Super Nintendo Reviewed 23 years later

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Super Nintendo Review
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Super Nintendo Review

Super Nintendo Review

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, also known as the SNES was a 16-bit gaming console released in the UK in April 1992. That's right - the SNES is 23 years old. So how does it hold up today - and is buying and playing one more than just an exercise in nostalgia?

BACKGROUND: Like The NES. But Super. The Super Nintendo replaced the venerable 8-bit NES. On its release it promised improved graphics and sound while retaining the Japanese giant's family-friendly gaming environment. The console was even called the Super Famicom ('family computer') in Japan, to underline the fact that, like all Nintendo products released in the following two decades, its makers would prefer you played it with your grandmother, for some reason. The SNES was a huge success in its time, and by most independent measures won the 16-bit console wars against SEGA's Mega Drive. Globally, almost 50m SNES consoles were sold compared to SEGA's 29m. Debates still rage on retro forums about which console had the better releases. But those debates will continue until the end of time - or the death of everyone involved - brings it to a natural close. As a result of its former ubiquity, a SNES is relatively easy to get your hands on. Bundles comprising a console, several games and a couple of controllers can be found on eBay almost every day, and you shouldn't expect to pay more than £50 for one - less if it's a little beaten up, and more if it comes packed in its original box.

Our set was bought for £51, and came with 11 games (two duplicates), two original controllers and all the cables. (It is even still possible to find a SNES wrapped in its original cellophane, having been left, weeping and totally neglected in a loft or gaming shop back room since its release. You could pay as much as £150 for one - but if you do, you are obliged to give it to a nine-year-old to appease the gods of lost childhood.) Despite several recent closures, retro gaming shops still exist and most will have a SNES or two hiding somewhere on their shelves. On a recent visit to a retro gaming shop they had four SNES consoles stacked, in a glass case. Again, expect to pay less than £50 depending on the games, cables and quality of the machine. Like any second hand piece of electronic equipment there are a few things to watch out for. Due to a problem in the plastic manufacturing process, some early SNES machines have yellowed badly - and instead of a pleasing grey many now look, well, moldy. Also be aware of third-party controllers, which have aged badly - and it's important to note that the SNES released in the UK only plays PAL games (without modification), so make sure you don't pick up a US NTSC version unless that's definitely what you're after. The UK/Japanese SNES is a beautiful machine, and has aged wonderfully. Unlike the aggressive, shiny black of its main competitor the Mega Drive, Nintendo's 16-bit console is built out of pleasing three-tone grey plastic which recalls 80s sci-fi, and visions of gleaming spaceships.

There is only one small splash of colour, on the logo sticker, but it's enough to set off the rest of the machine's simple aesthetic. From the side the SNES looks something like a futuristic tank, jutting forwards slightly to allow the cooling fans a place to vent. From above the machine seems to float on air, casting a slight shadow below the two controller ports. The real genius of the SNES's design is in the buttons. The console only has three buttons, but each has a different and wonderful physical action. 'Power on/off' flicks forward and back with a solid clunk, like a firm choice decisively made. 'Eject' requires a deep, satisfying plunge to pop out a cartridge, whereas 'reset' is a shallow, quick spring-action press which makes restarting the machine feel like less of a chore. Unfortunately the SNES was not designed for modern HDTVs, so it requires some jiggling to get going. In our case it took a frustrating half hour of tuning using an included aerial cable, and the quality wasn't great when finally hooked up. A separate RGB cable we bought later on made things look much better, but the graphics may still be more pixelated than you remember. That's hardly surprising, but it can be annoying when rendered text which was perfectly readable on an old tube monitor turns into a blocky mulch on a 42-inch LED panel. Players used to modern consoles may have also forgotten the more... temperamental nature of old-school consoles.

Often a game won't load first time, and will require a severe blow with actual, human, lungs to remove dust before it bursts into life. We had to eject-insert-eject-insert some games a number of times before they worked, and one game didn't function at all, gone to Console Valhalla. That's the nature of the beast, and it doesn't ruin the experience. But if you're not used to it, it can catch you unawares. Collecting games for a retro console is like being a time-traveller. You can sample the best the era had to offer, for a fraction of the cost, and with the benefit of hindsight live very well on a budget. All of those mistakes you made first time around - £40 for yet another version of FIFA instead of Starwing? Really? - can be avoided, and hidden gems can be picked out for virtually nothing. SNES games are widely available on eBay and gaming shops for relatively little money. We swiftly built a collection of 20 classic titles - okay, 19 plus a copy of Shaq-Fu - for less than £50. And the SNES does have some wonderful games. Mario Kart has a good claim to being the finest racer ever made, and is even more fun than you remember. Starwing and F-Zero remain classics of their genre, and other cross-console titles like NBA Jam and FIFA 9-whatever are just as good on this console as its competitors. Perhaps inevitably, for a modern player, many retro titles feel more concise and focused - or just shorter and more limited - than modern games.

Often they seem more akin to an iPhone app than a current-gen console title, and you won't get the intense, immersive single-player narratives of a Mass Effect 3 when you're dealing in pixels and chip tunes - though Zelda players might claim otherwise. But that doesn't really matter, and for one key reason - price. The most expensive cartridge-only games will rarely set you back more than £10. Much more often you're paying £2-3 per game - App Store prices, basically - and the nature of retro games means there is always something to enjoy - the art, the sound or even the ironic crappiness of it all. Plus if you really can't stand a game, you can always bet there's someone on eBay ready to pay £2 to take it off your hands. Despite all the joy you're going to get out of a machine like the SNES, it's likely for most people the majority of the games you'll buy will be fleeting dalliances. Some - a Mario Kart or Starwing - you might dedicate hours to, but others will be short, amusing, glimpses into a past world. But that's not a problem - if anything it's a benefit. Collecting SNES games is a cheap, fun, lucky dip, and no amount of Virtual Console credits will match the happy accident when you plug in a cartridge, flick the power switch and find something you really love. If you're prepared to explore, collecting and playing retro games will be as fun as any modern game, and about 10 times less expensive. It's also worth noting that thanks to the emulation community the SNES still has several new games to play a year - you can find out more on the Retro Collect forums.

CONCLUSION: A folly, but a joyful one. The SNES is a beautiful, fun and joyful machine which is well worth your time and money. At times it's also frustrating, limited and annoying. But if you go into it with an open mind a dash of patience it won't ruin the experience. Nostalgia is a part of any retro gaming hobby, but it isn't the whole deal. And amazingly, after all this time, if you have young kids they won't notice the SNES is 23 years old - and you won't care.
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