As far as I'm concerned, the SNES was the greatest console of the 1990s and is in the argument as the greatest video game console ever released. The Sega Genesis was great, but it had nowhere near the staying power of the SNES in terms of library or gameplay. The Nintendo 64 and Sony Play Station were more advanced graphically, and the use of 3D opened up new possibilities for designers to explore, but neither of them compared to the SNES in terms of optimization of their abilities or their library.
This Rolling Stone article argues that the reason we're still playing video games is because of the SNES, but its success was not always assured. According to this article from WIRED, many parents did not understand the need for a new "Nintendo" and were skeptical of the system; after all, the idea of video game consoles having a five-year shelf life was still young at that point, and the industry itself was less than a decade removed from a complete crash in 1983 from which it only recovered because of the fantastical footwork of a plucky plumber.
At any rate, the SNES is one of the most hallowed consoles of any generation, and games from its library continue to be ranked among the best of all time even two decades after the end of the console's life. Even now, designers are still making games like Cave Story and Axiom Verge that hearken back to the halcyon days of the best of 16-bits, and there is a deep nostalgia for the style of games that were made popular by the SNES.
I thought, in light of the console's anniversary, that I would spend some time reflecting on how it impacted me and the difference it made in my life, starting with some thoughts on the games I have played for the system (as well as thoughts on the games I did not play), followed by some of my favourite memories and my favourite SNES games.
The games I played
The SNES was the first console I bought on my own. We owned an NES that had been gifted to us, but the SNES was the first console that was mine (well, half-mine and half my sister's). It was in December 1994 - over three years into the lifespan of the console - and we paid $110 (CAN) for the system along with Super Mario World. The SNES was my primary console for the next four years, at which point I bought a Nintendo 64 two years into its life cycle with some of the proceeds from my first job on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) in 1998.
But the SNES will always hold a special place in my heart as my first real investment, especially since I worked hard to save up money and buy games mostly on my own in those years - many of which I still own twenty years hence (or which I have recently sold for exorbitantly more than the amount for which I originally paid because the general nostalgia for the system has resulted in a significant spike in price for the games).
I was curious, as I considered how much I played my SNES (and occasionally still do, since I still have my original console) just how many games I actually played for the system, so I did what any rational millennial would do: I consulted Wikipedia. As I took a look through the list of official North American SNES releases - all 721 of them - I was quite surprised to see how few I had actually played at any kind of significant level of time commitment: only 38, equal to only 5.3% of the total library.
[Here's the complete list, by my reckoning: Acme Animation Factory; Animaniacs; Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool; Donkey Kong Country; Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest; Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie's Double Trouble!; F-Zero; Illusion of Gaia; Izzy's Quest for the Olympic Rings; Kirby Super Star; Kirby's Avalanche; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; Looney Tunes B-Ball; The Lost Vikings; The Lost Vikings 2; Mario Paint; Mega Man 7; Mega Man X; Mega Man X2; Mega Man X3; NHL Stanley Cup; Pieces; SimCity; Star Fox; Stunt Race FX; Super Mario All-Stars; Super Mario Kart; Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars; Super Mario World; Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island; Super Metroid; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time; Tetris 2; Tetris Attack; Tin Star; Uniracers; Wario's Woods; and Wildsnake.]
There are a few reasons for that surprisingly low number, as far as I can figure. As mentioned earlier, the timing of my purchase of the console was a minor factor, as the Nintendo 64 and Sony Play Station both came to the market soon after I purchased my SNES. I ended up spending a lot of time at friend's houses playing Goldeneye and Tekken 2 in those early high school years, though I'm not sure how much those experiences could have been duplicated by SNES games. Money was also a factor: my family had very little money, so I had to find a way to buy most of the games on my own or for very cheap, which meant that I did not have the access to games that other kids had.
There was a lot of shovelware released for the SNES - usually lower-quality third-party releases that were underdeveloped, glitchy, or otherwise poorly executed and/or received - so a good portion of those 721 games were just not worth playing. For what it's worth, I am impressed with the low proportion of shovelware in my own SNES repertoire (between two and six, depending on which games you count), which I think goes to show that my ability to weed out bad examples of any medium goes back to my childhood.
There were a number of titles that were also released for Sega Genesis - the chief rival of the SNES - that I played on that console, including any sports and fighting games; the specific titles I could recall are games such as Disney's Aladdin, Earthworm Jim and its sequel, Hit the Ice, Jurassic Park, Mickey Mania, NBA Jam, NHL '95, Street Fighter II, and The Tick. But even if I include those in my count, I'm still under fifty for my total, which seems absurdly low.
I did not play role-playing games either, which ruled out many of the best games of the system (several of which still rank among the best games of all-time for any system). I had grown up not being allowed to play them, and since I was still in my early teens when the SNES was in its heyday, the only RPG I was allowed to play starred Mario, Geno, and Mallow. There are a few RPGs to which I have still intended to return, but even if I added those, I'm still well under 10% of the console's total library.
The main thing I realized as I reflected on my list of games I played for the SNES was that I didn't "need" to play more games, as I played almost every one of those games I did play to significant completion and usually several times through. There were even a handful of games (at least five) that I owned for a not-insignificant amount of time that I never played (J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. 1; Ken Griffey Jr's Winning Run; Killer Instinct; Pilotwings; and Secret of Evermore) in part because I was happy with the games I did play.
The games I did play were of such depth and quality that they made other games unnecessary for the most part. Even as I re-examine that entire list of 721 now, there are not a lot of games that I feel the need to go back and play, which I suppose makes sense, seeing as how I have had two decades to cross those games off my bucket list but still have not yet done it. In fact, the only one from that previous list that I played after the main end of the life of the SNES was Illusion of Gaia.
My remaining "want to play" games are either role-playing games (Chrono Trigger; Earthbound; Final Fantasy II; Final Fantasy III; and Secret of Mana) or sequels to earlier NES games (Kirby's Dream Land 3; Super Bomberman 2; Super Castlevania IV; and Super Punch-Out!!). Most of them are now easily available on the Nintendo eShop or on another Nintendo system, so it's just a matter of actually finally playing them at some point - and by this point, not having played Chrono Trigger or FFIII is akin to not having watched The Wire; it's just inexcusable.
At any rate, the games I did play left significant impressions on me, and although I have fond memories of almost each one of those aforementioned played titles, there are a few moments that stick out to me even twenty (or twenty-five) years later. Here are some of my favourite SNES memories.
The battle mode in Super Mario Kart: It's hard to understate just how revolutionary SMK was as a game, but even with how much it succeeded as a racer it was that much more awesome in battle mode. I would argue that the Kart franchise has never truly exceeded the heights of the original battle mode (although MK64 was arguably its equal), and there are few multi-player experiences as tense as squealing around the corner and getting hit with a green shell.
The Special World in Super Mario World: SMW had a high bar to meet, as Super Mario Bros. 3 was only two years old at the point that World was released, but its combination of non-linear play and secret levels put it over its predecessor. There were a lot of great moments, but I really enjoyed the levels of the Star Road, indelibly named after early 90s adjectives - Gnarly; Tubular; Way Cool; Awesome; Groovy; Mondo; Outrageous; and Funky - for their wacky level design and extreme challenge.
NHL Stanley Cup: I'll admit that this is probably always going to be my answer to the question, "what is the worst video game that I irrationally loved when I was younger?" It's a hockey game without the NHLPA license, so the players don't have names; it has Mode 7 graphics that produce an awkwardly forced perspective; it has a secret deke that works almost every time; and it pales in comparison to the EA NHL series. Still, I might have played this game more than any other game for the system, as I played through and recorded my stats for playing through all 84 games for seven teams. (I scored 448 goals with Steve Yzerman when I played as the Detroit Red Wings - no joke.)
Booster's Tower and Marrymore in Super Mario RPG: There are so many moments I could have listed from Super Mario RPG, but Booster's Tower sticks out for several reasons: it introduced Bowser and Peach; it was funny; Booster was a great character; and that moment when you jump behind the curtain and become 8-bit Mario for fifteen seconds.
Discovering Dr. Light in Mega Man X for the first time: I was a huge Mega Man fan, so seeing the Blue Bomber updated was amazing enough - but then to find a secret upgrade that called back to the original series made the game that much better.
En Guarde and the aquatic levels in Donkey Kong Country: There was nothing like DKC when it was released in 1994; it was the first platformer that went beyond the traditional 2D into 3D rendering, and the series holds up after all these years. There are so many moments I could have picked, but I chose playing as En Guarde the swordfish in the aquatic levels
That one time I almost played Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island straight through from start to finish: I was on Christmas vacation and a few days shy of my thirteenth birthday. I started playing in the first world (of six) in the early evening, and for whatever reason, my parents went to bed with the caveat that I would go to bed soon. I played through all forty-plus remaining levels and was just about to beat the second half of the final boss Bowser at five AM when my mother came up the stairs and shut the game off; she had heard me mashing the buttons when she got up to go to the bathroom.
Getting a hole-in-one on Kirby's Dream Course: Nintendo had this whimsical pink puff ball to use, so they put him to use as a golf ball in one of the more unique games I can remember. It's a hard game, but it was very rewarding to finally get that perfect shot in the cup with one stroke.
Encountering Kraid in Super Metroid: I could have just as easily included a dozen moments from Super Metroid, but it came down to this and having to blast the glass tube to enter Maridia for my favourite moments (one of my favourite "out-of-the-box" plot moments of any game ever). I chose Kraid because he was the first major boss in the game and he was twice as high as the screen! It was the first time that I remember thinking that maybe the game might be a bit more of a challenge
Warping to the Dark World after defeating Agahnim in The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past: The whole routine of Zelda games now seems routine, with its introductory dungeons leading to a whole new world and set of new challenges, but at the time, there had been no precedent for this style of dual world challenges.
Favourite SNES games
Even with only forty games from which to choose, I still found it difficult to pick only ten games to rank above the rest because there were at least twenty games that I could have put on this list (not to mention the games that probably should have made this list but couldn't because I have not yet played them). I did make it a bit easier by choosing only one representative game from each of a couple of trilogies, but I still ended up with eleven games, presented in alphabetical order.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest: DKC2 is the best of the trilogy, which would all rank among the best platformers of all time. The first game was nearly perfect, but there was something about the different types of levels and the way that players could use Diddy and Dixie Kong that made Quest the best of the three. DKC3 incorporated more map exploration and secrets, but it just didn't quite hit the heights of its immediate predecessor.
F-Zero: One of the launch games for the SNES was one of its best - a high speed futuristic racer with surprisingly advanced graphics and a low margin for error.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past: The definitive 2D Zelda and still one of the best action-adventure games of all time.
Super Mario Kart: It's such a great game that I had to include it here.
Super Mario World: Another launch title that proved that Nintendo was still at the top of its game, SMW still ranks as one of the best platformers ever - plus it introduced Yoshi!
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island: A sequel only in brand marketing and name recognition rather than game play mechanics or appearance, Yoshi's Island was a completely different type of platformer, and it ranks up with SMW as one of the best for the system - or any system, for that matter.
Super Metroid: Samus returns to explore SR388 in a huge sci-fi adventure that remains one of the best examples of its genre, period.
Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars: Every few years, I return to the Mushroom Kingdom and play through this hilarious and fun game. It's really disappointing to me that there has never been a true sequel to the game (I count neither Paper Mario nor Mario and Luigi), and I would love for Nintendo and Square to return to this universe at some point.
Tetris Attack: The only puzzle game on this list was the one that I played for hours and hours on end. As with any good puzzle game, the concept is simple - match coloured blocks in groups of at least 3 while rows rise from the bottom - but the frenetic nature of the game, combined with the colourful presentation of characters from Yoshi's Island, make this one stick out above almost all other puzzle games for me.
Uniracers: By far the quirkiest game on this list, Uniracers is a wild racing game in which you play as anthropomorphic unicycles that do tricks on crazy-coloured tracks. It had a limited run, since Pixar successfully sued Nintendo for similarity to one of its early characters, but it's worth finding. I spent a lot of time with my favourite bike, "El Sucko", discovering every possible exclamation that came after the various combinations of flips, rolls, and Z-twists that helped speed you across the finish line.
There you have it: some Super Nintendo nostalgia in honor of the console's 25th anniversary. What are some of the memories that you hold dear two-plus decades onward? What are your favourite games for the system? And how much respect did you lose for me knowing that I've never played Chrono Trigger? (It's next on my list to play - seriously!)