The Super Nintendo Entertainment System is 25 years old. That means it’s been 25 years since Americans first learned, sometimes painfully, that game consoles have an expiration date.
It’s not without good reason that the 16-bit followup to Nintendo’s incredibly popular 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System is considered one of the all-time great gaming consoles. Kicking off with the massive, superbly designed Super Mario World, the cutting-edge tech in the SNES produced colorful graphics, nifty technological tricks, and high-fidelity soundtracks that powered the most impressive games of the pixel era. Just two years later, SNES games would have the power to handle real 3-D graphics, foreshadowing the industry’s incipient shift from sprites to polygons.
When Nintendo launched the SNES, videogame products didn’t have official release dates. The console had already been available in Japan as the Super Famicom for about a year. Stateside, shipments started trickling out starting sometime in August of 1991, and it was a bit of a crapshoot as to when your local store would have it on the shelf. By early September, Nintendo confirmed that SNES was finally available everywhere.
And parents did not like it, not one bit.
Through poring over a year’s worth of breathless in-depth features in Nintendo’s in-house propaganda magazine Nintendo Power, kids already understood all of the advantages the SNES had over the old NES. I personally became a little 11-year-old expert, expounding on the subject of translucency to anyone who would listen. But America’s parents didn’t need to hear any mumbo-jumbo about Mode 7 scaling; they knew a scam when they saw one.
“Now we have to have another unit, just for one game? It doesn’t seem right,” said one parent on a local news broadcast. “Nintendo Risks Parental Wrath With New System,” read a headline quoted in the 1993 book Game Over.
Parents were upset that you needed a Super Nintendo to play the latest Mario game, and they were really upset at what they saw as a massive sunk cost: Their children had amassed libraries of 8-bit titles, purchased at $30-50 a pop over a half-decade of birthdays and Christmases, and the new Super Nintendo was incompatible with them. Nintendo would continue to provide new software for those who only had an 8-bit NES for the next few years, but the bottom dropped out of the 8-bit market very quickly, and developers would abandon it entirely by 1994. It was consumers, not Nintendo, who were about to drop 8-bit like a hot potato. But nobody knew, in the fall of 1991, just how fast that was going to happen, making the Super Nintendo seem, to some, like an unnecessary expense.
“I’m going to say no, and I’m going to explain to him how people market things to make you spend more money,” said one mom on another local news broadcast, one that opened with the anchor intoning that, this time, Nintendo might have gone too far.
But of course, Nintendo had no choice. The NES was cutting-edge gaming hardware–in 1983. By 1991, it was creaky and ancient, and even though it was incredibly popular (30 percent of American households owned one), it couldn’t last forever. Nintendo delayed the inevitable as long as it could, but even by 1989 competitors were nipping at its heels. The TurboGrafx-16 and Sega Genesis could run laps around the NES, and even had optional CD-ROM technology. Nintendo not only had to keep up, it actually had to leapfrog the competition since it was releasing two years late.
Nintendo could have just presented a souped-up NES, but instead it created a powerful piece of custom gaming hardware that literally added a new dimension to its gameplay. “Mode 7” was a built-in hardware function of the SNES that allowed a game designer to create a bitmapped background, then rotate and skew that image on the fly. Super Mario World used that power for some simple, cheesy graphical tricks, like causing a boss enemy to blow up in size, then shrink down to nothing. But the SNES’ other two launch titles, a racing game called F-Zero and a flight simulator called Pilotwings, used Mode 7 to create the illusion of 3-D graphics. Soon after, Nintendo would introduce the Super FX chip, which could be included on a game cartridge to let the SNES do real polygon-based 3-D processing. Nintendo could see the future, and SNES was built to bridge that dimensional gap.
I hardly think I need to convince a 2016 audience that Nintendo had to, eventually, upgrade its gaming hardware. Today we accept that computer power advances rapidly, and every few years you need to upgrade your phone, your tablet, your console. But at the time, it simply wasn’t taken for granted.
The Nintendo Entertainment System was not the first piece of gaming hardware. But during the Atari-centric era that preceded it, there had never been such an evolve-or-die moment. Atari did follow up its popular 2600 game platform with the more powerful 5200, but it never transitioned its game development efforts from one to the other. The 5200 was a more expensive option, but the majority of its games were also available on 2600. And the game industry crashed and burned, game consoles thrown in the trash, before Atari ever had to attempt to convince 2600 owners to upgrade or lose out.
So the NES-SNES transition that began 25 years ago was the first time anyone had to deal with that reality. It was also the last time there was ever such a stink made about it, as periodic upgrades quickly became the new normal. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. Nintendo soon found out that while its customers soon didn’t mind the idea of upgrading, there was nothing forcing them to upgrade to another Nintendo machine. They could just as easily trade in their Super NES for a Sony PlayStation five years later, and many of them did.
Today, console makers are looking to avoid that situation. At this year’s E3 Expo, Microsoft announced Project Scorpio, a new iteration of its Xbox One console that would be backward and forward compatible–that is, all games would be playable on both the existing Xbox One and the new Scorpio, with upgrades in the case of the latter. Its chief competitor Sony, too, is likely to show off a project codenamed PlayStation Neo next month, which is another upgrade that won’t leave owners of the previous system behind. By switching to a model of incremental, optional upgrades, both companies could avoid the chaos that comes with abrupt console transitions.
Nintendo, meanwhile, might be looking at another NES-to-SNES transition next year, since its upcoming NX console, to be released in March 2017, is not said to be backward compatible with its current Wii U. But as Super Mario World showed on the SNES, it really didn’t matter if consumers had to give up their current library of games, as long as the new library was sufficiently awesome. And as those local news reports showed, all the parental complaints in the world didn’t much matter: the Super Nintendo started flying off shelves from the very first day.