Some of the most beloved and surprising videogames of the past year--Undertale, Stardew Valley, and the recent Headlander--have something in common: They all are direct descendants of Super Nintendo games.
25 years ago this month, the SNES arrived in North America. And more than the techno-jargon and 90s marketing buzzwords, what mattered were the games. We still feel the repercussions two and half decades on, with developers new and old leaning on classics from Nintendo’s 16-bit system for inspiration. For players, these places were like nothing we’d seen or imagined before. For those that would go on to make games, these experiences were seminal: the foundation on which a generation would base their future.
Looking back, it’s easy to see the SNES as the end of an era. Later hardware began our present evolutionary path of spinning discs with storage capacity that dwarfed cartridges, online competition, and massive 3D worlds. Things were simpler in 1991. All it took to stir the imagination was a plumber riding a dinosaur.
But of the 783 titles released for the console, only a relative few remain key touchstones indicative of the system’s best and most enduring work. We spoke to a number of game developers, producers, and designers about the SNES classics they grew up with and whose DNA remains a key part of the current gaming landscape. These are the games they singled out for their memorable innovations.
Which innovative SNES classics do you think have stood the test of time? Let us know in the comments!
Super Mario World (Nintendo, 1991) had a near-impossible task: follow up one of the most hyped and successful games of all time as the flagship release of the follow-up to the most hyped and successful system of all time. It was a complete success.
“I remember incredibly vividly when I first saw it. I was on a trip to the States, in a video game shop in San Francisco. They had a demo unit with SMW. It was on the third level, the first level that has some water… It wasn’t out in the UK for quite awhile after that. So afterwards when I got back I was just staring at magazines until it came out.” - Rhodri Broadbent, Dakko Dakko (Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims, Scram Kitty and his Buddy on Rails)
“I can remember playing Super Mario World for the first time and just feeling a ridiculous amount of joy and excitement, probably more intense than any other experience from my childhood.” - Eric Barone, ConcernedApe (Stardew Valley)
“The spin jump and breaking of bricks in general is largely the inspiration behind the Laser Drill in Axiom Verge” - Tom Happ, (Axiom Verge)
Even after thirty years and over fifteen installments, many point to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1992) as the best in the franchise and, some say, all of gaming.
“Greatest game ever made. Every moment is the best. Pulling out the Master Sword the first time? COME ON.” - Sean Krankel, Night School Studio (Oxenfree)
“I clearly remember seeing the rain and lighting in the beginning of Link to the Past for the first time – it probably doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but it was a big step [up] from NES.” - James Petruzzi, Bit Kid Inc. (Chasm)
“I didn't get a chance to play it until my family stayed at a hotel that had a SNES that was hooked up to a timer. Basically, you were charged something like $3-4 to your room and you got to play the SNES for about an hour before it asked for more money. When the hour was up, it would reset the console and wouldn't record any saves, so it was easily the worst way to try to play a game as large as A Link to the Past. That didn't stop me. I probably played through the intro and first dungeon at least ten times at various hotels before I finally had an opportunity to play the whole game… At the time, it just felt immense, a trait shared by most of the SNES games I remember.” - Alec Thomson, Hexecutable (Beglitched)
“The bosses in Zelda are [what] I consider to be the archetypes for pretty much all bosses. On Star Fox Command, the producer on that was actually one of the artists on Zelda 3. [Takaya Imamura.] He runs some of the more interesting games at Nintendo nowadays. - Rhodri Broadbent
“I'm not sure anyone's made a better game yet. Still, the first time I finished it, I was disappointed (though not surprised) there wasn't a Second Quest.” - Tom Happ
Samus Aran’s more recent first-person adventures in space are better known by some, but it is Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994) that codified the 2D exploration genre, giving 16-bit players some of their most enduring memories.
“We referenced Super Metroid extensively in the design process of Oxenfree, studying the map of Zebes. While Alex might not have earned a ton of new abilities, we used narrative beats and some basic upgrades to push exploration out from the center of a contiguous game world.” - Sean Krankel
“When I was an undergrad, one of my housemates owned a SNES and would regularly speedrun Super Metroid--we even had a drinking game about it. It was from him that I learned all the ways you could use secret moves in the game--Wall jumps? Shine sparks?!?--to play everything out of order. It amazed me that you could do this and the game was still completely coherent. With our game Beglitched, there is a narrative and there is plenty of explanation since the mechanics are kinda strange, but we were very careful to make sure that the world of the game still felt alien and slightly incomprehensible.” - Alec Thomson
“Incredible controls, and constantly oozes cool and badass-ness. Really felt like a world worth exploring.” - Chris King, Batterystaple Games (20XX)
“That was the first game that gave me a jump scare. Towards the end of the game, there’s the scene with the baby Metroid, who’s now all grown up, it comes out from the side of the screen and basically attacks you. I jumped out of my seat. I was playing it at night when I was supposed to be in bed. And my parents were asleep. It was all quiet. I had my TV turned all the way down. And I jumped--my hands were very clammy from that.” - Chris Johnston, Adult Swim Games (Headlander, Pocket Mortys)
The Sega Genesis might have brought home Altered Beast, but Street Fighter II (Capcom, 1992) was the first time the most popular arcade game in the world could be played with on your couch with your friends.
“Street Fighter II was the reason I, and many other people, bought a SNES. It redefined the concept of the home arcade experience.” - Phil Tossell, Nyamyam, Ltd. (Tengami)
“Before the SNES release, this game was everywhere: not just arcades but pizza restaurants, convenience stores, public bathrooms, funeral homes. It was a social thing that you would do everywhere outside of the house, just regularly battling strangers in public. Suddenly I can bring it home for a mere 70 bucks, memorize nonsensical inputs, and awkwardly crab claw my SNES gamepad while cussing out my best friend? Heaven.” - Sean Krankel
“Street Fighter II… sort of exemplified, ‘Wow, you really now can have arcade games at home.’ As a kid, I was so over the moon by that whole idea.” - Rhodri Broadbent
Role-playing games were still a somewhat niche genre in North America when Final Fantasy VI (Square, 1994) came out, but those who played it were gobsmacked by its ambition, storytelling, and world-building.
“That was the first time an RPG captivated me enough to get all the way to the end. Especially the opera house scene. [It’s] just amazing what they did with such limited resources. They have this full opera that goes for 15-20 minutes… I’d never seen anything like that.” - Chris Johnston
“I think FF6 was the first game I played that didn't really have a single protagonist. The cast was also really large. In the second half of the game ("World of Ruin"), you're kinda allowed to do whatever you want before you go and fight the final boss. This part of the game just throws you into the world and lets you do what you want with little direction. I actually stopped playing this game once I learned that my favorite party member, the ninja Shadow, was never coming back because I had failed to properly save him earlier in the game. Whoops.” - Alec Thomson
“One of my first really epic experiences on the SNES. FFVI had it all - a gripping story, great characters, an awesome villain, a great soundtrack, an incredible third act twist, and a really deep combat/character progression system.” - Chris King
“I'm almost certain I wouldn't be a game developer now if I hadn't played Super Nintendo as a kid. Games like Final Fantasy III had a huge influence on my own style. Not only the art but also the music, writing, and general spirit.” - Eric Barone
CD-based systems were about to change everything when Nintendo, with help from Argonaut Software and its young programming whiz, showed the SNES could still captivate players with the polygonal space-shooter Star Fox (Nintendo, 1993).
“It was one of those games where I could play it almost blindfolded.” - Chris Johnston
“I entered a contest called the Super Star Fox Weekend at a local Toys R Us, won an FX Chip shirt, and felt like Fred Savage in The Wizard for a few months. I am still in love with this game.” - Sean Krankel
“Even without surround sound, the audio design adds so effectively to the daunting sense that a huge boss spacecraft is coming in from behind you. It’s quite a feat.” - Rhodri Broadbent
“I saved my pocket money for a whole year to buy Star Fox (or Starwing as it was called in the UK). SNES cartridges were insanely expensive for a schoolboy at that time. I think Star Fox was £59.99 which seemed like an insurmountable amount to me. When I finally got it I played it through over and over again. The 3D, whilst simplistic by today’s standards, was brilliantly done.” - Phil Tossell
Known in North America as Super Mario World 2, this non-sequel is actually an entirely different game, inventing new mechanics and goals in a genre that seemed set in stone before Yoshi’s Island (Nintendo, 1995) came and made other platformers feel inert and lifeless.
“Yoshi’s Island is incredible for many reasons. They took Mario into a space that was not just about getting to the goal but it was about mastering the whole stage and finding everything. As long as you can re-catch Mario, you’re safe. It was the invention of the regenerating health shield you have in Halo.
The player never felt like they were frustratedly running into every wall and touching every pixel. They were trying to decode the stage… It wasn’t just ‘Where is it?’ In this game, it was 'Where would it be?' You got an understanding of the level design and how [the designers] were thinking. It was very holistic.
For Floating Cloud God, we were looking at Yoshi’s Island boss design for inspiration. It’s more the feel than actual borrowing mechanics. Not sure if we achieved that… having us try to meet Yoshi’s Island standards is going to be a tricky comparison. But that’s what we’re striving for.” - Rhodri Broadbent
With Super Mario Kart (Nintendo, 1992), a mascot’s dalliance behind the steering wheel turned into a tent-pole franchise that redefined the term “rubber-banding.” Friendships would never be safe again.
“Super Mario Kart was the epitome of single screen multi-player.” - Phil Tossell
“A far more interesting design than F-Zero. Crazy tight controls, varied modes, balanced power ups, and a world that was just endlessly enjoyable to be in. I remember driving around the Koopa Beach level like a tourist, just staring at the environment and being mesmerized that you could gauge how deep the water was by its varying darkness. Tell me another time where a game franchise adopted a mostly unrelated set of mechanics, invented a genre, and dominated said genre for over 20 years.” - Sean Krankel
How do you evolve a classic franchise for a new generation? Mega Man X (Capcom, 1993) turned it up to XI.
“I'm probably not allowed to make a list like this without including Mega Man X. Amazing controls, sharp level design, cool bosses, and awesome power-ups. Really fulfills the ‘start as garbage, end as a god’ fantasy while maintaining a good challenge level throughout.” - Chris King
This first attempt at turning the Mushroom Kingdom into a rich landscape filled with talking characters and perilous quests made Super Mario RPG (Nintendo/Square, 1996) a fine capstone for the system and the start of an enduring new series.
“I still think there are very few games that exist even nowadays that really nail the elegance and simplicity of the RPG like Super Mario RPG did. It had just enough depth to be interesting on a "meta" level, but was also simple enough that if you didn't really understand what you were playing, you could ease your way into it, and there was really never any point in which the game punishes you for not knowing it in and out. The fact that it also included "reflexive" skill as well, instead of just pressing X to watch an attack animation over and over, made the actual act of playing it far more engaging, and it made the battles a lot of fun. And really terrifying at times. - T. J. Thomas, alpha six productions (Joylancer)
In an era where action games were #1, ActRaiser (Enix, 1991) married fighting monsters with simulation-esque strategy to give console gamers their first taste of playing God. But for many, the draw was the music.
“Yuzo Koshiro's orchestral soundtrack [for ActRaiser] sounded amazingly realistic due to the system's sound sampler. A lot of folks were into the town-building, but actually the music in those stages wasn't as good as the side-scrolling action stages, which to me was the main event.” - Tom Happ
He was only 17 when he moved to Kyoto to help Nintendo program and design Star Fox. His pioneering work making a 3D engine for the low-powered Game Boy (1992’s X) got their attention and the team at Argonaut Software would help develop a new chip called the SuperFX chip that enabled the SNES to create the polygonal worlds of Fox McCloud and Friends.
Cuthbert was the proverbial kid in a candy store.
“While I was at Nintendo there was this massive chest of drawers that contained every single SNES title that had ever been released. Every lunchtime I would go and pick three at random and play them. I played so many I can’t remember them all, but a few stand-outs were SimCity, Contra III, Rock ‘n Roll Racing, and F-Zero. And of course Super Mario World.” - Dylan Cuthbert, Q-Games