SNES WEEK: Day 1
1) A brief history of the Nintendo Super Famicom/SNES
2) Arcana (AKA The Card Master)
3) Super Mario Kart
1) A brief history of the Nintendo Super Famicom/SNES - Powerslide (Barry Ip)
The original Nintendo Famicom (or NES as it was known in Europe and the US) enjoyed incredible success by capturing the imagination of the gaming masses. It helped to establish Nintendo as the dominant player in the market during the 1980s, and spawned a whole new era in terms of public perception and expectation of what video games can deliver; it would eventually contribute in defining how the industry works today. However, by the end of its life, the Famicom saw its dominance slowly chipped away by Sega’s Master System and Megadrive, not to mention competing machines like the NEC PC-Engine, and other home computers such as the Commodore 64, Atari ST, and Sinclair Spectrum. Not to be outgunned, Nintendo was hard at work on developing a suitable replacement for the Famicom in order to resume their place at the top. Somewhat unimaginatively named, the Super Famicom (SFC) was the eagerly anticipated successor which was finally released to an enthused Japanese gaming public in November 1990.
The Japanese machine, while perhaps not as aesthetically striking as its main competitor – the Megadrive – had sleek and curvy lines, much unlike its bulky and boxy predecessor. However, it was the SFC’s controller that was to become the machine’s greatest legacy. At an age where games were still being played, for the most part, on two- and three-button controllers, Nintendo were the first to introduce an innovative six-button joypad, which housed four main action buttons on the main face, and two additional buttons on the left and right shoulders (Select and Start buttons included, there were a total of eight buttons plus the conventional d-pad). Almost needless to say, this particular feature was to play a momentous part in catapulting the desire for developers to bring the new and highly-popular generation of beat-em-ups such as Street Fighter 2 onto the platform. Eventually, a whole host of other innovative and more complex games made possible via the six-button pad were to follow, and thus cemented the further success of the SFC. As testament to its success, all modern controllers can be seen to emulate the SFC with additional analogue sticks and more buttons, but it seems that very few have actually managed to eclipse the light-weight, intuitive design, and sheer feel of the original. If gaming Oscars were presented, the SFC joypad would receive a life-time achievement award amongst other accolades.
Following a hugely successful Japanese release, the SFC was to make its mark in the US and Europe. The machine was unveiled to US gamers one year after the original Japanese launch, only by then it would receive a customary name-change to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and detrimental to some, the console’s appearance was completely re-designed. For whatever reason, the US team decided on a version more akin to the bulk of the original Famicom and gave it a new coat of light blue – to those who cared, the machine hardly resembled the classy stature of its Japanese counterpart; thankfully, the only thing that remained unchanged was the joypad. But despite being less appealing to the eye, the US version actually held a technical advantage over all other versions of the SFC. Since the US and Japan both share the NTSC television standard, Nintendo’s plan for implementing lockout on the system (i.e. to prevent Japanese games from working on US machines and vice versa) was a built-in safety tab, which prevented Japanese game cartridges from being inserted into an American machine. Unfortunately for Nintendo, this particular aspect was quickly seized upon by the gaming community where the security tabs could be removed (albeit by sacrificing warranty) to allow compatibility of both Japanese and US games on an American console. As a consequence, US machines quickly became the platform desired by hardcore gamers all over the world who wanted nothing more than to get their hands on the latest releases from both sides of the continent.
Two years after the Japanese release, the SFC was finally unleashed in the UK in May 1992. Sporting the name of SNES like its US counterpart, the British machine retained the stylish appearance of the Japanese version but inherited sizeable disadvantages of the PAL television standard. This meant big borders on the top and bottom of the screen, slower games, and incompatibility of US and Japanese games via an additional CIC lockout chip. To discerning gamers, the UK machine was by far the least desirable of all, and led to many being privately converted to run at NTSC specification. Later, cheaper converters were developed to allow Japanese and American games to be played, but all this did little to take attention away from the fact that games were still being released many months after US and Japanese dates (if they were indeed released at all). Despite the drawbacks, the UK machine still took a sizeable foothold in the market due to the sheer mass of high-quality software at the time. Strong references can still be seen in today’s games of early SFC release titles such as Super Mario World, F-Zero, Sim City, and Pilotwings (see reviews). The importance of the SFC simply cannot be understated, as it immortalised games like Super Mario Kart, Street Fighter 2, Starfox, Contra, and Zelda, which all helped to fuel the massive rise of their respective franchises and underlined the versatility of the platform. It would be fair to say that most die-hard gamers went through the period of SFC/SNES ownership, and contributed to the informal technological education of modern gamers in one way or another.
Other notable contributions by the SFC was continuous technical improvement, which includes the DSP chip (used to create 3D-effect graphics on Pilotwings and Super Mario Kart), and the revolutionary Super-FX chip (used in StarFox to generate 3D polygon graphics). More impressive was that these additions were incorporated into the actual games cartridges, which despite costing a little more, meant there was no need for gamers to invest in new hardware or covert existing ones. In addition, cartridges were always increasing in capacity to allow for bigger and better games to be made – for example, early games were of 4-Megabit in size, but later ones such as Street Fighter 2 were 16-Megabit, and some released right at the end of the SFC’s life were reported to be as large as 48 Megabit! Other additions designed to prolong the life of the platform include the Multitap, which allowed four players to compete in games such as Bomberman; a Super Gameboy which allows Gameboy games to be played via the SFC in full colour; the Superscope which represented an elaborate evolution of the original Famicom’s Light Phaser; and the Japanese-only Sattelaview which allowed games to be downloaded via a satellite connection. Another notable, yet illegal, add-on was backup or copier units which allowed users to ‘backup’ and transfer their cartridges onto floppy disks. This became a highly thorny issue for Nintendo, who tried vehemently to prevent the use of these devices claiming that they promoted piracy and threatened the future of software development. Despite this, the SFC was still pioneering new developments right up to the end of its life, in the shape of Advanced Computer Modelling (ACM) graphics which were used by Rare for Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct, and demonstrated how the SFC was able to continuously punch above its weight. But the most exciting prospect of all was the plan for a CD-ROM device which could be attached to the SFC to take it into the next generation. Built as a joint-venture between Nintendo and Sony, the plans never came to fruition after many months of heated speculation, which resulted in both companies going their separate ways in the form of the N64 and Playstation. While gamers can only imagine how things would have turned out if these platforms were converged, one thing is for certain – the SFC, in both hardware and software, represents an insurmountable icon in the history of video games.
CPU: 65816, 16-bit (3.58 Mhz)
RAM: 1Mb; 0.5Mb Video RAM
Cartridge Size: 2Mb - 48Mb
Resolution: 512 x 448
Colours: 32,768, 256 at once
Sprites: 128 at once, 64 x 64 max size
Video Output: RF, RGB and S-Video
Sound: 8-bit Sony SPC700, 8 channels
Features: Two controller ports, extension port, Mode 7, ACM, DSP, C4, and Super-FX chips on some games
2) Arcana (AKA The Card Master) - Damien McFerran (Duddyroar)
Developed by Nintendo stable mate HAL Laboratories and released in Japan as The Card Master, this turn-based RPG remains one of the undiscovered gems in the SNES RPG catalogue. Mention the name to any gamer and it’s more than likely that you will be greeted with a blank expression. The game received very little in the way of hype or fanfare when it was released (it was never officially released in the UK). The few contemporary magazines that decided to review the game at the time were of the opinion that it should be swiftly forgotten and consigned to the mists of time. In doing so one of the most satisfying and rewarding games of the SNES era was ignored by many.
After booting the game up for the first time, it is rather easy to dismiss Arcana as nothing more than a Shining in the Darkness clone. A cursory glance reveals that this game steals whole chunks of design from Sega’s fondly remembered RPG title. The first person viewpoint is the same. The random, turn-based combat system is the unrepentantly similar. A town, complete with inn and general store forms the central ‘hub’ of your quest, just as it does in Sega’s game. However, looking past this blatant plagiarism, it doesn't take too long to discover that many of the shortcomings found in Sega’s game are smoothed over here.
The graphics are uniformly excellent, with nicely crafted enemies and a good variety of locations (including some outdoor levels). The main quest, whilst offering a considerable challenge, is slightly less frustrating than that found in SitD. The automap facility is extremely helpful and intelligent level design means you rarely end up going round in circles. This gives the player a great degree of confidence and empowers them to explore every nook and cranny to seek out hidden chests. In terms of plot this game isn’t going to win any awards, but the simplistic story of good battling against evil is fleshed out nicely and there are a few neat little twists and turns along the way. Characters join and leave the party at certain points in the game and this keeps everything fresh and interesting (although the fact that the player has no control on when this happens may irritate some). The dialogue is often hammy and badly translated from the original Japanese, but this was a fairly common occurrence back in the early 90’s. A special mention must go to the music – this ranks as one of the most impressive soundtracks on the SNES. A wonderful mix of slow, peaceful tracks and rousing, epic battle themes means that sonically at least, this RPG is on level terms with any other SNES game you could mention.
In a game where random encounters come thick and fast, the battle system is an important element. Thankfully HAL have crafted a deep and engaging battle system that revolves around physical attacks and a spirit/element magic system (Earth, Wind, Water, Fire). Each enemy faced by the player is aligned with a different 'element' and attacks need to be carefully calculated if they are to inflict maximum damage. The Spirits themselves serve as the ‘fourth man’ in the party and when they become 'selectable' can be swapped at will. Although they are fairly weedy when it comes to physical attacks, they can cast powerful spells and have the ability to imbue the rest of the team with the corresponding ‘element’ – this is vitally important when facing a particularly strong enemy and attacks need to count. Like the other characters, Spirits gain experience points and some of the later spells they aquire are quite impressive in both graphical terms and the amount of damage they inflict on the enemy. In addition to this, the main character has the ability to use magical spell cards. Although the Japanese title alludes to these cards playing a major part in the game, don't go expecting YuGiOh style shenanigans - the cards only serve as minor magical items, and the game can be completed without making much use of them. Overall the battle system is robust but doesn't offer up any amazing surprises – it does exactly what it says on the tin and nothing more.
Thanks to the fact that it has been largely ignored over the past decade, Arcana can be picked up fairly cheaply on eBay. It's hard to miss the American boxart – it’s painfully bad, yet another case of using breasts to sell a game (the fact that well-endowed female on the box doesn’t appear at any point in the game was obviously lost on HAL's American arm). However, any fan of Shining in the Darkness or the Saturn sequel Shining the Holy Ark should give this a few moments of their time. Arcana serves as a neat ‘bridge’ between the two and will provide more than a few evenings of entertainment for anyone willing to take the chance.
3) Super Mario Kart - Kubrick (John Henderson)
It's well known that Nintendo is now infamous for making spin-off games based upon their successful brands and franchises; Donkey Kong is now enjoying a second lease of life on the Gamecube as a music star, Yoshi, Luigi & Wario have also taken centre stage in various games of their own, and the proliferation of the Mario brand has reached almost unimaginable levels. So much so, that it's now something of a surprise when a new Mario game is actually a platform adventure like the ones that originally thrust him into the limelight.
It's fair to say that each new game released today which features the legendary plumber is more-often-than-not met by a somewhat cynical reaction from media and gamers alike, but back in a far more innocent 1992, Nintendo really struck gold with such a spin-off project. That project was Super Mario Kart, and the decision to put Mario and friends into go-karts instead of more conventional racing cars, was an inspired one.
To categorise SMK as a mere spin-off though, would be doing the game a massive disservice, given that it spawned a new sub-genre into the world of racing games; the Kart game. It also pioneered a lot of elements (or at least made them popular) that we now take for granted in racing games, and it's influence can still be felt today in racers such as WipEout, which features a very similar weapons/power-up system.
At it's heart, SMK is very simple. Each race in the main GP mode features 8 drivers which are all familiar characters from the Mario universe and each have varying driving abilites ranging from the great-handling Koopa Troopa, to the very fast, but unweildy Bowser. Mario himself, is a bit of an all-rounder.
GP mode takes place over a series of 4 races, with points being awarded after each race dependant on finishing position. The winner being the driver who accumulates the most points by the end of the series, with a gold cup being the reward for success. (comically presented by a giant flying fish, no less...)
The racing enviroments, are based mostly on Super Mario World locations and the circuits are laid out on rotating 2D playfields generated by the legendary Mode7 chip, much like the launch title F-Zero. The Karts and drivers are animated 2D sprites drawn in 16 different positions to give them a "3D" appearance and it's a very effective combination which still looks good today. Along with looking good, SMK also features a truly memorable soundtrack with great sound effects and fun tunes you'll remember for the rest of your life.
Track surfaces range from normal tarmac, to wood, ice, or even chocolate!, which all offer varying degrees of grip to keep things interesting. The racing enviroments are not empty though, they're populated by various obstacles, hazards, and "?" tiles which will release a random power-up item if the player drives across them. Most of these power-ups and weapons are based upon items normally found in a Mario platform game; Mushrooms, koopa shells, feathers, invincibilty stars and so on.
The weapons are without doubt an important part in adding a lot of fun to the gameplay experience, especially when playing against a friend, but even if the game didn't feature any, it would still be a joy to play (and is) thanks to the sublime controls and handling. Steering your kart around corners is simply a case of holding down left or right on the D-pad long enough for the required amount of time, but there's also the added twist of the jump-drift, which is executed by "hopping" your kart into the air, then steering as it lands to initiate a drift. This allows corners to be taken tighter, and at much higher speeds, which adds a significant layer of depth to the gameplay and encourages the player to seek out the perfect racing line.
It's this facet of constantly striving for the "perfect" lap that helps make SMK one of the most-addictive time-attack games ever. Hours will be lost to this mode once all the cups have been won in the GP races. Especially since most tracks have a short-cut or two for you to discover.
Besides Time Trial, and GP mode, there's also the Battle mode for 2-player fun. There's no finish line or time limit here, instead, the action takes place within an enclosed arena with your goal simply being to destroy the 3 balloons attached to your opponent's kart by ramming them or using weapons before they destroy yours. Battle mode is probably the game's crowning glory if you have a friend to play with on a regular basis.
Racing games in general may have come a long way since 1992, but none of them are as fun to play as Super Mario Kart. It's a game full of character and simply one of the finest videogames ever made. Despite 3 attempts on newer hardware, Nintendo themselves can't even top it.
SNES Week: Day 1
SNES Week: Day 2
SNES Week: Day 3
SNES Week: Day 4
SNES Week: Day 5
SNES Week: Day 6