Paweł Grabarczyk

Paweł Grabarczyk is a postdoc at Making Sense Of Games project at IT University of Copenhagen, he holds an MA and a PhD in analytic philosophy. His research lies on the boundary between game studies and philosophy. He is especially interested in game ontologies, study of representation and virtual reality.

Contact information:
pagrab at gmail.com

SNES - Not so "Super," After All

by Paweł Grabarczyk

Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System by Dominic Arsenault is the newest entry in the ongoing platform studies series published by MIT Press. The platform analyzed this time is Nintendo's SNES, the hugely successful follow up to its seminal 8 bit console which already got its own book in the series (I AM ERROR: The Nintendo Family Computer|Entertainment System Platform by Nathan Altice (2015)).

Writing a platform studies book on the SNES is an unenvious task. First of all, we should realize that the SNES is one of the most beloved consoles of all time. Its library consists of games which are often considered to be the epitome of 16-bit game design (especially in the case of its two dominant genres: platformers and jRPGs). For this reason, it is, as Jose P. Zagal points out in the blurb on the cover of the book, often perceived through rose-tinted glasses. How does Arsenault deal with this problem? Up from the start he warns the reader that embracing a more far-reaching perspective allows him to look at the SNES in a much more critical way. The author argues that, despite its success, the console constituted a turning point for Nintendo which lost the lead in the console's arms race. From this point of view the SNES looks more like a result of the company's stubborn attitude and hubris than another triumph of lateral thinking with withered technology.

The second reason why writing a book on the SNES is difficult (and one which Arsenault cannot deal with so successfully) is the secretive nature of Nintendo. There are several key points in which the author has to give up the investigation and leave the reader's curiosity unfulfilled as there is simply no data to back any additional claims.

The third difficulty concerning a platform study of the SNES comes from the fact that, as Arsenault points out, save from Mode 7 and additional chips implemented in cartridges, the SNES is not terribly interesting from a technological standpoint. As candid as this admission is, it might be a little bit disheartening for the reader interested in platform study. The good news is that the author has a cure to this problem. He suggests extending the perspective once more – this time, instead of looking farther away, Arsenault proposes to employ a broader look at the idea of a "platform." Instead of focusing on the technological aspects alone, he looks at the Nintendo console from two additional angles – cultural and economic. This idea seems to be especially fitting in the particular case of the SNES, which was a very closed, guarded system, determined rather by business practices of its creators than its technical peculiarities[1].

The book consists of seven chapters which function as fairly independent parts.

In the first chapter, the author presents something he proposes to call the "Nintendo Economic System" (a description which conveniently abbreviates to NES). Explaining the business model which Nintendo embraced is very important for Arsenault, as it helps the reader understand the relations between Nintendo and the third-party companies which produced software for its consoles. Arsenault argues that the company treated its partners as competitors even though they produced complimentary goods for its product. The author compares Nintendo policies with analogous regulations of its western counterpart, Atari, and shows how some of the idiosyncrasies of these policies stem from the need to avoid Atari's previous mistakes. One aspect in which this chapter could be said to be lacking is that Arsenault does not tell us much about how the Nintendo economic system related to regulations employed by Nintendo's Japanese competitor – Sega. I believe that this part of the story should be included in the book as it helps to understand Nintendo's policies even better. Sega's first foray into the console market, the ill-fated SG-1000, was a specific case of a first party only environment – it hosted only games developed by Sega. Contrary to this, Nintendo opened Famicom (the Japanese version of the NES) to other publishers. This choice of business strategy can be probably attributed to the simple fact that contrary to Sega, Nintendo did not have a big catalogue of arcade games that could be ported to home machines (and it already ported its biggest hits to the competing platforms). No matter what the motivation for opening the platform was, it was precisely this decision that made the NES a clear winner in the early Japanese console wars. I believe this specific detail to be important as it helps to understand why Nintendo settled on a strange "in-between" position (which Arsenault calls "self-party" company). It seems that the company desperately tried to balance between the more open strategy which helped it in Japan and the close strategy which seemed to be a good reaction to Atari's errors.

The second chapter keeps the historical perspective and shows the reader how the SNES was conceived and launched. As we learn from the book, the story was rather turbulent which makes for a fascinating read. The SNES was more of a quick, rushed reaction to the risk of losing the lead in the console market than a well-researched follow-up to the NES. This origin story is important, because it strengthens Arsenault's most controversial claim – that the SNES was actually the beginning of Nintendo's fall from grace and not the triumph of console manufacturing it is often heralded as. An obvious context in which this narrative was present was the language used by marketing which often described SNES as technically advanced. Arsenault analyzes these narrative techniques in the third chapter in which he differentiates between technobabble, techno literacy and buzzwords. As important as this aspect of the wide notion of a platform is, I have some doubts as to whether it deserves a whole chapter. The three categories Arsenault uses to analyze marketing and journalistic discourses (at the time it was often hard to tell these discourses apart) are not as sharp as the author seems to believe. For example, the notion of "technobabble" is definitely too broad because it refers to too nonsensical and hyperbolic descriptions as well as descriptions taken out of context. But what about so called "marketing spins" in which a technically true information becomes used in a manipulative way? To show this on an example from the era – one of the consoles that were supposed to supersede the SNES, the ill-fated Atari Jaguar, was being presented as the first true 64-bit console, despite it being a much weaker machine than 32-bit consoles that finally overcame the SNES (PlayStation and Sega Saturn). The Jaguar contained two 32-bit processors (playfully named as "Tom" and "Jerry") which were governed by a 16-bit processor (Motorola 6800, the same processor which was used in Amiga, Atari ST and Sega Genesis). Can Arsenault's classification help us evaluate Atari's claim that the Jaguar was the first 64-bit machine? Was it technobabble, a buzzword, or a plain lie? I am afraid that a more complex classification of marketing narratives is needed.

The good news is that, no matter how successfully concealed the real specifications of SNES were at the time, with today's knowledge we can easily analyze its details and compare it to that of its competitors. This technical analysis can be found in Chapter 4. Arsenault does a pretty good job of describing and explaining the intricacies of SNES hardware (which is important, given its peculiarities, such as the famous Mode 7) but there are two points at which his analysis is, in my opinion, not accurate. First of these points is the comparison of the number of colors of the SNES and the competing Sega Genesis. Arsenault downplays this difference between consoles by pointing out that, considering how many colors games actually used, the difference wasn't huge. I cannot agree with this opinion. There is a threshold of numbers of colors which make the graphics look natural – it is especially seen in the case of gradients. The SNES was the only machine of the time (apart from expensive VGA cards for the PC) that was able to achieve it (Commodore Amiga 1200 was released more than a year later). This made a huge aesthetic difference, especially in the case of multiplatform releases which could be easily compared side by side. Even an untrained eye can easily spot dithering (a checkerboard technique used to simulate additional colors) in Sega Genesis' versions of games, which made them look much worse. It could be even argued that (despite the absolute numbers) the difference between 61 simultaneous colors of the Genesis and 256 colors of the SNES is bigger than the difference between 256 colors and 4,294,967,296 colors (introduced in 32 bit standard)[2]. 256 colors was a very good sweet spot between the need for realistic colors blending and the cost – that is why this number of colors remained a standard for the PC for several years.

The second aspect of the technical analysis that I find somehow lacking is the description of the SNES' highly unusual sound chip (S-SMP produced by Sony). Needless to say, the analysis of the chip has its place in the book, but the author does not go into enough details. He suggests that the uniqueness of the solution used in the SNES came from the fact that, instead of hardware sound synthesis, the chip let the developers use their own samples. This is somewhat inaccurate – both from the technical and from the historical points of view. Using samples instead of hardware synthesis wasn't really new as Amiga 500 did it already in 1987. Moreover, the S-SMP constrained the samples so much, so they were in fact closer to wavetable sound cards (such as Creative's Soundblaster AWE on PC) albeit one without a predefined set of sounds. I believe that skimming on these details is a missed opportunity because they could be actually said to strengthen Arsenault's opinion on the SNES. To understand it we have to realize that the fact 8- and 16-bit machines used hardware sound synthesis that gave them a specific "aural signature" – for example it is very easy to recognize the sound of a Commodore 64's SID chip even today. Contrary to this, all of the later 32-bit machines exchanged this aspect for digital playback of prerecorded files or CD tracks. This made them aurally undistinguishable – there is no aural signature of PlayStation or Sega Saturn. From this point of view the SNES can be said to be a weird transition console – one that eschewed the uniqueness of sound synthesis (which was still embraced by its competitor) but couldn't trade it for the full-blooded digital playback. For this reason, it resorted to an in-between solution of heavily constrained samples which can still be easily recognized as a "SNES-style music."

Needless to say, no one was more aware of SNES limitations and peculiarities than its creators. As depicted in the fifth chapter of the book, Nintendo tried to enhance the SNES to compete with upcoming new consoles by adding the Super FX chip which transformed the 2D console into a simple polygonal system. It is here where Arsenault's argumentation seems to fit the best. Once you look at Star Fox (Nintendo, 1993) and Donkey Kong Country (Nintendo, 1994) from the point of view of his narrative, they really start to look as desperate half-hearted attempts to stay relevant in the changing console landscape.

Still, as enjoyable as the chapter is to read, it definitely left me wanting more. The reason for it is that the author stops half-way of depicting the fascinating relation between Nintendo and Argonaut Games (the creators of Super FX chip and Star Fox). As can be seen from the press of the era[3], Argonault Games was initially supposed to create more games for the Nintendo (and its planned successor Super FX-II). Interestingly enough, none of these games were actually released. What is even more surprising, one of the games the company worked on (Star Fox 2) was shelved by Nintendo at the last moment (despite being almost complete). The alleged reason for this was that Nintendo did not want to compete with its own new Star Fox 64 (Nintendo, 1997) game (Frank, 2017) and ended up reusing Argunauts' code and ideas (McFerran, 2014)[4]. The relation between both companies had to be turbulent at the least, as Jez San, the founder of Argonaut Games, accused Nintendo of stealing their 3D platformer prototype and using it as a template for their Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, 1996) (McFerran, 2014)[5]. Even though all of these are just allegations, they come from one of the parties involved and have been published in the gaming press. It would have been great to investigate them and see if any additional facts could be established.

The sixth chapter of the book presents the impact SNES had on the American market and gaming culture through Nintendo's in-house publication "Nintendo Power" (which oscillated between a gaming magazine and a marketing pamphlet). Even though the placement of this chapter is a bit odd (it breaks the flow between the story of Nintendo's flirt with polygons and Nintendo's flirt with CD-Rom technology), the chapter itself is highly important as it helps to explain why the whole culture surrounding the SNES should be treated as a component of the broad notion of "platform" that Arsenault uses. Unfortunately, as interesting as the chapter is, it also helps to accentuate a certain vagueness that plagues the whole book. As can be plainly seen in the title, the book is supposed to be devoted to the SNES. Still, as can be seen in many places, Arsenault does not shy away from talking about Super Famicom – the Japanese counterpart of the SNES as well. This would not be an issue if the author used a narrow notion of a "platform" but since his analysis encapsulates the economic and cultural contexts, both Super Famicom and the SNES should be treated separately. On the other hand, the book cannot be said to cover all aspects of the SNES either, since it is written from American-centric perspective. This is a bit problematic, because the SNES was, of course, launched in Europe as well. This may sound as a minor nitpick as Europe was never Nintendo's primary market, but it is interesting to note that expectations of European players differed significantly because of the popularity of home computers (especially the Amiga), so the socio-cultural context of the platform local history was different. Let me show it on two examples. As shown by Arsenault, one of the big economic shifts the SNES introduced was that it was not compatible with its predecessor – game libraries of players became obsolete overnight (especially when they had to sell the old console in order to buy the new one). The reason why this was unusual is that both Nintendo's American competitors, Atari and Sega, made its consoles backward compatible (Atari 5200 through an official adapter). The problem is that, from the perspective of the European player, this was nothing new or surprising. After all Commodore Amiga was not compatible with Commodore 64 and Atari ST was not compatible with Atari XL/XE. From this standpoint it was the lack of compatibility that was the norm. The other example concerns the effect of parallax scrolling used in many SNES games. Arsenault describes it as if it was something special but in reality it was the selling point of Amiga games since 1989, since the release of Shadow Of The Beast (Reflections Interactive, 1989). The book would have benefited if the experience of home computers' users was taken into consideration. In fact, this perspective should have been probably even broader and incorporate other expectations, as some of the characteristic effects of the SNES (most notably the scaling and rotating in Mode 7) were well-known to the players who attended the arcades.

Since, apart from the small nitpicks I listed along the way, Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware remains an important and highly enjoyable book. It is only fitting to finish with a few words about the last, seventh chapter, which I personally consider to be the best one. The chapter describes a fascinating chain of events which changed the console landscape and Nintendo's history forever, and that is the unsuccessful cooperation with Sony. For obvious reasons, the details of the negotiations remain classified. Fortunately, the author manages to skillfully maneuver between facts, rumors and speculations in an informative and entertaining manner. It seems that here the whole narrative comes together: created as a quick response to market changes, the SNES became obsolete much faster than any previous (or in fact, later) generation of consoles. What is more, the constraints of Nintendo's economic system and its culture led to bad business decisions and dethroned the Japanese giant. Taken without the context (which Arsenault aptly provides), many of these business and technological decisions may seem baffling: for example, why did Nintendo let their major franchises appear on a competitor's console, the Philips CDI? Tied together by Arsenault's narrative, not only do they make perfect sense, but also shed some light at Nintendo's two later successful platforms – the Wii and the Switch. What the company did was that it relaxed practically all of the restrictions of its original publishing model. Using Arsenault's pun, we could say that it finally managed to step outside of the shadow of the NES.

 

Endnotes

[1] For this reason the broad notion of the platform seems much less useful in the case of open environments, such as home computers.

[2] See the comparison in the following Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_depth

[3] As seen in editorial in Edge Magazine 05, pp.24-29

[4] Surprisingly, Star Fox 2 was finally released in 2017 as a part of SNES mini collection (which makes it the first new SNES game since Frogger released in 1998).

[5] The game has been later released as Croc: Legend of the Gobbos for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn.

 

References

Altice, N. (2015). I Am Error: The Nintendo Family Computer / Entertainment System Platform. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Arsenault, D. (2017). Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Frank, A. (2017). Why was Star Fox 2 cancelled? Retrieved from: https://www.polygon.com/2017/6/26/15875100/star-fox-2-snes-classic-edition

McFerran, D. (2014) Born slippy: the making of Star Fox - From the archive: ex-Argonaut staff reveal the story behind the revolutionary SNES hit. Retrieved from: https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-07-04-born-slippy-the-making-of-star-fox

 

Ludography

Nintendo. (1993). Star Fox. [SNES], Nintendo

Nintendo. (1994). Donkey Kong Country. [SNES], Nintendo

Nintendo. (1996). Super Mario 64. [Nintendo 64], Nintendo

Nintendo. (1997). Star Fox 64. [Nintendo 64], Nintendo

Reflections Interactive. (1989). Shadow Of The Beast. [Commodore Amiga], Psygnosis


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