Today In Video Game History: Nintendo Releases The Super Famicom In Japan (November 21, 1990)
Time for a new edition of our video game history files! After having a hit on their hands with their Famicom (and later the NES in North America), Nintendo was finally ready to bring a new era of video gaming to their native Japanese audiences. Even though the Famicom was still enjoying an abundance of success worldwide, it was time for a brand new generation of video game goodness to bring into the nineties. Of course, I am referring to the Super Famicom. It was today, 25 years ago, that Nintendo would release the new console to Japanese game players, and today, Retro Game Network brings a brief history of this legendary console.
Even though the original Famicom was still going strong, Nintendo had been given some new competition, thanks to newer technology that was being used at the time. NEC released the PC Engine, while Sega released their Mega Drive. Both of these systems took advantage of 16-bit graphics, while the Famicom only had 8-bit graphics. (Of course, we know that the games make the system!) In addition, both of these newer systems also had better sound capabilities, in comparison with the Famicom. While Nintendo had no real plans to design an updated system, when they began to see these newer systems take a chunk out of their market, they revisited the idea, and thus the Super Famicom was born.
The 16-bit architecture of the Super Famicom would incorporate graphics and sound co-processors that would allow tiling and simulated three dimensional effects, offer a palette of over 32,000 different colors, and 8-channel audio capabilities. In addition, the Super Famicom would also offer the ability to dramatically extend them all through chip upgrades that were found inside of each individual game pack, which would present a bonus capability when compared not only to the Sega Mega Drive, but the previous Famicom system. The central processing unit would be a custom 5A22 processor, based on the 16-bit 65c816 core. It offered a variable bus speed depending on the memory region being accessed for each instruction cycle. The chip had an 8-bit data bus, which was controlled by two address buses. Normally, only one bus is used at a time, but the Super Famicom’s built-in direct memory access unit places a read signal on one bus and a write signal on the other, which would achieve block transfer speeds of up to 2.68 MB per second.
Graphics, which is where the system shined, offered an output at either 256 or 512 pixels horizontal, and either 224, 239, 448, or 478 pixels vertical. Colors are chosen from the 15-bit RGB color space, for a total of 32,768 possible colors, with up to 128 sprites and 4 background layers, made up of combinations of 8×8 pixel tiles. Sprites can be 8×8, 16×16, 32×32 or 64×64 pixels, each using one of the systems eight 16-color palettes and tiles from one of two blocks of 256. Sprites may be flipped horizontally and vertically as a whole, with as many as 32 of them being able to appear on any one line. Background layers range from 32×32 to 64×64 tiles, each being a size of 8×8 or 16×16 pixels, with each tile on one of two planes, and using one of 8 palettes.
The audio abilities consisted of an 8-bit Sony SPC700, a 16-bit DSP, 64 kB of SRAM shared by the two chips, and a 64 byte boot ROM. The audio subsystem is almost totally independent from the rest of the console, being clocked at 24.576 MHz, communicating only with the CPU via 4 registers. RAM is accessed at 3.072 MHz, which is used to store the program and stack, the audio sample data and pointer table, and the echo buffer. The SPC700 runs programs to accept instructions and data from the CPU and to manipulate the DSP registers to generate the appropriate music and sound effects. The DSP generates a 16-bit waveform at 32 kHz by mixing input from 8 independent voices and an 8-tap FIR filter typically used for reverberation. Each voice can play its sample at a variable rate. The voice and FIR filter outputs are mixed both for direct output and for future input into the FIR filter.
Just like the original Famicom and NES, Nintendo implemented several types of regional lockout, including both physical and hardware incompatibilities. Physically, the cartridges are shaped differently for different regions. While the Super Nintendo, when released in North America, would have cartridges with a rectangular bottom with inset grooves matching protruding tabs in the console, cartridges from other regions are narrower with a smooth curve on the front and no grooves. Adapters were made to get around this, and modifications have been done over the years to overlook this incompatibility. In addition, internally a regional lockout chip 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.
The above designing was the creation of Masayuki Uemura, who was also the original designer of the Famicom. The new console was released to Japanese audiences on Wednesday, November 21, 1990, 25 years ago today. The original cost for the system was ¥25,000 ($210 US), and was considered to be an instant success. Out of the initial shipment of consoles of 300,000 that were made, all of them were sold within a few hours. In fact, it was such a crazy success, that the Japanese government asked video game manufactures to start scheduling future video game console releases on weekends to prevent chaos. Because of attention from Yakuza, an organized crime syndicate from Japan, a decision was also made to ship the consoles at night to avoid robbery in transit to retail stores. The United States would get a version of the Super Famicom, called the Super Nintendo (or Super NES), which was released on August 23, 1991. It would also get released in the United Kingdom on April 11, 1992, throughout the remainder of Europe on June 6, 1992, and in Australia on July 3, 1992.
When the console was first released, there were only a total of two games that were available for the system: Super Mario World and F-Zero. (Super Mario World would ultimately become a pack-in title when released as the Super NES in North America.) Both of these games would become classics in their own right, with a variety of Mario themed games to follow, as well as other games in the F-Zero franchise to come later on. Other notable games of release for the console include Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, which would be some of the best selling games for the console over time. In addition, games like SimCity, Pilotwings and Gradius III would also be hits for the system.
The release of the Super Famicom would also start one of the most classic and well known rivalries between Nintendo and Sega. Sega was always trying to make itself sound as if it were the more “cool” and “hip” system, offering games that were aimed towards older gamers, including having more mature advertising for such an age group. (This was also due to Nintendo’s continued look on limiting the violence in video games.) One of Sega’s most popular advertising campaigns included the now-famous slogan, “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t”, which could be seen in video game magazines and television advertisements all over the world. Nintendo however had an early advantage with the more mature gamer, when it released the very first console port of Street Fighter II for the Super Famicom, where it would take over a year for Sega to catch up. However even though the SNES version came first and had a large lead in time, the Sega port would ultimately outsell the SNES version, due to Sega’s decision to keep gore intact, while the Nintendo version was heavily censored. This classic rivalry would go on throughout the entire lifespan of both consoles, and ultimately American audiences chose the SNES over the Genesis.
The Super Famicom would also offer a variety of add-on devices that would become well known as the years continued. One of it’s biggest devices was in the form of the Super Game Boy, which was a cartridge that would allow one to play Game Boy cartridges on the big screen. But besides that, it would also offer other additional features to the existing Game Boy library, including offering color palettes to the monochrome system. The Japanese version of this device would later offer a communications port to allow live multiplayer abilities. Nintendo also released it’s version of a light gun in the form of the Super Scope, the Super Advantage arcade stick, as well as a mouse, most notably uses for the title Mario Paint. A device in Japan called the Nintendo Power would allow you to bring a rewritable ROM chip to a retailer, and have games uploaded to the cartridge. This was done as a successor to the Famicom Disk System, but uses a rewritable ROM chip instead of magnetic media. Also, third-party devices such as the Game Genie would also have a version created for the new 16-bit system.
Japan also offered some online capabilities with the Super Famicom, with the release of the Satellaview modem, which when attached to the Super Famicom’s expansion port and connected to the St.GIGA satellite radio station, could download gaming news as well as specially designed games, which were frequently either remakes of or sequels to older Famicom titles. The Satellaview satellite signals were transmitted between April 23, 1995 and June 30, 2000. When the Super NES was released in the states, a short-lived service called XBAND would allow users to connect to an online gaming network via a dial-up modem, to compete against other players of the same game around the country. While the service would be available for both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, and enjoy somewhat minor success, it was very short lived, only being available between 1995 and 1997.
At one time, Nintendo had also contracted with two different companies, Sony and Philips, to develop a CD-ROM-based peripheral for the system to compete with Sega’s newly released Mega-CD. Ultimately, deals with both companies would fall through the cracks. While the deal with Philips ultimately would give gamers Nintendo-based titles for it’s Compact Disc-Interactive system, Sony went further and produced a prototype for a system that was to be compatible with both Super Nintendo games, as well as a new collection of CD-ROM based games special for the system. (For the first time, a working prototype of this device was discovered and made public earlier this year.) Sony would later release this system as a standalone system to compete with Nintendo, in the form of the Sony PlayStation.
In the end, the Super Famicom had become successful in all regions that it was released in. Worldwide, the console in all forms, would sell 49.1 million systems, in which 23.35 million of them were sold in the Americas, and 17.17 million of them being sold in native Japan. While it didn’t sell as many units as it’s predecessor, the original Famicom, it was the best-selling game console unit of the generation. The Super NES in North America would be discontinued in 1999, with Nintendo’s newer console, the Nintendo 64 taking over the controls. In Japan however, the Super Famicom would remain available to purchase until it ceased production on September 25, 2003, almost a full thirteen years after it’s launch.
Today, the Super Famicom is still going strong, and has still maintained a popular fanbase. Since the 1990s, a variety of emulation tools have been available for computers, with popular ones such as Snes9x and ZSNES being well known. In recent times, emulation on mobile devices such as the Android operating system and the Sony PSP have been popular. In addition, Nintendo themselves still offer a wide variety of Super Famicom titles for their current home consoles, in the form of a digital download. The fanbase goes beyond official offerings as well, with a variety of homebrew titles still being created for the system today, some of them being very impressive in nature. So take a few minutes tonight, dust off the Super NES, or load up your favorite emulator of choice, and take some time to go back in time, to the early 1990s, and what was one of the great generations of video games in history.