Turkey day is right around the corner, but that’s not the only thing worth celebrating this week. The Super Famicom turned 30 on November 21. While you probably know me as the “Sega” guy by now, there’s no denying the impact the console had on the industry and one genre in particular. So without further ado, let’s dive into the legacy of one of Nintendo’s most beloved consoles and what made it an RPG powerhouse.
To say Nintendo had a stranglehold on the North American market in the mid-’80s would be an understatement. They were able to scoop up exclusivity rights to most of the big third party publishers you could think of, leaving the likes of Atari and Sega in the dust. News stations hammering out stories regarding the popularity of the console, the start-up of the now-defunct Nintendo Power magazine (which in turn sold more games on account of how cryptic some of those puzzles in The Legend of Zelda could be). Everybody-and-their-mother pumping out accessories for the thing- it was evident that they were on top of the world. Nobody dared to challenge them at home or in the States until the launch of the ill-fated PC Engine and, more importantly, the Sega Mega Drive (known here as the Genesis) in 1988.
When Sega fired the first shots of what would become the first great console war with “blast processing” and promised to bring the arcade experience home, Nintendo needed to respond. Unlike today, Nintendo wasn’t exactly in a position to sit on their haunches and let their branding do most of the work. While initially in no rush to follow up with the Famicom/NES, it was clear that Sega had more going for them than competitors NEC or Atari. Ultimately, they responded with the Super Famicom in Japan on November 21, 1990, which arrived overseas as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System shortly after that.
The Super Famicom launched with only a handful of games upon its release in Japan- Super Mario World and F-Zero kicked things off in the land of the rising run. Americans had a few more games to choose from, including the very first SimCity, PilotWings, and Gradius III. These games have aged like a fine wine (as long as you can stomach the slowdown in Gradius III) and flexed the hardware’s capabilities. However, I believe the console truly hit its stride a few years by building a lineup of heavy hitters in a (then) little known genre.
Sega might have had fantastic arcade conversions, the best sports games, and (of course) Sonic The Hedgehog. However, there was one thing the Genesis and its library struggled with in retrospect. RPGs and games with deep storytelling weren’t precisely the console’s forte. Aside from Wonder Boy In Monster World (as well as the Japanese exclusive Monster World IV), Crusader of Centy, and Phantasy Star, Sega’s beloved console was mostly a place for speed and action. Stateside or not, its library just wasn’t friendly to fans of the then-fledgling genre. A probable cause for this? Nintendo still held on some big-name publishers responsible for making the best-of-the-best when it came to RPGs. Including a little known duo of companies known as Square and Enix (now Square Enix).
With impressive scaling-and-rotation effects alongside the hardware’s ability to crank out theatrical compositions in the hands of the right composers, the Super Famicom/NES had the upper hand when it came to the atmosphere and world-building. The growing prominence of passwords alongside battery-backed saves (which many Genesis games did not have) only helped make the perfect toolkit for the visual and mechanical complexity that RPGs demand. While it took a few years into the console’s life for the massive hitting RPGs to arrive, they helped cement the genre’s place in the mainstream North American market.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past was perhaps the first game to truly explore the potential of a grand adventure on the 16-bit hardware in 1991. The land of Hyrule made bigger, better, and maybe a bit more friendly to newcomers. It’s thanks to a fast travel mechanic and puzzles that weren’t nearly as obtuse as the first two games. There were also far more NPCs to interact with, as well as a story that wasn’t just tucked away inside a manual or a wall of text upon starting the game. People loved the game then, and they love it now with as many “Top 10 best games of all time” lists it makes.
Final Fantasy VI (or Final Fantasy III in the states) was a modest success in North America when localized in 1994. According to Square, after having sold 2.55 million copies in Japan by mid-1994, it became the eighth best-selling SNES cartridge of the year in the States. Although series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi felt the game did not do as well as America as it had at home, critics and players alike gave the game plenty of praise. Nintendo’s own Nintendo Power magazine ranked it the eighth-most excellent Nintendo game of all time in September 1997. Proclaiming it “had everything you could want—heroes, world-shattering events, magic, mindless evil—plus Interceptor, the wonder dog!”
Amid many other universally acclaimed adventure and RPG titles continuing to make their way into the North American SNES library (Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Illusion of Gaia, Harvest Moon, Earthbound…you get the picture). Even Super Mario starred in his RPG epic with Super Mario RPG. Developed by none other than Square, the game combined the basic formula of a role-playing game with the accessibility the Mario series has always known. Simultaneously, not the most sophisticated game of its kind, Super Mario RPG added several layers of depth and lore to the Mushroom Kingdom thanks to a host of new characters and locales. To this day, Nintendo continues to crank out RPG spinoffs featuring the plumber and co-, the latest being Paper Mario: Origami King on Nintendo Switch.
As of 2018, the Super Famicom and Super Nintendo Entertainment System have sold a combined 49.1 million units. While the likes of previously established fan favorites like Super Mario, Zelda, and Metroid were more likely to sell American consumers on a console than Final Fantasy III in its heyday. It undoubtedly helped stir interest in what was considered a niche genre in the ’90s with its increased horsepower and support from iconic publishers.