The Opposite of a Rude Awakening: What the SNES Classic Mini taught me about being a Sega kid

At the beginning of my holiday break, I started working on a piece about using the SNES Classic Mini to play games I’d missed out on in my childhood as a Sega kid. The plan was to play each of these games and produce a few pars on each to illustrate the experience, how they stacked up to my childhood expectations and how they played now, 20+ years after launch. The piece quickly became about something else though, a cognitive reframing of a childhood spent with a Sega Mega Drive, always wondering what might have been if I’d asked for a SNES instead.

If you were a kid who owned a Sega Mega Drive in the 16-bit era, you couldn’t escape the feeling that you were getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was everywhere. And kids with Super Nintendos? They were the enemy. Those Mario-loving bastards had it all — better games, better graphics, a more comfortable controller. It was enough to make you sick.

Playing the SNES at a friend’s house always felt like we were peeking through a window, trying to catch a glimpse of the better life we were missing, hastily turning our noses up were we ever caught enjoying ourselves lest we be considered a traitor to House Hedgehog. Rich kids lucky enough to own both machines were despicable centrists, eager to get in the ring but too cowardly to pick a side in the console war.

As a Sega kid, the cost of that console war was that I missed out on a lot of great SNES games in my youth, games that now carry mythic status within the hobby. 25 years down the track, and with a fresh SNES Classic Mini console and a fortnight off over Christmas, I finally had what I needed to get up to speed.

To be clear, I had played a lot of these games at one point or another. Over the years, I’d done my homework, played catch up. One of the first things I bought when I got a stable job after finishing high school was a Super Nintendo and a handful of cartridges off eBay. I got the whole kit for a song. You could still do that in the early 2000’s. The carts weren’t yet the hallowed collector’s items they are now. I carved my way through classic after classic — Super Metroid, A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country — but I don’t know if I really took anything in. I knew they’d be good, and it wasn’t a surprise when they were. Perhaps this was the Sega kid in me, still projecting some ingrained, half-understood malice onto the SNES. Even then, in my early 20’s, I don’t think I was ready to fully appreciate those games for what they were. The technology hadn’t yet advanced far enough for there to be any real nostalgia for the era. We were living in the age of the PlayStation 2, Xbox and Gamecube, and it was hard to go back.

There were few games Sega kids resented more than Donkey Kong Country.

Now 33 years of age, the release of Nintendo’s SNES Classic Mini in October presented the kick in the pants I needed to finally revisit the system. Quarter 4 being what it is when you work in games media — a tsunami of review content, back-to-back-to-back trade shows, followed by end of year wrap content and holiday plans — I didn’t actually touch my SNES Mini until my break began about a week before Christmas. It sat on my desk, unopened, patiently waiting for its moment.

Opening the SNES Mini gave me a small idea of what it must have been like to unwrap the original console, fresh and new. The SNES Mini controllers, so familiar even to those who never owned the machine in its heyday, are constructed from the same materials they were back then. They feel right. The machine itself is pint-size, and makes a perfect desk piece when its not in use.

The SNES Mini boasts a curated list of the system’s best titles ready to play out of the box, and most of them I’d played in one form or another before. While I was keen to dive into them again, particularly with a critical eye, what was more exciting to me was the stuff I hadn’t ever played. Soft-modding the console to play old backups took minutes. I went on a deep dive, scanning the list of every SNES game ever made for familiar titles, reaching back into my memory for games I’d seen in magazines but never played.

In the early 90’s, Australia had very few outlets providing games coverage. The Zone, Channel 9’s short-lived (and surprisingly punk rock) Saturday morning gaming show had come and gone, and Hyper magazine was only just getting off the ground. Its cousin, PC PowerPlay, wouldn’t take its maiden voyage until 1996. When I could convince my parents to buy me a games magazine from the newsagent, it would typically be one imported from the UK. These magazines were usually months old by the time they made it to my little coastal town in New South Wales’s Northern Rivers, but the games they would cover! Japanese imports that would never see the light of day in the west, three low res screenshots of titles coming out later in the year, features on weird horror games my mother would never have let me play — it was buck wild.

One of these magazines was running a six-page feature on the then-forthcoming Animaniacs game by Konami headed to the Super Nintendo. Six pages, the last of which had a quick par or two confirming a Mega Drive version. The game looked amazing, just like the cartoon! Imagine my surprise when my mother and grandmother tracked down a PAL copy of the Mega Drive version for my birthday (no small feat in regional Australia circa 1994) and it was totally different to the SNES version written about in my magazine.

Animaniacs on the Super Nintendo

This was the first time I realised that a game could exist on both platforms and not be exactly the same. It was a confirmation of the Sega kid’s worst fear, the ugly truth we’d tried so hard to deny — we were getting one thing and the SNES kids another. When it came to cross-platform titles, this was the clearest indicator I’d ever seen that we were getting rinsed. I was furious. How often had this happened? How many times had we been duped? Too young to understand what are now relatively commonplace concepts like hardware limitations, budget concerns and the relative inexperience of the industry at the time, I felt as though I’d been the target of an especially shitty lie. I never told mum about my disappointment — we didn’t have much money and that she’d managed to find a retailer locally who could help her track it down was a minor miracle. I made damned sure we got our money’s worth out of Animaniacs.

So, obviously, this was one of the first ROMS I loaded onto my SNES Mini. Having now finally played it, I can tell you that the Mega Drive version of Animaniacs was not entirely the betrayal my 10 year old mind had made it out to be. In fact, if anything, Animaniacs on the Mega Drive is the superior version of the game across the board, from level design to character animation. The SNES version is a clunkier, often directionless approximation of the Mega Drive version. It was not, as my younger self had so fervently believed, the other way around.

Another title that was wholly different from platform-to-platform was Disney’s Aladdin. With the SNES Mini, I was finally able to prove that the Mega Drive version of Aladdin was vastly superior to its SNES counterpart in almost every way. Game feel, level design, controls, combat — you name it. SNES acolytes may be scandalised to read this but the game’s Mega Drive superiority is well documented. While the SNES version is a clear prototype for the Disney video game formula that would reappear in The Lion King, The Jungle Book and other tie-in titles, the Mega Drive version plays like a proto-Earthworm Jim. Aladdin gets a sword!

There were a few other titles that fell into a similar category — the SNES versions of both Jurassic Park and Taz-Mania aren’t just different games, they’re in different genres altogether. Where Mega Drive owners got a pretty baller side-scroller in Taz-Mania, SNES owners got this Mode-7 scrolling trash pile about … running? I guess? I can’t believe such a toilet fire survived the pitch meeting. Jurassic Park went from being a fairly middle-of-the-road action platformer on the Mega Drive to a top-down shooter similar to Ikari Warriors or Zombies Ate My Neighbours on the SNES. I know there are a lot of people who adore the SNES version, but still don’t know how I feel about it. As a platformer, there’s a more direct mirror to the film in my mind — every level has you pushing forward, trying to reach safety and escape the island. You can certainly argue about its quality as a game but designwise, it makes total sense to me. Also? You can play as Alan Grant or a literal actual velociraptor. The SNES version feels like you’re walking in circles electrocuting raptors for hours on end. And then there’s first person segments? It’s all over the place.

Jurassic Park on the Mega Drive

It was surprising that a great many of the titles I’d always wanted to try turned out to be pretty disappointing. Some, like the deeply strange movie tie-in game for 1994’s Casper, were rotten all the way through. For others, the years, evolving design philosophies and improved localisation had rendered them utterly impenetrable. In this, ActRaiser is the perfect storm, a game so oblique I couldn’t even figure out how to get off the starting map screen. I’m serious. I’ve been playing video games my whole life and I’ve never felt so dense. I gave up on it. I regret nothing.

Where the SNES totally destroys the Mega Drive, of course, is in its library of role playing games. In terms of raw quality, the Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) SNES-era back catalogue is equalled only by Rare’s in the Nintendo 64 era. Chrono Trigger. Final Fantasy III. Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, Romancing SaGa, Super Mario RPG. Incredible. Elsewhere, you had other developers producing RPG’s like Illusion of Gaia, Lufia and Lufia II, Earthbound and Terranigma among many, many others. Beyond Phantasy Star IV, there was precious little of this sort of thing on the Mega Drive and I’ve been enjoying dipping my toe into each and every one of these titles. I’m making it a 2018 goal to complete as many as I can.

In total, I loaded 103 different games onto my SNES Mini and the thread that ran through them all was that they illustrated the fundamental difference in design philosophy between the SNES and the Mega Drive. In the Mega Drive, Sega wanted a machine that could provide a high quality arcade-style experience at home. As mandates go, it’s remarkably straightforward. The result is a system with games that are typically very fast-paced, can be knocked over in an hour or two and have strong replayability.

Nintendo saw the SNES the same way it saw the NES — a console for the home, a space where you could stretch out on the couch, take your time and play for leisure rather than the glory of the score chase or time attack. To Nintendo, it didn’t make sense to replicate the feel of the arcade at home because the home and the arcade couldn’t be more different. The arcade wasn’t comfortable. It was loud, you frequently had to stand while playing and you had to wait while other people hogged the games. None of that applies at home, and so Nintendo filled their machine with games that made sense to play in that space. The SNES was as much a natural fit for the 200-hour RPGs that are its hallmark as it was for the short, punchy beat-em-ups that were Sega’s bread and butter. The Mega Drive focused on doing one or two things really well. The SNES could do it all.

The Super Nintendo port of id Software’s DOOM — another title in my list of missed gaming connections — is a perfect example of this. The Mega Drive could never have hoped to run a game like DOOM (and in total fairness, the SNES can barely run it either). The Mega Drive had made attempts at folding first person games like Dune and Syndicate into its library, but they were static, room-to-room affairs, not a free-flowing first person shooter like DOOM. That it works on the SNES at all is a credit to id’s ability to optimise their game, but it’s also a monument to the SNES’s incredible versatility.

Sega kids could only dream of sprawling adventures like Chrono Trigger.

So, with my holiday now coming to a close, what was the takeaway from this exercise? What did I learn? I learned that the SNES kids really did deserve their bragging rights when it came to platform exclusives, but more importantly I learned that we Sega kids weren’t anywhere near as bad off as we assumed we were. It may have felt like the grass was greener on the other side (and when the other side has Donkey Kong Country, the grass looks mighty green), but it wasn’t really true — Sega was just doing their own thing. Our playground arguments were comparing apples to oranges, but we had no way to know that.

I learned that my imagination, even as a kid, was able to conjure up ideas of video games so high flying that modern day developers would have trouble realising them. I am not suggesting these ideas were in any way good — they were not. Having finally played Animaniacs on my SNES Mini, I’m still trying to figure out what the hell my child self thought that game was going to be based on those screenshots. The sole point of overlap in the game that exists only in my head and the actual completed SNES game is that the show’s characters are in it.

I learned that system specific versions of the same game were not the cynical ploys my young self had made them out to be. They were a result of an industry that was very much still figuring itself out. We still didn’t really know what the hell a video game was supposed to be and there were no rules or best practices for what constituted a “good game.” Critics and devs alike were making it up as they went (and still are to this day). Sophistication would come with experience, and the time capsule that is SNES Mini makes that lesson clear.

Finally I learned that, while the SNES was probably the machine I should have had as a kid, the one that would have been the most comfortable fit for my tastes and personality at the time, I’m still glad to have been a Sega kid. Owning a Mega Drive and feeling hard done by set me on a mission to discover exactly what I was missing out on. It made me want to play more and different games, a habit that has evolved with me as I’ve gotten older. I still feel that drive, not quite FOMO but damned near close, to seek out games I haven’t played before or even heard of. That drive spurred me to buy obscure consoles as soon as I was able to. It spurred me to pursue a career in games media when my old retail job fell out from under me. And, in a roundabout way, it spurred me to write this piece.

The SNES Mini is a weird, wonderful little treasure box, and this Sega kid is glad he got one.