.S., complete with sharp corners and utilitarian design. A smaller, lighter redesign would later be released toward the end of the SNES's life.

3. THERE WERE ONLY THREE GAMES AVAILABLE AT LAUNCH.

Video game launches today are massive undertakings. Stores across the globe will open at midnight and welcome a flood of ravenous gamers who have their eyes on not only a brand-new system, but also the obligatory library of games that can be purchased with it. In 2017, the Nintendo Switch launched with around a dozen games, and in 2013, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One each launched with more than 20 games on day one.

So what about the Super Nintendo? When it finally hit Japanese store shelves in November 1990, the system had only three games: F-Zero, Pilotwings, and Super Mario World, which came with the system. More games soon followed, but on that first day, that was all customers had to look forward to. American gamers had a similar selection when the system hit shelves in the West in August 1991, with only Gradius III and Sim City added to the list.

Just a few years later, the Nintendo 64 fared even worse, with a launch lineup of only Super Mario 64 and (for the sake of symmetry) Pilotwings 64.

4. SUPER MARIO WORLD IS THE SYSTEM’S BESTSELLING GAME.

If 1985’s Super Mario Bros. proved that the portly plumber was destined to be Nintendo’s mascot, Super Mario World on the SNES cemented him as the capo of the entire video game industry. With the help of a launch-day release date, and the fact that it was a pack-in title sold as a bundle with the new system, Super Mario World became the Super Nintendo’s bestselling game.

The title opened up a far more colorful and elaborate world for players to traverse through, serving as an introduction to the powerful system. It also included the debut of Yoshi, which was based off an idea that Shigeru Miyamoto had as far back as the first Super Mario game back on the NES. With the SNES’s powerful new engine, the little green dino finally became a reality.

With more than 20 million units sold, the game outpaced the next best-selling game—Super Mario All-Stars—by about 10 million copies. That was followed by Donkey Kong Country in third place at over 9 million sold, Super Mario Kart in fourth with more than 8.5 million, and Street Fighter II: The World Warrior in fifth with around 6.3 million units sold.

5. IT HAD A SATELLITE MODEM PERIPHERAL IN JAPAN.

For every Nintendo success story, there’s a failed—if not charming—experiment left to rot in gaming’s great digital graveyard. You probably know all about the Virtual Boy, the Power Glove, and ol’ R.O.B., but one of the company’s more interesting misfires was the Satellaview.

Released only in Japan, this add-on would interact with a satellite provided by the radio company St.GIGA, in which Nintendo had purchased a stake. The idea was basically an early form of online gaming and downloadable content.

The Satellaview device was used in conjunction with the Super Famicom’s expansion port at the bottom of the system. Similar to satellite TV technology at the time, this peripheral allowed gamers to put the BS-X (Broadcast Satellaview X) cartridge into their machine, which acted as a central hub. From there, fans could download exclusive games (released episodically), magazines, and other materials onto memory packs. The material would stay on the memory device until the next wave of content rewrote it.

There was a problem, though. You could only download these games during certain times, because St.GIGA would spend the rest of the day using its satellite for radio and TV. If you missed the window, you might have missed your chance of ever playing a certain game. Couple this with the price of the equipment and the subscription fee and you have an add-on that likely proved too costly and too advanced to catch on with the average gamer.

6. THE CONSOLE IS PRONE TO TURNING YELLOW.

No, it wasn’t just you; chances are pretty much everyone on your block growing up had a Super Nintendo that began to turn yellow after a while. Though it wasn’t dangerous, nor was it a sign that your console would soon become a very expensive paperweight, it was a widespread problem caused by the company’s choice of plastic.

In an article on Vintage Computing, author Benj Edwards interviewed Dr. Rudolph D. Deanin, of the Plastics Engineering program at the University of Massachusetts, for clarification on why this may happen.

“The plastics most commonly used to make the structural cases for electronic equipment are polypropylene, impact styrene, and ABS,” Deanin explained. “These all tend to discolor and embrittle gradually when exposed to UV and/or heat. They become oxidized and develop conjugated unsaturation, which produces color. They crosslink or degrade, which causes brittleness.”

Vintage Computing also dug up an old Nintendo customer service reply regarding the yellowing, which they explained was due to using plastics with flame-retardant chemicals. So, if you have an old Super Nintendo that’s looking a little jaundiced, don’t start questioning your cleanliness. It’s a natural part of the system’s aging process—beautiful in its own way.

7. THE HIGHLY TOUTED FX CHIP BROUGHT 3D GAMING TO NINTENDO’S HOME CONSOLE.

As gaming was taking the leap into 3D, Nintendo teamed up with British-based Argonaut Games to create a new chip to install directly into cartridges that would effectively beef up their graphical power and make things like object rotation, texture mapping, and lighting all much more sophisticated.

Called the Super FX chip—or Mario FX during development—this chip didn’t force gamers to buy a new console or add-on device like Sega did with the 32X. Instead, the chip was already in the game, meaning if you didn’t care about the technical mumbo jumbo, you would never even notice.

The chip was only used in a handful of games over the console’s remaining lifespan, but a couple of them are among the system’s best, including 1993’s Star Fox and 1995’s Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, which used an enhanced Super FX2 chip.

For reasons that aren’t completely clear—aside from being completely Nintendo-y types of decisions—none of the Super FX games have been released on the company’s virtual consoles. However, they will see their first-ever re-release on the Super Nintendo Classic Edition.

8. YOSHI’S ISLAND WAS ORIGINALLY REJECTED.

Donkey Kong Country changed everything when it hit shelves in 1994. The title’s use of highly detailed, pre-rendered graphics was a revelation at the time, and it helped the game become one of the console’s top sellers. The game’s unique look was something the company wanted to capitalize on, but it almost came at the expense of one of the SNES’s most popular games, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.

When Yoshi’s Island’s producer—and Mario creator—Shigeru Miyamoto unveiled the game to the company, his brightly colored, cartoony graphics were rejected by the marketing department. They wanted something more akin to what developer Rare did with Donkey Kong, not the type of visuals that Miyamoto was going for.

Miyamoto doubled-down on his vision, retooling Yoshi’s Island’s visuals to become even more colorful and exaggerated, almost like illustrations you would find in a storybook. Compared to Donkey Kong’s 3D sprites that aimed for realism, Yoshi’s Island looked almost dreamlike, as if it had been plucked from a child’s imagination.

Oddly enough, this second pitch was accepted, leading to one of the console’s most successful games, topping out at around 4 million units sold.

9. AN ABANDONED SNES ADD-ON INADVERTENTLY CREATED THE SONY PLAYSTATION.

When Sony researcher Ken Kutaragi first began paying attention to his daughter’s Famicom, America's original NES, he was disappointed. Not so much in the games it played, but in the system’s subpar sound design. This led him to go to his bosses to try and convince them to make a deal with Nintendo to build improved sound chips for their upcoming Super Nintendo.

Well it turned out to be more than that. Sony and Nintendo brokered a deal that was said to include a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES, while Sony would also produce a combined unit with both the CD drive and Super Nintendo cartridge slot built right into it, tentatively called the Play Station. Sony announced the device at the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show, but that’s about the last time the public really heard about it.

During CES ’91, Nintendo also announced a sudden deal with Philips to collaborate on the CD-i multimedia device behind Sony’s back. It has been reported that Nintendo soured on the deal with Sony over control and profits of the disc games. With the Philips deal making more financial sense for the company, the Sony/Nintendo partnership was effectively off, and Zelda and Mario were heading to the CD-i.

After the public announcement of the new deal, and subsequent betrayal by Nintendo, Kutaragi and Sony president Norio Ohga felt humiliated. Sony never wanted to get into video games in the first place, but when Kutaragi suggested that the company forge ahead with its own system, Ohga agreed. This resulted in a video game landscape currently dominated by Sony's PlayStation systems, and a line of cringe-worthy Zelda CD-i games that Nintendo barely even acknowledges to this day. 

If you want a glimpse of what could have been the start of a much different-looking video game industry, a "Nintendo Play Station" prototype was recently unearthed and demoed on The Ben Heck Show:

10. STAR FOX 2 WAS CANCELLED DESPITE BASICALLY BEING COMPLETE.

The original Star Fox was a smash hit on the SNES in 1993, offering the type of groundbreaking 3D environments that people thought were impossible at the time. So, naturally, a sequel was in order, and was slated for a 1995 release. However, the game never saw release; it was cancelled by Nintendo despite being 95 percent finished by the development team.

"It was the summer of 1995 and the PlayStation and Saturn were suddenly doing very well in Japan," Dylan Cuthbert, an Argonaut Software developer working on the game, told Nintendo Life. "I think that caught Nintendo off-guard. The decision was made because they didn't want the old-gen 3D going up against the much better 3D of the next generation, side-by-side.”

Though the game was still advanced for the SNES, it couldn’t compete with the more advanced games appearing on the market. Many of the ideas for Star Fox 2 would eventually make their way into 1997’s Star Fox 64, and after years of ROMs and emulations, Star Fox 2 officially hit shelves as part of the SNES Classic Edition.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Oral History: In 1985, Mr. Snuffleupagus Shocked Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

On November 8, 1971, during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus was introduced to the world and proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.

No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.

Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.

So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?

The solution? Get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, Mental Floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.

I. The elephant in the room

Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.

Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.

Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-2017): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.

Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-2016): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.

Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.

Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.

Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.

Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.

II. Identity crisis

2004 Sesame Workshop

“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the first 10 years, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.

Martin P. Robinson (via Still Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.

Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.

Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."

Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.

The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.

Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.

Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.

Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.

The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.

Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.

Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.

Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.

Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"

Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.

For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.

Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."

Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.

III. The reveal

The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.

Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"

Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."

Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"

In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.

Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.

Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.

After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.

Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.

Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.

Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.

Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.

Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"

Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”

Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."

Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.

IV. Aftermath

Sesame Workshop

In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.

Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.

Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.

Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.

Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.

Delgado: He got a little sister later on.

Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.

Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.

Delgado: Kids freaked out.

Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."

Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.

Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.

Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.

Davis: Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.

Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.

Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.

Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."

This story has been updated for 2020.