This is another one of those great 90’s arguments. It seems a moot point right now, sure; today’s kids will never have the pleasure of growing up standing by their favorite video game console, warding off its attackers. In the 90’s, console ownership was like being a fan of a sports team: You picked, you stood by it no matter what, because it was YOURS. If someone attacked, you took it personally, and gunned for the attacker with a barrage of Your Mother insults and shots at the console itself which frequently included the words “crap” and “suck” as well as a bunch of other, much more creative things you could think up that involved more explicit terms. You didn’t care what the objective truth was – all you knew is that an attack on your chosen console was an attack on you, your family, your lifestyle, your religion, and whatever else you held close to your heart.
Time marched on, though, and multi-console homes began becoming the norm. Those of the 16-bit Golden Era shook hands and called our uneasy truce. However, the objective question at hand was never properly answered: Which console, exactly, was the superior console? While others might like to throw in bids for personal favorites like the TurboGrafx-16, Neo Geo, 3DO, CD-I, and Jaguar, those are all being thrown into the wind these days because we all know it was really about two consoles waging a fierce war against each other: In the first corner was that eternal Goliath of video games, Nintendo, which brought what is still arguably its crowning console achievement: The Super NES. In the other corner was Sega and its trailblazing Genesis, which was able to successfully play the David for a couple of years and make itself into a household name. So let’s do this! The Super NES vs. the Genesis. One day, I’ll learn.
The Genesis came along a couple of years sooner, and when it did, it was the most powerful console the discerning gamer could buy. After all, its only real competition was NEC and its TurboGrafx-16, which critics kept accusing of being nothing more than basically a pair of eight-bit consoles duct-taped together to emulate 16 bits. The Genesis was released in Japan in October 1988 before being dropped into North America ten months later to capitalize on Nintendo’s apparent laziness and/or inability to admit they probably needed to evolve their hardware in order to keep up in the video game market – after all, Sega was able to get by for awhile on a marketing campaign which showed the Genesis as the embodiment of cool while showing the original NES as a console which kids played. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Nintendo got the point; when they released the Super NES in Japan in 1990 (North America in 1991), they had created a monster bigger and badder than anything the video game demographic had ever seen. The Genesis had a faster CPU speed (7.67 MHz as opposed to 3.58 on the Super NES), a better internal ROM (One compared to a nonexistent ROM on the Super NES), and a synthesizer. The Genesis One had a headphone output and the Genesis in general had backward compatibility with an adaptor. In every other respect, the Super NES swamped it: More colors, better resolution, could show more sprites at once and in higher resolution, and twice as much RAM. They tied in sound processor bits – eight – and in CPU bits – 16.
Super NES. Yes, the Genesis had a two-year head start, but the problem with a big head start is that the competition quits worrying about timing if it has a machine developing in the wings which is capable of kicking your ass. You can make the argument that it’s not about the equipment so much as how the equipment is used, but this argument is entirely about the equipment. When used to its full potential, the Super NES could do more than the Genesis, and that’s not even bringing the controllers into the debate. The Super NES wins this round.
When Nintendo released the NES in 1985, the idea of video game characters was fairly new – Pac-Man had been a massive hit with a song and a Saturday morning cartoon, but he was more or less a novelty which no one thought would ever come along again in a fad industry which, courtesy of Atari, was on life support. Nintendo introduced a certain plumber by the name of Mario, packed his game in with the console, and within five years more American schoolkids were familiar with Mario than Mickey Mouse. After that, Nintendo did it again by introducing Link, Samus Aran, Mega Man, and eventually, Kirby. Thanks in large part to those characters, video games became a cultural force which could no longer be ignored, and lord knows other developers tried to follow Nintendo’s lead. NEC introduced the wildly underrated Bonk on the TurboGrafx-16 while Sega found some success on the Master System with Alex Kidd and Shinobi. NEC bowed out, and Sega carried Alex Kidd and Shinobi to the Genesis while also bringing a memorable duo of hip hop aliens, Toejam and Earl, into their first party line. But it was in 1991 that Sega found a winning formula when it introduced a zippy little blue hedgehog by the name of Sonic, and the console war became a real console war. Nintendo’s mascots were so good that they were able to keep going on their strength, especially when placing them in new 16-bit games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Mega Man X, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. They also created another new character to add to their pantheon, Star Fox, and reinvented Donkey Kong as a good guy. Meanwhile, with no familiar names, Sega got to work finding their own exclusive characters which could help propel the Genesis along: Ecco, a dolphin in search of his lost pod who fights aliens that are endangering the time/space continuum; Vectorman, a robot made entirely of orbs; and Ristar, another underrated mascot developed by Sonic Team whose appearance served as the curtain call for the Genesis.
Super NES. The fact that Sonic was the character that introduced, embodied, and influenced the entire idea of in-you-face XTREME!!! ATTITUDE!!! in the 90’s can’t be understated, and the games in Sonic’s core series in those days are some of the best ever made. That, however, can’t hold a candle to Mario, who basically created the template to an entire genre of video games which is still very popular; another character – Link – who served as the template to the pseudo-3D action/RPG’s which were popular throughout the 16-bit era; and Star Fox, which turned Mode 7 shooters into viable commodities instead of interesting novelties. And while most people blame Sega’s advertising department for their eventual fall out of hardware development, their first party developers certainly didn’t do the company any favors, either. Toejam and Earl were given two popular games, released to sensational reviews, and never seen again until they showed up on the Xbox; Vectorman had a similar fate, but without the next-gen console update. Shinobi and Ecco were placed on ill-fated consoles before disappearing completely. Ristar was never seen again. Ecco and Sonic both suffered severe quality downgrades when their gameplay mechanics didn’t translate very well into 3D. Nintendo’s mascots have all suffered too, but the Mario and Legend of Zelda series continue to churn out regular Game of the Year material, and Nintendo will always be just fine as long as that’s the case. If you can get away with pitting your first party characters against each other in an acclaimed series of fighting games (Super Smash Bros.), you’re good no matter what.
When it comes to actually being able to control your games, both Sega and Nintendo acted on a startling realization which others hadn’t yet envisioned: They were both aware of the fact that video games were evolving, and the standard one-button-to-jump-and-one-button-to-shoot format would soon be outdated. Sega countered by adding an extra action button, so they ended up with three instead of two. Nintendo placed six on the Super NES controller, which was unnecessary and incredible at the time, but it proved to be a great long-term move. Soon after the release of the Super NES, two-dimensional fighting games reached their apex, and the Super NES was better equipped to handle the wide range of moves. Developers struggled to work six-button schemes into Sega’s three-button layout, and after awhile, they just stopped trying altogether. The Genesis adaptation of Mortal Kombat II was missing an entire move, and Streets of Rage 3 had a couple of non-essential attacks cut. Sega rectified the situation by releasing six-button versions of their standard controllers, but the three-button controllers continued to be prevalent until the Genesis went defunct. I’m not sure if it ever became the default pack-in controller. But while the Super NES controller was the more functional, it was also much harder to hold; the Genesis had a nice pair of grips that stuck out on the bottom ends and said, “Grab me!” The Super NES controller had the look and feel of an oversized pill, and it introduced an innovation that became a bane: The shoulder buttons, which felt weird and misplaced. It was very difficult to get at the shoulder buttons because it never felt like my hands were at the proper angle, and how good is a controller anyway if you can’t play a game for more than ten minutes without your hand cramping up?
I’m going with the Genesis. Maybe you don’t share my opinion of the shoulder buttons, but those poorly-placed innovations made it too difficult to play games. You’ve only forgotten that, or maybe you’re looking at them through nostalgia goggles, but the things were a hassle that never got fixed until an entire console generation later, when Sony’s Dual Shock introduced the pistol grip. I don’t know why people raved about the thing so much. Maybe they were fooled into thinking that boxy old controller with the original NES was still the greatest controller ever, or something. Also, the Genesis had disc-shaped d-pad while the Super NES had no diagonals. There’s some consideration of the gamer for you.
Part of the reason the Super NES and Gensis are considered the infallible Kings of the Golden Era is because developers started getting bold, and we started seeing them take gaming risks they never would have taken before. Innovation of both consoles ended up challenging all gamers and unleashing their imaginations as they were encouraged to think outside the box. The Genesis had games like Shining in the Darkness, a turn-based RPG played in the first person; Ecco the Dolphin, and exploratory puzzle-based game which boasted digitized graphics motion-captured from footage of real dolphins and immense gameplay rewards to those who stuck it out; and Comix Zone, literally a panel-by-panel brawler set in a comic book. The Super NES brought Star Fox, with its Super FX chip and nonlinear level paths; Chrono Trigger, the legendary RPG which gave us the tech system; and Uniracers, a 2D racing game where you raced unicycles around roller coaster courses. Nintendo introduced pre-rendered 3D graphics with Donkey Kong Country; the Genesis countered later with Vectorman. The Super NES could use scaling and rotation and the Genesis was capable of animated cutscenes. Both of these consoles had a lot going for them in this department.
Genesis. Yes, the Super NES certainly had a huge share of innovative games that worked, but it also had the option of falling back on established characters. While the Genesis may have spent its early years adapting the invincible game library Sega had in American arcades, Sega had ran out of them by the time the Super NES hit stateside, and after that, they were forced to take chances because they had nothing to ride. The Genesis used celebrity licensing – Michael Jackson and Joe Montana were noteworthy signings – and had to make the Genesis appeal to people who weren’t kids or the parents of kids who needed video games to be safe. So we saw games like Mutant League Hockey, Phantasy Star II, and the blood code version of Mortal Kombat. Retro Gamer said this about the Genesis: “It was a system where the allure was born not only of the hardware and games, but the magazines, playground arguments, climate, and politics of the time.” Exactly. It was born, in other words, of the things that necessitate innovation and invention.
Um… Wow. It’s tough to figure out just where to begin with this one. These genres produced so many games and overlapped so much that it almost doesn’t seem worth debating. Mario against Sonic is a fight to the death. Both had access to third party attempts at new characters, like Earthworm Jim and Rocket Knight Adventures. Sometimes, the Genesis versions were better and the Super NES owned better versions of other games.
Look, there’s nothing that can be said about one console’s collection of these genres that can’t be said for the other. Certainly Nintendo can harass Sega people about having The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but the Genesis was fully capable of taking on that challenge: Sega released a pair of outstanding adventure games, Landstalker and Beyond Oasis, which were as deep and rewarding as any Zelda adventures. Nintendo could throw Contra and Castlevania at Sega, but the Genesis was given mid- and late-life games in both series: Castlevania: Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps hold up as well as any of their namesake games on the Super NES. Nintendo threw Donkey Kong Country – with its new-fangled graphics technique – at Sega, only for Sega to counter with Vectorman which, today, is almost universally considered the better game for miles. Mega Man had to contend with Gunstar Heroes. In other words, if you’re not willing to write this off as a draw, it’s time to get off your fanboy throne.
You would have thought Sega would be just fine wandering into the 16-bit era in the role-playing department. After all, they had released the classic Phantasy Star on the Master System, which had a first-person view through the dungeons and was considered one of the most unique games available back then. With the introduction of the Genesis, Sega fleshed out the idea of a first-person RPG when it introduced Shining in the Darkness, the first game – and still the game many gamers consider the best – in a loose series of games affectionately termed the Shining series. Shining in the Darkness eventually paved the way for a pair of sequels, Shining Force and Shining Force II, both of which are more traditional RPGs with serious elements of strategy. A bunch of other great RPGs also popped up: Light Crusader, Landstalker, Beyond Oasis, Sword of Vermillion, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, and Shadowrun all stood out. Likewise, when Nintendo entered the 16-bit world, they were coming in on RPG strength too: They had a successful series on the NES called Dragon Warrior, which proved to be another template series, so with that alone Nintendo looked all set to go up against the juggernaut Sega had become. And then Dragon Warrior’s developer, Enix… Stopped exporting the series, which in Japan was called Dragon Quest. That didn’t mean Nintendo was down for the count, though; they went about releasing a new Zelda game, and they also had this second party developer called Squaresoft which had released an amazing little RPG on the NES called Final Fantasy. Although the full compliment of available Final Fantasy games didn’t make it to the United States, the Super NES did get Final Fantasy IV – which was Final Fantasy II here – and FFVI, which was FFIII here. Both were considered groundbreakers, and Final Fantasy spent the Golden Era going toe-to-toe with Phantasy Star. Beyond that, Nintendo really got to work churning out classic after classic: Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Earthbound, Breath of Fire… Hell, Nintendo even teamed up with Squaresoft to make Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
Super NES. Let’s face it: Sega gets royally stomped in this category. I know this is the second time in a row I brought up The Legend of Zelda and pit it against certain Genesis games, but that was for two reasons: One is because the RPG elements of them are toned down to the extent that you can make a case for them all being either adventure games or RPGs, and the other is because I wanted Sega to have a fighting chance here. I was a Sega person during those days, but even I can admit this: Outside of Phantasy Star, Shining Force, and the action RPGs, there weren’t a lot of RPGs that buffs of the genre got excited about. Most of them are best remembered these days as excellent cult games: There were some damn fine games in the Might and Magic series, and the collection also includes The Faery Tale Adventure, Exile, and Warsong; but if you brought any of those games into a room to throw at the likes of Actraiser or Chrono Trigger – which is in the discussion for the greatest RPG ever, an opinion I tend to concur with – you’ll be laughed out. The entire genre is basically one of Sega’s legendary missteps, especially seeing as how Sega pretty much outsourced its RPGs to the Sega CD after that came out. And no, I’m not awarding points to the Genesis here for the Sega CD or 32X because their games weren’t compatible with the Genesis; therefore, I’m not giving any points for the introduction of the Lunar series, harsh as that is. The cancellation of a Genesis version of Lufia and the Fortress of Doom doesn’t help either. If you like RPGs, you’re a Super NES person, and that’s that.
Although it’s barely brought up today, the 16-bit era was a golden age of endorsement deals from real professional athletes for sports video games. Joe Montana had Sports Talk Football. Jerry Glanville (!) had Pigskin Footbrawl. Evander Holyfield had Real Deal Boxing. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Deion Sanders (who endorsed games for two different sports), Troy Aikman, Ken Griffey Jr., Pete Sampras, Jack Nicklaus, and so many other professional sports people had so many game endorsements that it’s impossible to list them all. Hell, things got so out of hand that Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal both managed to sign endorsement deals for games that had virtually nothing to do with basketball – Jordan signed his name to an action/adventure game called Chaos in the Windy City and O’Neal went down in history for one of the most notorious gaming blunders in history, a fighting game called Shaq-Fu. This resulted in a massive market for sports games; so much so that sports games became game series which released new versions every year. Of course, the NES had started out giving gamers a handful of classic sports games, including Tecmo Bowl, so Nintendo had momentum going into the Golden Era. Then Tecmo suddenly started producing games for both the Super NES and the Genesis. Nintendo also had Punch-Out, which their fans could brag about for years before Toughman Contest appeared on the Genesis and arguably was the better game (the reasoning was because its boxers were real and didn’t use patterns to let gamers know when and how they would strike). The 16-bit years saw the comic sports game genre reach its apex with Mutant League Football and Mutant League Hockey for the Genesis, while Electronic Arts emerged as a go-to giant in simulations. More arcade-oriented sports games also came out – NBA Jam was very popular. The emergence of sports gaming makes sense – after all, sports has been an eternal theme in gaming, from the time of the first-ever video game – Tennis for Two – to the first hit video game in an arcade, which was Pong. The Golden Era allowed deeper and bigger games than ever before, and the licensing created a sense of realism which didn’t previously exist.
This is where the Genesis truly shined. Yes, the Super NES had many of the same sports games as the Genesis, but it was never quite able to one-up the Genesis the way Nintendo would have liked. Hell, the Genesis versions of EA Sports’s popular NHL series are considered to be the outright superior – especially in the case of the iconic NHL ’94, for which the Genesis version is the defining hockey game of all time. As if that wasn’t enough, Sega had an entire wing of first party developers right in their own offices simply called Sega Sports, and those guys weren’t just trying to ride the tide to the bank; they produced a series of NFL games capable of holding their own against EA Sports’s mighty Madden series. They also produced World Series Baseball, the defining baseball series of the time, with its groundbreaking, dramatic plate view. The greatest testament to how good Sega Sports was is in their legacy. When Sega went third party, Sega Sports was turned into 2K Sports, and in 2004, they released ESPN NFL 2K5, which is still considered the greatest football game ever made and which scared EA Sports shitless to such a point that Electronic Arts had to run out and snatch up the NFL license for itself. 2K Sports’s basketball games are considered the best available today. (And frankly, Madden football was never that good in the first place. Had sports gamers not been brand loyalty sheep to it, 2K Sports could have fleshed out its potential and Electronic Arts wouldn’t be playing Monopoly.) Furthermore, Nintendo’s attempt to stay on their kiddie image is what probably kept the Mutant League series off the Super NES, and there’s a distinct possibility it kept them from trying to get certain athletes licensed, although that’s just my own hypothesis.
Ah, a category you were all waiting for because it covers another one of those great 90’s debates: Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat! So, everybody already knows both consoles were homes to some stellar ports of Street Fighter II and, to a lesser extent, Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat has kind of an odd track record on home consoles: The Genesis version of the first game was better, and the Super NES had the better version of the second game before they leveled out at the third and fourth games. But what about the fighters that didn’t have those names? Well, both consoles had very good renditions of the Fatal Fury series which, in the grand pyramid of fighting games, ranks just below Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Both had renditions of the criminally underrated Samurai Shodown, but while the Super NES had all of the original characters, they were compromised by small sizes. The Genesis version axed the least popular character, Earthquake, but made the sprites a lot bigger while making the final boss a playable character in the two-player mode. Both had notable exclusives of popular arcade games: The Genesis introduced a fine conversion of Virtua Fighter 2 in its twilight, and the Super NES got an awesome version of Killer Instinct. Both also had several fighting games which are largely unheard of, and both had home exclusives like Clay Fighter, Weaponlord, and Brutal. Of course, they also both had to contend with the atrocity that was Shaq-Fu blighting their reputations too.
I really wanted to pick a winner for this one, but I can’t. As with the Action/Adventure/Platform category, the respective output of both consoles is too similar. It’s even more similar that that, in fact, because so many fighting games were made by third party developers, and the exclusives flat out sucked half the time. I know there will be people whining about how I should give this one to the Genesis because it had Eternal Champions and the bloody version of the original Mortal Kombat, but here’s the thing: Eternal Champions was a lousy game. As for the bloody version of Mortal Kombat, don’t give me that shit. The Genesis version was every bit as bloodless as the Super NES version. The inclusion of a code that inserted blood into it doesn’t count, because the thing about video game codes is that they’re not meant to be discovered! There’s a difference between a bloody version of the game and a version which had a blood code; even though everyone knew the fucking code, it still required a set of actions not mentioned in the manuel or alluded to anywhere in the game. I know people want me to give this to the Super NES because its controller had twice as many buttons, but that doesn’t work either because both consoles offered the same range of alternative controllers, and all but about two of Sega’s alternates had six buttons, plus that disc-shaped d-pad the Super NES controller lacked.
There’s little in gaming more fun than hopping on a spaceship and blowing everything in sight to Kingdom Come, and once again, both consoles had whole sets of shooters created strictly to oblige you. As far as the more multidirectional overhead shooters go, both consoles had Electronic Art’s great Strike series and the whacked-out bit of comic genius that was Zombies Ate My Neighbors. As far as exclusives went, the Super NES had the Pocky and Rocky series while the Genesis had the innovative Red Zone. When it comes to rail shooters, though, the selection couldn’t be more different, and this is a big deal because rail shooters were one of the most dominant genres of video games in the early 16-bit era; they were so popular that even the TurboGrafx-16 built an army of rail shooters which included several all-time greats. Once again, the Super NES was stacked with a list of name games; its list included games from the Gradius, Raiden, and R-Type series. The Genesis had to rely on innovative development, and so it had a list of shooters that included games like Sub-Terrania, MUSHA, and Steel Empire. Both had great shooting games with behind-the-player viewpoints: The Super NES, of course, had Star Fox while the Genesis had Space Harrier II and After Burner.
I’m giving this to the Super NES. Konami made third party games for both consoles, but they clearly seemed to prefer Nintendo. After all, it was Nintendo that got the Gradius games and a sequel to Zombies Ate My Neighbors – called Ghoul Patrol – which never came out for the Genesis. After Burner and Spare Harrier II were great games, but Star Fox introduced the idea that a shooter didn’t necessarily have to be linear. Although the Genesis did get a Raiden game, had a solid shooter lineup, and introduced Sub-Terrania, it’s very difficult to persuade me that its general quality wasn’t more hit-or-miss than it was on the Super NES. The problem with shooters is that they exemplify a particular ethos about game design: The way shooters are done is so stupidly, insultingly simple that everyone knows exactly what to do and how to do it; but on the other hand, doing it well takes time and practice, and even with that, it’s still very, very easy to suck at it. Although innovation is normally a wonderful thing, in shooting games, you usually want to stick with name brands because doing it well is automatic for them at a certain point, and you want something you know will be good rather than taking a risk on something which, even if it’s not bad, still has a huge chance of feeling like a worse version of something you’ve played before.
It’s hard to believe these days, but once upon a time, the arcade was the place where you could play the newest, biggest, most advanced game available. Arcade games weren’t limited by console technology, so programmers went nuts. If an arcade game made a lot of money, it would inevitably find its way to the Super NES and Genesis, where it was up to the developer to try and cram all the advanced circuitry in those mammoth machines into a 24-meg, 16-bit cartridge. Naturally, conversions could be hit or miss. This was most obvious in fighting games: Street Fighter II carried over pretty well to both. Mortal Kombat Genesis mopped the floor with the Super NES version, and Mortal Kombat II Super NES returned the favor. The Super NES got the superior version of Art of Fighting, and Samurai Shodown was better on the Genesis. NBA Jam survived almost fully intact on both. Sometimes, developers did weird and unnecessary things to arcade conversions: When Capcom brought Final Fight to the Super NES, it axed the most popular character, Guy, the two-player mode, and a whole level. Later, Capcom basically retracted by creating a version with Guy, but it was still a single-player game with two selectable characters and a missing level. Acclaim cut the ducking punch from the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat II. Both consoles also tried to adapt games which were way out of their league: The Super NES gave it a go with Killer Instinct, while the Genesis used Sega’s acclaimed Virtua Fighter series, and they both turned out well – they kept the fundamental aspects of the games while scaling back the technology.
Genesis. I give Nintendo all the credit in the world for how the Super NES debuted – it started out by giving people Super Mario World straight off, and that proved to be a sign of the times because it meant that Nintendo was, after years of holding out, recognizing and adapting to the changing nature of video games. They showed that by presenting gamers with an epic specifically tailored to their new console. This isn’t about epics or what’s suited to do what, though – it’s recognition of how good developers did in bringing the arcade experience home. And in that respect, Sega is the undisputed King, albeit on the strength of the early Genesis library. It’s not a coincidence that Sega first advertised the Genesis by playing up adaptations of its arcade library, or that the first pack-in game for the Genesis was Altered Beast; Altered Beast was a weak game, but it was popular and people liked it. Sega then set off on an arcade conversion streak which also included Strider, Golden Axe, Gain Ground, Atomic Runner, and Air Buster. Sega also created a whole new version of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and Shadow Dancer. In the early days, if you wanted a certain arcade game to bring home, you bought a Genesis, because if Sega made it, you knew it would show up on the Genesis, and frequently be damn good.
Well, holy shit: My second tie. Oh well. My loyalty was with Sega throughout the era, but this just shows that in the Golden Era, there were no losers in the Super NES/Genesis war. It doesn’t matter by now, though. This fight has been over almost 20 years now, and nearly every serious gamer who was a member of the 16er Generation has – no matter which console they prefer – conceded that both were excellent.