This September, the Super NES Classic will assume the pint-sized throne abdicated by the discontinued NES Classic. Not only does it fit in the palm of your hand, it contains the never-before-released Star Fox 2, plus 20 first-rate titles from the system’s heyday. That’s saying something, considering the SNES’s vast library of classics.
Innumerable contemporary games stand on the 16-bit shoulders of the giants baked into the SNES Classic. In that light, the mini console could be thought of as a time capsule. Crack open its hermetic seal, and decades of history come streaming out: glitches, innovations, development anecdotes, pseudonyms, and oodles more trivia.
Ahead of the Super NES Classic’s release this fall, I’ve rounded up one historical footnote per game. Some of these might be familiar to you. Others might come as a surprise. All played a part in one of the industry’s most impactful generations of hardware.
Contra 3: The Alien Wars
Most Contra fans associate Konami’s run-and-gun series with the NES, where the franchise started. Except it didn’t start there. The original Contra was a coin-op game that found a much wider audience when Konami brought it to Nintendo’s 8-bit system. Contra 3: The Alien Wars also started as an arcade title… of sorts.
The threequel premiered on the Nintendo Super System, a coin-op machine that boasted hardware parity with the Super NES, as well as a menu interface for selecting games. Players had to insert quarters at timed intervals to continue playing. That fact, on top of Contra 3’s steep difficulty curve, made it virtually possible to complete until players were able to purchase the cartridge and play it at home.
Donkey Kong Country
Source: DK Vine
Peeling away the bright and chipper veneer of Nintendo’s family friendly image reveals a dark history of elitist and draconian behavior. At least one instance of such shocking behavior appears to be apocryphal, or at least the result of butchered translation. In 1995, Miyamoto, while sitting next to Rare co-founder Tim Stamper, allegedly said that “Donkey Kong Country proves gamers will put up with mediocre gameplay if the art is good.”
The quote made the rounds without a solid source for years, until Internet sleuths from Hardcore Gaming 101 discovered that Steven Kent, author of The Ultimate History of Video Games, was the interviewer in the awkward position of speaking with Miyamoto and Stamper following the Mario creator’s alleged jibe. Before he wrote his book, Kent wrote for Electronic Games, and was believed to have published his infamous interview in the magazine’s May 1995 issue. (As luck would have it, that issue is not archived online.)
Kent touched on the interview in a lengthy footnote on page 518 of The Ultimate History of Games. According to Kent, Miyamoto’s initial pitch for Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was rejected by Nintendo’s marketing department for exhibiting cartoonish Mario-style graphics instead of the slick pre-rendered models used in Rare’s Donkey Kong platformer. Stung by the rejection, Miyamoto came down hard on Stamper during their joint interview with Kent.
Miyamoto denied ever stating any sentiment to that effect in a 2010 interview with IGN. Indeed, Nintendo’s foremost designer worked closely with rare on DKC, suggesting the ground-pound move that the big ape used to unearth caches of bananas. Although Miyamoto hasn’t referenced his interview with Tim Stamper explicitly, he has confessed that Yoshi’s Island and its initial rejection had been a “touchy subject” for him at the time it was given.
After inputting your name in Mother 2/EarthBound, a voice says OK desu ka—Japanese for, “OK?” The voice belongs to Shigesato Itoi, lead designer of all three Mother titles. Legend has it that EarthBound’s developers slipped the quote in at the proverbial 11th hour, without Itoi’s knowledge. Hopefully he was OK desu ka with the Easter egg when he found out about it.
Final Fantasy 3
It took a village, as the saying goes, to raise Final Fantasy 6, released as Final Fantasy 3 in the west. Series creator and director Hironobu Sakaguchi had been promoted to executive vice president of Squaresoft in 1991, leaving him unable to commit all his time and energy to a single project. Assuming the mantle of producer, he appointed two directors for FF6: Yoshinori Kitase, who took charge of the game’s scenarios, and Hiroyuki Ito, overseer of all things combat. Sakaguchi supervised cutscenes.
Design duties branched out even further. Although Kitase was in charge of scenarios, every member of the development team pitched in with ideas for characters, their back stories, and the events they would undergo as players completed the adventure. Rather than existing as disparate plot threads, Final Fantasy 6’s stories coalesced under the theme of each character being a protagonist. Somewhat surprisingly given the game’s widespread development, production wrapped in just one year.
Released as a demo game on Nintendo Super System arcade hardware, like Contra 3, F-Zero launched alongside the Super Famicom in 1990 and the Super NES in August 1991. Produced by Shigeru Miyamoto, the game’s futuristic cars and settings were painted by Takaya Imamura, who expressed amazement at the latitude Nintendo gave him to envision F-Zero’s world.
“It was my first title,” Imamura said in a 2002 interview with IGN. “When I joined Miyamoto-san's team I was surprised to be allowed to design characters and courses as freely as I wanted. It is really impressive title for me.”
Kirby Super Star
Source: VG Facts
Call Kirby any name you like, just don’t call him late to dinner. You can call him late to Nintendo’s platforms, however. Kirby’s adventure was released in May 1993 for the NES, two years after most players had moved on to 16-bit consoles. Despite the SNES’s growing user base, Kirby Super Star entered production for NES. Developer HAL Laboratory went so far as to generate a prototype conceived as a proof of concept before the team migrated over to the Super NES.
Not all assets were remade from scratch for the SNES. Sprites for Kirby’s Cutter and Yo-Yo abilities were integrated wholesale from the 8-bit prototype. Nintendo and HAL admitted as much when the sprites were published in an issue of Famitsu magazine decades later. Masahiro Sakurai, the game’s director, explained that developing prototypes on older hardware is part of his routine. Whipping up assets for older hardware allows him to focus more on getting his ideas up and running and less on stressing over painting fancy graphics and learning new techniques and processes. Once he’s confident in his proof of concept, he and his team begin development.
Kirby’s Dream Course
Source: Moby Games
Kirby’s Dream Course was always intended to be a golf game, but it was not going to be a Kirby-themed title. Halfway through development, designers from HAL Laboratory and Nintendo retooled Special Tee Shot, a mini-golf game, to include characters and elements from Kirby. Later on, Special Tee Shot was published on the Satellaview, a satellite modem and download service exclusive to Japan’s Super Famicom.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Source: Glitter Berri
The Legend of Zelda didn’t just break ground when it ventured onto NES in 1986, it shattered it. An open world, the ability to save progress, purchasing items—those and other tropes were considered state-of-the-art in the halcyon days of 8-bit hardware and built-in battery packs. In designing Zelda: A Link to the Past for SNES, Shigeru Miyamoto studied the market and found it saturated with imitators and innovators. Rather than try to one-up the competition, he desired to iterate on the original Zelda’s design by pulling off feats that weren’t possible on NES hardware.
One chokepoint was the NES controller. Players had to work around Zelda’s two-button control scheme by assigning items such as bombs and candles to B, while Link’s sword was mapped to A. The SNES controller tripled the number of buttons, granting players more freedom but complicating Link’s abilities for the development team.
“There are switches that require you to pull them, right?” Miyamoto said in a 1991 interview, months before A Link to the Past was released. “You’ve got to pull them no matter what, so you should be able to do it just by pressing A. But just pressing a button doesn’t make you feel like you’re pulling anything.” Miyamoto’s solution was to ask players to first approach a switch, then hold A to cause Link to grip it, and then press a direction on the d-pad to pull the switch out from a wall.
Mega Man X
Source: Arcade Sushi
Early on in the development of Mega Man X, Capcom found itself between a Rock (Man) and a Hard (Man) place, leading to several design changes. Zero, the red-armored robot introduced in the game’s tutorial level, was pegged as the game’s playable character. Capcom got cold feet, believing legions of Mega Man fans would reject any protagonist other than the Blue Bomber, who by that time had taken center stage in over a dozen games across NES, Game Boy, and SNES.
Capcom, perhaps hesitant to deviate too far from the franchise’s lucrative formula, dubbed Mega Man X as Super Mega Man, following the nomenclature of dozens of other properties that made the jump from eight to 16 bits. One holdover of the classic series was the password system, implemented in favor of a save-game feature.
Secret of Mana
Source: Flying Omelette
Duke Nukem popularized the concept of viewing digital porn mags during gameplay, but he did not pioneer it. Secret of Mana’s Mystic Book enemies attack by drifting through the air and flipping to an arbitrary page, then casting the spell written there. Every so often, they’ll flip to a nude centerfold lying on her belly. The book displays an embarrassed animation before leafing over to another page.
Source: Iwata Asks
The cast of Star Fox features some of Nintendo’s most colorful characters, a squadron of animals capable of swooping and barrel rolling through danger. Miyamoto, who lent his guidance as a producer, explained that he was uninterested in creating a game starring humans, robots, and other sci-fi archetypes. He did not choose a fox as the game’s lead arbitrarily. “Star Fox has a lot of scenes in which the fighter goes through arches, which reminds one of the gates at Shinto shrines called torii,” Miyamoto explained in an interview with the late Satoru Iwata. “And torii made me think of the thousands of such gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha.”
Fushimi Inari Taisha is the foremost of Japan’s shrines dedicated to Inari, a divine being that resembles a fox. “In a prototype, there were lots of scenes like going through there. And when you think of Fushimi Inari, you think of foxes. Fushimi Inari Taisha is about a 15-minute walk from our former head office12, and there used to be a boys' baseball team in the area called the Inari Foxes. I thought, ‘Foxes! Now that's cool!’”
Star Fox 2
Source: Nintendo Life
Fox’s inaugural outing was a test bed for Nintendo’s Super FX graphics chip, an add-on component capable of displaying polygonal graphics. Star Fox 2 was due to expand on every facet of its predecessor before it was mothballed midway through development. (The game’s inclusion on the Super NES Classic marks its first official release.) Director Katsuya Eguchi, who partnered with Miyamoto to develop the original game’s character and story—and who went on to direct the Animal Crossing series—sought a change from on-rails shooting to a more open-ended structure.
“Eguchi-san wanted to investigate a more 'Rogue-like' structure to the game,” said former Argonaut Software developer Dylan Cuthbert in an interview with Nintendo Life. “I think you can tell from Animal Crossing that he likes that kind of iterative, exploratory style game, based on algorithms.” Miyamoto welcomed the shift in gameplay style, and viewed Star Fox as the perfect franchise to experiment with.
“The series was never intended to be limited to linear 3D scrolling stages,” Cuthbert went on, “and he [Miyamoto] will often say that the only reason they did that was to get the best speed and performance out of the Super FX Chip.”
Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
Source: Mental Floss
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. After years of attempting to stamp out the outbreak of Super Mario game hacks, Nintendo came up with an ingenious and profitable workaround in Super Mario Maker, a $60 toolset with which players can build custom Mario levels. Capcom followed a similar path with its Street Fighter II series of games. The developer dropped legal hammers on hacks, but fans pumped them out faster than lawyers could crack down on them.
Concerned that illegal spoofs might cut into his employer’s bottom line—and eventually his paycheck—Capcom USA’s James Goddard ventured into an arcade to try Street Fighter 2 Rainbow Edition. The cracked game featured absurd imbalances that would never fly in official competition, such as swapping characters mid-match and executing special moves in rapid succession, but one facet of its gameplay stuck with him. Back at work, he booted up Street Fighter 2 Champion Edition and was dismayed to realize how sluggish it felt after spending time with Rainbow Edition’s hyper-fast fighters. Inspiration struck, and Capcom turned around Street Fighter 2: Hyper Fighting, an iterative update that rebalanced characters, introduced new attacks, and ratcheted up the speed of matches, resulting in a faster and more fluid pacing.
Super Castlevania 4
Source: Castlevania Wikia
Don’t let the “4” in the title fool you. Castlevania series creator Koji Igarashi views the franchise’s Super Nintendo debut as a remake of the original game rather than a sequel. Japanese players were clear on that point, but western players were given a different chronology. During localization, Konami called an audible and modified the manual and in-game text to indicate that Super Castlevania 4 falls after Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest on the official timeline.
Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
Source: VG Facts
Nintendo maintained a strict agnostic stance on religious iconography in its games, both those created in-house as well as those it published in North America. In the original version of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, the final boss is named Samael, Hebrew for “Venom of God.” Capcom changed the boss’s name to Sardius for the North American release.
Super Mario Kart
Source: Daily Dot
Shigeru Miyamoto sees his Mario characters as actors. Mario isn’t really a hero, Bowser isn’t really a villain; they just play those roles in certain video games. In others, Mario referees boxing matches, takes the form of a statue in Animal Crossing, and flings banana peels at his erstwhile nemesis in Super Mario Kart. Miyamoto has gone on to say that when he and other designers at Nintendo come up with a new idea, they examine existing franchises and characters to see if the concept could be mapped to a known quantity such as Mario or Zelda.
However, Super Mario Kart did not start out as a Mario-themed title. A prototype starred a generic man wearing overalls, without Mario’s bushy ‘stache. Rules for racing hadn’t been implemented yet; all developers could do was drive around courses. As he tooled around with the demonstration, Miyamoto had an idea. “We noticed that it looked neat if you stopped one car and looked at the other car flying by. We decided to see what it would look like with Mario in one of the karts, and everyone thought that looked even better.”
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Source: ZSNES Docs
The Super FX chip is the most well-known of the SNES’s enhancement parts, but it’s not the only one of its kind. Super Mario RPG runs on the SA-1 chip, an extra microprocessor that enables all sorts of technical tricks including quicker access to memory, more data storage, data compression, and anti-piracy measures.
Super Mario World
Source: Various news broadcasts
Super Mario World is known as Super Mario Bros. 4 in Japan. That naming scheme nearly carried over to the United States, where the game’s appearance on a local news station showed a glimpse of the title Super Mario Bros. 4: Super Mario World. The context of news report in which the game first appeared, however, is more interesting.
Back in 1991, lots of parents were upset to discover that all the NES Game Paks that Santa had purchased for little Billy and Susie would be incompatible with Nintendo’s new console. “At $200,” a baritone newscaster explained, “a Super Nintendo setup costs twice as much as the old system, and you can’t mix and match [cartridges]. Some parents are refusing to be taken in.”
Nintendo encountered a similar problem in 2012, when casual shoppers assumed the Wii U GamePad was a peripheral they could use with their Wii.
Source: Now Gamer
Metroid is the darkest, most adult of Nintendo’s franchises. Whereas Mario and Zelda appeal to a wide audience, the visual and aural direction of Super Metroid cemented it as a title for older players. Look no further than the opening scene for proof. The camera pans around a darkened lab before pulling back to show corpses littering the floor around a smashed cylinder.
Although famous and infamous for working inside a bubble, Nintendo allowed outside influences to touch Super Metroid. “I think the film Alien had a huge influence on the production of the first Metroid game,” admitted Super Metroid producer Yoshio Sakamoto. “All of the team members were affected by HR Giger’s design work, and I think they were aware that such designs would be a good match for the Metroid world we had already put in place. To be honest, I’ve never really been clear on what is or isn’t the ‘Nintendo look’, but as far as we were concerned, we were just projecting another image from within Nintendo – another face of Nintendo, if you like.”
Source: Punch-Out Wikia
Nintendo’s super sequel rolled out new attacks for Little Mac, such as a power meter that unlocks uppercuts, jabs, and hooks once players fill it up during bouts. Those changes molded Super Punch-Out!! into a much faster game, albeit one still concentrated as much on treating opponents as puzzles to be solved as on action. Little Mac’s augmented arsenal also testified to the influence of Nintendo Integrated Research & Development (IRD), and the integration of the company’s software and hardware engineers.
The oldest division at Nintendo, IRD designed every console and peripheral until it went defunct in 2015. It was founded by Genyo Takeda, who produced the arcade version of Super Punch-Out!! Part of Takeda’s plan was to design the coin-op game in such a way that it could be easily and flawlessly ported to the Super NES console. The “Super” in the game’s title spoke to his line of thinking.
Source: DK Vine
Miyamoto didn’t become the most revered designer in gaming by turning the other cheek. After Nintendo’s marketing team bounced back his concept for Yoshi’s Island and declared its visual direction too whimsical in the face of Donkey Kong Country’s pre-rendered models, Miyamoto responded by doubling down on his preferred art direction.
“Everybody else was saying that they wanted better hardware and more beautiful graphics instead of this art,” Miyamoto told author Steve Kent. “Even while I was working on the Super Mario World, I was thinking that the next hero should be Yoshi. Other people have created games based upon Yoshi. Yoshi's World Hunters, Yoshi's Egg, Yoshi's Cookie, and so forth—games that I don't really like. So I decided that I should make an authentic Yoshi game.”