Retail availability 1990–2003
|Generation Fourth generation|
|Also known as SNES
JP: Super Famicom
KOR: Super Comboy|
Type Home video game console
Release date JP: November 21, 1990 KOR: November 25, 1990 NA: August 23, 1991 UK: April 11, 1992 IRL: April 11, 1992 EU: June 1992 AU: July 3, 1992 BR: September, 1992
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (officially abbreviated the Super NES or SNES, and commonly shortened to Super Nintendo) is a 16-bit home video game console developed by Nintendo that was released in 1990 in Japan and South Korea, 1991 in North America, 1992 in Europe and Australasia (Oceania), and 1993 in South America. In Japan, the system is called the Super Famicom (Japanese: スーパーファミコン, Hepburn: Sūpā Famikon, officially adopting the abbreviated name of its predecessor, the Famicom), or SFC for short. In South Korea, it is known as the Super Comboy (슈퍼 컴보이 Syupeo Keomboi) and was distributed by Hyundai Electronics. Although each version is essentially the same, several forms of regional lockout prevent the different versions from being compatible with one another. It was released in Brazil on September 2, 1992, by Playtronic.
- Console wars
- Changes in policy
- 32 bit era and beyond
- Technical specifications
- Regional lockout
- Game cartridge
- Enhancement chips
The SNES is Nintendo's second home console, following the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The console introduced advanced graphics and sound capabilities compared with other systems at the time. The development of a variety of enhancement chips integrated in game cartridges helped to keep it competitive in the marketplace.
The SNES was a global success, becoming the best-selling console of the 16-bit era despite its relatively late start and the fierce competition it faced in North America and Europe from Sega's Genesis/Mega Drive console. The SNES remained popular well into the 32-bit era, and continues to be popular among fans, collectors, retro gamers, and emulation enthusiasts, some of whom still make homebrew ROM images.
To compete with the popular Family Computer in Japan, NEC Home Electronics launched the PC Engine in 1987, and Sega Enterprises followed suit with the Mega Drive in 1988. The two platforms were later launched in North America in 1989 as the TurboGrafx-16 and the Genesis respectively. Both systems were built on 16-bit architectures and offered improved graphics and sound over the 8-bit NES. However, it took several years for Sega's system to become successful. Nintendo executives were in no rush to design a new system, but they reconsidered when they began to see their dominance in the market slipping.
Designed by Masayuki Uemura, the designer of the original Famicom, the Super Famicom was released in Japan on Wednesday, November 21, 1990 for 25,000 yen ($210). It was an instant success; Nintendo's initial shipment of 300,000 units sold out within hours, and the resulting social disturbance led the Japanese government to ask video game manufacturers to schedule future console releases on weekends. The system's release also gained the attention of the Yakuza, leading to a decision to ship the devices at night to avoid robbery.
With the Super Famicom quickly outselling its chief rivals, Nintendo reasserted itself as the leader of the Japanese console market. Nintendo's success was partially due to its retention of most of its key third-party developers from its earlier system, including Capcom, Konami, Tecmo, Square, Koei, and Enix.
Nintendo released the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, a redesigned version of the Super Famicom, in North America for $199. It began shipping in limited quantities on August 23, 1991, with an official nationwide release date of September 9, 1991. The SNES was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland in April 1992 for £150, with a German release following a few weeks later.
Most of the PAL region versions of the console use the Japanese Super Famicom design, except for labeling and the length of the joypad leads. The Playtronic Super NES in Brazil, although PAL, uses the North American design. Both the NES and SNES were released in Brazil in 1993 by Playtronic, a joint venture between the toy company Estrela and consumer electronics company Gradiente.
The SNES and Super Famicom launched with few games, but these games were well received in the marketplace. In Japan, only two games were initially available: Super Mario World and F-Zero. In North America, Super Mario World launched as a bundle with the console, and other launch titles include F-Zero, Pilotwings (both of which demonstrated the console's "Mode 7" pseudo-3D rendering capability), SimCity, and Gradius III.
The rivalry between Nintendo and Sega resulted in what has been described as one of the most notable console wars in video game history, in which Sega positioned the Genesis as the "cool" console, with more mature titles aimed at older gamers, and edgy advertisements that occasionally attacked the competition. Nintendo however, scored an early public relations advantage by securing the first console conversion of Capcom's arcade classic Street Fighter II for SNES, which took over a year to make the transition to the Genesis. Despite the Genesis's head start, much larger library of games, and lower price point, the Genesis only represented an estimated 60% of the American 16-bit console market in June 1992, and neither console could maintain a definitive lead for several years. Donkey Kong Country is said to have helped establish the SNES's market prominence in the latter years of the 16-bit generation, and for a time, maintain against the PlayStation and Saturn. According to Nintendo, the company had sold more than 20 million SNES units in the U.S. According to a 2014 Wedbush Securities report based on NPD sales data, the SNES ultimately outsold the Genesis in the U.S. market.
Changes in policy
During the NES era, Nintendo maintained exclusive control over titles released for the system—the company had to approve every game, each third-party developer could only release up to five games per year (but some third parties got around this by using different names, for example Konami's "Ultra Games" brand), those games could not be released on another console within two years, and Nintendo was the exclusive manufacturer and supplier of NES cartridges. However, competition from Sega's console brought an end to this practice; in 1991, Acclaim began releasing games for both platforms, with most of Nintendo's other licensees following suit over the next several years; Capcom (which licensed some games to Sega instead of producing them directly) and Square were the most notable holdouts.
The company continued to carefully review submitted titles, giving them scores using a 40-point scale and allocating Nintendo's marketing resources accordingly. Each region performed separate evaluations. Nintendo of America also maintained a policy that, among other things, limited the amount of violence in the games on its systems. One game, Mortal Kombat, would challenge this policy. A surprise hit in arcades in 1992, Mortal Kombat features splashes of blood and finishing moves that often depict one character dismembering the other. Because the Genesis version retained the gore while the SNES version did not, it outsold the SNES version by a ratio of three or four-to-one.
Game players were not the only ones to notice the violence in this game; U.S. Senators Herb Kohl and Joe Lieberman convened a Congressional hearing on December 9, 1993 to investigate the marketing of violent video games to children. While Nintendo took the high ground with moderate success, the hearings led to the creation of the Interactive Digital Software Association and the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and the inclusion of ratings on all video games. With these ratings in place, Nintendo decided its censorship policies were no longer needed.
32-bit era and beyond
While other companies were moving on to 32-bit systems, Rare and Nintendo proved that the SNES was still a strong contender in the market. In November 1994, Rare released Donkey Kong Country, a platform game featuring 3D models and textures pre-rendered on SGI workstations. With its detailed graphics, fluid animation and high-quality music, Donkey Kong Country rivaled the aesthetic quality of games that were being released on newer 32-bit CD-based consoles. In the last 45 days of 1994, the game sold 6.1 million units, making it the fastest-selling video game in history to that date. This game sent a message that early 32-bit systems had little to offer over the SNES, and helped make way for the more advanced consoles on the horizon.
In October 1997, Nintendo released a redesigned model of the SNES (the SNS-101 model referenced by Nintendo as "New-Style Super NES") in North America for US$99, with some units including the pack-in game Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. Like the earlier redesign of the NES (the NES-101 model), the new model was slimmer and lighter than its predecessor, but it lacked S-Video and RGB output, and it was among the last major SNES-related releases in the region. A similarly redesigned Super Famicom Jr. was released in Japan at around the same time.
Nintendo ceased production of the SNES in 1999, about two years after releasing Kirby's Dream Land 3 (its last first-party game for the system) on November 27, 1997, a year after releasing Frogger (its last third-party game for the system). In Japan, Nintendo continued production of the Super Famicom until September 25, 2003, and new games were produced until the year 2000, ending with the release of Metal Slader Glory Director's Cut on November 29, 2000.
Many popular SNES titles have since been ported to the Game Boy Advance, which has similar video capabilities. In 2005, Nintendo announced that SNES titles would be made available for download via the Wii and Wii U's Virtual Console service. On October 31, 2007, Nintendo Co., Ltd. announced that it would no longer repair Family Computer or Super Famicom systems due to an increasing shortage of the necessary parts.
The 16-bit design of the SNES incorporates graphics and sound co-processors that allow tiling and simulated 3D effects, a palette of 32,768 colors, and 8-channel ADPCM audio. These base platform features, plus the ability to dramatically extend them all through substantial chip upgrades inside of each cartridge, represent a leap over the 8-bit NES generation and some supposed significant advantages over 16-bit competitors such as the Genesis.
Nintendo employed several types of regional lockout, including both physical and hardware incompatibilities.
On a physical level, the cartridges are shaped differently for different regions. North American cartridges have a rectangular bottom with inset grooves matching protruding tabs in the console, while other regions' cartridges are narrower with a smooth curve on the front and no grooves. The physical incompatibility can be overcome with use of various adapters, or through modification of the console.
Internally, a regional lockout chip (CIC) within the console and in each cartridge prevents PAL region games from being played on Japanese or North American consoles and vice versa. The Japanese and North American machines have the same region chip. This can be overcome through the use of adapters, typically by inserting the imported cartridge in one slot and a cartridge with the correct region chip in a second slot. Alternatively, disconnecting one pin of the console's lockout chip will prevent it from locking the console; hardware in later games can detect this situation, so it later became common to install a switch to reconnect the lockout chip as needed.
PAL consoles face another incompatibility when playing out-of-region cartridges: the NTSC video standard specifies video at 60 Hz while PAL operates at 50 Hz, resulting in approximately 16.7% slower framerate. Additionally, PAL's higher resolution results in letterboxing of the output image. Some commercial PAL region releases exhibit this same problem and, therefore, can be played in NTSC systems without issue while others will face a 20% speedup if played in an NTSC console. To mostly correct this issue, a switch can be added to place the SNES PPU into a 60 Hz mode supported by most newer PAL televisions. Later games will detect this setting and refuse to run, requiring the switch to be thrown only after the check completes.
All versions of the SNES are predominantly gray, although the exact shade may differ. The original North American version, designed by Nintendo of America industrial designer Lance Barr (who previously redesigned the Famicom to become the NES), has a boxy design with purple sliding switches and a dark gray eject lever. The loading bay surface is curved, both to invite interaction and to prevent food or drinks from being placed on the console and spilling as had happened with the flat surfaced NES. The Japanese and European versions are more rounded, with darker gray accents and buttons. The North American SNS-101 model and the Japanese Super Famicom Jr. (the SHVC-101 model), all designed by Barr, are both smaller with a rounded contour; however, the SNS-101 buttons are purple where the Super Famicom Jr. buttons are gray. The European and American versions of the SNES controllers have much longer cables compared to the Japanese Super Famicom controllers.
All versions incorporate a top-loading slot for game cartridges, although the shape of the slot differs between regions to match the different shapes of the cartridges. The MULTI OUT connector (later used on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube) can output composite video, S-Video and RGB signals, as well as RF with an external RF modulator. Original versions additionally include a 28-pin expansion port under a small cover on the bottom of the unit and a standard RF output with channel selection switch on the back; the redesigned models output composite video only, requiring an external modulator for RF.
The ABS plastic used in the casing of some older SNES and Super Famicom consoles is particularly susceptible to oxidization with exposure to air, likely due to an incorrect mixture of the stabilizing or flame retarding additives. This, along with the particularly light color of the original plastic, causes affected consoles to quickly become yellow; if the sections of the casing came from different batches of plastic, a "two-tone" effect results.
The cartridge media of the console is officially referred to as Game Pak in most Western regions, and as Cassette (カセット, Kasetto) in Japan and parts of Latin America. While the SNES can address 128 Mbit, only 117.75 Mbit are actually available for cartridge use. A fairly normal mapping could easily address up to 95 Mbit of ROM data (48 Mbit at FastROM speed) with 8 Mbit of battery-backed RAM. However, most available memory access controllers only support mappings of up to 32 Mbit. The largest games released (Tales of Phantasia and Star Ocean) contain 48 Mbit of ROM data, while the smallest games contain only 2 Mbit.
Cartridges may also contain battery-backed SRAM to save the game state, extra working RAM, custom coprocessors, or any other hardware that will not exceed the maximum current rating of the console.
The standard SNES controller adds two additional face buttons (X and Y) to the design of the NES iteration, arranging the four in a diamond shape, and also introduces two shoulder buttons. It features an ergonomic design by Lance Barr, later used for the NES-102 model controllers, also designed by Barr. The Japanese and PAL region versions incorporate the colors of the four action buttons into system's logo. The North American version's buttons are colored to match the redesigned console; the X and Y buttons are lavender with concave faces, and the A and B buttons are purple with convex faces. Several later consoles derive elements of their controller design from the SNES, including the PlayStation, Dreamcast, Xbox, and Wii Classic Controller.
Throughout the course of its life, a number of peripherals were released which added to the functionality of the SNES. Many of these devices were modeled after earlier add-ons for the NES: the Super Scope is a light gun functionally similar to the NES Zapper (though the Super Scope features wireless capabilities) and the Super Advantage is an arcade-style joystick with adjustable turbo settings akin to the NES Advantage. Nintendo also released the SNES Mouse in conjunction with its Mario Paint title. Hudson Soft, under license from Nintendo, released the Super Multitap, a multiplayer adapter for use with its popular series of Bomberman games. Some of the more unusual controllers include the BatterUP baseball bat, the Life Fitness Entertainment System (an exercise bike controller with built-in monitoring software), and the TeeV Golf golf club.
While Nintendo never released an adapter for playing NES games on the SNES (though the instructions included a way to connect both consoles to the same TV by either daisy chaining the RF switches or using AV outputs for one or both systems), the Super Game Boy adapter cartridge allows games designed for Nintendo's portable Game Boy system to be played on the SNES. The Super Game Boy touted several feature enhancements over the Game Boy, including palette substitution, custom screen borders, and (for specially enhanced games) access to the SNES console. Japan also saw the release of the Super Game Boy 2, which added a communication port to enable a second Game Boy to connect for multiplayer games.
Like the NES before it, the SNES saw its fair share of unlicensed third-party peripherals, including a new version of the Game Genie cheat cartridge designed for use with SNES games. In general, Nintendo proved to be somewhat more tolerant of unlicensed SNES peripherals than it had been with NES peripherals.
Soon after the release of the SNES, companies began marketing backup devices such as the Super Wildcard, Super Pro Fighter Q, and Game Doctor. These devices were sold to create a backup of a cartridge, in the event that it would break. However, they could also be used to play copied ROM images that could be downloaded from BBSes and the Internet, or to create copies of rented video games, violating copyright laws in many jurisdictions.
Japan saw the release of the Satellaview, a modem which attached to the Super Famicom's expansion port and connected to the St.GIGA satellite radio station. Users of the Satellaview could download gaming news and specially designed games, which were frequently either remakes of or sequels to older Famicom titles, released in installments. Satellaview signals were broadcast from April 23, 1995 through June 30, 2000. In the United States, the similar but relatively short-lived XBAND allowed users to connect to a network via a dial-up modem to compete against other players around the country.
During the SNES's life, Nintendo contracted with two different companies to develop a CD-ROM-based peripheral for the console to compete with Sega's CD-ROM based add-on, Sega CD. Ultimately, deals with both Sony and Philips fell through, (although a prototype console was produced by Sony) with Philips gaining the right to release a series of titles based on Nintendo franchises for its CD-i multimedia player and Sony going on to develop its own console based on its initial dealings with Nintendo (the PlayStation).
As part of the overall plan for the SNES, rather than include an expensive CPU that would still become obsolete in a few years, the hardware designers made it easy to interface special coprocessor chips to the console (just like the MMC chips used for most NES games). This is most often characterized by 16 additional pins on the cartridge card edge.
The Super FX is a RISC CPU designed to perform functions that the main CPU could not feasibly do. The chip was primarily used to create 3D game worlds made with polygons, texture mapping and light source shading. The chip could also be used to enhance 2D games.
The Nintendo fixed-point digital signal processor (DSP) chip allowed for fast vector-based calculations, bitmap conversions, both 2D and 3D coordinate transformations, and other functions. Four revisions of the chip exist, each physically identical but with different microcode. The DSP-1 version, including the later 1A and 1B bug fix revisions, is used most often; the DSP-2, DSP-3, and DSP-4 are used in only one title each.
Similar to the 5A22 CPU in the console, the SA-1 chip contains a 65c816 processor core clocked at 10 MHz, a memory mapper, DMA, decompression and bitplane conversion circuitry, several programmable timers, and CIC region lockout functionality.
In Japan, games could be downloaded for a lower price (than standard cartridges) from Nintendo Power kiosks onto special cartridges containing flash memory and a MegaChips MX15001TFC chip. The chip managed communication with the kiosks to download ROM images, and provided an initial menu to select which of the downloaded games would be played. Some titles were available both in cartridge and download form, while others were download only. The service was closed on February 8, 2007.
Many cartridges contain other enhancement chips, most of which were created for use by a single company in a few titles; the only limitations are the speed of the SNES itself to transfer data from the chip and the current limit of the console.
Like the NES before it, the SNES has retained interest among its fans even following its decline in the marketplace. It has continued to thrive on the second-hand market and through console emulation. The SNES has taken much the same revival path as the NES (see History of the Nintendo Entertainment System).
Emulation projects began with the initial release of VSMC in 1994, and Super Pasofami became the first working SNES emulator in 1996. During that time, two competing emulation projects—Snes96 and Snes97—merged to form a new initiative titled Snes9x. In 1997, SNES enthusiasts began programming an emulator named ZSNES. In 2004, higan began development as Bsnes, in an effort to emulate the system as closely as possible.
Nintendo of America took the same stance against the distribution of SNES ROM image files and the use of emulators as it did with the NES, insisting that they represented flagrant software piracy. Proponents of SNES emulation cite discontinued production of the SNES constituting abandonware status, the right of the owner of the respective game to make a personal backup via devices such as the Retrode, space shifting for private use, the desire to develop homebrew games for the system, the frailty of SNES ROM cartridges and consoles, and the lack of certain foreign imports.
Emulation of the Super NES is also available on platforms such as Android, and iOS, the Nintendo DS line, the Gizmondo, the Dingoo and the GP2X by GamePark Holdings, as well as PDAs. While individual games have been included with emulators on some GameCube discs, Nintendo's Virtual Console service for the Wii marks the introduction of officially sanctioned general SNES emulation, though SNES9x GX, a port of SNES9x, has been made for the Wii.
49.10 million SNES units were sold worldwide, with 23.35 million of those units sold in the Americas and 17.17 million in Japan. Although it could not quite repeat the success of the NES, which sold 61.91 million units worldwide, the SNES was the best-selling console of its era.
In 2007, GameTrailers named the SNES as the second-best console of all time in their list of top ten consoles that "left their mark on the history of gaming", citing its graphic, sound, and library of top-quality games. In 2015, they also named it the best Nintendo console of all time, saying, "The list of games we love from this console completely annihilates any other roster from the Big N." Technology columnist Don Reisinger proclaimed "The SNES is the greatest console of all time" in January 2008, citing the quality of the games and the console's dramatic improvement over its predecessor; fellow technology columnist Will Greenwald replied with a more nuanced view, giving the SNES top marks with his heart, the NES with his head, and the PlayStation (for its controller) with his hands. GamingExcellence also gave the SNES first place in 2008, declaring it "simply the most timeless system ever created" with many games that stand the test of time and citing its innovation in controller design, graphics capabilities, and game storytelling. At the same time, GameDaily rated it fifth of ten for its graphics, audio, controllers, and games. In 2009, IGN named the Super Nintendo Entertainment System the fourth best video game console, complimenting its audio and "concentration of AAA titles".