Why are so many phenomenal games on the Super Nintendo?
If you’ve spent longer than five minutes on any gaming forum/group/site/underground fight club, you’ve probably heard the age old gaming question, “If you were stranded on a desert island, but somehow had a television and electricity and maybe access to Amazon.com, which gaming console would you want to have with you?” And, if you’re anything like the pedantic nerds that generally ask such a question, your response is only more questions. Does this “one system” allow for all games ever on the system? Are we talking about a fully backwards compatible Playstation 3? Are we including DLC titles that appeared on older systems? Is there online functionality? Is sand going to get in that cartridge slot, instantly ruining any hope of having fun at all? It sounds completely insane, but if we’re allowed one system equipped with every available game for that system, I might actually choose the Vita. That sucker technically has so many great games… even if its system exclusives are sorely lacking.
But, if you’re talking about exclusives (and not modern systems that are clearly cheating by absorbing entire classic libraries), it seems like the “best” systems are the second ones. Playstation 1 was fun, but Playstation 2 had an amazing library that practically defined modern game storytelling. Xbox was a drop in the online bucket, but Xbox 360 created the console online community of today. And the WiiU was a fine prototype for the concept of a “portable console”, but nothing beats the amazing portability and ergonomics of the Switch. And, when you get right down to it, this all makes sense. Videogames are, at their core, pieces of technology, and it’s rare that any technology gets it right the first time. Nobody is still driving a Model T, and the Wright Flyer isn’t our standard for aviation. To be clear, this isn’t to say that any “early technology” is inherently bad, simply that we usually first get a passable proof of concept, and then, a generation later, we’ve got the good stuff. It’s the way of the world.
But the Super Nintendo was something special. Back before voice acting and online play and the very concept that you could have color on your portable system (or at least pull that off without 3,616 AA batteries), there was the Super Nintendo. And it’s easy to discount that previous sentence as an old man griping while he waits for the latest Kirby game to download 3 gigs of updates, but it’s worth noting that there was a time when all a videogame console was expected to do was play videogames. No DVDs, no Netflix app, not even the possibility of “updating the firmware”. If you wanted to do something unique and interesting with a later game, you needed to design a special chip, and plump that cartridge cost up to unreasonable levels (hi, Mega Man X3). You want to save? Go hit the battery store! And God help you if you want to require a damned contemptible misguided peripheral. But, through it all, it meant that, by and large, games were games, and all you kids better not be enjoying your walking simulators on my lawn.
Sorry, I had to take a quick break to go yell at a cloud. Where were we? Oh, right, Super Nintendo.
So the Super Nintendo didn’t have any gimmicks. This… might be the only time that ever happened with a Nintendo console. The original Nintendo Entertainment System shipped with its own robot, and a gun with which to shoot said robot (in case it ever demanded you play Beyond the Beyond). The N64 touted its lack of load times, four controller ports, and analog sticks in direct response to Sony’s betrayal. The Wii, WiiU, and Switch were all completely defined by their stunts. And the Gamecube? Its biggest failing was that it had a pile of gimmicks (weird controller layout, GBA compatibility, the fact that it is clearly a near-sentient lunchbox), and none of them ever stuck, because all anyone wanted to do was play Smash Bros. But the Super Nintendo only ever wanted to play videogames. Here’s a controller with some more buttons. Here are a few chips that allow for more colors, graphics, and sounds. Now go nuts! We’ll check back in in five years or so.
And it certainly seems like a lot of developers did go nuts. Nintendo itself (well, let’s include some “second parties” that were synonymous with Nintendo) was responsible for Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island, Kirby Super Star, Donkey Kong Country, and Earthbound. There was also Super Metroid, which some claim has not been surpassed within its genre even to this day. Square gave us Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy 2 & 3, and Chrono Trigger, another luminary that is still unrivaled. Capcom presented Mega Man X and the last of the great Disney licensed platformers. And Konami was no slouch, either, as we saw the future of Castlevania and Contra, which neatly brings us to today’s featured title.
Contra 3: The Alien Wars is one of the few run ‘n gun games that presents a different playstyle every stage, but still manages to be absolutely perfect. Everything starts in a “basic” Contra stage, with invading aliens, marching soldiers, and the occasional giant turtle monster. Then it’s time for an overhead stage that is less wanton destruction and more hide ‘n seek. The third stage is predominantly climbing based, and the fifth level is a hunt ‘n kill in the desert. It’s only in the sixth and final stage that we return to the “original” gameplay of the first level, and then it’s time for a boss gauntlet that includes destroying a strangely high number of colossal organs. And sandwiched somewhere in the middle is the unbelievable Level 4, wherein Jimbo and Sully (real names withheld to protect the innocent) first ride hovercycles across a deserted highway (though it gets more crowded pretty quickly), proceed to fight a robo ninja beneath a helicopter, and then ride a series of missiles straight into an offending flying fortress. It is the most spectacular thing to ever happen in a Contra game!
And that’s the thing: Contra 3 might be the best game in the franchise… And it was released on the Super Nintendo over 25 years ago. There have been other Contra experiences since, but so many of them have been… lacking. And even the best of these new Contra titles (Contra 4 comes to mind) revisit earlier titles rather liberally, up to and including whole bosses or set pieces from Contra 3, yet adding very little to the nostalgia. Then again, Contra 3 did repeat some of the greatest hits of Contra and Super Contra, so… has that always been happening? Is Contra just as iterative as Super Street Fighter 2: Turbo Edition?
Wait a tick… maybe the Super Nintendo is home to so many great games because it was a system exclusively built for iterative games.
The Super Nintendo was a “Nintendo, but super”. The system allowed games to be “the same thing as last time, but super”. Castlevania 4 was, ultimately, a reskin of Castlevania 1. Super Metroid was Samus repeating her zero mission all over again, but now she gets faster boots. Link vs. Ganon. Little Mac vs. Some Tall Guy. There was no need to make Mario a JRPG or fighting game (yet), and the public (or the market) was perfectly content to see the early “arcade” style games evolve into their more console-based final forms. Basically, all the games that defined gaming in the first place on the NES all went Super Saiyan at once, and the nefarious Frieza of Boredom was left floating in space.
So why is the Super Nintendo so well regarded? Because it was a videogame system that had the technology and luck to allow itself to “only” be a place for properly evolved videogames. As we grew up, so too did our games, and the Super Nintendo was the host for many of them.
And then we got to murder a buttload of aliens, so that wasn’t bad, either.
FGC #403 Contra 3: The Alien Wars
- System: Super Nintendo/SNES Classic, and then there was a remake of sorts on the Gameboy Advance. It included a few stages from Contra: Hard Corps in an effort to ditch the overhead stages, which makes for a very different experience. There was also an OG Gameboy port of Contra 3, too, and it was phenomenally awful.
- Number of players: And the Super Nintendo was a great time for two players (and exclusively two players)!
- Port-o-Call: Gameboy Contra 3 was terrible, but it had Super Gameboy enhanced features. Which… is vaguely confusing, because if you’ve got a Super Nintendo, and want to play Contra 3 on the television, I want to say there are other options…
- Favorite Weapon: Flamethrower 4 life. There is no problem that cannot be solved by an unending stream of hot death.
- Favorite… Uh… Thing: A swarm of alien bugs attempt to carry off your hero toward the start of Level 3, and I’ve always appreciated how they’re the approximately one monster in the game that can be touched without incurring instant death. It doesn’t make that section any less hectic (as they will drag you to an immediate death if you let them), but it’s nice to be slightly less destructible for all of thirty seconds.
- Did you know? In Europe, our Contra heroes are (not) secretly androids fighting an army of alien robots. It’s basically the prequel to Nier Automata.
- Would I play again: Contra 3 just reminded me that the Super Nintendo was a system of wonders. What do you think?
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask! I guess you’ll see that update in… three days. Please look forward to it!