This time on Classic Gaming Quarterly, we take a look back at the 1991 launch of one
of the most iconic video game consoles of all time - the Super Nintendo Entertainment
You couldn't get enough of it.
You ate Nintendo.
You drank Nintendo.
You slept Nintendo.
Now, Toys 'R Us has the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
The new Nintendo system with Super Mario World.
Toys 'R Us- the biggest video game store in the world!
It's virtually impossible to overstate the popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System
for a kid my age in the late 1980's.
We woke up to Nintendo cartoons, ate Nintendo breakfast cereal, went to school with our
Nintendo backpacks, checked the time on Nintendo wrist watches, talked about Nintendo on the
school bus, day-dreamed about it during class, ate out of Nintendo lunch boxes, traded game
tips and bragged about new Nintendo games on the playground, and read Nintendo magazines
and comic books.
Beginning in 1983 and reaching its zenith 2 years later, the home video game market
entered into a period of recession, generally referred to as the "video game crash".
At the time, people wondered if home video games weren't just a fad that had reached
the end of its life, and retailers began reclaiming shelf space for use selling other products.
In 1985, having to swim against the tide to do so, Nintendo brought its 8-bit "Family
Computer" or "Famicom" to North America as the "Nintendo Entertainment System".
Nintendo's business model allowed them to both avoid the pitfalls that caused the video
game crash and establish themselves as the clear leader in the home video game market,
leading to an unprecedented period of total market domination.
The NES was not only the must-have video game system, but the must-have anything for kids
in the late 1980's, and it isn't a stretch to say that the system caused a cultural revolution,
at least among certain age groups.
While the 16-bit generation technically started with the release of the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16
in the summer of 1989, everyone knew that it didn't REALLY start until Nintendo said
While the NES was still easily dominating the American market in 1990, the same could
not be said in Japan, where 2 years earlier, the then 5-year old Famicom was outsold by
NEC’s newly released PC Engine.
Nintendo may have been hesitant to unsettle the position of their console in North America
with it’s 90% marketshare, but they could no longer afford to rest on their 8-bit laurels.
Development of the Super Famicom began in 1988, with the first images being shown to
the public later that year in “Famicom Tsushin” magazine.
The system’s hardware design was directed by Masayuki Uemura, the same engineer who
had designed the original Famicom, and who came out of retirement to head development
of Nintendo’s 16-bit console.
The Super Famicom’s hardware is centered around a custom-designed 3.58 mhz Ricoh CPU
which was based on Western Design Center’s 65816 processor.
This chip can trace its roots back to 1975’s MOS Technologies 6502 which was chosen by
Steve Wozniak for the Apple II, and which Ricoh themselves customized for Uemura many
years earlier for use in the original Famicom.
Speaking of the Apple II, the 65816 was the CPU used in the Apple IIGS, which as a result
was employed as a development station in the early days of the Super Famicom.
The 65816 is not as fast as the Motorola 68000, around which the Sega Genesis is designed,
but Uemura was designing the Super Famicom for visual and audio performance, rather than
The Super Famicom can handle 128 simultaneous sprites and up to 4 layers on-screen at once.
The system has a total palette of over 32,000 colors, of which up to 256 can be simultaneously
used in a single layer, depending on the graphics mode used.
There are a total of 8 such graphics modes numbered zero through seven, though the last
is the only one to enjoy popular name recognition.
The Super Famicom produced 8-channel, 16-bit sound thanks to 2 chips working in concert.
The first is the Sony SPC700, famously and supposedly secretly designed by Sony engineer
and father of the Playstation Ken Kutaragi.
The other chip, which sadly has a much less salacious history, is simply a 16-bit digital
The system did not have a headphone jack on it like the Genesis did, but did output line-level
stereo sound through the proprietary multi-AV jack in the back.
The Super Famicom controller felt instantly familiar to veterans of the 8-bit era.
It retained the cross D-pad, doubled the number of action buttons on the face, and added two
It was also given a much more ergonomic form factor than the rectangular controllers of
the Famicom and NES.
Although early speculation suggested that the system would be released in Japan in late
1989 and the United States the following summer, the Super Famicom wasn’t released in Japan
until late November of 1990.
The system cost 25,000 Yen, which was about $185 at the time, and as was usually the case
with systems in Japan, it did not come with a pack-in game - but gamers had two games
to choose from on launch day - F-Zero and the sequel to Super Mario Bros 3.
The Super Famicom was pre-ordered by nearly 1.5 million gamers, and the initial shipment
of 300,000 consoles sold out in just 2 hours.
The Super Famicom was re-designed for its North American launch by Lance Barr, who worked
full-time at Nintendo as an industrial designer, and who also redesigned the Famicom for the
US market as well as designing the shell for the NES Advantage joystick.
Barr felt that the design of the Super Famicom looked too soft, or as he put it “like a
bag of bread”, and wanted a more angular design.
The Super Nintendo made it’s major US press debut at the summer Consumer Electronics show
in early June of 1991, where attendees could play, or watch game footage on giant projection
screens of a number of early titles including all three eventual launch games, plus Actraiser,
Super R-Type, and Super Ghouls N Ghosts.
Almost exactly 2 years after the launch of both the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16, the
Super Nintendo began appearing in American stores in the 4th week of August, an into
the hands of Nintendo fanatics who had been eagerly awaiting its arrival.
The system retailed for $199.99, which was $50 more than the recently-discounted Sega
However the console came bundled with both RF and composite video cables, and Nintendo
continued the tradition of including two controllers with the system.
When this extra value was taken into account, the Super Nintendo actually only cost about
10% more than Sega’s 16-bit offering.
Still, this was twice the price of the NES, which led many parents to feel as though they
were being ripped off by Nintendo, as they didn't understand why these new games couldn't
be played on the hardware that they'd already paid for.
While by 1991 the writing was already on the wall concerning the fate of the TurboGrafx-16,
the Sega Genesis was just starting to hit its stride.
Up to this point, Sega had been fighting an 8-bit enemy with a 16-bit weapon, but from
here on out the two companies offerings would be much more evenly matched, and it was no
coincidence that Sonic The Hedgehog was launched in North America just in time to beat the
Super Nintendo to market.
Sega had already been attacking Nintendo in its advertisements ever since Tom Kalinske
took over as head of Sega of America, and they only ramped up the offensive with the
release of the Super Nintendo.
By the end of its first Christmas season, the Super Nintendo sold through 1.4 million
systems, which while an obvious success, was actually lower than projected sales.
Still, it had taken Sega the entire year to sell 1.6 million systems, while Nintendo sold
nearly as many in the span of just over 4 months.
Although only 3 games were available on launch day, two more would follow by the end of August,
and before the year was out several games that would become absolute classics on the
Super Nintendo were already on store shelves.
All three launch games were developed by Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis and Development group,
led by the iconic Shigeru Miyamoto, who had just 15 months from the time they first saw
the design of the machine until the launch titles had to be completed for the Japanese
The first game, F-Zero, is a futuristic racing game credited with creating the genre later
made popular by games like Wipeout.
According to the game's backstory, F-Zero takes place in the year 2560, when a new inter-galactic
motorsports league based on Formula 1 grand prix racing is created by a group of multi-billionaires.
For as long as I’ve been playing this game, I never made the connection between F1 and
F-Zero, and I’m a huge F1 fan.
There are 4 cars, which the game calls "machines", to choose from, each of course with their
While the game only shows an acceleration curve for each, they also handle quite a bit
differently due to differences in their weight.
You also choose from three leagues, dubbed “knight”, “queen”, and “king”,
which feature racing circuits of increasing difficulty, although some tracks are really
just variants of others.
You also choose a difficulty setting for the game, which basically sets how hard the AI
will be to race against.
Unless you're a complete noob at this type of game, it's best to start with at least
standard difficulty if you want any semblance of a challenge.
It is of course impossible to talk about F-Zero without talking about mode 7, which allows
for scaling and rotation of a background layer on a scanline-by-scanline basis, creating
a rotatable layer on the screen that appears to continue on into the horizon.
The game provides you with a normal accelerator and brake, but thanks to the fact that your
machine is hovering above the ground, you can also use the controller’s shoulder buttons
to shift your weight, allowing you to move laterally across the track, or cut into corners
in order to turn more sharply.
With the completion of each lap, you’re also given a super jet, or “s-jet” which
is a one-time use turbo boost.
This not only allows you to go much faster, but also lets you drive over rough patches
in the track without slowing down.
Some tracks feature jump plates or dash zones, and all tracks are lined with an electrified
Anytime you bump into the rail, or other racers, you car loses some of its power, which acts
like sort of a life meter.
Lose all of your power, and your car will actually explode.
Avoid this by driving through the pit row area on each lap to partially recover your
machine’s power, and be aware that some cars can take more damage than others.
While you’re only technically racing against the other ranked cars, once you complete the
initial lap, backmarker cars who are much slower than you and whose only purpose seems
to be to get in your way begin appearing on the track.
To be honest, I found avoiding these guys to be the single biggest challenge in the
While there’s no debating that Super Mario World is one of the very best games released
on the Super Nintendo, in it’s own way F-Zero could be considered the “killer app” of
the system’s launch lineup.
The game plays to the system's strengths as an audio-visual powerhouse, taking full advantage
of both its expanded color palette, and advanced sound chip.
The game has a number of memorable musical tracks, although it’s the song that plays
during the very first race that I most closely associate with F-Zero.
Although each race track is of course unique in its design, their differing environments
also give each a unique look and feel.
I obviously think that F-Zero is awesome, but it isn’t without it’s flaws.
Chief among them being the game’s rubber-band AI.
It’s quite easy to catch the other cars in the race and take the lead, but once you
do so it’s impossible to build up any kind of real gap to the car behind you.
The reverse is also true however, as it’s basically impossible to fall that far behind.
As a racing game enthusiast I find this frustrating as it de-incentivizes driving technique, but
it doesn’t really matter because the game is just a lot of fun . Any other criticism
that I might level at F-Zero would be trivial at best, as I really do believe that this
is a total must-play for the Super Nintendo.
While I won’t go so far as to call it a “top 5” best game on the system, it’s
certainly in my top 5 favorites.
F-Zero spawned a number of solid sequels, including the outstanding 1998 release F-Zero
X for the Nintendo 64, 2001’s F-Zero Maximum Velocity which was actually a launch title
on the Game Boy Advance, F-Zero GX, released on the GameCube in 2003, and 2004's F-Zero
GP Legend for the Game Boy Advance.
Pilotwings has been accused of being little more than a tech demo for the Super Nintendo's
mode 7 scaling and rotation, and while I can understand where that line of thinking might
come from, I don’t think that it’s fair to dismiss the game as such.
Pilotwings isn't a flight simulator, its sort of a "flight experience".
The setup is that you are an entry-level member in a flight club and you earn progressively
higher licenses by completing lessons proctored by a colorful cast of instructors.
Each lesson is made up of multiple events, and has a requisite total number of points
needed to obtain that license and move on to the next.
The game has four different events, although not all four of them will necessarily appear
in leach lesson, and each one is exactly what it sounds like.
In the parachute events, you hang on to a rope ladder while a helicopter lifts you high
into the air.
Once you let go and start to freefall, you have to tilt and turn your body to fall through
a sequence of rings before deploying your parachute.
Once you pull the ripcord, your job is to land on one of several targets of varying
Landing on the hardest target nets you the most points, or you can land on the moving
target where you not only get maximum points, but get sent into a bonus round where you
can earn even more.
In the light plane events you start off just accurately landing a plane before moving on
to harder events involving flying through rings in the air, performing low-altitude
maneuvers , taking off *and* landing, and so on.
While I find these events to be the easiest to complete, they's also the hardest for me
to get maximum points on, and I wish the developers had taken advantage of the extra buttons on
the Super Nintendo controller to give the player a bit more control over the plane.
The rocket belt events are reminiscent of the guys that you sometimes see old footage
of on TV, who would fly these things at sporting events or air shows.
While a real rocketbelt only has enough fuel for a 21 second flight, in Pilotwings you
have enough to practically fly to the moon and back.
Your objective in these stages is to take off, fly through several stationary rings,
touch poles, or fly through moving rings, before making a successful landing on one
of several targets.
These levels once again give you the opportunity to land on a moving target, which earns you
access to a bonus stage, and doing so with the rocketbelt is MUCH easier than with the
The light plane tows you up into the sky to start the hang-glider events, which have you
riding thermal currents to reach some maximum altitude or flying through rings, before landing.
There’s also the odd inclusion of helicopter combat levels.
About halfway through the game, things take a dark turn when 3 of your instructors get
kidnapped by a nameless evil syndicate, and you’re the only one who can save them!
In these levels, you fly an attack helicopter into enemy territory, and use missiles to
take out their anti-aircraft guns before making a safe landing and rescuing your instructors,
At the end of the game, it happens again when the same people kidnap an un-named government
You basically play the same level over again, but at night and with more anti-aircraft guns.
These levels seem very out-of-place compared to the rest of the game, but they’re also
awesome so who cares?
While much like F-Zero the game makes heavy use of the Super Nintendo's new mode 7 technology,
it also provides a unique gameplay experience that absolutely makes the game worth looking
The graphics in the game are colorful and detailed, and again like F-Zero is a game
that really couldn't have been pulled off on the 8-Bit NES.
I also really like the soundtrack, which has an upbeat new age jazz feel to it.
Pilotwings definitely has a much more relaxed pace and feel compared to not only the other
two launch games, but to most video games.
To some this will be a weakness, but to others it’ll present a welcome alternative.
My only real issue with Pilotwings is in how scoring and difficulty are handled.
In order to pass each lesson, you have to achieve a minimum aggregate score.
If you fail to earn enough points in a single event, that aggregate score will no longer
Unfortunately, Pilotwings doesn’t give you lives or do-overs, so if you make a mistake
in any single event, it can quite possibly be game over, especially in the later lessons.
This means replaying the entire lesson over again.
Now, I’m certainly not saying that I want the game to be easy, but imagine playing Super
Mario Bros, except that if you die in say, world 1-3, you get sent all the way back to
the beginning of world 1-1.
That might get old after a while, and if you're trying to beat the entire game, as I was in
preparation for this episode, it's the kind of thing that can make you walk away and not
want to come back anytime soon.
Still, all that really means is that Pilotwings requires a lot of patience, and is perhaps
best played in short bursts if you’re someone who is easily frustrated.
It’s certainly not a reason to avoid the game, which is often treated like the red-headed
step child of the Super Nintendo’s launch.
It was of course sandwiched in between two legendary launch titles, and probably got
buried under the amazing lineup of games that started coming out for the system immediately
after launch, but in my opinion Pilotwings would have made an excellent weekend rental
if you were looking for something a little bit different.
Super Mario World was the pack-in game for the Super Nintendo, the direct sequel to 1990’s
Super Mario Bros 3, and is considered by many to be one of the greatest video games ever
As the two games were released just months apart, Super Mario World is often compared
to Sonic The Hedgehog.
In fact Sega ran an advertising campaign using a comparison between the two games as a selling
point for the Genesis, which they kicked off at the very same Summer CES that served as
the Super Nintendo's coming-out party.
At first glance, Sonic is the more impressive-looking game, but while Super Mario World may not
look as visually striking as it’s competitor, under the hood you’ll find what is quite
possibly the greatest platform game ever created.
In fact, while Sonic is clearly a pure platformer, Super Mario World is almost an adventure game
in platformer's clothing.
Super Mario World is very similar in execution to Super Mario Bros 3 in that it's split up
into multiple worlds, each with a map that allows you to choose your path to a certain
While for some reason the levels in Super Mario Bros. 3 were short by usual standards,
in this game they have thankfully returned to normal size.
This was by far the largest Super Mario Bros game released to date, with a total of 72
levels and 96 level exits, and finding all 96 is the benchmark for proper completion
of the game.
Levels that contain a secret exit are marked with a red dot on the map instead of yellow.
Unlike Super Mario Bros. 3, you can also travel freely between worlds without the need of
a warp whistle, allowing you to replay any level in the game.
This is in fact essential to beating the game, as you will need to go back and re-play levels
after unlocking new block houses.
This game is rife with secrets and unlockable worlds, and I’m hesitant to show too many
of them here, for fear of spoiling them for the uninitiated.
Back when the Super Nintendo was released, many gamers actually complained that this
game could have been done on the NES.
I guess that's true in a superficial sense, but you could say that about a lot of games.
Super Mario World may not make use of the Super Nintendo’s new technology in as much
of an in-your-face manner as the other two launch titles, but does a much more subtle
job of incorporating the system’s new features, including mode 7 scaling and rotation, mosaic
effects, the ability to place sprites behind background layers, background tile flipping,
improved parallax scrolling, and a vastly increased color palette.
Super Mario World is quite a bit more challenging than previous games in the series, which to
me is a welcome improvement.
Series mainstay enemies like Goomabs, Koopa Troopas, and the hated Koopa Paratroopas are
joined by a large cast of new foes, including Blarggs, Super Koopas, and Chargin’ Chuck,
as well as a colorful cast of Koopalings that act as end-of-world bosses.
This installment in the series ditched the myriad of power-ups found in its predecessor,
while retaining the mushroom and fire flower, and adding one new power-up: the feather.
This allows Mario to don a cape, which he can use to dispatch enemies with a spin move,
and can also allow him to fly.
This power-up is reminiscent of the Tanooki suit, the critical difference being that with
the cape Mario can remain airborne indefinitely.
Super Mario World also serves as the debut of Yoshi, who has gone on to become one of
Nintendo's most recognizable characters, as the game takes place in his home of Dinosaur
You’ll find Yoshi hidden inside certain blocks, and riding him gives you access to
his expanded skillset.
Perhaps most importantly, he can eat enemies.
Some of them he simply swallows, or spits their shell out, using it as a weapon, and
eating red-shelled Koopas actually allows him to spit out fireballs.
Just as important, riding Yoshi allows Mario to absorb one extra hit, as it simply knocks
him off and sends Yoshi into a panic.
If you can catch him, you can jump back on, and if not, you’ll just have to find him
According to Miyamoto, he wanted to include a dinosaur companion for Mario as early as
the original Super Mario Bros, but was prevented from doing so by the technical limitations
of the hardware.
The Yoshi was designed by lead artist Shigefumi Hino in his first credited role at Nintendo.
Hino would go on to direct Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, and still works at Nintendo
to this day.
In addition to the game’s use of the Super Nintendo’s new video technology, it also
takes advantage of the expanded sound hardware.
The music is head and shoulders above the NES releases, and includes more exotic sounds
like steel drums, and makes appropriate use of echo effects in underground levels.
Super Mario World's soundtrack was composed by Koji Kondo, who began working for Nintendo
when he was just 22 years old, and who was responsible for almost every first-party Nintendo
song that you've ever had stuck in your head.
Kondo, who joined Nintendo straight out of college in 1984, is credited on over 120 games,
and currently serves as Nintendo’s sound supervisor.
While the game was of course produced by Shigeru Miyamoto, it was directed by Takashi Tezuka.
Tezuka, who should really be more widely-recognized than he actually is, began working for Nintendo
in college as a summer intern before being hired full-time after graduation.
He co-designed the first three Super Mario Bros games as well as the original Legend
of Zelda, and still works at Nintendo as a senior producer.
Considering the fact that Super Mario World was the high watermark in the series, it inexplicably
never got a proper sequel.
There was of course Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, which was actually a prequel and was
a great game in its own right, but it was certainly not a continuation of the Super
Mario Bros lineage.
While Nintendo did release Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins on the Game Boy in 1992,
the closest thing to an actual sequel has to be New Super Mario Bros, which was released
on the Nintendo DS in 2006, 16 years after Super Mario World.
I feel like many people overlook Super Mario World in the Super Nintendo’s library, especially
newcomers to the console.
Whenever someone asks what Super Nintendo game they should play next, be it Super Metroid,
Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, etc., I always want to ask, “Have you beaten Super Mario
I could go on and on about the game, It’s impossible to use too many superlatives to
describe this game, which is the very embodiment of Nintendo magic.
It is the fundamental Super Nintendo game, and is a required experience for anyone who
calls themselves a fan of the system.
This is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was a launch title that found
its way into the hands of over 20 million gamers.
Even Shigeru Miyamoto himself has gone on record saying that this is his all-time favorite
If you want to experience the Super Nintendo launch but don’t have the console, all three
launch titles were recently released on the 3DS virtual console for about 8 bucks each.