Sega Genesis vs Super Nintendo

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Fanboys of modern gaming consoles like to bicker about how their console handles the latest generic FPS game with better water transparency or with a few extra lines of microscopic pixels.  Forget the fact that 90% of the console libraries are shared.  In the early nineties the vitriol spewed against children who supported the competing console could be far more harsh and vicious than any of today’s petty political squabbles.  Despite the bitterness involved, it was a great time in video game history.  Unlike today where the latest PlayStation and the newest XBOX are nearly identical and offer most of the same lineup, the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo typically offered completely unique experiences, and since most gamers at the time had to choose a side, they defended their choice to the death.  Even today the internet is alive with middle aged keyboard warriors duking it out to justify the validity of their childhood choice.  Now it’s my turn to weigh in on the greatest debate since creamy vs chunky.

CONSOLE APPEARANCE

Sega opted to create a modern looking piece of entertainment center art which fit well with their aggressive marketing campaign.  The Genesis always had street cred.  It was the console for adults, college students, or the “old kids” as us young grade schoolers colloquially called the middle and high schoolers.  The sleek black curves made the Genesis look like a piece of 1980’s stereo equipment, especially with its volume slider and front mounted headphone jack.  Originally emblazoned with the phrase “High Definition Graphics” above the Genesis logo, this extra text was dropped leaving only the logo and the proclamation that the Genesis was 16 – Bit on the top circle.   Eventually Sega would update the rectangular Genesis with a more compact and square looking control deck that people today have dubbed the Model 2.  On the model 2, the power switch was replaced with a button, and the aforementioned power button, reset button, and controller ports were shifted to the center with the Genesis logo being updated near the top.  The power LED was also altered from a round red dot to glowing red beneath a grill which almost looked like slashes.  There were other Genesis revisions but these were mainly released after the consoles’ life was over and I won’t cover them here.

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The design of the Super Nintendo is a sharp contrast to that of the Sega Genesis.  Instead of focusing on rounded edges and a sleek appearance, Nintendo opted to release a square grey and purple box with rectangular buttons.  The Super Nintendo looks less like a piece of serious electronics and more like a toy.  I believe that the aesthetic of the consoles alone contributed greatly to the stigma of the Super Nintendo being a game system for children while the Genesis was for a more mature audience.  Although the Super Famicom and the version of the SNES released in the PAL and SECAM territories was completely different, I never saw them until well after the 4th generation of game systems had died off.  Even the Super Famicom was more boxy and less serious looking by comparison.

Like the Sega Genesis, the SNES also received an update although it was much later in the consoles’ life.  Less an update and more a cost cutting budget release the smaller Super Nintendo, often dubbed the SNES 2 ditched the eject button, power LED, S-Video, RGB, and RF output.  It still retains the grey and purple color scheme but loses the boxy shape.  I first saw this version at a Wal*Mart during Christmas 1997 stacked on a pallet in the middle of the aisle on the way to the electronics section.  I was interested in picking up an SNES at that point but the new version looked cheap and scaled down to me.  It would be another two years before I picked up an original style SNES on eBay.

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MY PICK: Sega Genesis

Whether you are comparing the Model 1 to the North American purple box, or the Model 2 to the Super Famicom, every time the Genesis has a nicer look to it.  The Super Nintendo is certainly iconic but Sega knew how to design nice looking hardware.  In addition to the appearance when new, it should be noted that certain fire retardant chemicals used in the SNES plastic cause it to yellow over time.  A lot of Super Nintendo systems look like they were owned by Joe Camel.  No such issues with the Sega Genesis.

CONTROLLER

Although a nice looking console is a plus, the controller is really one of the most important aspects of a gaming system second only to the software library.  The Sega Genesis debuted with a larger than typical control pad with three primary buttons in a row labeled triggers A, B, and C, with an offset Start button.  As the console wars raged on, it became apparent that three action buttons weren’t enough for several popular games (notably Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat).  For instance, the Street Fighter II arcade game had 6 buttons, three each for punching and kicking.  Genesis players with a three button controller had to press the start button to switch between kicking and punching which was doable, but less than ideal.  This setup also prevented the player from being able to pause the game.  Need to take a leak or answer the phone?  You’ll just need to piss in your pants and let the answering machine grab it if you begin a game of Street Fighter II with a  Genesis 3 button controller.  In response to the pant soiling pandemic, Sega released a six button controller which was ideal for Street Fighter II, but at the cost of possible compatibility issues with older titles. Another issue with the Genesis controller is that it’s not possible to simultaneously press the A and C buttons without changing the position of your hand.  As an example, I was recently playing Quackshot and the run button is assigned to the A button with jump assigned to the C button.  To execute a running jump I have to hold A with my thumb and press C with my index finger.  Maybe I’m playing the game wrong.  Either way the point is made.

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Nintendo hit a home run with their controller.  The SNES pad was also grey and purple, which perfectly matched the aesthetic of the console, but more importantly the buttons were arranged in a cross (stylized to look offset).  There are four main face buttons on the right side of the control pad with Start and Select buttons in the middle, and two shoulder buttons which were revolutionary at the time.  I cannot recall a situation in which I have had to change my hand positioning to simultaneously press buttons in an SNES game.  As a testament to its design, nearly all modern controllers are built upon the framework Nintendo created back in 1991 with only some minor evolutionary tweaks.

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MY PICK: Super Nintendo

Although I do find the Genesis controller better for Street Fighter II, it’s really the only game I can say I prefer using Sega’s control pad to Nintendo’s.  Slap an extra set of shoulder buttons and some handles onto the SNES pad and you have the original Sony PlayStation controller which has basically been in use ever since.  It’s a classic design that has only seen minor modifications since it was introduced.

VIDEO OUTPUT

In the 1990’s my Genesis and NES systems were connected to a console TV with an RF modulator.  In fact my connection wasn’t even that high tech.  I had to use an adapter to connect it to the “VHF” screws on the back of our TV so crappy picture quality was a way of life.  The only way I was able to connect my PSX and N64 consoles years later was through the A/V jacks on the back of our VCR.  My family wouldn’t own a TV with RCA inputs until 2001, as we were the hill-jack family that placed a newer working TV on top of an old burned out one.

Today I still use a CRT television to play retro games but the quality is far superior through the use of S-Video cables.  Unfortunately no version of the Genesis supports S-Video output and the composite output is worse than any other console I’ve ever owned.  My Genesis is wrought with jail bars, color bleeding, and fuzziness using these connections.  I was eventually able to pick up a set of component Genesis cables which immensely improves the output of the system but it took years for me to track down a nice late model Sony Trinitron 4:3 CRT TV set with component inputs available and neither component cables nor TV’s that could use them were available in North America in the 90’s.  By comparison the Super Nintendo looks brilliant with its S-Video output and the composite is serviceable which was a great service to the vast majority of consumers at the time.  Although both systems output RGB using SCART cables, those connectors weren’t available in North America either and I don’t know anything about them so I’m going to ignore it.

MY PICK: Super Nintendo

This was a somewhat overlooked aspect back in the day but now that retro gamers are trying to squeeze the best picture quality out of their old consoles the Super Nintendo has the clear edge.  I don’t really want to mod my hardware and although an adapter was released in Japan that converted the Genesis RGB output to S-Video, it’s super expensive and difficult to find.  Although component cables are now readily available, it’s not easy to track down a good CRT that uses those inputs as the technology started to become mainstream in my region at the same time HD was taking off.  Yes you can hook it up to an HDTV but you’re doing yourself a disservice if that’s how you play on original hardware.  Super Nintendo allows for easy and beautiful output right out of the box.

GRAPHICS

Sega of America pushed the Genesis being a 16 bit console hard during the initial marketing campaign.  I had no clue what a bit was, but the Genesis must have been better than the NES which the magazines said was 8 bit.  Double the bits, just like double the cheese must be better.  Regardless of whether the masses understood bits, what couldn’t be denied was that the graphics the Genesis was capable of producing were clearly superior to anything the NES could pull off.  More colors, bigger sprites, faster action, smoother scrolling, detailed backgrounds, and fluid animation; the Genesis was a graphical power house by comparison.  Once the Super Nintendo was released, the question of which console produced the better graphics became much more difficult to answer.

Without listing a bunch of technical specs which I assume would bore most of you that aren’t already immensely disappointed with this write-up, the key take aways are that the Genesis has a faster processor while the Super Nintendo can display more colors.  There is more at play, but these are the two primary focal points that really differentiate the consoles at a glance.

The Genesis has a 7.6 MHz processor compared to the 3.58 MHz of the Super Nintendo.  Genesis games typically suffer from less slowdown than their Super Nintendo counterparts as a result (seemingly).  In addition, games with multiple sprites such as sports games and shooters also run better on the Genesis because of the faster processor.  Conversely, multi-platform games typically look brighter and more robust on the Super Nintendo due to better use of color.  Now I’ve been told that the Super Nintendo processor is technically faster due to the way it’s clock cycles run, but I’m not versed enough in how hardware operates to either confirm or deny this.  What I can say is that after playing several Genesis games in a row and then popping in a Super Nintendo game, the SNES seems to chug along and struggle by comparison.  This could 100% be the types of games I’m playing or the way the software was programed but it’s something I have noticed on several occasions.

The question of which console can produce better graphics isn’t a straight forward one.  When comparing cross platform releases, I’ve found that the console the game was originally developed for is usually superior to the port.  The real test is evaluating console exclusives.  The Sega Genesis has more raw processing power than the Super Nintendo and seems to be capable of producing higher quality polygonal 3D graphics.  Virtua Racing looks more impressive than Star Fox, although each cartridge needs to utilize specialized chips to pull them off.  Maybe the Sega Virtua Processor is actually more powerful than the Super FX chip.  Meanwhile the Super Nintendo does produce better pseudo 3D graphics using 2D effects due to the hardware’s built in mode 7 and sprite scaling capabilities.  Pilot Wings and F-Zero use these to great effect.

Very few games of the 16 bit generation actually used 3D graphics.  The power of the Genesis was able to pull off nicer looking 3D effects in certain games, such as The Adventures of Batman and Robin, Vectorman, and Sonic and Knuckles, but on a broad scale it seemed that the Super Nintendo had the visual upper hand with different types of games able to make use of the scaling capabilities of the SNES.  Although the Genesis was able to pull off scaling using software and excellent programing, instances were fewer as it was more difficult to implement by comparison.  The SNES frequently utilized excellent parallax scrolling and transparency effects as well, which were infrequently seen on the Genesis.  Perhaps some developers simply put more effort into Super Nintendo releases.

MY PICK: Super Nintendo

Although the Genesis does feel faster, the Super Nintendo was specifically designed to utilize additional chips in the cartridge to expand its capabilities.  Since production costs were saved on the processor, the additional features built into the hardware allowed developers to easily pull off graphical effects which took programing mastery to accomplish on the Sega Genesis.  Therefore Super Nintendo games tended to include more visual pop because it was easier to program.  Although similar effects can be achieved on the Genesis, it takes a good programer to pull them off.  Sega did include a lot of these abilities into the Sega CD add on, but add ons seldom reach mainstream acceptance and the Sega CD was no exception.

SOUND

Sound is an even more subjective category than graphics.  Great graphics are easily seen and compared and although there is some subjectivity, typically people can agree if one image looks nicer than another.  Sound is not as easy to compare as what appeals to the ears of one person may be tortuous to someone else.  Unlike today’s machines which all utilize CD quality sound, the consoles of the 16 bit era have vastly different music and sound effects which give each console a very unique feel.

The Genesis uses a Yamaha YM2612 chip, a six channel FM synthesizer.  That’s as detailed as I can get because I don’t know anything about sound tech.  What I do know is that the Genesis has a distinctive “twang” that can really be grating when used improperly, but sounds amazing when in the right hands.  Listening to game music, I still describe some tracks as “Genesisiy”.  Music on the Genesis sounds cleaner and more sharp than its SNES counterpart when programed well.  I’d say that techno and rock themes are some of the strengths of the Genesis.  Check out the soundtrack to X-Men 2: Clone Wars, The Adventures of Batman and Robin, or Streets of Rage 1 and 2 for some great examples of amazing Genesis music.  Conversely the Genesis struggles with more orchestral sounding music as well as voices, which often sound garbled.

The Super NES utilizes a sound system developed by Sony consisting of multiple chips.  It’s capable of producing 8 channels and has its own CPU running completely independent of the main SNES CPU.  The SNES produces unique sound effects and is capable of high quality music that can sound like actual instruments at times.  Voice samples on the Super Nintendo are typically clear and of high quality although the sound effects can sometimes sound muffled.  Orchestral scores on the Super Nintendo usually sound great, but certain rock soundtracks are also awesome and sound better than their Genesis counterparts.  The bass on the Super Nintendo is also typically more powerful than anything the Genesis is capable of producing.

MY PICK: Super Nintendo

Technically speaking the Super Nintendo has a superior sound system, and although the Genesis has some memorable tracks, the Super Nintendo is home to some of gaming’s most historic music.  Although the Super Nintendo has certainly produced some terrible sound, it seems that programming solid music for the SNES is easier than producing good music for the Genesis.  I’ve read that this is largely due to many Western Developers not knowing how to program FM Synthesis and using the stock instruments of a development tool called the GEMS driver.  Although the Super Nintendo has a tendency to output some muffled effects, the tinny and twangy sound of the Genesis is irritating when in the wrong hands.  At the end of the day, although there are a lot of Genesis tracks I really enjoy the Super Nintendo has the edge in quality.

GAMES

Nice controllers and sleek looking consoles certainly add appeal, but the real test of a game system is the quality of the software.  Good games are the most important element when comparing consoles; and the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo had one of the best console wars in gaming history because of the high quality of their software libraries.  Sega put more emphasis on beat em’ ups, sports games, shooters and arcade conversions while the SNES produced a library of RPG and platformer heavy hitters.  Which console is “better” is largely dictated by which types of games you enjoy playing the most.

SPORTS

Older sports games are often overlooked or discounted in their importance.  Today the retro market is filled with a glut of old sports titles that practically can’t be given away and pad the total game count of eBay lots.  It cannot be understated how important the sports genre was to the success of the Genesis and the rise of EA Sports though.  Sega’s faster processor opened the door to smoother sports action as the multiple moving sprites seemed to bog down the slower SNES.  Games like NHL ’94 and Mutant League hockey and football are still considered must play sports titles today.  Super Nintendo largely had all of the same EA offerings as well as a few exclusive titles, but they never seemed to play as well on their Genesis counterparts.

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BEAT ‘EM UPS

The 90’s were the peak of the beat ’em up genre of games.  Walking from left to right on a street while encountering countless legions of goons and thugs was never as fun as it was during the 16 bit era.  Both systems had worthy entries in the genre.  Super Nintendo was home to the Final Fight series, a great Batman Returns beat ’em up, as well as what many consider to be the best beat ’em up game of the 16 bit generation; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time.  Sega produced three great Streets of Rage titles as well as pumping out two excellent Golden Axe games.  Konami also produced the slightly overlooked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist in an effort to give Genesis owners a taste of what SNES players were loving, and the graphically impressive Comix Zone came out near the end of the console’s lifespan.  Although both game systems had some nice showings, I give Genesis the edge in this category.

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PLATFORMERS

The bulk of games released during the 16 bit generation were generic platfomers and both consoles had some strong contenders in this genre.  Sega leaned heavily on their mascot Sonic the Hedgehog pumping out 4 Sonic games during the system’s lifespan.  This category was also fleshed out by a string of great Disney titles that always seemed to play better for the Genesis; Quackshot Starring Donald Duck, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, and Disney’s Aladdin were some of my favorites.  Despite the Genesis being home to several great platform games, Super Nintendo played host to legendary titles like Super Mario World, three Donkey Kong Country games, the fantastic Super Mario All-Stars multi-cart, and Kirby Super Star.  Despite strong showing by both companies, Nintendo takes the taco in platform games.

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ROLE PLAYING GAMES

Hardcore RPG fans across the internet consider the Super Nintendo’s offerings the greatest lineup of all time.  Square left a major mark on the SNES library releasing three Final Fantasy games, Secret of Evermore, Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, and Chrono Trigger.  Square also developed Super Mario RPG which was published under the Nintendo banner.  Genesis was mainly known for Phantasy Star and Sword of Vermillion.  There were several more RPG’s released but the exclusivity of the Square games hurt the Genesis’s reputation in this genre, especially in retrospect.

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ACTION/ADVENTURE

Super Nintendo probably has the most well known action/adventure game of the 4th generation with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.  When coupled with Super Metroid the SNES is tough to beat.  But the Genesis countered with the well made (and now ultra pricey) Crusader of Centy, and although there isn’t a game comparable to Super Metroid on the system, the Genesis did have a lot of very solid Adventure games such as Pirates Gold, Ecco the Dolphin, and Light Crusader.  Both consoles had a solid Castlevania game with Super Nintendo getting Super Castlevania IV while Genesis was home to Bloodlines.

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SHOOTERS

The fast speed of the Genesis paved the way for some nice shooters such as Truxton, Lightening Force, and Twin Cobra, as well as run and gun shooters like Contra: Hard Corps and The Adventures of Batman and Robin.  SNES was home to UN Squadron, Aero Fighters, and Contra III.  From what I understand, the Turbo Graphx 16/PC Engine had the best shooters of the era, but I’m not going to try and gum this piece up any more than I already have.

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There are plenty of additional genres and games that could be mentioned but I wouldn’t be breaking any new ground by discussing them in brief.  The bottom line is that most people are going to lean towards the console with the software library that matches their specific tastes as opposed to buying a sleek looking console or a console because it has a certain processor or sound chip.  Both systems were capable platforms and although hardware can make things easier or more difficult for a company to produce good looking and sounding games, a lot of the responsibility falls on the programmers themselves.  Couple talent with the budgets and time constraints placed on them by publishers and you have an explanation for why many games succeeded or failed.

CONCLUSION

This is the part where I cop out, say “both systems were great and you can’t have one without the other” and waste your time.  Well, I’m not going to do that.  Yes its true that I really enjoy both consoles, and yes my opinion on the internet nearly 3 decades after the console war began is moot.  Having said that I’m not going to pull a WCW and deliver a DQ finish for a main event match.  You came here for a clear winner, and you’ve got it.

MY PICK: Super Nintendo

I didn’t own a Super Nintendo until I bought one used in 1999/2000 so this isn’t the consensus of a blind fan.  During the console war I owned a Sega Genesis and I vehemently defended it.  In retrospect, I owned the right console as I was a major fan of the EA NHL series and those games play better on Sega without question.  I’ve also never been a fan of Japanese style RPG’s so the depth of the SNES library loses a lot of it’s luster on someone who isn’t interested in playing those types of games.  Even today as an adult I find myself playing a lot of Genesis because their arcade releases lend themselves to quick 20 minute sessions.  I just want to pick up and play a game without getting bogged down in long stories or tutorials.

Despite my history with the Genesis and my current preference for simple arcade like titles, I still find myself generally more impressed with the sound and graphical effects that I see in SNES games.  When it comes to the heavy hitters I continue to find myself leaning towards the Nintendo more often than not.  I enjoy the Sonic games but honestly I prefer playing Super Mario World to all four of them combined.  In that sense, Super Mario All Stars is just an amazing bonus for me.  Link to the Past is one of my all time favorite games, Turtles in Time gives the arcade version a run for it’s money, and although I enjoy the NES Castlevania games more, Super Castlevania IV showed gamers how next generation hardware could improve on an old formula.  The deeper you dig into the library, the more of a toss up things become as I’m constantly finding unique and interesting games for both consoles that didn’t receive a lot of press at release.  I feel like developers were more willing to take risks with the types of games they sold on the Genesis and SNES as many of them feel quasi-experimental or at least unconfined to any specific genres.

I also think the Super Nintendo gets a lot more love these days because Nintendo themselves are still in the hardware business and still releasing mainstream high quality games in the same franchises.  Not only did Sega exit the hardware business 20 years ago, but it seems they have let the bulk of their once popular IP’s go stagnant since the days of the Genesis.  Yes there have been lots of Sonic releases, and Sega finally released a follow up to Streets of Rage recently, but for the most part their catalog has consisted of re-releases of Genesis hits rather than continuing their brands.  Since their creations are no longer at the forefront, the curiosity factor for gamers looking to the origins of these franchises simply doesn’t exist.  I feel this influences the online consensus and leads to a skewed view of the Super Nintendo having always been clearly superior when that wasn’t the case at all.

Looking back, the console war was a fantastic time to be a gamer.  Each company brought something different and even cross platform games looked and sounded different to accommodate the unique hardware of both systems.  Today a game pretty much looks the same regardless of the platform, but in the 90’s console exclusives and machine limitations paved the way for drastically different software libraries.  I’m no longer interested in buying new games as the magic is gone for me, but the internet has paved the way for old discussions to become new again and for the console war to continue to rage on.


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