The joys — and lows — of playing Super Nintendo games

November 21, 2021

Recently, I’ve started re-playing my old Super Nintendo games. I was never a big-time gamer, topping out at about 15 games in my SNES collection, and when I was a teenager I wasn’t interested in classic adventure games like Chrono Trigger or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Rather, I focused on sports games like Madden 94, Super Tennis, NCAA Basketball, Super Bases Loaded, Super Goal!, and NHL Stanley Cup.

Firing up the cartridges today, I was pleased to find that Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, and Mario Kart still hold up as perfect games, but my sports titles, ones I played for hours on end in the 1990s, are mostly unplayable today.

Perhaps that’s not surprising for NCAA Basketball, Super Bases Loaded, and Super Goal!, which had certain janky qualities even back then, but I was deeply disappointed to find that playing Madden 94 again was like trying to play golf with beechwood club heads. Every team has the same playbook, and the offenses are weighted toward the West Coast and run-heavy stylings of the time. Sure, you can line up in a three-receiver shotgun set or under center with one running back and four wideouts, but it’s kind of pointless because you only have three receiving options on any given pass play. Moreover, if you’re used to hot route audibles or flipping the play at the line of scrimmage, uh… those aren’t things in this game, and that’s just the start of it.

I tried playing as the Eagles because I wondered if I’d be able to take advantage of Randall Cunningham’s speed, and instead quickly found I had the most success calling basic dives and off-tackle runs out of the I formation, with occasional passes to keep the 49ers’ defense honest. It illustrated a core problem with the playability of the Madden franchise from the start: Over the years, the game has sought to reflect the state of the NFL instead of providing a template within which gamers could develop their own strategies. Therefore, the game directs players to adopt George Seifert’s or Buddy Ryan’s strategies. Of course, gamers have always passed more often and gone for it on fourth down more often than real-life NFL coaches (video games are much lower stakes, for what it’s worth), but the simplified nature of the 1993 game throws that dynamic into sharp relief.

Mario Kart, on the other hand, has no such issue, probably because on one level it isn’t trying to be a realistic racing simulator, and on another level it absolutely nailed its physics in a way that still reads as sophisticated today. Later iterations, like Mario Kart 64, are more cartoony, with more gimmicks that intrude upon the core racing gameplay, so I keep coming back to the original as the best version of the concept. It’s not burdened with a claim that it’s imitating, say, Formula 1, and so it’s free to create its own universe. But even with that freedom, it somehow feels grounded in a baseline familiar reality that makes it a joy to play over and over.

Finally, as disappointed as I was in Madden 94, I was even more disappointed with Starfox. I didn’t play it as much as my sports titles, but I was still looking forward to dogfights in space. Unfortunately, the animation is so rudimentary as to be distracting, and the physics and controls are dodgy. For a game that felt so epic way back when, it’s the worst possible case that I can’t engage with the story because the game is obviously hamstrung by the limits of the 16-bit technology and less-than-ideal mechanics.

I haven’t bothered with Wayne’s World, or Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Busts Loose, or the other games that I can’t remember how or why I acquired them in the first place and never had any interest in finishing. They’re filler in my games box, representing perhaps 10 to 15 hours that I’ll never get back. But at the same time, they weren’t much of a loss considering I probably would have plowed that time into more Madden, which, in my advancing age, I’ve come to regard as nihilist escapism and a damn shame I spent the most potent years of my life that way.

(P.S.: Super Nintendo Chalmers.)

(Photo: "Super NES with all the goodies" by kafka4prez. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)