The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, also known as Super Nintendo, Super NES or SNES, is a 16-bit video game console released by Nintendo in North America, Brazil, Europe, and Australia. In Japan it is known as the Super Famicom (Super Family Computer). In South Korea, it is known as the Super Comboy and was distributed by Hyundai Electronics.
The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was Nintendo's second home console, following the Nintendo Entertainment System (often abbreviated to NES, released as the Famicom in Japan). Whereas the earlier system had struggled in the PAL region and large parts of Asia, the SNES proved to be a global success, albeit one that could not match its predecessor's popularity in Southeast Asia and North America—due in part to increased competition from Sega's Mega Drive console (released in North America as the Genesis). Despite its relatively late start, the SNES became the best selling console of the 16-bit era.
Even as the original NES/Famicom was at the height of its popularity, several companies were launching their own consoles. In 1987 and 1988, respectively, NEC and Sega launched their contenders: the PC Engine (known stateside as the TurboGrafx-16) and the Mega Drive (one of the first 16-bit home gaming systems). Although the NES would continue to dominate the video game industry for years to come, Nintendo's hardware was beginning to show its age, and though Nintendo executives initially showed little interest in developing a new system, Sega and NEC's growing market share with consoles like the Mega Drive (Sega Genesis) and the PC Engine soon forced Nintendo to reconsider.
The Super Famicom's American redesign wasn't used for PAL consoles as the NES's had been.
Masayuki Uemura, the man responsible for designing the Famicom several years earlier, was put in charge of the design of the console and the Super Famicom was released in Japan on November 21, 1990 for ¥25,000. An instant phenomenal blockbuster, Nintendo's initial shipment of 300,000 units quickly sold out within hours. The system was so phenomenally popular that it was said to have attracted the attention of the Yakuza, leading to the decision to ship the devices at night in order to avoid robbery. In Japan, the Super Famicom effortlessly outsold its chief rival, the Mega Drive, and Nintendo retained control over approximately 85% of the Japanese console market thanks, in part, to Nintendo's retention of most of its key third party developers from the Famicom, including Capcom, Konami, Tecmo, Square Co., Ltd., Koei, and Enix.
Nine months later, in August of 1991 (the earliest sources indicate August 13; exact determination of the date is not possible due to the uncoordinated nature of North American retail video game releases during that era), the Super Famicom was released in North America with a newly redesigned case as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The release was an exciting surprise for North American gamers, since Nintendo had been advertising a launch date of September 9. Initially sold for a price of $199 USD, the North American package included the game Super Mario World. The SNES was released in the United Kingdom and Ireland in April of 1992 for £150, with a German release following a few weeks later. The PAL versions of the console looked identical to the Japanese Super Famicom, except for labeling.
Nintendo's Japanese market dominance was, however, not repeated in the American and PAL markets. By the time of launch the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis had already become firmly entrenched in the US and PAL marketplace, helped by the lower cost of the Mega Drive/Genesis console and games, Sega's aggressive marketing in North America, and overall popularity of the console alone. In addition many US gamers had come to expect backwards compatibility from console developers (as was the case with the Atari 2600 and 7800), but the SNES was not designed to play NES cartridges.
Rivalry between Nintendo and Sega produced what is possibly the most notorious console war in gaming history. Nintendo would never achieve market leadership in the PAL region, and did not manage to do so in the U.S. until 1994, benefiting from Sega's pulling out of the market and its continued production of SNES and its games well after the 32-bit era of gaming had started.
In the period of the early 1990s, a blue-collar anti-Japanese sentiment had grown to maturity. While the NES was accused of shoddy construction and poor planning, the SNES was rumored to be a tool of outright economic war. The SNES was incompatible with several American-brand TVs, causing the screen to hop 3-5 times a second, or (in very rare cases) even outright backfire on the TV set. Nintendo fixed all units aftermarket free of charge, but the theory held on for years.
By 1996, the 16-bit era of gaming had ended, and a new generation of consoles, including Nintendo's own Nintendo 64, caused the popularity of the SNES to wane. In October 1997, Nintendo released a redesigned SNES 2 in North America for $99 USD (which included the pack-in game Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island). Like the earlier NES 2, the new model was designed to be slimmer and lighter than its predecessor but lacked S-Video and RGB output, and would prove to be among the last major SNES-related releases in America. A similar redesigned Super Famicom Jr. was released in Japan around the same time. All of the American cases from the original NES to the SNES 2 were designed by Lance Barr.
Nintendo ceased production of the SNES in 1999. In Japan, the Super Famicom continued to be produced until September 2003 (also some new games were produced until the year 2000). In recent years, many SNES titles have been ported to the handheld Game Boy Advance, which has similar video capabilities. Some video game critics consider the SNES era "the golden age of video games," citing the many groundbreaking games and classics made for the system, whereas others question this romanticism.
In 2005, it was announced that Super NES will be available as downloadable games for Nintendo's upcoming console Wii, via the Virtual Console service. So far, it is expected that all first-party games released in America will be available, though there is no word yet on third-party or Japanese or European-only games yet.
Game paks, depending on which market they were released in, were of different shapes. The North American model had a rectangular bottom that had inset grooves which when inserted complemented the console's shape whereas the Japanese, Korean, and PAL cartridges had a smoothed curve on the front of the cartridges with no inset grooves. Since the North American console has protruding grooves, the Japanese/PAL game paks could not be inserted without the removal of these grooves and North American game paks being completely rectangular could not fit into the slightly curved opening of the Japanese and PAL console units.
Additionally, a regional lockout chip within the console and in each game pak prevented PAL games from being played on Japanese/North American consoles and vice versa despite the fact that PAL and Japanese cartridges fit in each other's consoles. The Japanese and North American machines had the same region chip, so once the difference in the shape of the game paks was overcome, game paks were interchangeable.
The simplest way to play the Japanese and PAL game paks in the North American system was to use a Game Genie cheat device with the small rectangular piece of plastic from its top removed. This not only circumvents the problem of different game pak shapes but also removes any problem with lockout chips due to the internal design of the Game Genie.
Alternatively, various other adapters or physical modification of the console could overcome regional lockout. Plastic tabs within the game pak slot could be removed (by snapping or cutting them off), allowing a Super Famicom game pak to fit in the North American console; however, care had to be taken not to damage the game pak port.
The working chip lockout system had the hardware in the console act as a lock while the chip inside the game pak was a key. Disconnecting pin 4 of the console's lockout chip caused a situation where there were two keys and no locks. This meant that the lockout chips would not operate and could not halt the console. Games towards the end of the console's lifecycle, such as Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, could detect this deadlock situation and refuse to run, so it later became common to install a switch that disconnected and connected the lockout chip as required.
PAL consoles often faced another modification. Instead of being re-coded, most PAL games were simply slowed down from 60 Hz to 50 Hz, resulting in 17.5% slower gameplay and sound effects. Additionally, PAL's higher resolution was not taken advantage of, and the extra scanlines were blank, creating large black bars that letterboxed the image. This practice was common across all consoles at the time, but created a squashed and out of proportion picture. As most PAL TVs support a 60 Hz variant of PAL and the SNES hardware made such a thing quite simple to add, a switch to select 50 or 60 Hz operation was often added. Some games, such as Super Mario Kart, were sped up for the PAL market to partially counter this problem, and running these at 60 Hz resulted in even faster gameplay than normal.
As an additional form of region lockout, later games would check that the SNES was running at the speed the game was expecting. PAL games would refuse to run on 60 Hz machines and NTSC games would refuse to run on 50 Hz machines. The solution was to start the game in the native speed and then flick the switch once the region check had successfully completed.
There was an adaptor made by various third parties designed to circumvent the regional lockout issues. A player could plug the device into the SNES (either version) and then place a game that would normally not run on that particular SNES unit (e.g. a rectangular game pak that would not run in the SNES unit designed for round cartridges) into the top. Then, into the back or behind the first game pak, the player would insert another game that would work on this SNES unit. The adaptor would read the game from the main port and use the regional lockout chip programming from the back one.
Throughout the course of its life, a number of peripherals were released which added to the functionality of the SNES. Many of these devices were modeled after earlier add-ons for the NES: the Super Scope was a light gun similar to the NES Zapper (though the Super Scope featured wireless capabilities) and the Super Advantage was an arcade-style joystick with adjustable turbo settings akin to the NES Advantage. Nintendo also released the SNES Mouse in conjunction with its Mario Paint title. Hudson Soft, under license from Nintendo, released the Super Multitap, a multiplayer adaptor for use with its popular series of Bomberman games. It allowed support for up to eight players, although probably the only game to support 8 players is Dino Dini's Soccer.
One of the most interesting and successful first-party peripherals released for the SNES was the Super Game Boy, an adaptor cartridge allowing games designed for Nintendo's portable Game Boy system to be played on the SNES. The Super Game Boy touted a number of feature enhancements over the Game Boy, including color support (in reality, merely the ability to substitute a different color palette: the games themselves were still limited to four colors) and custom screen borders.
Like the NES before it, the SNES saw its fair share of unlicensed third-party peripherals, including a new version of the Game Genie cheat cartridge designed for use with SNES games and a variety of game copier devices. In general, Nintendo proved to be somewhat more tolerant of unlicensed SNES peripherals than they had been with NES peripherals.
Around 1993 Nintendo suffered from software piracy, with the introduction of copybox devices like the Super Wildcard and Super Pro Fighter Q. These devices from Hong Kong were supposedly sold to create a backup of a cartridge, in the event that it would break. Most people used it to play copied ROM images that could be downloaded from BBSes and the internet, or to create copies of rented video games, all activities illegal under federal law.
Japan saw the release of the Satellaview, a modem which attached to the Super Famicom's expansion port and connected to the St. GIGA satellite radio station. Users of the Satellaview could download gaming news and specially designed games, which were frequently either remakes of or sequels to older Famicom titles, released in installments. Satellaview signals were broadcast from April 23, 1995 through June 30, 2000. In the United States, the similar but relatively short-lived XBAND allowed users to connect to a network via a dial-up modem to compete against other players around the country.
During the SNES's life, Nintendo contracted with two different companies to develop a CD-ROM-based peripheral for the console. Ultimately, negotiations with both Sony and Philips fell through, and the two companies went on to develop their own consoles based on their initial dealings with Nintendo (the PlayStation and the CD-i respectively), Philips also gaining the right to release a series of CD-i titles based on popular Nintendo franchises.
Like the NES before it, the SNES has retained interest among its fans even following its decline in the marketplace. It has continued to thrive on the second-hand market and through console emulation. Many gamers discovered the SNES after its decline. The SNES has taken much the same revival path as the NES.
Emulation projects began in 1996 with projects such as "VSMC" and "Super Pasofami," which, despite some important initial gains, did not last long past 1998. During that time, two competing emulation projects--Snes96 and Snes97--merged forming a new initiative entitled Snes9x. In early 1998, SNES enthusiasts began programming a console emulator named ZSNES. From then on, these two emulators have continued to offer the most complete emulation of the system and its various add-on chips like the Super FX Chip, although development continues on other emulators as well.
Nintendo took the same stance against the distribution of SNES ROM image files and emulation as it did with the NES, insisting that they represented flagrant software piracy. Proponents of SNES emulation cite as arguments for their continued distribution: the discontinued production of the SNES, the right of the owner of the respective game to make a personal backup, the frailty of SNES cartridges (even though cartridges are far more durable than optical discs), and the lack of certain foreign imports. Starting in the 128-bit era, both Nintendo and emulation proponents began to have a less active stance on this issue.
Despite Nintendo's attempts to stop the proliferation of such projects, ROM files continue to be available on the Internet. Since the console's discontinuation, second-hand market decline, and rapid growth of the Internet, finding the files has become less of a challenge than it had been with the NES. Most general ROM sites offer files for the SNES.
The SNES was one of the first systems to attract the attention of amateur fan translators: Final Fantasy V was the first major work of fan translation, and was completed in 1997.
Many sites that offer SNES ROMs for download claim it that is legal to download and play them for up to 24 hours. This is not true and is still copyright infringement. The 24 hour "rule" is a long practiced device to gain trust and generate traffic on ROM distributing sites.
Along the same lines, the newest claim relates to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act [DMCA]. It is claimed that the law enables ROMs and emulation as long as the original method of use, or a current method, is unavailable. Example: if a game for the SNES isn't available on a current generation console or PC CD-ROM playable by modern PCs, it may be emulated. Noted here as a claim, the veracity is unknown.
It is argued that these issues are the reason that prompted Nintendo to plan the Virtual Console service for the Wii console in an attempt to combat console emulation and piracy.
The design of the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom was unusual for its time. It featured a low-performance CPU supported by powerful custom chips for sound and video processing. This approach would become common in subsequent video game hardware, but at the time it was new to game developers. As a result early third-party games were of low technical quality. Developers later became accustomed to the system, and were able to take advantage of its full potential. It was the first console capable of applied acoustics in video game audio sold in North America, Europe, and Japan.
o Core: Nintendo custom '5A22', believed to be produced by Ricoh; based around a 16-bit CMD/GTE 65c816 (a version, not predecessor, of the WDC 65C816, used by the Apple IIGS personal computer).
o The CPU internally contains support circuitry for:
+ Fast unsigned integer multiplication and division
+ Generating an IRQ interrupt every frame at a specific horizontal raster line, vertical raster line, or at a single point in the raster scan
+ The ability to block or allow the NMI interrupts on Vblank coming from the Picture Processing Unit
+ Automatically or manually polling the game controllers or other peripheral devices
+ A memory-mapped 8-bit GPIO Port
+ A DMA unit, supporting two primary modes, general DMA (for block transfers, at a rate of 2.68 MB/s) and Hblank DMA (for transferring small data sets at the end of each scanline, outside of the active display period)
+ Controlling the access speed to or from any area in the memory map
o The CPU, as a whole, employs a variable-speed system bus, with bus access times determined by the memory location accessed. The possible clock speeds were 1.79, 2.68 and 3.58 Megahertz. But for most purposes the bus runs at 2.68 MHz and drops to 1.79 MHz when accessing certain PPU registers. It works at approximately 1.5 MIPS (using strictly 16-bit instructions) and has a theoretical peak of 1.79 million 16-bit adds per second.
o The SNES/SFC 5A22 CPU has direct access to 128KB of Work RAM.
o Sound Controller Chip: 8-bit Sony SPC700 CPU for controlling the DSP; running at an effective clock rate around 1.024 MHz.
+ Sound RAM: 64KB shared between SPC700 and S-SMP.
+ Memory Cycle Time: 279 milliseconds
o Main Sound Chip : Sony S-SMP
+ Hardware ADPCM decompression
+ 8-channel PCM
+ Hardware sound effects pitch modulation, echo effect with feedback (for reverberation) with 8-tap FIR filter, and ADSR and 'GAIN' (discretely controlled) volume envelopes.
+ Polyphony of 8 notes per voice
o SFx sound chip : Sony\Nintendo S-DSP
+ 3-channel PCM
o Low-pass filter for improved quality of low-frequency (bass) tones
o Pulse Code Modulator: 16-bit ADPCM (if programmer uses 4-bit compressed ADPCM samples, expanded to 16-bit resolution, processed with an additional 4-point Gaussian sound interpolation).
o Although the SNES is normally only able to output stereo sound, a few games (such as Jurassic Park) use Dolby Pro-Logic to create surround sound embedded in the stereo sound signals.
o Note - while not directly related to SNES hardware, the standard extension for SNES audio subsystem state files saved by emulators is .SPC, a format used by SPC players.
o Picture Processor Unit: 15-bit
o Video RAM: 128KB
+ 64KB of VRAM for sprite and layers effect like transparency
+ 64KB of VRAM for screen maps (for 'background' layers) and tile sets (for backgrounds and objects);
+ 512 + 32 bytes of 'OAM' (Object Attribute Memory) for objects; 512 bytes of 'CGRAM' for palette data.
o Palette: 256 entries; 15-bit color depth (RGB555) for a total of 32,768 colors.
o Maximum colors per layer per scanline: 256.
o Maximum colors on-screen: 4,096 without alpha and 32,768 (using color arithmetic for transparency effects).
o Maximum colors per sprite: 128
o Resolution: between 256x224 and 512x448. Most games used common resolutions like 256x224, 256x240, 512x224 pixels since higher resolutions caused slowdown, flicker, and/or had increased limitations on layers and colors (due to memory bandwidth constraints); the higher resolutions were used for less processor-intensive games, in-game menus, text, and high resolution images.
+ Resolution 512x224 named pseudo high-resolution is sometimes used for color blending between two sprites with dithering technique. For example: Kirby's Dream Land 3 (aka Hoshi no Kirby 3 in Japan).
o Maximum onscreen objects (sprites): 128 (32 per line, up to 34, 8x8 tiles per line).
o Maximum number of sprite pixels on one scanline: 256. The renderer was designed such that it would drop the frontmost sprites instead of the rearmost sprites if a scanline exceeded the limit, allowing for creative clipping effects.
o Most common display modes: pixel-to-pixel Mode 1 (16 colors (4-bit) per tile; 3 scrolling layers) and per scanline affine mapped Mode 7 (256 colors per tile; one rotating/scaling layer).
* Game cartridge size
o 2 to 32-Mbit (0.25 to 4 MB) which can be accessed at two selectable speeds ('SlowROM' and 'FastROM'). Upon power up, the SlowROM speed is selected by default, unless the game's program code tells it to run at the faster speed. This allowed ROM techology to scale with the system, as all early games were SlowROM, and then most became FastROM towards the end of the SNES/SFC's commercial market lifetime.
o Custom address decoders employed bank switching techniques to allow for larger sizes, eg. 48-Mbit (6 MB) for Star Ocean and Tales of Phantasia.
* Power adapter
o Transformer Input: NTSC: 120 volts AC, 60Hz, 17 watts, PAL: 240 volts AC, 50 Hz, 17 watts
o Transformer Output: 10 volts DC, 850 mA (NTSC), 9 volts AC, 1.3 A (PAL)
* Game controllers
o Controller Response: 16ms
o 2 seven-pin controller ports in the front of the machine
* Connectors and switches (may vary between console versions)
+ Expansion port on the bottom, allowing for Satellaview and a planned CD-ROM expansion, which eventually became the PlayStation.
+ RF output, offering only mono-sound and not very good picture quality.
+ Channel 3/4 switch, controlling on which RF channel the audio and video are output.
+ Multi-out, a connector identical to the one on Nintendo64 and GameCube. Outputs stereo (and Dolby Pro-Logic) sound, composite and S-Video signals, and on PAL versions of the console, also RGB signals.
+ Power input
+ Cartridge connector
+ Power switch
+ Reset button
+ Power indicator
+ 2 seven-pin controller ports
As part of the overall plan for the SNES/SFC, rather than include an expensive CPU that would still become obsolete in a few years, the hardware designers made it easy to interface special coprocessor chips to the console. Rather than require a complicated upgrade procedure found in the IBM PC Compatible world of computers, these certain enhancement chips were included inside the plug-in game cartridges themselves if needed for a specific game. This is most often characterized by an extra set of small leads under the cartridge.
* Super FX: Developed by Argonaut Software, the Super FX chip is a supplemental RISC CPU that was included in certain game cartridges to perform functions that the main CPU could not feasibly do. The chip was primarily used to create 3D game worlds made with polygons, texture mapping and light source shading. Some 3D game carts that this chip can be found in are Star Fox, Doom, Dirt Trax FX, Stunt Race FX, Vortex, and Winter Gold. The chip however could also be used to enhance 2D games such as Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. This chip went through three revisions, first starting out as a Chip-on-Board epoxy glob-top in the earliest Star Fox cartridges, labeled as Mario Chip-1. Within a year, the chip was given a more conventional surface-mount package and labeled as the Super FX GSU-1, which was used in various games. Finally, the design was tweaked to become the Super FX GSU-2 chip, which had a larger address bus and was manufactured with an improved semiconductor process to allow it to reach its target clock speed of 21 MHz. Although the pinouts and maximum clock speed differ, the instruction set for the Mario Chip-1, FX 1, and FX 2 chips are identical. Star Fox 2, Comanche, and FX Fighter, all games designed to take advantage of the increased power of the Super FX GSU-2, were developed but never released for the SNES/SFC, disappointing many followers of the technology at the time.
* DSP-1: This fixed-point Digital Signal Processor chip was created to allow programmers to generate more enhanced Mode 7 rotation and scaling effects in their games, and to perform very fast vector-based calculations. The chip can be found most notably in Pilotwings and Super Mario Kart, as well as a few other games. Later revisions of the chip, the 1A and 1B, were functionally the same but included bugfixes in their internal math calculations.
* DSP-2: A bitmap scaling and bitplane conversion chip used only in one game cartridge, Atari's port of Dungeon Master to the SNES console.
* DSP-3: An assistant chip used only in one Japanese game for the Super Famicom titled SD Gundam GX. Although this chip does handle graphics decompression and bitplane conversion, a large portion of memory inside this chip is dedicated to rendering a very complicated title screen, leading one to the likely conclusion that its inclusion was more intended to prevent the game from being easily pirated.
* DSP-4: A DSP used in only one game cartridge, Top Gear 3000. It primarily helped out with drawing the race track, especially during the times that the track branched into multiple paths, which was a unique feature of this type of game at the time.
* S-DD1 chip : Other than its normal processing and copy protection duties, this chip was primarily a graphics decompression chip. This allowed games to be bigger than normal by compressing the graphics data. Games that used this chip were Street Fighter Alpha 2 and Star Ocean. The game developers found it to be cheaper to add a specialized decompression chip rather than to add extra ROM space.
* C4 chip: A chip created by Capcom. This chip was used to handle the wireframe effects, perform more general trigonometric calculations, and to help out with sprite positioning and rotation. The chip was used in Mega Man X2 and Mega Man X3.
* SA-1 chip: This is an ASIC chipset with a 65c816 8/16-bit processor core, clocked at 10 MHz, containing some extra circuitry specified by Nintendo, including some fast RAM, a memory mapper, DMA, several programmable timers, and the region lockout chip. The SA-1 was a multipurpose chip that allowed games such as Kirby Super Star, Kirby's Dream Land 3, and Super Mario RPG to stay competitive in the changing marketplace during the aging SNES/SFC's final years.
* SGB CPU chip: This chip was used only inside the Super Game Boy peripheral and possessed a core identical to the CPU in a regular handheld Game Boy. Because the Super Nintendo was not powerful enough to use software emulation to simulate the Game Boy, circuitry equivalent to an entire Game Boy had to sit inside of the cartridge. The SGB CPU ran the main program from the inserted Game Boy cartridge, but relied upon the host Super Nintendo system to write to memory mapped registers the state of the gamepad buttons and to copy out the video frame buffer. Audio from the SGB CPU was passed along two pins on the SNES cartridge connector to be mixed with the SNES audio output.