When it comes to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), there are roughly three camps of players: (1) people born after its heyday, (2) people who owned a Sega Genesis instead, and (3) absolutely diehard SNES fans. I’m camp 3, obviously, so I’m always eager to learn more about this machine I love and its games. Along those lines, Jeremy Parish with Limited Run Games has published Super NES Works Vol. I, a wonderful in-depth retrospective book about SNES and all 31 of its games that released in the United States in 1991, its first year on the market here. By design, the book can’t be the one-stop essential reading that Virtual Boy Works is, but it’s a fantastic pick-up for SNES freaks all the same.
Now you’re playing with super power
By focusing on such a narrow time period — August to December 1991 — Super NES Works Vol. I provides a granular analysis of how companies fared at developing for SNES at the very beginning of its life cycle. Parish paints a picture of how developers initially struggled with SNES’s 3.58 MHz Ricoh 5A22, which provided famously slower processing power than Sega Genesis (“Blast Processing!”) and TurboGrafx-16. It resulted in palpable slowdown in arcade-centric action titles with lots of moving parts like Gradius III. Of course, developers would later resolve several of these issues, both by better learning the hardware and shipping cartridges with add-on hardware built in.
Likewise, developers were eager to experiment with SNES’s various unique new “mode” display options, even if most of it amounted to visual gimmicks with minimal gameplay effect. Mode 7 particularly enabled various rotational and faux-3D effects that everything from F-Zero to Super Castlevania IV was happy to exploit to varying degrees of success. (For a fascinating extended discussion of the design of SNES, check out Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware.) Although, often the games that performed the best on a technical level were the ones that employed no such parlor tricks, like Darius Twin.
So basically, Super NES Works Vol. I provides a snapshot of what my parents would describe as the SNES’s “gorky” phase, that period of initial growth and awkwardness where nothing is quite right but things are headed in the right overall direction. No sane person wants to play Drakkhen or D-Force anymore, but it’s fun watching Parish place such games’ experimentation into their proper historical context. He likewise connects the dots in developers’ histories, explaining how earlier games informed the development of these games.
And of course, the book is not entirely about performing post-mortems of so-so games. It makes sure to celebrate the lofty accomplishments of games like Super Mario World and Final Fantasy II and explain in painstaking detail why their new additions were significant. In fact, Parish dedicates a whopping 20 dense pages to Final Fantasy II, and the details get a little excessive even for my Final Fantasy II/IV super fan tastes.
In that sense, Super NES Works Vol. I is both exhaustive and sometimes even a little exhausting. As in Virtual Boy Works, Parish repeats himself on occasion, and one more round of editing could have streamlined some of his thoughts to clump them together more efficiently. But I don’t want to overemphasize the issue, because the writing is still highly competent and extremely informative.
What is more frustrating though is that the book has an egregious amount of typos. There is even a typo on the book jacket and a mistake with the ordering on the table of contents. And while I don’t want to suggest that there are mistakes on every page, it did reach a point where I was quietly amazed whenever I went several pages without a typo. So on one hand, this is an unforgivable oversight that will hopefully be addressed in future reprints — but on the other hand, if the worst thing I can say about the book is that there are too many typos, that’s still pretty good.
Super NES Works Vol. I puts a giant magnifying glass on 1991
Ultimately, Super NES Works Vol. I provides a hyper in-depth analysis of the first American SNES games and pairs it with enough historical context to appreciate it all. It will help you further deepen a love of (or perhaps ignite first-time interest in) games like ActRaiser, while also serving as a eulogy for games best left in the past, like Home Alone. If you want a snapshot of what it was like to own a SNES in 1991 and why things were that way, Super NES Works Vol. I comes heartily recommended.
A review copy of Super NES Works Vol. I was provided by the publisher.