Nov 20 2013
by Jarrod S. Lipshy
Let me start out by confessing a slight bias: I love the Super Nintendo to death. My XBox 360 crapped out on me nigh on four years ago, and while I have had the pleasure of playing Skyrim on my former roommate’s unit, I have had no desire to replace my own, dead system since he moved out. In the meantime, I get my gaming fix from my older consoles: NES, N64, Sega Genesis, and of course my venerable Super Nintendo. Of these, the Super Nintendo seems to have the most quality library, even considering the vast amounts of entertainment to be had in blockbusters of today like Bioshock Infinite and Arkham Origins. Games like Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Earthbound constantly dominate the conversation of “Best Games of All Time” and show no sign of waning relevancy despite their old age.
With this legacy in mind, I adamantly, nay vehemently assert what could have been one of the greatest consoles ever to exist, and unquestionably what would have been my console of choice to this day. What we lost when the plans for the Super Nintendo CD (abbreviated SNES-CD) went up into thin air was no less than what was lost when the Library of Alexandria, the Acropolis, and the final print of London After Midnight went up in flames, combined. Hyperbole, you say? Well, I haven’t even begun to hyperbolize, because the system peripheral would have been no less than the pinnacle of human achievement; the crown jewel of modern society’s capitalistic mass-production. Entire societies’ functions would have to cease – even briefly – to witness the marvel that would have been the SNES-CD in action, I say this because…
It Would Have Worked, and It Would Have Worked Well
The Super Nintendo was an amazing achievement in not just graphical capability and processing power, but also in sound output, thanks mostly to Sony’s S-SMP chip. The chip was developed almost entirely in secret by Ken Kutaragi, who was unimpressed by the NES’s then-current sound chip. He only revealed his hours of on-and-off-the-clock labor to his boss once the project had been near completed. His boss was furious, thinking video games were a waste of time for a giant multinational corporation like Sony, but nonetheless he let Kutaragi enter into a deal with Nintendo to sell the chip. Nintendo gobbled it up, and this is where the agreement for Sony to produce a CD peripheral was born.
The success story of Sony’s sound chip technology married to Nintendo’s console could have been the beginning of a beautiful relationship (more on that later). Nintendo had proved themselves internationally as the dominant producer of fun machines, beating back Sega for market share with an aging console trashed in ad-campaigns as “inferior” to the 16-bit Genesis, but still capable of producing Super Mario Bros. 3 in its twilight years – which went on to sell 17 million+ units. When the Super Nintendo was released, the public flipped again for gems like Super Mario World and F Zero, and their appetite seemed only further stimulated by the possibilities of games that lie in the future.
It was about this time (1992) that the first details of the project to develop a CD add-on were being revealed in magazines. The promise of the technology within the Super-NES was dwarfed by the (what felt at the time) near-infinite storage space and versatile formatting of the CD medium. While Sega was caught up in re-hashing the garbage heap of a scrapped VHS game console, the SNES-CD seemed poised to take advantage of the size and scope of CD games, creating the potential for a Mario game that had twice as many levels as Mario World, and with advanced graphics and effects, not to mention beautiful, expansive soundtracks. The possibilities could have been endless when considering the impressive scope of later games in the SNES library such as Chrono Trigger or Starfox.
As an example, look at the game The Secret of Mana, the only official title that was indicated for an SNES-CD release. The game we got had gigantic sprites for an RPG of its time, and massive areas to roam around in – at least in the beginning sections of the game. Towards the end of the game, however, the engaging storyline takes a backseat to what is obviously dungeon-hopping towards the lackluster climax. It’s like if Link to the Past had all the areas around the last dungeons cut out and instead had a magic dragon drop you off at their doorstep. The reason for this was that the game had to be gutted drastically for a cartridge release rather than wait around for a peripheral that may or may not have ever materialized. What we missed out on could have easily filled the game map’s massive globe, and is only hinted at by the breathtakingly complex tracks released on an album called Secret of Mana: Genesis (no relation to the console) which would have been what the game would have presumably sounded like on the SNES-CD.
With so few examples, however, to pull from, who’s to say that the SNES-CD would not have been as short-lived and ill-fated as the Sega-CD? Well, aside from the fact that the SNES-CD would have avoided the pitfalls of obtaining a weak library of games that were already licensed to the Sega-CD, and that Nintendo could have learned from Sega’s mistakes, there’s the point that Nintendo would have had a powerful ally in Sony’s burgeoning gaming division, a fact which leads me to believe that…
The Console Industry As We Know It Would Be A Different Ballgame
Consider this: Sega’s own shortcomings and lack of clear direction put the company on the short list to near bankruptcy by the early 2000′s. With the demise and liquidation of Sega’s console division soon after the release of the Dreamcast, and barring the entry of Microsoft with their XBox later that year, this left just Nintendo’s Gamecube and Sony’s PS2 competing for market share during this brief window. Well, what if they were the same company?
This would have made a powerful alliance against Microsoft’s entry into the console business, and arguably would have deterred them from wanting to penetrate the mainstream market. With Nintendo and Sony being allied as the only console manufacturer, game developers would have no choice but to release titles for their system. This means that Grand Theft Auto 3 could have been a Nintendo game, their censorship policies notwithstanding. Also, the spirit of innovation that possessed Nintendo with the console gen that birthed the Wii could have been coupled with Sony’s manufacturing know-how and tech savvy. Instead of two nearly identical consoles and something that resembles a toy, we would have had a technical powerhouse developed by Sony and backed by Nintendo’s creativity along with their unstoppable first-party library. Just lay back and picture what Brawl could have looked like on the PS3. Feel free to wipe the drool from you mouth before you continue reading.
The sad fact of this never-was scenario of Nintendo and Sony against pretty much nobody was that it was thrown out the window because of a simple foul-up in the beginning of the SNES-CD’s development. Nintendo neglected to secure a fair portion of the licensing rights and royalties to the peripheral, meaning they would have been unable to collect enough profits from the games released on the SNES-CD to justify the risk of its release. Furthermore, nothing in the agreement prevented Sony from releasing their own console capable of running SNES-CD games without Nintendo’s explicit permission. Rather than try to re-negotiate these terms and strike a fair deal for both parties, Nintendo opted to be a bunch of paranoid jerks and partner with Phillips for the sole purpose of pissing Sony off enough to call off the deal entirely.
Shortly thereafter, the Play Station project, originally designed to be a synthesis of SNES-CD and in-house technology, went rogue and eliminated all hope of a partnered release with Nintendo. In 1994 the Sony Playstation was released, and it created an entirely new market for video games hitherto unaccessed by Nintendo, Sega, or ill-fated smaller competitors like the 3DO. The Playstation’s popularity with older gamers caused the new N64 to be seen akin to a baby’s toy, complete with candy-colored buttons and an asininely designed controller. While many amazing titles were released for the N64, some of which hold up quite well today, a lot of developers like Square jumped ship to release critically-acclaimed system-sellers like Final Fantasy VII on rival consoles. By Nintendo purposefully deeming CD’s as an inferior technology and sticking to smaller, more expensive cartridges, the N64 had to rely on a steady stream of first-party titles and select third-party titles made by companies like Rare Ltd. (who produced Goldeneye and Banjo Kazooie to name a few). To put it bluntly: the transition from 2D to 3D was bumpy and unkind to Nintendo, creating a distinct gap in genres like traditional RPGs and unfulfilled franchises like an N64 Metroid or Mother title.
Nintendo maintaining their relationship with Sony would have also meant sparing the public memory from the abomination that was the Phillips CD-i, complete with the worst Mario and Zelda titles by a large margin – bastard games born of spite rather than creative inspiration.
The Bottom Line
To summarize this eulogy/history lesson, I’d like you to use your powers of imagination to envision a brief utopia; one where the SNES-CD and the Sega Saturn are the only consoles on the market. The SNES now has the added benefit of Super FX chips, so it’s able to produce effects on par with the reviled Sega-CD and 32X consoles, only with quality titles full of thought and intensive artistic attention to detail. Games like Final Fantasy VI would have more vibrant effects, and segments of art synced with beautiful, dynamic soundtracks, advanced lighting effects, and massive, detailed sprites. Super Metroid and Earthbound could have had the sequels they deserved instead of being swallowed up in nightmarish 3D dev hells. The masterpiece that was Ocarina of Time would have had added years on the backburner, and a new 2D Zelda game might be out in the meantime, on par with Link to the Past. There would be no people thinking they were cool just because they could play Jet Moto while you played Donkey Kong Country 2. Instead, we’d all be in it together; men, children, women, and babies alike, all joined together, hand-in-hand in the streets, talking about how amazing and massive Secret of Mana was, and how the future could only be brighter.
Rather than punishing consumers with expensive cartridges and then stupid, tiny discs, Nintendo would have always been on the cutting edge of console technology. They would still enjoy the full third-party support that they had with the Super Nintendo. No longer would gamers have to choose between Madden and Mario, or whether to play Smash Bros. or Metal Gear Solid. They would all be one in the same, a choice as easy as paying for one game now or later, without having to invest in multiple consoles.
Now, as we push forward into the next gen, many are saying “Why couldn’t the Wii U have just been a peripheral?” and “Is there really a discernible difference between the XBox One and the PS4?”. Little do they know the reason for these deeply ingrained narratives lies in a simple negotiation mistake, and a lot of mistrust by what used to be the greatest video game company in the world.
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