Last year's NES Classic Edition was a finely crafted piece of nostalgia: an authentically miniature Nintendo Entertainment System with thirty built-in games, ranging from enduring classics to disposable fluff. The Super NES Classic Edition treads the same path, but it doesn't tell the same story. While the Super NES was a thorough technical improvement, it never dominated markets and childhoods the way the earlier NES did. And yet the Super NES Classic doesn't need that prop.
The Super NES Classic is adorably small, roughly one-fourth the size of an actual Super NES and lacking the tendency to turn yellow after a decade. The cartridge slot is only for show, of course, but the Power and Reset buttons slide just like an old Super NES freshly dug from the closet. The only concession comes with the controller ports: the convincing oblong Super NES connectors are merely part of a flap that folds down to reveal the actual slots, identical to those on the Wii remote and the NES Classic. It's a minor compromise, though years of garage sales and flea markets have taught me that any moving part on a game system will break in time.
The Super NES Classic retails for slightly more than the NES Classic, and that extra twenty gets you a second controller and somewhat longer cables. They're not as drastically short as the NES Classic's cords, but the controllers still don't have as much range as they should.
In presenting its pack of 16-bit games, the Super NES Classic seems a reliable enough emulator, complete with save states and a new “rewind” feature that lets you backtrack. Some sound effects and music are different when put side by side with the original consoles, and some flashing lights are toned down, perhaps to avoid epileptic seizures (something that's spooked Nintendo ever since a Pokemon cartoon hospitalized some kids). That aside, the Super NES Classic aims to recreate games rather than improve them—even when they could use the help.
Nintendo pulled out a surprise for the Super NES Classic with Star Fox 2. Originally slated for release in 1995, Star Fox 2 vanished from sight after the company grew worried about the game's 3-D look distracting from the Nintendo 64's superior effects. It was entirely finished before its cancellation, however, and a nearly complete version even leaked online many years ago.
Well, Star Fox 2 need skulk around no longer. The Super NES Classic includes the final, ready-to-ship incarnation of the game. It's available once you clear the original Star Fox's first stage, thus ensuring that Star Fox 2 will look better by comparison.
And how does Star Fox 2 fare once dragged out of cancellation limbo? It's a radically ambitious Super NES game, stretching the console and the on-cartridge FX 2 chip to their limits with its vision of a Star Wars-esque conflict waged by foxes and poodles and pigs. The polygon graphics may be crude today and perhaps always were, but there's a surprisingly sure hand in the presentation, right from the moment a giant robotic space serpent hurls ships around like chew toys.
Star Fox 2 offers a good deal of freedom, and that's often its biggest drawback. The game is forward-thinking when it lets players chart their own course through a solar system battlefield, wiping out enemy fleets while keeping their homeworld safe. It's also nice that their Arwing fighters can morph into lumbering mechs and do battle inside enormous spaceships. Yet it lacks the simpler angle of the original Star Fox, and the changes in perspective and ship sometimes reduce the game to an indecipherable jumble of glowing dots and flashing triangles.
Star Fox 2's debut may highlight the Super NES Classic, but the rest of the lineup is a robust catalog of system highlights. Naturally, dedicated Super NES fans will focus on what's not there. The offerings within lack a puzzle game (like Tetris Attack), a 2-D shooter (like Axelay), and such cherished RPGs as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy II. For my dollar, the biggest oversight is Terranigma, a fantastic action-RPG that Nintendo translated back in the mid-1990s but never released in North America. Of course, such complaints may be irrelevant when hackers inevitably crack open the Super NES Classic's emulator, but, hey…that's cheating.
For now, the Super NES Classic has a great selection. The NES Classic leaned too much on early and popular titles, ignoring many later and lesser-known standouts. The Super NES Classic has a few mediocrities coasting on name recognition, but on the whole it's great stuff, enjoyable even when unmoored from all nostalgia. This little demi-console doesn't need to hijack our memories when it serves up at least a dozen games excellent by any standard.
THE REST OF THE GAMES
CONTRA III: THE ALIEN WARS
The first two Contra games sat atop the heap of macho commando-alien shooters of the 1980s, and Contra III ramped up everything. It bursts anew with enormous boss creatures and dizzying effects, from a frantic overhead shootout on a destroyed freeway to a battleship raid that sees you jumping from one exploding missile to another.
It's all a beautiful embodiment of the era's action-shooter: tight controls, powerful weapons, and ever-present ways to die. Even with a second player aboard it's quick to destroy the inexperienced, and you'll advance only by memorizing patterns and strategically saving the right weapons. That may rob the game of casual pleasures a few stages in, but Contra III's worth the trouble.
DONKEY KONG COUNTRY
Donkey Kong Country was, like it or not, Nintendo's most important game in the vicious console wars of the mid-1990s. It proved that the Super NES could sport computer-rendered graphics without resorting to add-ons as the Sega Genesis did. And so a pack of CG apes tipped the scales in Nintendo's favor
Today, Donkey Kong Country's once-lauded graphics seem plastic and primitive, and the gameplay beneath is a standard platformer lacking the innovations of a top Mario or Sonic title. Even so, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong benefit from solid controls in their side-scrolling adventures, and there's a lot to discover in the nooks and crannies of each stage.
No one seemed to appreciate Earthbound in its time. Many magazines were caught up in the game's basic looks and seemingly mundane setting of a bizarre modern America, and Nintendo botched the marketing by touting “This game stinks.” It would be years before Earthbound became a widespread cult favorite—and an expensive eBay fixture.
That's all with good cause. Earthbound is a charming take on the RPG formula, replacing techno-fantasy melodrama with a subdued and humorous tale of kids fending off an alien invasion in a nation already stocked with endearing oddities. The battles follow traditional menus, but players can see enemies before fighting them and even win automatically if their levels are high enough. And that's just one of the little details that helps Earthbound live up to its reputation.
The 1991 launch of the Super NES guaranteed you a good game with Super Mario World, but it didn't grant you a truly impressive showcase. For that, you needed F-Zero, a dizzyingly fast futuristic racer capable of scaling, rotation, and all those other buzzwords.
F-Zero still boasts impressive speed, but other racers have long surpassed it in gameplay. Only four hover-ships are available, the tracks get repetitive in their obstacles, and there are no weapons or multiplayer modes to mix up the solo challenges. It's a serviceable racer, but at this point no one needs to convince their parents and friends that their new Super NES really is better than a regular NES.
FINAL FANTASY III
If you want to have some fun with a large crowd of video-game nerds, ask them to name their favorite Final Fantasy. You'll start a huge debate, and you'll also hear Final Fantasy VI mentioned a lot. Initially released here as Final Fantasy III, the game found Square at the peak of 16-bit RPG theatrics, with grimly detailed graphics evoking a world where mechanized armor marches into battle against dragons and giant snails.
No matter its title, Final Fantasy VI stands proud. It hits the usual fantasy notes of oppressive empires and mysterious forces, but it's shown through endearing characters, stunning setpieces, and a wonderfully efficient pace. The battles benefit from the heroes' unique talents and customized magic, with many small breaks in the formula. By turns affecting and self-confidently nonsensical, it deserves mention among the best Final Fantasies and the best Super NES games.
KIRBY SUPER STAR
Kirby games are aggressively, inescapably cute because they have to be. They star a pink puffball hero who swallows his enemies to gain their powers--a concept downright horrific if not presented in harmless pastels and fluffy scenery. Kirby Super Star has a mix of seven full-length games and side attractions, all of them precious and mollifying.
Long or short, they're great diversions. A race between Kirby and King Dedede might not entertain for more than a few minutes, but the more complete Kirby games (including two unlockable ones) are colorful and fun even when they're very easygoing. But a meaner version of Kirby is best left back in Nintendo's mid-1990s advertising.
KIRBY'S DREAM COURSE
Racers excepted, the Super NES Classic Edition has one-and-a-half sports games. The semi-qualifier is Kirby's Dream Course, a mini-golf simulation where the player propels Kirby, already the ideal spherical shape, across fields of enemies and obstacles. It's a simple game on the surface, but it's a challenge to align things and knock Kirby around in the most strategic path.
Kirby's Dream Course doesn't falter in any major way, but there isn't much to the game unless you're fascinated by trajectories, golf courses, or, at the very least, Kirby himself. At least the game comes more alive in the two-player mode, where the second participant belts around a yellow Kirby named...Keeby. Really.
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: A LINK TO THE PAST
A Link to the Past is technically a prequel to the earlier Legend of Zelda games, but this Super NES outing is naturally an improvement on its predecessors. The dungeons are much longer, the puzzles are much more involved, and the story leads Link, silent hero and source of many a titular pun, to the dark counterpart of the verdant land of Hyrule.
Many later Zelda titles show up A Link to the Past, whether it's the wonderfully melancholic Link's Awakening or the recent Breath of the Wild. That's no knock against A Link to the Past, though, as its smooth flow and wide-open world make for a thoroughly fulfilling quest, regardless of its place on a convoluted timeline.
MEGA MAN X
Capcom made the Super NES the launch pad for a new Mega Man series, and a darker one at that. The futuristic setting is a little harsher in its colors and music, and the storyline is more a bleak Casshern takeoff than a bug-eyed Astro Boy tribute, as it finds hero X hunting down robots that violently rebel against humanity.
Of course, Mega Man X is still cartoonish and still first-rate. Players can tackle the game's first eight stages in any order, each one headed by a boss with a name like “Chill Penguin” or “Sting Chameleon.” The new weapons gained from each defeated leader give you plenty to do, especially when the levels hold hidden power-ups and extra parts. It's all a grand package of an action-shooter, wrapped up with Capcom's typical programming aplomb.
SECRET OF MANA
Secret of Mana's curious history brought about its biggest problems. Square originally intended this action-RPG for Nintendo's never-released Super NES CD attachment, and cutting the game down to a regular cartridge curtailed its storyline, its later dungeons, and even the gameplay.
Somehow, Secret of Mana emerged as a wonderful game. It's a standard tale of a boy finding an ancient sword and saving the world, but the tale hums along at an enchanting pace, helped in no small way by a lushly rendered world and a gorgeous soundtrack. Multiple players can join in after the heroine and a cantankerous sprite join the hero, and combat's just as breezy once you adjust to its unique flow. Unfortunately, this brings up the Super NES Classic's biggest problem: out of the box, it doesn't support Secret of Mana's three-player mode.
Nintendo's biggest technological breakthrough on the Super NES actually sat within the cartridges: the Super FX chips let games sport 3-D effects the console itself couldn't manage. Star Fox led the charge, fashioning a rail shooter composed of basic polygons and attached to a space-opera story featuring animal folk. I though it suspiciously similar to Bucky O'Hare at the time, but what did I know?
There's no denying that Star Fox is hard to look at today. The flat-shaded 3-D objects are sometimes difficult to even recognize as spaceships and starfighters, and the Super NES Classic version, true to its original, chugs at a faithfully low frame rate. If you can tolerate the blocky appearances, though, you'll find some good and challenging game design under it all.
SUPER CASTLEVANIA IV
The Super NES era didn't favor Castlevania. The early Super Castlevania IV shows off the system's fancy tricks, but it's comparatively dull beyond that. The later Castlevania: Dracula X is an adulterated successor to a much better PC Engine game. Even so, you can't have a Nintendo nostalgia trip without a Castlevania stop, and so Super Castlevania IV gets the nod.
This isn't to call Super Castlevania IV flat-out terrible. It evokes the gothic stylings of the NES series in haunting new ways, and hero Simon Belmont can whip in eight directions and swing from conveniently objects. That said, the game still seems a step back from the multi-character adventure of Castlevania III, and the longer stages of Super Castlevania IV grow tedious. It's not without some appeal, but it's one of the weaker entries on the Super NES Classic.
SUPER GHOULS 'N GHOSTS
It's a shame that Capcom's Ghouls 'N Ghosts 'N Goblins smorgasbord isn't a little easier. Each game is full of gruesome sights and cool monsters, with knightly protagonist Arthur wielding neat weapons and, in the case of Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts, donning magical armor. Yet it's hard to appreciate all of this when the game's trying to kill you in maddeningly cruel fashion. And then you have to go through it all a second time.
Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts was the stuff of rigid, quarter-gulping arcade games from the start, but on the Super NES a new problem arises. This home version of the game suffered from horrible, paralytic slowdown at awkward times, and the Super NES Classic recreates all of that accurately. It's annoying enough to make Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts the low point of the whole lineup.
SUPER MARIO KART
Super Mario Kart comes from a time when racing spin-offs were uncommon fare, before everyone from Atari no-names to Crash Bandicoot attempted their own racers, before a great many Super Mario Kart sequels added much more to the formula. The original is a basic affair, devoid of the online modes and local four-player options we take for granted these days.
At its heart, though, Super Mario Kart does nothing wrong. It's a cute racer that sends eight different Mario characters around tracks where mushrooms boost your speed and Koopa shells seem to strike at the worst possible times. Even with only two players, it's great for competition.
SUPER MARIO WORLD
The Super NES launched with Super Mario World, a prettied-up successor to Mario's NES side-scrollers. In some ways, it was the first major Mario game to feel redundant: the world maps are actually less animated than Super Mario Bros. 3, and our plumber hero faces a familiar assortment of Koopa kids for the boss fights. The game's biggest addition was Yoshi, and here he's a loyal dino steed without much personality.
Super Mario World is still loads of fun, though. The stages hide all sorts of secrets, including branches to entirely new levels, and Mario techniques and power-ups have broader range than ever before. With all of this waiting inside a pack-in game, very few kids were disappointed if they picked up a Super NES back in 1991.
SUPER MARIO RPG
The fall of 1995 brought about a new and exciting collaboration: Nintendo and RPG powerhouse Square joined forces, with a Mario role-playing title to kick things off. Of course, the next year saw Square ditch Nintendo and take all of their games to the rival Sony PlayStation for the rest of the decade, but at least Nintendo got Super Mario RPG out of the deal.
Super Mario RPG unfolds with rendered graphics and a diagonal viewpoint, but it's no impediment to a cheerful Mario adventure. The usual cast of Mario characters expands to take aboard a mystic puppet, a cloud-creature orphan, and even a dethroned and depressed Bowser. It lacks the delightful graphics and rampant wit of successor RPGs like Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi, but Super Mario RPG has plenty to offer.
Nintendo's early Metroid games did an awful lot with very little. They found bounty hunter Samus Aran in the dark mazes of alien worlds, where the minimalism of the storyline, backgrounds, and music only made everything more haunting. Super Metroid isn't quite as bleak in appearance or as plotless in setup, but it's not afraid to let the ambient tones of a cavern speak volumes.
It makes for a fascinating journey. Samus reveals new areas of the planet Zebes with each power she gains, and the environments offer copious details and cleverly masked secrets. What little story there is hits even harder because of its restraint, and the natural progression makes Samus' triumphs all the sweeter. In any era, Super Metroid remains a marvel of game design.
You may note that Super Punch-Out!! wasn't half as important to the Super NES as the original Punch-Out!! was to the NES, but that's unfair. The first Punch-Out!! had impressively big characters and an endorsement from a pre-scandal Mike Tyson. Super Punch-Out!! may be a better game, but it arrived in a crowded Super NES scene without a celebrity attached.
Super Punch-Out!! follows the same perspective as the original, with slightly more balance. Heroic boxer Little Mac, now transparent instead of pint-sized, weaves and dodges in the foreground while a goofball procession of boxers faces off against him. The techniques are slightly more advanced, but it's all easy to grasp and tough to finish.
STREET FIGHTER II TURBO
Why did the Super NES Classic Edition go for Street Fighter II Turbo instead of the later Super Street Fighter II, which has four additional characters? Devoted Street Fighter fans could go on endlessly about the reasons, but the short of it is that Street Fighter II Turbo is a more refined game, and Capcom compromised less when it came to fitting an arcade heavyweight into a Super NES cartridge.
Comparisons aside, Turbo nicely packs in everything that made Street Fighter II a phenomenon in the first place: the appealing stereotypes, the competitive play, and the countless intricacies of the six-button attacks. Fighting games have evolved by leaps and bounds, but it's hard to argue with Turbo being here.
YOSHI'S ISLAND: SUPER MARIO WORLD 2
It's telling that Yoshi's Island didn't carry the Super Mario World 2 subtitle in Japan. The game stars multiple Yoshis as they deliver an infant Mario to his rightful home, and their side-scrolling world looks drastically different from prior Mario outings. Everything blooms with bright colors and crayon-scrawled style, and Nintendo's Super FX 2 chip allows all sorts of effects that defy the confines of 16-bit games.
Yoshi Island's doesn't waste any of this spectacle on a mediocre game, either. The Yoshi's have many techniques at their disposal: tossing eggs, stomping from above, scrambling in mid-air for a little extra hangtime, or turning into vehicles like pudgy Transformers. Stages abound with secrets and novel ideas, including the infamous “Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy” interlude (where the psychedelic effect isn't quite the same as it is on a real Super NES). Perhaps the subtitle wasn't misplaced: if Super Mario World felt like a retread, Yoshi's Island was the breakout wonder the Super NES always needed.