Nintendo's riposte to the Mega Drive arrived in 1990 when the Super Famicom was released in Japan. Again, we in the UK had to wait until 1992 for our version, the Super NES, to arrive in stores. Curiously, the US SNES had a redesigned ‘breeze block' case and squarer cartridges. While it seems unlikely that this led to the system's failure to destroy the Mega Drive over there, Sega's system definitely had the edge on looks.
In all other respects the SNES was the stronger console. It's 3.57MHz custom CPU and Sony-designed graphics processor, plus 128KB of RAM and 64KB of VRAM could produce images with a maximum 512 x 448 resolution (though 256 x 224 was more common) and display an amazing 256 simultaneous colours from a palette of 32,768. Meanwhile, Nintendo's machine partnered an 8-channel FM sound chip with a 3-channel audio DSP. While the Mega Drive's controller only had a D-pad and three buttons, the smooth SNES pad had four face buttons and introduced shoulder buttons for the first time.
The console had some cool party tricks as well. First, the legendary Mode 7: a pseudo 3D graphics mode which mapped 2D bitmaps onto a background layer that could then be rotated and scaled in a 3D view. Used to devastating effect in Super Castlevania IV, F-Zero and Mario Kart, it was the HDR lighting of its day. And just when the SNES looked like it might run out of steam, Nintendo introduced the concept of enhancement chips: processors built into games cartridges that could beef up the visual capabilities of the console. The SuperFX chip enabled the SNES to render flat-shaded polygons in pioneering 3D games like StarFox and Stunt Race FX, while the SuperFX 2 chip allowed for a conversion of Doom and the huge bosses and astonishing 2.5D effects seen in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island.
The system even managed a late spurt just as the 32-bit era was beginning to kick in, thanks to Rare's Donkey Kong County. When first announced in early 1994, more than one journalist believed that the revolutionary 3D graphics had to be the work of Nintendo's long-rumoured 3D console. In fact, the 3D characters and backgrounds were pre-rendered on SGI workstations then assembled using regular 2D techniques. All the same, the game looked miles ahead of anything seen on other 16-bit systems and went on to sell a tasty eight million copies.