By Horus Alas
The SNES Classic, another one of Nintendo’s concerted efforts to cash in on video game nostalgia, has been a prized and hard-to-find item for months. The emulation console comes loaded with 20 choice games from the heyday of Nintendo’s dominance in the market.
I received the coveted item as a gift not long ago. Upon opening the package and holding the now much smaller Super Nintendo Entertainment System in my hands, my heart raced back in time to a cherished epoch.
It was the early ‘90s. Arcades with enormous game cabinets where players had to insert coins for credits were still a thing. Home consoles had achieved some popularity in the previous decade but were still nowhere near the total eclipse and extinction of arcades they’d achieve in the twenty-first century.
Gamers were at this point accustomed to level and score-based gameplay that emphasized surviving obstacles and proceeding to the next round. Even one of Nintendo’s landmark achievements of the era, 1985’s Super Mario Bros., was chiefly about amassing points and clearing levels.
Arcade machines at the time were generally equipped with better hardware that enabled them to render graphics more clearly and handle more complex games than home consoles.
But as the Cold War fizzled out and the ‘80s morphed into the ‘90s, a new age of video games was on the horizon. Sega launched their “mega drive” console—to be known as “Genesis” in North America—which harnessed 16-bit processing power for snazzier graphics and more intricate gaming.
The runaway success of Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, released in 1991 for the genesis, quickly damaged Nintendo’s long-held command of the console market since the U.S. launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985.
Nintendo needed a 16-bit machine of their own. They responded in the North American market with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991. One of the new system’s launch titles was a next-generation iteration of the Super Mario Bros. franchise, Super Mario World.
The game introduced Yoshi as a dinosaur sidekick Mario and Luigi could ride into battle and defeat enemies with. There was a new Cape Feather power-up that would allow players to fly mid-level, and a host of secret levels that could only be accessed via hidden exits in standard levels.
Super Mario World would eventually sell 20 million units, becoming the best-selling game for the SNES. Its success was bolstered by titles like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid and Star Fox, Nintendo’s first 3-D game of the 16-bit era.
All of Nintendo’s premier titles of the period boasted an emphasis on narrative and character storyline in their games, signaling a shift away from the points-and-levels format of arcades. You didn’t clear the dungeons in A Link to the Past for a high score; you did it because there was a maiden in each dungeon who needed rescuing, and Ganon needed an ass-whooping.
In addition to Nintendo’s top-notch first-party output, the SNES could also count on outstanding content from other developers. Non-Nintendo standouts include Chrono Trigger, Super Street Fighter II (and all its variations) and a title near and dear to my heart as a Terp, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time.
By the close of the SNES era in the mid-‘90s, video games were no longer about clearing levels and earning a high score. They were about exploring worlds, watching characters unfold, discovering secret areas and power-ups, and participating in the gradual escalation and climax of a story.
The SNES wasn’t solely responsible for this cultural shift. But thanks to the brilliant game offerings put forth for it by Nintendo and other publishers, its significance in the cultural evolution of video games is hard to overestimate. More intricate games required more time and greater attention spans, thus further driving a trend toward home console gaming as opposed to arcades.
As I plugged in the SNES Classic last weekend and proceeded to thrash my girlfriend in Super Mario Kart, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia.
Five-year-old me once again sat way too close to an enormous tube TV screen, blowing dust out of the game cartridges to make sure they worked. I again button mashed and craned my neck, hoping the character on screen would move along with me. My eyes once more grew red with indignation each time I died. It was a better, simpler time.
“Nostalgia,” according to the wisdom of Google, originally referred to something in Greek meaning, “the pain of coming home.” This compact bit of plastic carrying 20 digital mementos from my childhood was just that for me—nostalgia in a box.
It’s hard for me as a writer to explain what exactly the encounter felt like. But for a few choice moments that were fleeting like the dying wick of a flickering candle, I was a different, more carefree version of myself.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of emma.kate‘s Flickr account.
Horus Alas is a freelance writer and can be reached at email@example.com.