Long before Nintendo struck gold with systems such as the N64, the Gamecube, the Wii, and most importantly (and the most successful of them all, quite frankly) the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo was riding high off the success from their first home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The NES single-handedly helped breathe new life into the decaying North American gaming industry.
Rising from the ashes of the gaming industry’s infamous crash, Nintendo’s NES led the way towards recovery. The NES quickly became one of the best-selling home consoles in video game history and was the first home of some of the most beloved franchises ever in Final Fantasy, Super Mario, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda, to name a few.
But as the NES would prove to be a sure hit for the industry and Nintendo, the system would also inspire a litany of other consoles that would do what the NES could do—and more. In the aftermath of this, as the NES became a dated piece of hardware in the years to follow, Nintendo had to come up with an answer to the emerging competition on the market or else they would risk the possibility of becoming a relic to the forthcoming console wars. This mindset would lead to the creation of Nintendo’s next console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the iconic Nintendo home console, we wanted to take a trip back in time to that pivotal moment, a defining moment in gaming history—a moment that tested the true staying power of Nintendo and the iconic SNES.
The Future of Gaming
The year was 1987. Post-NES, and it seemed nothing could get in the way of Nintendo’s unrelenting dominance. Well, that would’ve been true if it weren’t for a couple of new challengers entering the fray. The influence of the NES spread far and wide, encouraging a gaggle of gaming companies to try their luck at bringing forth their version of the beloved system—but better.
Among this litany of competition, the two most impactful systems to come out of this wave of direct NES competitors were Hudson Soft/NEC Corp’s TurboGrafx-16 debuting in 1987 and Sega’s Sega Genesis making its presence felt in ’88. Equipped with a 16-Bit foundation, both the Genesis and the TurboGrafx made mincemeat of the 8-Bit NES on a performance level, boasting superior graphics, color, and modernity.
However, by this time, the NES had already been out for a good four years and, stacked up against the capabilities of the Genesis and the TurboGrafx, the NES was beginning to show its age. Refusing to admit that its competition created something worthwhile, Nintendo stated that it wasn’t in any rush to create a new console, and they were confident that the NES could stay the course.
As the TurboGrafx and the Sega Genesis began wreaking havoc through their usage of formidable performances and games, Nintendo was starting to feel the heat; they could see the writing on the wall and worried that, if they didn’t make a play soon, they would risk losing the gaming market that they so feverishly helped to reestablish.
After witnessing the meteoric rise of the Sega Genesis and the instant hit it became in North America specifically, Nintendo knew they were running out of time. They decided this was the perfect opportunity to begin development on their sequel to the NES: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. “I think that if we continue like this with the Famicom [NES], players will get bored,” said the then-Nintendo president Hiroshi Tamauchi in August 1988 during an interview with TOUCH Magazine. “[It’s a very] dangerous situation.”
The development of the SNES went relatively smoothly. Nintendo retained the same designers of the NES, with Masayuki Uemura at the helm for the Japanese market and Lance Barr as a designer for the North American market. Uemura began working on the SNES during August 1988—the same month that Tamauchi announced that they would, essentially, be taking on the Genesis and the TurboGrafx in order to reclaim their throne. No pressure.
While leaning into his experience working on the original NES Japanese design, Uemura settled on a look that would satisfy the ever-changing Japanese market and investors. Meanwhile, Lance Barr would design the SNES for the North American market and make just a couple of alterations to the Japanese iteration of the SNES that appear to a vastly different market. Barr would roughen out the edges as he opted for an “edgier” design of the machine as he, an American himself, had some experience with this market first hand.
Uemaru was also tasked with upping the sound capabilities of the SNES that would rival its competitors. Linking up with Sony’s Ken Kutaragi—who didn’t tell any of his superiors that he was working on a Nintendo product—Uemaru and his design team were able to set out and create one of the most advanced pieces of sound technology found in a video game at the time. The product was called the SPC700, an audio chip that existed light years ahead of its competitors . As a result, the SPC700 quite literally placed the SNES’s sound capabilities in a lane of its own.
In addition to a trailblazing sound chip and two unique designs created for two regional markets, Nintendo also pushed the graphical capabilities of the current gaming generation to new heights through the invention of Mode 7. Used to create a pseudo-three-dimensional perspective, Mode 7 was a graphics mode that allowed the devs to alter and manipulate the background layer, giving the perception that the game was presented in 3D. A game-breaking feature and graphical achievement from Nintendo, Mode 7 was one of the SNES’s main focal points when advertised within magazine interviews and during showcases of the system.
One of the most famous utilization of this new graphics mode was with Nintendo’s futuristic racer, F-Zero. Thanks to Mode 7, F-Zero’s race tracks visually tricked the player into perceiving the gameplay as 3D—a phenomenal feat that none of their competitors could rival.
The SNES was designed and kitted with some of the best technology available at the time and boasted a roster of games from companies like Square, Capcom, and Konami; Nintendo was ready to enter the 16-bit era of gaming. It was time for release day.
After months of development and wide public speculation, the sequel to the gaming behemoth was upon us (well, Japan, at least). Three years after Sega and Hudson shattered expectations with their respective machines, Nintendo released the Super Famicom or Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) on November 21, 1990, as a Japan-exclusive. Upon release, the console immediately sold out all 300,000 of its available units. The SNES was an instant hit.
In August, the following year, the SNES would be released to the North American market, bundled with Super Mario World and retailed for $199. About a year later, Nintendo would release the new edition of the SNES, featuring a design similar to the Japanese version of the system, in Europe and Australian territories. The design shift was due to performance issues, as the NA version had a couple of setbacks during its testing.
As the SNES began to heat up worldwide amongst gaming industry insiders and fans alike, the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 were headed towards a showdown with Nintendo and, whether they wanted to believe it or not, this could lead to irreversible consequences.
A Casualty of War
The first victim of the console wars was the TurboGrafX-16. Released in Japan first, the TurboGrafx-16’s primary purpose was to combat the NES. Hudson Soft secured the rare W during its debut in Japan as it outsells the NES during its 1987 introduction.
But what happens when the North American release of TurboGrafx-16 is delayed and released two years after the Japanese release? Well, you risk becoming a fad in the middle of a transition period; you become the odd one out. So while the initial North American release of the Hudson Soft console would place them at an advantage over Nintendo’s NES, it would prove to be nothing more than temporary and short-sighted.
Once the SNES arrived, the writing was on the wall, and fans began to flock to Nintendo’s new system, quickly shifting the conversation from “can Nintendo bounce back?” to “can the TurboGrafx-16 do anything else to survive on the market?”
TurboGrafx-16 was stunning compared to the outdated NES, but when up against Nintendo’s latest, it became apparent that the TurboGrafx-16 would not return home from the war. As a Hail Mary to keep up with its competitors, Hudson would rush to release an updated version of the TurboGrafx-16—the PC Engine SuperGrafx—in 1989, just two years after the previous TurboGrafx. The enhanced version was released in Japan only (although it was released in France in 1990) and would sell less than 80,000 units, becoming a commercial flop for Hudson Soft.
Meanwhile, the OG TurboGrafx-16 would fail to find its footing after the release of the SNES and, sandwiched between Sega and Nintendo, the TurboGrafx-16 and the rest of the console line was discontinued in 1994, setting the stage for the iconic showdown: Super Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis.
Nintendo v.s. SEGA: The Console Wars
With the TurboGrafx-16 officially out of the picture, only two consoles remained: the SEGA Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was time for a battle of the ages, and Nintendo wanted to make sure that it didn’t make the same mistakes twice. The rivalry between SEGA and Nintendo didn’t just begin overnight with the SNES and the Genesis, though. No, the two companies had been at each other’s throats since the NES, and SEGA had been trying to outdo Nintendo since then.
SEGA swung and missed three times with the SG-1000, SG-1000 II, and the Master System—none of them could hold a candle to the NES. However, once SEGA began to carefully craft a voice for their products and an actual identity for their brand, Nintendo had a bit of a problem on its hands.
Flash forward to 1994. By this time, SEGA has ramped up their marketing in preparation for anything that Nintendo decides to throw at them; SEGA bounced from the notorious “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” campaign to the high octane ’90s in-your-face extremes of “Welcome to the New Level,” and the support for the system touted as the Nintendo killer was gaining more traction by the day. SEGA’s North American marketing strategies were working and SEGA eventually overtook Nintendo’s placement as king of the market share. However, as fast as SEGA’s rise to the top was during the fourth generation of gaming, their fall would be just as meteoric.
The tides began to shift as Nintendo fought back with playful jabs of their own with marketing like “Play it Louder”—alluding to the groundbreaking tech used to create their sound chips via their collaboration with Sony. Nintendo also found that if they let SEGA be SEGA and stuck to their own identity, they may have a chance to swing the public back to their respective corner. This duel transformed into a competition of who could be the edgiest between the two gaming giants as sales for both steadily rose thanks to their marketing strategies.
Finally, things came to a head in 1993 as the critically acclaimed Mortal Kombat kicked and punched its way out of arcades and onto the screens of SNES and Genesis owners across America. Around this time, Mortal Kombat was already a wildly popular hit with arcade-goers of the ’90s, as the uncensored blood and gore created a gaming subculture hell-bent on rebelling against the vibrant innocent virtual wonders of their forefathers. So, when MK arrived on the SNES and the Genesis, controversy followed. Nintendo, notorious for censorship of nudity and blood from their games, had all of the graphic parts of the game removed. SEGA, on the other hand, did censor a good portion of the game’s blood and gore but included a cheat code allowing the player to restore the game to its original gory glory.
The public began to perceive Nintendo as the console for kids—playing to SEGA’s plan from the very beginning. This would directly lead to the United States holding hearings on the gory and/or hedonistic lifestyles that video games were showing kids. Using the example of Mortal Kombat in court as the need to make a change, Congress eventually settled upon the creation of the ESRB. Ironically, Nintendo soon began easing up on their usage of heavy censorship, which was seen as a step in the right direction from the public, hoping that Nintendo would finally allow for mature games on their console.
Speaking of games: that is precisely the battle that won this particular war. Other than Sonic the Hedgehog and a slew of celebrity-led games and sports games that were selling well, SEGA didn’t have nearly as many hits on their gaming roster. Nintendo, which had two of the best-selling consoles at that time, were able to to secure exclusivity contracts with some of the best in the business.
This was the undeniable edge that allowed for the Super Nintendo to regain its dominance. Once the public stripped away the gimmicks, the marketing, and the stunts, all they were left with were the two system’s capabilities and the gaming libraries that lived on both machines. And once that layer was stripped down, it was clear who made the most exciting and capable system. The Super Nintendo exceeded in all the ways that the Genesis was advertised as—and more.
The Super Nintendo’s impact was felt even after they were declared the winners of the console war—following this defeat, SEGA lost its grip and never quite regained its footing. The Super Nintendo would become one of the highest selling video game consoles of all time. The SNES also helped to reinvigorate healthy competition within the industry, ushering in a gaming culture that we still know and operate under to this day.
After the success of the Super Nintendo, Nintendo would go on to release the Nintendo 64, which was twice as powerful and provided sequels to many of the franchises birthed on the SNES. Unfortunately, the SNES would eventually be discontinued about a year after the release of 64, marking the end of an era. But fans will never forget where they were when the console wars first broke out, and, after reading this, hopefully, neither will you.