Super NES Classic in Review

Nostalgia is powerful.

It wrestled $60 out of my pocket earlier this year, when I was finally — blessedly! — able to get my hands on the NES Classic Edition mini console after it went up for sale on one of Amazon’s Treasure Trucks. And it’s done it again, only for $80 this time, with the Super NES Classic Edition.

I make it sound like the money was not given willingly, but it was. I would’ve paid double what I paid just to own the NES Classic. Still, I understand the complexity of my relationship with nostalgia. For as much as I value my time with the NES growing up, I can objectively look back on most of its games and say, “These are not good games.”

It’s not their fault. Like any art form, games have gotten better, more complex, more artistic, as time has gone by. Even the NES looked like a gift from the gods compared to something like the Atari 2600. Comparing an NES game to a Playstation 4 game is similarly disjointed. One is informed by all the game history that came before it; one helped write that history.

The Super NES Classic Edition is a bit different than the NES Classic, however. With the advent of the Super NES, developers started to “get it.” Elements of good game design, elements that continue to be represented in games today, were finding their way into games with more consistency in the Super NES era. Things like needlessly high difficulty levels (a holdover from arcade games, in which the idea was to milk as much money from gamers as possible) were generally left by the wayside. Roleplaying games had coherent and interesting plots. Platformers were tighter, more complex and nuanced and varied. The graphics were better, sure, but that’s the least of the improvements. Super NES games were the first significant step toward gaming’s own maturity as a medium. What this all adds up to is a mini console with 9 fewer games than the NES Classic, but a console with significantly more games worthy of your time.

Let’s talk about those games — or, at least, some of them. Here’s the full list, if you’re curious:

Contra III: The Alien Wars
Donkey Kong Country
Final Fantasy III
Kirby’s Dream Course
Kirby Super Star
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Mega Man X
Secret of Mana
Star Fox
Star Fox 2
Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
Super Castlevania IV
Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
Super Mario Kart
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Super Mario World
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Super Metroid
Super Punch-Out!

Many gamers of a certain age are intimately familiar with most, if not almost all, of these titles. The one exception would be Star Fox 2, which was never released and is an SNES Classic exclusive. Let’s talk about that one first.

Star Fox 2
I won’t go into depth on why Star Fox 2 was finished but never released. It’s been written about many times. To sum it up, Nintendo was afraid the 3D graphics looked too simplistic compared to the upcoming Playstation, so they shelved it. What they shelved, however, is a fascinating game. It’s one of the strangest I’ve ever played. Unlike the original Star Fox, which is a fairly standard on-rails space shooter, Star Fox 2 is a shooter, a walking tank combat game, and a real-time strategy game all in one. You choose from two of the six available fighter pilots (returning favorites like Fox McCloud and Falco Lombardi along with newbies Miyu and Fay), each with their own inherent abilities, and then you dive straight into the action. The evil Andross is back, and his fleet is moving on Corneria. You’re presented with a solar system map, and you are free to move about it however you want. Moving can be dangerous, though, as it starts the clock, and enemy waves begin descending on Corneria. Your job is to jump around the map, taking out enemy bases on various planets while keeping an eye on the situation in Corneria, flying back to defend it whenever necessary.

This simplistic description doesn’t quite do the game justice. Time is constantly moving while you’re in action. You can be in the middle of a dogfight with one of the Star Wolf baddies and receive notification that Corneria is under attack. Andross’s fleet is always on the move. Plotting out the best course of action and actually executing on it is challenging and super rewarding. It’s a completely different type of game. I really can’t think of anything to compare it to.

It’s also a very, very short game. I finished my first run in about 20 minutes. But the goal of the game is to complete it as quickly as possible. You’re rated on your performance — how quickly you completed your objectives, how little damage you allowed Corneria to take — and this determines your score. The point of the game is to become a better player. There’s no plot to speak of driving you forward, merely the goal of self improvement. If I have one criticism, it’s that I’d really like a plot — even a relatively simplistic one like Star Fox 64’s — to encourage me to play again and again. Having said that, I’m not sure how to integrate a plot into a game as open as this one. It’s truly remarkable, made even more impressive by the fact that it’s on the Super Nintendo. Even if you only give it one playthrough, it’s worth your time.

In the 8- and 16-bit eras, platformers were never in short supply. As with other genres, game companies learned a lot from their NES outings and really brought their A game with the Super Nintendo. The offerings on display in the SNES Classic are some of the highest quality platformers out there. Super Mario World, obviously, is the game a lot of people think of when the subject of truly great platformers comes up. And it’s great! It was a high watermark for the series (yes, I hold it slightly above Super Mario Bros. 3. Fight me). But the other games in this collection are fantastic examples, too.

Yoshi’s Island in particular is a game that has fallen off the radar, primarily due to the fact that it hasn’t been available in its original form since the Super NES era. It utilized the Super FX 2 add-on chip, the same chip powering the 3D effects in Star Fox 2, and for whatever reason, Nintendo previously found it too difficult to emulate. Well, they’ve solved that problem, and the game is here in its original, untouched glory. There’s a vocal minority that sees Yoshi’s Island as even a step above the fantastic Mario World. I’m not sure yet if I’m in that camp — I need to complete full play-throughs of both before I’m willing to make that call — but the fact that it’s a strong argument means Yoshi’s Island is a game to pay attention to.

Contra III: The Alien Wars is another in the incredibly difficult platforming sub genre. Yes, I know I said games in the Super NES era weren’t as difficult as their NES forebears, and that’s true. I was able to get to level 3 in Contra III, unlike the original, in which I was barely able to crack level 1. It’s punishing, but there are a significant number of quality-of-life upgrades that make it playable, and that’s key.

Platformers are well represented here, classics like Kirby Super Star, Mega Man X, and Donkey Kong Country being particularly notable. And don’t forget Super Metroid, which many believe remains the best Metroid game ever made, even after all these years. Just a truly remarkable lineup.

One genre that the Super NES never found itself lacking was role-playing games. Perhaps owing to the fact that the SNES’s processor was a bit on the slow side, making fast-paced action games harder to create, slow-burn RPGs really came into their own on the platform. Some of them are still held up as the greatest in their genre, even now, decades later. And several of those genre-defining games are on the SNES Classic. Lucky us!

Final Fantasy III (or VI, if you’re a purist) is often heralded as the peak of the Final Fantasy series. While newer fans might make a case for Final Fantasy VII, the final entry in the series for the Super Nintendo told an incredibly engaging story with a huge cast of interesting characters, all while integrating new and complex systems that made the battles more fun than ever. It’s inclusion here is a no-brainer. Final Fantasy III is a masterpiece. But I don’t need to convince many people of that. One game that does need a little more attention, one that’s deserving of so much more praise than it received back upon its release, is Earthbound.

Whether it was because of the old-school combat or the simplistic graphics, reviewers didn’t treat it too kindly. It’s only been with the passage of time, and the eventual resurgence of old school-esque indie games, that Earthbound has been given its proper due. Here is a game that had a lot of weird ideas, and a game that executed on those weird ideas perfectly. Its battle system is old school, sure, but it contains interesting, modern-feeling features. For example, when backtracking through previous areas, Earthbound doesn’t make you fight weak enemies. Engaging in combat with them leads to an automatic YOU WIN! screen. Not just a time saver, but a frustration killer. As another example, consider your hit points. They’re not simple digits; they’re etched onto an odometer-like contraption. When you take damage, your hit points roll down. This doesn’t happen instantaneously, which means that if you take a nasty, life-ending hit, you’ve got time to recover your health before it hits zero. Doing so will keep you in the fight. It’s odd to me that more games haven’t stolen some of Earthbound’s ideas.

I could go on and on about Earthbound and Final Fantasy III and Mario RPG and Secret of Mana, but I’d better stop. The RPGs alone justify the $80 price of the Super NES Classic. You can take that to the bank.

If I wanted, I could extend this piece by at least two thousand words, writing about all the other games in the SNES Classic Edition. But I’d really just be making the same point over and over and over: If you grew up during the SNES era and loved any of these games, find an SNES Classic and buy it. If you didn’t, but you love classic games, find an SNES Classic and buy it. If you aren’t into gaming and are looking for an entrypoint into the medium, find an SNES Classic and buy it.

It doesn’t have everything — where’s Chrono Trigger, many are asking, and rightly so — but what’s here is a fine example of the pinnacle of 16-bit gaming. Its lineup, its solid emulation, and its faithfulness to your memories make this the best item for the video game enthusiast in 2017.