The 16-bit War


Hardware Design

Which console wins in terms of the design of the system really just comes down to personal preference and little else as far as I’m concerned, as they are both well built and have their own aesthetic charms, so take your pick:

The American SNES
The Japanese/European SNES
The Europe/UK Mega Drive

Winner: Tie

Winner: SNES

At least on paper and by the normally-touted numbers, the SNES wins in terms of specs, but not so much once you look beyond the surface level. The Genesis is actually more versatile and powerful under the hood in many ways and really only falls short in terms of colours, transparency, background layers, some built-in custom effects like SNES’ Mode 7 background scaling/rotation/shearing, and overall audio, but it also betters the SNES in many technical areas in real-world use and when in the right hands (most games run in a higher horizontal resolution, it’s less likely to suffer slowdown when there’s a bunch of stuff on-screen due to the faster CPU, it can display more sprites in a line before things start to flicker, it’s much faster at proper 3D, etc).

Actual Winner: Tie

Well, unless you factor in the various in-cartridge enhancement chips that can be used with each system and indeed were used on the SNES regularly: SVP on Genesis (used by just one game), Super FX/DSP/SA1/etc on SNES (used by over seventy games).

Bonus Point: SNES

Graphics

There are the more obvious things like the amount of colours, background layers, sprites on screen and so on, but there are also some built-in graphical effects and tricks to take into account with each console: Both the SNES and Genesis can do line/row scrolling, column scrolling, layer and sprite priority shifting, and DMA, but the SNES can additionally do HDMA, background scaling/rotation/skewing, proper transparency via colour math, window/shape masking and mosaicing, and the Genesis has a built in window mode for drawing status bars to the screen more easily.

Some games that pushed the limits of the SNES:

Some games that pushed the limits of the Genesis:

Each console has its graphical strengths and weaknesses: SNES games tend to look nicer due to the higher number of colours, added transparency, and extra background layers, and they often show off fancy background scaling/rotation/skewing effects, whereas Genesis games tend to have more screen space for better viewing of the level, which is especially important in fast scrolling games or games where it benefits to see as much of the view as possible, and they suffer from slow down and flicker far less frequently, even when there’s a lot of action happening on screen.

At a more immediately appreciable surface level though, I think the SNES games tend to look better overall, particularly the first party games that work to the system’s strengths better than most, and any potential issues with slowdown and flicker can be overcome with good design and well-optimised code.

Also, and this is an important feather in SNES’ cap, the SNES can and does regularly use additional enhancement chips in the carts to the push the system well beyond its stock limitations and often beyond the Genesis’ capabilities too, and there are many games that utilise this feature of the system to great effect, starting right from day one with the launch title Pilotwings. Most of the underlying technical shortcomings of the system can be negated with this ability, and it’s pretty much unique to the SNES since only one Genesis game ever used such a feature whereas over seventy SNES games took advantage of it, sometimes rather spectacularly (Star Fox, Doom, Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario Kart, Street Fighter Alpha 2, Chatty Parodius, Super Mario RPG, etc).

Winner: SNES

Sound/Audio

Both the SNES and Genesis are capable of outputting mono and stereo sound (with some pretty big caveats in Genesis’ case depending on what hardware model you have), but the SNES can also do Dolby Surround sound. The SNES uses PCM samples for music that often sounds more orchestrated and rich, and the Genesis uses FM synthesis for a more digital/electronic audio experience that’s usually well suited to more dance/techno-sounding music and heavy beats. The Genesis music and fx do tend to sound clearer and less muffled than SNES much of the time due to the SNES’ use of the aforementioned PCM samples, but conversely, Genesis sound also tends to be a bit more tinny, harsh and scratchy on the ears at the same time.

*It’s worth noting that the four Genesis’ PSG sound channels were mainly included for backwards compatibility with Master System games, and, while they can be used to augment the seven FM channels for a total of ten audio channels, they are very limited and sound noticeably artificial and dated. So, it’s nice that they are there and can be utilized if necessary, but they’re not something that can suddenly make the Genesis sound better than the SNES. Plus, around half of the Genesis’ software library did not use the extra PSG channels at all.

Here are some examples of soundtracks from each console:

SNES:

Genesis:

Some people prefer the Genesis’ more arcadey sounds, but I [and many others] prefer the SNES’ more orchestrated sounds and also feel it’s ultimately far more versatile and well rounded in the sound department overall.

Winner: SNES

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Nintendo_Entertainment_System

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sega_Genesis

Edit: The following video has a figure of 869 total officially licensed games for Genesis/Mega Drive, not including any new indie/homebrew titles released in more recent times, so that’s a correction to the number I have above that was originally sourced from Wikipedia: https://youtu.be/NlYcnbHiTsk

Standout SNES games: Super Mario World, Super Mario Kart, F-Zero, Yoshi’s Island, Star Fox, A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Street Fighter II Turbo, Mortal Kombat II, Castlevania IV, Super Aleste, U.N. Squadron, Donkey Kong Country series, Super Mario All-Stars, Super Mario RPG, Chrono-Trigger, Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts, Final Fantasy series, Mana series, Mega Man series, Sunset Riders, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Super Punch-Out, Wild Guns, Parodius series, SimCity, Pilotwings, Cybernator, Tetris Attack, Super Tennis, International Superstar Soccer, Batman Returns, Contra III, Super Smash TV, Actraiser, Bomberman series, Earthbound, Turtles in Time, etc.

Standout Genesis games: Sonic series, Contra: Hard Corps, Phantasy Star series, Gunstar Heroes, Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, Mortal Kombat series, Thunder Force series, Ristar, Rocket Knight Adventures, Sparkster, Shining Force 2, Herzog Zwei, Landstalker, Shinobi series, Streets of Rage series, Hyperstone Heist, Pulseman, Beyond Oasis, Ghouls N’ Ghosts, Aladdin, a whole load of EA Sports games, Earthworm Jim, Musha, Road Rash series, Strider, Comix Zone, Strike series, Toejam and Earl, Golden Axe series, Mega Turrican, Ranger X, a whole load of Disney games, Adventures of Batman and Robin, Dynamite Headdy, Castlevania: Bloodlines, Alien Soldier, Virtua Racing, etc.

Genesis was generally stronger in the action and sports category and SNES was generally stronger in the platformer and RPG category. Which games you enjoy the most comes down to personal preference, but the SNES ultimately has far more games, and to this day more SNES titles still appear near and even at the top of most Best Games of All Time lists, which speaks to the truly great and timeless quality of that console’s best titles.

Winner: SNES

Controller

SNES: D-pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, Select and Start.
Genesis: D-pad, three face buttons, Start.

In terms of the amount of inputs, the SNES clearly comes out on top. And those inputs offer far more versatility too, from using the shoulder buttons to strafe in Doom, as air brakes in F-Zero, or to do a barrel roll in Star Fox, to using the diamond-shaped face button configuration to shoot in one of eight directions at the same time as moving in one of eight directions with the d-pad in games like Smash TV and Total Carnage, and allowing easy weapon and item selection in games like Zombies Ate My Neighbors and B.O.B. And the default SNES controller is perfectly capable of playing a game like Street Fighter II properly too, a game that uses six attack buttons, whereas you’d need to go out and purchase a different controller for Genesis at additional cost to get a similar experience (at least for around half of the people who owned a Genesis system, as it didn’t come in the box as standard until later on in the console’s lifespan). So this one really isn’t close as far I’m concerned.

Winner: SNES

The figures for Genesis are all over the place and go from the low 30 million mark to around the 40 million mark depending on the source. I do not trust the sources touting the highest numbers at all, as they’re mostly based on estimated figures from gaming journalists and third party analysts, who are rarely reliable in my experience, and I think most reliable sources usually sit around 35 million as being pretty fair and accurate. The SNES numbers are official and come from Nintendo directly. Either way, the SNES sold around 15 million more units that the Genesis,.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Nintendo_Entertainment_System

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sega_Genesis

https://vgsales.fandom.com/wiki/Fourth_generation_of_video_games

Winner: SNES

Final Verdict

Ultimately, when I put it all together and consider the sum of all parts, it’s impossible for me to come to any other conclusion than the SNES being the overall winner, with its better graphics, sound, controllers and games. But, of course, each person is free to love whatever console they choose and indeed love them both equally if they like too.

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12 thoughts on “The 16-bit War”

  1. “Which games you enjoy the most comes down to personal preference but, except, well, no, actually, it isn’t and the SNES wins here.”

    1. Yeah, and my personal preference [along with some pretty universally-shared opinions on the exceptionally high quality of the SNES’ library and especially its best games, as well as long-lasting and ongoing recognition of a bunch of them in most Top 100 Games of All Time lists too, compared to usually no Genesis games appearing in those lists] means the SNES wins here for me.

      1. Those lists are garbage, just like your content. Sonic the Hedgehog? Streets of Rage? Phantasy Star? Revenge of Shinobi? All Genesis games that appear in top game lists. If you are going to make cookie-cutter articles like this at least do your research, instead of being yet another tiresome super nintendo fanboy.

        1. I bet they’re better than any list you’d make.

          And, yes, as much as you love those Genesis games, they’re not Top 100 Games of All Time like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, A Link to the Past, etc, are. Maybe Streets of Rage 2, purely because it’s arguably the best beat ’em up in the genre. But the fact you’d actually put any Sonic game on your Top 100 Games of All Time list is just laughable.

          That might make you sad.

    1. The chart is just counting the standard six FM channels that were specifically intended for Genesis use as per the official development manual, but it doesn’t count the four legacy PSG ones that were really only included for Master System backwards compatibility support, even though they can also be used to augment the normal Genesis sound channels if necessary. There’s a reason over half the Genesis’ games library never used these extra channels, despite them always being there, which is partly because that’s not what they were there for, partly because they mostly sound like very basic bleeps and bloops for the most part, and partly because you then have to put in extra effort just to get the most out of them, often having to combine them all into one just to get a decent sound to augment the six proper Genesis FM channels. Using them in Genesis tunes is basically a hack, and I’m not listing hack features on that main chart for either system. However, I do mention later in the article that these extra channels can indeed be used in Genesis games, even as limited as they are.

      1. Whatever your opinion of the sound quality is, polyphony is polyphony. Objectively, the Megadrive has ten sound channels. Subjectively muddling the waters by deciding what’s “specifically intended for Genesis use” and what’s not isn’t useful. The PSG is integrated into the VDP itself, relegating it as some backwards compatibility afterthought is misleading. A far greater majority of NES games never use it’s DPCM, does that mean it shouldn’t count?

        1. Let me make it simple: Using the four legacy PSG channels intended for backwards compatibility with the Master System as additional channels for Genesis games is basically a hack, and, as you can see, I’ve not listed any hacky features on that chart, for either system.

          Just imagine that for all these hacky features you’d like to add to the Genesis side, there’s similarly a bunch of basically hacky features that someone else would like to be added to the SNES side too, if you want this list to be fair and equal. That would make for a clumsy and convolute list, and that’s not the goal here.

          The content of the article isn’t missing anything important regarding the Genesis’ sound capabilities, as those extra legacy PSG channels are covered a little further down and put into the correct context there too.

          1. How is it a hack if it was explicitly mentioned in the SDK documents? “The PSG contains four sound channels, consisting of three tone generators and a noise generator. Each of the four channels has an independent volume control (attenuator). The PSG is controlled through output port $7F.” In fact, the Master System is never mentioned at all whenever the PSG described in the Sound Docs. If you think that a Megadrive game using the PSG is “hacky”, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Again, the PSG is integrated into the Megadrive VDP, it is literally more intertwined in the Megadrive hardware than the actual YM2612. Is the Megadrive using the YM2612 a “hacky feature” to you? Also, Sega never described the PSG channels as “legacy,” where are you getting that from?

            “…there’s similarly a bunch of basically hacky features that someone else would like to be added to the SNES side too, if you want this list to be fair and equal.”
            Please inform me of a hacky SNES feature that is used by HALF of it’s library.

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