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.