The NES was definitely starting to show its age compared to the new competitors,but Nintendo, relying on its leadership position in the North American market with a NES user base of about 20 million and 1989 sales topping $2.3 billion, rested on its laurels for a while before realizing that the Genesis was becoming a serious threat.
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), known as Super Famicom in Japan, was designed by Masayuki Uemura (who was also responsible for the hardware design of the NES) and went on sale in Japan on November 21, 1990, at about $210.
Despite a very limited catalogue of titles available at launch, including only Super Mario World (see the figure on the top of page 126) and F-Zero, the success was so huge9 that it seriously disrupted everyday life and activities. In the end, the resulting chaos in the middle of the working week had such an impact that the Japanese government had to officially
ask game companies to plan for important launches on weekends in the future.
The SNES (here in the North American version) was built around a Ricoh 5A22 CPU, based on a 16-bit 65C816 core, and had 64 KB of video RAM. Colors could be chosen from a palette of 32,768, and up to 128 sprites and four layers of background could be displayed at once. Interestingly, audio was handled by the 8-bit Sony SPC700 chip that, designed by Ken Kutaragi, represented Sony’s first foray into the video game arena.
Super Mario World was one of only two titles available at launch in Japan and it was bundled with the American and European consoles, launched in August 1991 and April 1992, respectively
One of the peculiar aspects of the SNES was its way of handling the possibility of future enhancements through add-on chips that were incorporated into the game cartridges themselves. This was a clever way of updating and expanding the technical capabilities of the console, granting it a longer lifespan and the ability to compete with more modern systems released by its competitors. On the other hand, though, it also meant higher cartridge manufacturing costs.
Math and digital signal processing (DSP) coprocessors were developed by
Nintendo as well as by third parties like Capcom, but the most important and well-known chip was the Super-FX. It was developed by London-based Argonaut Games and added a RISC-based CPU to properly handle 3D graphics and special 2D effects.
Nintendo also explored online services for the first time. In Japan, the Satellaview, a modem able to connect to a satellite radio station, was released in 1995 allowing
The space shooter Star Fox, codeveloped by Nintendo and Argonaut Games in 1993, was the first game to show what the Super-FX could do to render 3D polygon-based graphics.
players to download new games and take part in online tournaments.10 In the United States, Nintendo instead partnered with XBAND, an online gaming network that, through a standard dial-up modem connection and a monthly fee starting at $4.95,allowed gamers to play with each other across the country. The service, which wasalso used by Sega for the Genesis, started towards the end of 1994 but never succeeded in becoming very popular and was ultimately discontinued in 1997.
Despite its late start, the SNES succeeded in becoming the best-selling console of the 16-bit era with 49.1 million units sold worldwide during its long lifespan.11 Despite this success, Sega, thanks to its aggressive and varied strategies, still challenged Nintendo and the whole industry in other ways. Games like Mortal Kombat, where players could compete in very gory fights featuring plenty of blood, dismembering, and decapitations, were still heavily censored by Nintendo with the result that the more “open” attitude by Sega made the Genesis port of the game outsell the SNES by a large margin. Such extremely violent gameplay also prompted the formation of new official bodies, like the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB),
to properly rate games by relating their content to suitable age groups. This allowed Nintendo to relax its policies a bit and, indeed, the SNES version of Mortal Kombat II,which kept all the gory details, actually outsold versions on any other system.