25 Years 25 Games: A Celebration of the Super Nintendo

The Super Nintendo, the greatest video game system to ever exist, at least until this point, was released in the USA on August 23, 1991. 2016 marks its 25th anniversary. To celebrate, I’ve decided to beat 25 SNES games that I’ve either never played or at least never beaten. Some of the games I have chosen are classics that I just never managed to play, like Contra 3 or Super Mario RPG, others are hidden gems, like Skyblazer or Robotrek. Throughout the year I am going to try to beat these games and chronicle my attempts to play them. If I manage to get some sort of streaming going I might stream some of this, but otherwise I will just be writing about my experiences here.

I do have a list of games I intend to cover, though I do not have it whittled down to exactly 25 games, nor do I have the order that I plan to play them completely mapped out. Being the math expert that I am, I realize that I need to do two games a month, with one extra, to get them all done in a year. Here is the list:

  • Run Saber
  • Super Bomberman
  • Sparkster
  • Gradius 3
  • Contra 3
  • R-Type 3
  • Lufia
  • Lufia 2
  • DoReMi Fantasy
  • Space Megaforce
  • Radical Dreamers
  • Skyblazer
  • Illusion of Gaia
  • Terranigma
  • Magical Quest
  • Uncharted Water
  • Super Mario RPG
  • Saturday Night Slam Masters
  • Secret of Evermore
  • Legend of the Mystical Ninja
  • Joe and Mac
  • Death and Return of Superman
  • Actraiser
  • Wild Guns
  • Robotrek
  • Pocky & Rocky 2

I know I’m starting with Super Bomberman and that I’ll get to Super Mario RPG sooner rather than later, but otherwise my only plan is to spread out the RPGS, for obvious time related reasons.

It is kind of amazing that I could call a system my favorite of all time and still make a list of games such as above. There are some widely acclaimed classics on that list. It isn’t that I didn’t play a lot of SNES games, but I was pretty late to the SNES party to have the time to play everything the system had to offer before I and everyone else moved on to the PS1 or N64. I didn’t get an SNES until 1997, when the systems life was rapidly fading. I still spent a couple of years doing nothing but playing SNES games, but it wasn’t long before the siren’s song of Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time grew too tempting.

Now, 25 years after the SNES first graced our shores, I feel the desire to dig deep into it library and really see all that the system had to offer. Not that 25 more games to the ones I’ve already played is all the system’s library, but it is a good start. Now it is time to play with super power.

Video Game Archaeology: Dino City

It is time for more Video Game Archaeology! Video Game Archaeology is my monthly exploration of an artifact video game found during my excavations of various bargain bins and yard sales; an examination of a game cast off and long forgotten. This month’s game is Dino City from Irem for the SNES.

This game was given to me as part of a Holiday gift exchange with the intention of me covering it here.  One look at what is quite possibly the best boxart ever and I knew that I had to play this game. Dino City is possibly the least known game that I’ve covered for VGA.  The internet at large seems to have little to no recollection of it.  There are a few videos on youtube, but that is about all.  The few people that do remember this game seem to like it quite a bit and wikipedia tells me that it got fairly good reviews back in the day.  However, I have no idea why.  This is a pokey, awkward and too hard platformer with little in the way of personality.  I’m being kind of harsh, it wasn’t terrible, but neither was Dino City actually any good.

Dino City is loosely based on the straight to VHS movie Adventures in Dinosaur City.  I actually saw this movie, and if my 20 year old memories are to be believed it was not too bad.  I suspect that my memories are suspect, though.  The plot is that young Timmy and his friend Jamie try to watch TV on one of Timmy’s Dad’s experiments, who I guess is some sort of scientist possibly the mad sort, and get sucked into some sort of dinosaur land.  There they team up with some Dinosaurs to fight evil Neanderthals.  And to get back home, I guess.  This is a platformer, there really isn’t a lot of story.  The game was developed by Irem, famous mostly for R-Type and other shooters.  They also developed one of my favorite games, Steambot Chronicles for the PS2.  Honestly though, much of their output, especially on consoles, is rather mediocre.  For every R-Type, there is a Deadly Towers or Spelunker.  Still, they are at least competent creators of video games with some classics to their name.

The player can choose from either Timmy riding Rex the T-Rex or Jamie riding Tops the Protoceratops.  There is actually significant differences between the two, as Rex can only punch while Tops throws some sort of darts or something.  There is no advantage to Rex, Tops is better, as he seems to do as much damage as well as have enough range that the won’t constantly be being hit.  Which brings me to my first big problem with this game. Many enemies take two or three hits to kill, which is just unfeasible with Rex’s tiny punching range.  You can jump on enemies a la Mario, but that still takes several hits to kill them.  This leads to the player character taking plenty of extra hits.  At least the developers compensated for this, in the early levels I played at least, by leaving plenty of life refilling hearts around.  This is certainly less of a problem with Tops, since most enemies can be dealt with from a distance.  It is a completely different game depending on which dino you choose, and Tops is the right choice.  I couldn’t even hurt the fist boss with Rex, but I didn’t have much of a problem with Tops.

Another place where the game falters are the controls.  They often feel sloppy.  Your character doesn’t quite move like you would expect him to move.  Everything seems to happen in slow motion.  Maybe I am just lamenting a lack of Mario-esque momentum, but Mario is the gold standard for the genre.  But while I played, it just felt right.  It wasn’t helped by the way too high (read: cheap) difficulty.  It might be a mindset thing.  I expected it play like a Mario game, which are usually designed to allow players to build momentum and sprint through levels, but Dino City has a slowed, more precise pace.  I didn’t like it.

Dino City is actually pretty solid on the presentation side.  The graphics, while not mind blowing, are pretty good.  Especially some of the changing backgrounds, like the sunset in the third stage.  The sprites are big and colorful, just as you would expect from an SNES game.  And the music is not too bad either.  There are some decent tunes, but again, nothing much better than good.

I guess I can see some nostalgic love for this game from people who played it new, but it hasn’t stood the test of time too well.  It is hard in the least fun ways, having enemies that take forever to dispatch and tiny platforms with imprecise controls.  Really, it is the cheap difficulty that really sinks it.  Still, I would say it is worthy of remembrance for the majestic box art alone.  It is likely a game that is better than the movie it is based on, but we needn’t set the bar that low for our entertainment.

images taken from the vgmuseum.

Video Game Archaeology: Big Sky Trooper

It is time for more Video Game Archaeology! Video Game Archaeology is my monthly exploration of an artifact video game found during my excavations of various bargain bins and yard sales; an examination of a game cast off and long forgotten. This month’s game is Big Sky Trooper, an adventure/RPG from Lucasarts through JVC.

Honestly, I did not play this game as much as I did the previous entries; I probably did not play it enough for a fair assessment. The cause of this is twofold. First, my used cartridge is defective or just old and no longer holds a save. So any sort of sustained play is nearly impossible. Unfortunately, Big Sky Trooper is a big game, so I wasn’t able to see very much of it at all. I could have left my SNES on day and night to try to make progress, but that is not good on the machine. Or I could have downloaded a ROM and emulated the game on my computer (I strive to play these games in their natural habitat) but I didn’t. Which brings me to my second reason for not playing the game enough: I do not like Big Sky Trooper at all. Me and this game just did not click. Maybe if I had made more progress I would have come around, but the first hour or so put me off pretty thoroughly. I quit after an hour wholly bored with the experience. When I turned it on later to find no save waiting for me, I gritted my teeth and played that first hour again. I could not force myself to play it a third time. I started this feature to find obscure gems and “secret classics” (which are a thing I just made up). I know I would more than likely play many bad games looking for one that was legitimately good, but I take no pleasure in trashing a game, especially when in all reality I’ve barely played it. I did play it enough to get a general idea of what he game entails, though.

The fact that the game is from Lucasarts gave me hope that it would be good. Though they were best known for their PC games, in the early 90’s Lucasarts put out some phenomenal games. It was published by JVC, the company behind VHS tapes. They seem to have mostly published Lucasarts’ console games of the time, like Defenders of Dynatron City and the Super Star Wars games. Though it came out in the tail end of 1995, one would be forgiven for thinking this was an SNES launch title. The graphic do little to push the hardware. The game looks simple and cartoony, but not at all attractive. It’s just sort of charm-less kiddy looking fare.

After choosing a gender, the player is given a series of “tests” by a larger than life military commander who literally bursts out of the TV set on screen. The game seems to be striving for a Starship Troopers like tone, a satire, but the whole thing falls flat. Slugs are taking over the universe and the player, randomly drafted by the apparently incompetent military to lead the charge. The player is given control of a dog shaped ship called the Dire Wolf and controlled by a dog like AI. You are given a mission to reach a planet, seen on a map that shows several dots for planets, but you can’t just move straight to your goal. You must stop at each planet in between and eradicate the slugs. And before you can land on the planet, you mist play a crappy version of Asteroids to clear the path to the surface. The Asteroids clone is baffling. It is not a bad idea, but it is a really bad version of Asteroids. Your ship is huge on the screen and moves ponderously. I never failed to destroy the enemy ships, but that didn’t make those sections anything but annoying.

On the surface you shoot slugs with what appears to be a taser and ostensibly solve puzzles, though the only one I solved was simply standing on a switch to open a door. I assume the game becomes more complicated, but the first hour is dull and tedious. When you meet your contact, she tells you to go look for something else, again several planets away. So you must repeat the same tedium. I see from a map of the game world off Gamefaqs that the map eventually gets bigger, but that only implies increased tedium to me.

The world, the toothless attempts at satire and the graphics and the attempts at what I am guessing is humor, all fall flat. The gameplay is neither complex nor satisfying. It could easily get better after the first couple of hours. Maybe the gameplay options open up, maybe there are puzzles worthy of Zelda, maybe the writing hits is stride, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to stay to find out. The SNES has a library of great games, even some classics that I have not yet played (Super Star Wars for instance), I cannot justify spending any more time with a game that provides so little entertainment.

The 20 Best SNES Games

For the last of this week’s celebration of SNES’s 20th year of existence, I have resorted to best and laziest of ideas: a best games list. Since this is the 20th anniversary, I am picking my 20 favorite Super Nintendo games. As this is a list spun entirely from my own mind, I’m sure you disagree with some parts of it. To preemptively reply to any such complaints I say “neener neener neener.” Also “maybe you should go make your own list, with blackjack and hookers.”

Let us begin.

20) Actraiser

In what will be a theme for these early entries, I haven’t played Actraiser quite enough, so it might either deserve to be higher or not on the list at all. Based on its reputation and limited time playing it, I say it is the systems 20th best game.

19) Donkey Kong Country

Though DKC is one of the most successful games of the generation, I have barely played it. I liked it, but I have since played its reputedly better sequel and found it perfectly frustrating. I’ll give DKC the benefit of the doubt of being the better game and therefore being worthy of this list.

18) Super Street Fighter 2

I don’t know which version of Street Fighter 2 for the SNES is the best, I’ll leave that to the Street Fighter scientists. I do know that any discussion of 16-bit gaming must include talk of Street Fighter 2. Super Street Fighter 2 is the game I played as a kid, so that is the version I chose.

17) The Lost Vikings

This is a great little puzzle platformer from those who would be Blizzard. It is on par with the quality of their later games. I never beat this game, but I had a lot of fun.

16) Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island

Another game I have not played near enough. The graphics alone make it worthy of this slot, though.

15) Super Mario RPG

I hate jumping in this game. Other than that, it is great. The mix of Mario and Square works better than Disney and Square.

14) F-Zero

The original futuristic racer is no longer the best (F-Zero 64 is better) but this is part one of the proof of mode 7 in action.

13) U.N. Squadron

There are tons of shooters on the SNES, but I say U.N. Squadron is the best. Keep your R-Types, Axelayes and Gradiuses, I’ll take U.N. Squadron. Actually, I’ll take those others, too. But U.N. Squadron first.

12) Secret of Mana

I may not be this games biggest fan, but it looks nice and sounds terrific. I get annoyed with the gameplay at times, but even I won’t say it’s anything but great.

11) Super Mario Kart

The other proof for mode 7. This is the original ingenious use of the Mario franchise, and it is still one of the best. Really, do you need me to tell you that Mario Kart is fuck awesome?

10) Super Castlevania 4

I bow before this games mastery of a gameplay style that I don’t really like that much. Super Castlevania 4 does just about everything right. Despite its intentionally stiff controls, it is loads of fun.

9) Final Fantasy 2

The immortal adventures of Cecil, Rosa and Kain. Like some other games in this series, FF2 is one of the most influential games in the genre. The story may revel in the melodramatic, but it is still riveting.

8) Kirby Super Star

The best Kirby game? I think so. This not quite mini-game collection was a near perfect platformer.

7) Mega Man X

The Mega Man series needed a shot in the arm after 6 quick NES installments, and Mega Man X was it. Too bad its energy did not quite carry on to its sequels.

6) Earthbound

Quirky, weird and under appreciated, except but its consistently rabid fans, Earthbound is a tragically unique game. I wish there were more like it.

5) Super Mario World

Mario, still the best after all these years. Every single mainline entry in this series has been wonderful. Super Mario World may be the most wonderful.

4) Super Metroid

This is a constant atop best ever lists. Many believe it to be the perfect game. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I like the games above it slightly more.

3) Final Fantasy 3

The cast is arguably too large, the style change at the halfway point may be too great, but all of this game’s parts fit together perfectly. All the best Final Fantasies are multiples of 3.

2) The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

This is not my favorite Zelda game. But even my least favorite Zelda game is still among my favorite games. Not that is my least favorite either. More than even the original, A Link to the Past established what a Zelda game should be.

1) Chrono Trigger

My personal favorite game ever. I love every part of Chrono Trigger. There is nothing this game does that isn’t great. The closest thing I have to a complaint about it is that for a long time I had an irrational hatred for Lucca. No reason, just screw that bitch. She ain’t so smart.

The RPG Machine

Anyone who reads this blog should know that I am a pretty big fan of RPGs. A large part of my love of the SNES is due to it being probably the best RPG console to ever exist. The SNES library is glutted with great–and not so great–RPGs. More so than anything else, the SNES is great for RPGs.

That is not to say that subsequent consoles haven’t also had great RPGs. With the exception of the N64 they all have and I guess even the N64 had Paper Mario and Ogre Battle if you squint to make it count. The SNES, though, has an overabundance of all-time great games from the genre.

By my reckoning, there are 4 categories of SNES RPGs. The first are the “disputed” ones. These are the games that aren’t widely considered classics, but so have supporters, often vocal ones. This group covers most of the SNES’s RPGs. Games like the Breath of Fire or Lufia series. These are the games that you know one person who swears they are amazing, but most everyone else could take them or leave them. Some have tried to tell me that Breath of Fire II is a classic on par with the systems greats, but this is just not true. BoF II is too grindy and the translation it too mangled for the game to be anything but mediocre. My personal hobbyhorse in this category is Secret of Evermore. Despite longstanding hatred for not being Secret of Mana 2, I’d say that Secret of Evermore is a damn fine game. In fact, I like it more than Secret of Mana. I realize, though, that I can’t change the established narrative that they are the classic Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore is its bad, or at the very least misguided, semi follow-up. That is how the disputed group works. History has already judged these games and found them wanting, but there will always be those that claim Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is the “secret best” SNES Final Fantasy game. It makes all the games I’ve mentioned, and many more, worth a look, though you most likely find many of them to be not to your taste. However, there is the chance that you might find one of them to be a hidden classic.

The next group are the “great, but” games. This is a much smaller group than the one before it. These are the games that would be truly great, save for one flaw (or several small flaws). Like Secret of Mana and the fact that you can almost see the seams where large parts of the game were removed and the surrounding part sewn together. Or Super Mario RPG and its goddamn infuriating isometric platforming sections. Or Final Fantasy 2 and the fact that it is not Final Fantasy 3. My experience with FF2 really is a tragedy. After spending years wanting to play that game, I didn’t end up getting the chance to until after I had played FF3 and Chrono Trigger and next to them, it felt primitive and shallow. All of these games are definitely worth playing, though.

The third group is the “unimpeachable classics.” I say there are only three games in this group: Chrono Trigger, Earthbound and Final Fantasy III. Not only are these the three best RPGs on the SNES, I would say they are the three best RPGs, period. There are plenty of games on a similar level, but none that are genuinely better. Chrono Trigger is elegant. It is graphically stunning with a straightforward story and a deceptively complex battle system. Earthbound is truly unique (other than its Japan only sequel) with its modern setting and often absurd sense of humor. Final Fantasy 3 is simply bursting at the seams with game. The party has more than 12 members but never feels bloated, each with unique skills, as if they split each of the jobs from the previous game into its own character. There is a 20-hour game that climaxes before opening before another 20-hour game. All three of the games have terrific music. Everyone should play these three games, as often as possible. I make a point of playing 2 of the 3 every year.

The last group is the “not available” group. There are the numerous, numerous games that never made the trek across the ocean. It is lead by Final Fantasy 5, Dragon Warriors 5 & 6 and Seiken Densetsu 3 (Secret of Mana 2). Many of these games have since made it to America, but they will never be truly part of the SNES experience here. Many of them are great games; some have inflated reputations due to their inaccessibility. No matter the quality, the sheer number of games that we didn’t get–RPGs for the sake of this post, but there are many other games as well–is a tragedy.

Overall, there are so many great or nearly great RPGs for the SNES. I am not one to say that the genre has not evolved since the SNES days, but the games on this system were such a large part of shaping my tastes in video games that I cannot but consider it the best RPG console.

My SNES Experience

As I wrote the other day, though my love of the NES is unaffected, the SNES is my favorite video game system. The NES is certainly a console with some special personal relevance; its release date was within days of my own release date. I have lived my entire like in the Nintendo age of video games. (which of course began with the release of the NES, reviving the video game industry in the USA after the crash of ‘84.) Unfortunately, this means that the heyday of the NES was pretty well over before I was aware. The SNES’s release in August of 1991 occurred at a time when I was 6 years old and beginning to really get into video games.

My experience with the SNES did not actually start in 1991. I don’t think I scrounged up the cash to buy one (my parents refused to buy us another video game system) until sometime in 1996. But I was certainly aware of it before then. I had long had a subscription to Nintendo Power, (I think my Dad got it around the time of the Dragon Warrior give-away) so I had seen what the new system had to offer. I absolutely poured over the issue that covered Final Fantasy 2. My only experience with RPGs at the point had been the limited Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy 2 was a quantum leap above that. When I saw the original Final Fantasy on a clearance list at Wal-Mart, I jumped all over it. I loved Final Fantasy, but it clearly was not on the same level that I dreamed Final Fantasy 2 was on.

All because of this

I remember the first time I actually saw an SNES. It was my cousin’s; he showed it off by ruining his Dad’s A Link to the Past game. Okay, he didn’t really ruin it; he just smacked a chicken around until the flock of them attacked then paused the game, leaving it like a trap for his father to find.

The first time I played one for any amount of time was at my friend’s house in the summer of probably 1995. The reason I didn’t own one was due t a lost battle over a Christmas present with my brother. I wanted the SNES; (did he see those screenshots of FF2?!) he wanted a Sega Genesis. To play Mortal Kombat or sports games or some such nonsense. My friend had an SNES, but he didn’t have the coveted Final Fantasy 2. No, he had Final Fantasy 3! My 10-year-old mind was blown. Paying back years of his coming to my house to play Nintendo, I returned the favor all summer. (My friend also had an older brother somewhat meaner than mine, so it wasn’t all peaches and gravy.) Using Final Fantasy 3’s underrated two-player option, we played through that game together. Then we played Earthbound, then Chrono Trigger and other classics. That summer I became determined to own my own Super Nintendo.

That quest turned out to not be very difficult. Another friend had gotten a second SNES at Christmas and instead of returning it, agreed to sell it to me for a cool $50. From then on most of my money earned mowing lawns and from meager payments for doing household chores, went to buying new SNES games. I have always been nearly a generation behind on gaming, and with the usually cheaply acquired games, I found the latter days of the SNES were a Golden Age. Of course, not all games were cheap. I dropped more than a hundred dollars in one go on Final Fantasy 3 and Chrono Trigger, but they were easily worth it. There was also Super Mario World, Secret of Mana, Sunset Riders, Legend of the Mystical Ninja and many, many others.

The SNES was something of a Holy Grail console for me. For the longest time I searched for one, but could not get it. When I finally did own one, it turned out to be even better than I had imagined. You can make great arguments for so many consoles being the best ever: the sheer number of games for the PS2, the fact that most of the great SNES games are also available for the Wii or the combination of innovative brilliance and classics styles on the DS, but for me the best is and always will be the Super Nintendo.

A Super Friend Turns 20

August 23 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the Super Nintendo. This is a source of much celebration and rejoicing for right-minded people as the SNES is probably the best video games system ever released. It is also going to be the source of a week’s worth of celebratory posts on this blog.

AS much as I love the NES, I have to say that my favorite video game console is the SNES. As its name suggests, the Super Nintendo is simply a more powerful Nintendo Entertainment System. While there were a few different kinds of games for the system — like the 3D Star Fox and arguably Mode 7 racers like F-Zero, though they had NES precedents — most of the games for the SNES were fundamentally similar to those on the NES. Developers, however, had learned much in the six or so years since the NES first appeared. With the added power, they were ready to perfect the kinds of games popularized on the NES. SNES games looked better, sounded better, and played better. They were just more polished and expansive and just plain better in nearly every way than NES games. Compare Metroid to Super Metroid or The Legend of Zelda to A Link to the Past. (You could also compare Super Mario World to any of the NES Mario games, but that point is debatable.)

Better than Super Mario Bros. 3

Since the SNES was the last popular primarily 2D console (I said popular Saturn fans who only theoretically exist) it was the last time 2D games were the recipients of attention and dollars from publishers. After the SNES, 2D games were primarily throwbacks or fan-games, or the SNES’s second coming as the GBA/DS. This is why the SNES is 2D perfected; there was never anyone to make these games better than they were on the SNES. And while the SNES’s library isn’t particularly large, it is very top heavy. There are a disproportionate number of great games for the system.

Other than the games, the SNES also had maybe the greatest controller ever created. Nintendo has a way with controllers. Even their ugliest monstrosity (N64) works well in practice. The SNES controller is perfect in its simplicity. Instead of 2 face buttons, the SNES has 4, cleverly spaced and half convex, half concave for easy sightless button recognition. It also introduced the now essential shoulder buttons, which now are used as triggers for shooters but then were there to keep from gimping Street Fighter 2. For 2D games, there is nothing better than the SNES pad.

God's controller

The system itself was not as sleek as the controller was. It did fix the NES’s greatest flaw, the easily broken VCR-like sliding deck, but it looked very boxy, like a toy. The look of the system did not do it any favors in its competition with the Sega Genesis. In the battle between these two 16-bit titans, Sega tried to brand itself as the cool video game console. With claims of “Blast Processing,” a noticeably sleeker console and coups like blood in Mortal Kombat this perception was widely cemented. Sega’s success seems to have worked against it in the long run, though. Nowadays the Genesis is mostly remembered for fake “Blast Processing” and Sonic the Hedgehog. It is tempting to say that Nintendo let their games do their talking, Sonic may be facing some harsh critical reevaluations but Mario World is still widely regarded as a classic. But it is easy to remember that Mario did not beat Sonic back then, Donkey Kong Country did, with its “cool” digitized graphics. And Nintendo was hardly sitting quietly, it is just that their attempts to encourage players to Play it Loud were not so successful.

What could be cooler?

In the end, the SNES was not quite the cultural touchstone that the NES was. It faced stiffer competition from the Sega Genesis and mostly just built off the success of its predecessor. But the SNES was released at the perfect time to catch my attention and there are just so many great games that I could never love another console as much. So this week is going to be dedicated to my boxy friend sitting in the cabinet under the TV, growing ever yellower in its old age. This week I think I will Play it Loud, and I hope you will too. Or you could wait until the week that is actually the anniversary, but that doesn’t work with my blogging schedule.