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:
At least on paper and by the normally-touted numbers, the SNES wins, but not so much once you look beyond the surface level specs. The Genesis is actually a far more versatile and powerful system under the hood and really only falls short in terms of colours, transparency and some custom effects like SNES’ Mode 7 background scaling/rotation/shearing, but it ultimately betters the SNES in pretty much every other area in real-world use and in the right hands.
Actual Winner: Genesis
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 around a hundred games)
Ultimate Winner: SNES
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 and DMA but the SNES can additionally do HDMA, background scaling/rotation/skewing, proper transparency via colour math, window 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:
It’s important to note that while a lot of the hardware specs and graphical features above seem to favour the SNES by quite some margin, in reality, there’s often a bunch of caveats to how those specs and features are utilised, and in many practical use-cases the Genesis can actually do a lot of graphical aspects more effectively than SNES as a result. The resolution being a great example of this, where, on paper the SNES appears to have a higher maximum resolution but only uses it properly in one game, whereas the Genesis uses a higher horizontal resolution than the SNES on most games and often the SNES even adds small black borders to the top and bottom of the screen to help it process more complex code while avoiding slowdown.
Some games that pushed the limits of the Genesis:
Ultimately, each console has its strengths and weaknesses. SNES games tend to look nicer due to the higher number of colours and added transparency, 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 far less frequently, even when there’s a lot of action happening on screen.
At a more 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 can be overcome with good programming 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 around a hundred 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).
Both the SNES and Genesis are capable of outputting mono and stereo sound but the SNES can also do virtual 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/electric 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 most of the time due to the compression that was necessary on SNES for various reasons, but Genesis sound also tends to be a bit more tinny, harsh and scratchy on the ears. Just like the graphics though, it’s important to note that the Genesis has some tricks up its sleeves to go beyond the on-paper specs, such as using the legacy Master System sound chip alongside the Genesis sound channels for more sound channels than the SNES ultimately, although those extra channels sound even more limited and dated than the Genesis’ normal FM sounds and were rarely used.
Here are some examples of soundtracks from each console:
Many people prefer the Genesis’ more arcadey sounds but I prefer the SNES’ more orchestrated sounds and also feel it’s ultimately far more versatile and well rounded in the sound department overall.
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.
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 in Smash TV at the same time as moving in one of eight directions with the d-pad, 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. So this one really isn’t close as far I’m concerned.
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 used the Wikipedia total sales for the lowest number plus a few other sources for my very rough high guess–but the SNES numbers are accepted as the accurate and official numbers by pretty much everyone. Either way, the SNES sold more units that the Genesis.
Overall Winner: SNES
Ultimately, when I put it all together, it’s hard 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.