Exactly a quarter of a century ago, Nintendo doubled down on gaming.
On August 23, 1991, Nintendo (NTDOY) launched the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) to customers in North America. While the console had previously been available to Japanese and Korean customers in 1990 as the Super Famicom and Super Comboy, respectively, the move to North America was a significant one. It helped unleash sales that solidified Nintendo’s position as a leading game console and video game maker worldwide.
Over its lifespan, the Super Nintendo—or SNES as it was often called in the U.S.—became a must-have for any serious gamer. The console was of the 16-bit variety, doubling the 8-bit power offered by its predecessor, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). While it didn’t sell as well as the NES, the SNES solidified the popularity of Nintendo’s core franchises, like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.
Perhaps more than anything, the SNES is synonymous with one of the most vicious “console wars” the video gaming industry had ever seen.
When Nintendo launched the NES in 1983 in Japan, the company was edging out into a frontier that few others wanted to explore. The home console market was believed dead after Atari’s fall, and few companies thought it a good idea to jump into the fray.
But Nintendo did, and the risk paid off handsomely. Over its lifetime, the NES sold nearly 62 million units and was able to break out from the stable of other companies that were willing to take a risk on the home console market.
“[The SNES is] important given that it cemented Nintendo as the home console leader,” reflects Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Securities analyst and Nintendo tracker, in an interview with Fortune. “[Nintendo was] one of many with the NES, and broke out from the pack with SNES.”
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Nintendo declined to comment for this retrospective.
As other companies saw the success Nintendo was enjoying in the gaming market with little worry of competition, they decided to jump in. Sega was chief among them.
Another Japan-based console maker, Sega, which had tried unsuccessfully to compete with the NES, thought its best chance at challenging Nintendo was by launching a 16-bit console, eventually named Genesis. Sega also positioned itself as the “cool” game company that was for the mature gamer who had grown out of playing kid-friendly games on the NES.
Needing to respond to the threat, Nintendo unveiled the Super Famicom in Japan in 1990 for approximately $210. While it was an early success, to truly take on Sega and win the console war, Nintendo again needed to go global. By the summer of the following year, Nintendo achieved that mission with the $199 SNES it deployed to North America.
Now, the fight was on. Sega stuck to its guns as the cooler game company and fought hard to win over third-party developers to attract more games, and thus, more gamers, to its hardware. Nintendo tried its own luck at that, but its own games, including Super Mario World and Super Mario Kart, proved to be among the console’s most popular titles.
Regardless, the console, coupled with the games, provided something that Nintendo desperately needed in its dogfight with Sega: a household brand.
“The console had decent 16-bit graphics, so it was the first time gamers could actually figure out what they were doing. But it was far from realistic,” Pachter says. “I’d say the most important thing is that SNES really catapulted Nintendo’s iconic brands into people’s consciousness.”
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Meanwhile, Sega continued to soldier on, though most analysts now say that Nintendo won the 16-bit battle by squeaking out more console sales than the Genesis. In fact, worldwide, Nintendo says that it sold more than 49 million units. That didn’t quite match the NES or Nintendo’s best-selling console of all time, the Wii, which had more than 101.6 million unit sales, but it was enough to beat the Genesis, which is estimated to have notched more than 30 million in unit sales over its lifetime.
The success of SNES wasn’t lost on other companies. Although Sony had been thinking seriously about the video games market for years and actually approached Nintendo with the idea of collaborating on a console, the companies ultimately split.
By 1994, the Sony PlayStation hit store shelves.
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The PlayStation was, in part, a response to some of the shortcomings that Nintendo and Sega were bringing to bear in the gaming market. Whereas Sony’s console offered 32-bit graphics, Nintendo’s SNES could only muster 16 bits. While Nintendo’s hardware relied upon cartridges that were costly for game publishers to produce, the PlayStation ushered in a cheaper, disc-based model, which ultimately helped it attract more customers.
Some could argue that the PlayStation’s launch put a damper on Nintendo and its console business (and it most certainly led to the beginning of the end for Sega’s hardware business).
The Nintendo 64, the console that was supposed to be the answer to the PlayStation, only mustered 33 million unit sales worldwide. The GameCube, Nintendo’s competitor with the PlayStation 2, performed even worse, with nearly 22 million units sold. It wasn’t until the Wii’s launch in 2006 that Nintendo finally regained its footing with more than 101 million units sold worldwide.
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Still, the SNES can be remembered as a critical part of Nintendo’s history. It might not have been the success that the Wii or its predecessor the NES was, but it was arguably one of the linchpins that turned the home console market into something much bigger—and more profitable.
“The home console market was still pretty small then,” Pachter says. “However, the SNES was the most successful home console during its cycle, so it was the start of Nintendo’s dominance in the home console market.”
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The SNES has also helped Nintendo become an important part of pop culture.
At the Rio Olympics closing ceremony on Sunday, the International Olympic Committee handed off the games from Rio to Tokyo, where the next Summer Olympics will be held in 2020. Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe shocked the world by popping up not as himself, but as Super Mario in an homage to the chief character in Nintendo’s many franchises. Before Abe popped up, a video was aired depicting a CGI version of Mario running through the streets of Tokyo to find a warp tunnel to Rio de Janeiro. After he jumped into the game’s familiar green tube, Abe sprung out while wearing and then waving Mario’s signature red baseball cap.
It’s hard to believe that without SNES any of that would’ve happened.