When Nintendo revitalized the home console market with the NES they had very little competition. Their brand is still so tied to gaming that many non-gamers still refer to any video game as “Nintendo”.

SEGA’s Master System was a decent first effort, but the Genesis was the first real challenger to Nintendo’s throne. The Genesis released in 1988 in Japan, coming to North America the following Summer. It wasn’t until Sega of America started bundling their first hit Sonic the Hedgehog with the system that they saw any real success. Sega of Japan failed to replicate the North American success and this divide would cause problems later, contributing to their future console failures and eventual withdrawal from hardware development.

Hardware        SNES                                GENESIS

CPU                                  1.79 – 3.58 Mhz                           7.67 Mhz

Ram                                 128 KB                                           64 KB

Sound RAM                   64 KB                                              8 KB

Audio Chan.                   8                                                        6

Colors                              32,768                                             512

Simultaneous Colors    256                                                   64

Planes                             1-4 layers of varying use              2 scrolling layers, 1 sprite layer,

1 window plane

Onscreen Srites            128                                                    80

Max. Sprite Size           64×64                                               32×32

Resolution                     256×224 to 512×448                     320×224

Winner: SNES

The SNES hardware had the clear advantage in colors and sprites, as well as more flexible hardware that was able to expand with newer tech included in game cartridges. The Genesis hardware was much more rigid, but when designed with intent, could still produce effective results.

Sound

From the PS2 era on, all platforms had an even playing field of including any sound they wanted. Back in this generation however, the hardware was extremely different.

The SNES was able to produce actual samples, although they had to be densely compressed to fit on the relatively tiny cartridges. This was a huge leap forward from the NES four-channel bleeps and blops. Gamers could now hear timpani, violins, and more. However, the suffocating amount of compression often resulted in a muffled sound, especially when compared to the brash Genesis FM Synthesizer.

Now Mario could dance along to a ragtime band playing authentic stride piano.

Final Fantasy could build an orchestra of samples to give the production depth and magesty,

The Genesis used a Yamaha FM chip that lacked the realism of samples and produced a much harsher sound in comparison. It’s strengths were drums, guitar, synths (obviously) and overall clarity. When designed with these limitations in mind, composers could still produce compelling pieces of music.

Yuzo Koshiro was a masterful composer able to squeeze sublime sounds from the FM chip. His work on Streets of Rage remains a fantastic example.

The Genesis did hard rock and metal extremely well.

Winner: SNES

The Genesis could rock the house like no other, but the SNES was an impressive leap from the 8-bit era and was much more versatile .

Best Games

When qualifying a console’s library there are several factors to consider. The N64 had a relatively small offering but it had enough excellent titles to warrant a purchase and still remains plugged into my television’s otherwise useless composite inputs. The PS2’s vast library allowed developers to take risks on eclectic games and still manage a profit.

SNES

Super Mario World, Chrono Trigger, Link to the Past, Super Mario RPG, Donkey Kong Country series, Super Metroid, Final Fantasy IV and VI, Harvest Moon

Genesis

Sonic the Hedgehog series, Gunstar Heroes, Road Rash, Phantasy Star, Shining Force,  Shadowrun, Streets of Rage, Kid Chameleon, Revenge of Shinobi, Golden Axe

Winner: SNES

SNES is the clear winner here. Featuring some of the all-time greatest RPGs and dozens of classic games that still hold up today. The Genesis had a large library, but it’s selection of truly excellent games drops off quickly. Both libraries are deep, but the SNES is the easy pick.

Controller

The Genesis added a ‘C’ button but lost the ‘select’ of the NES. The six-button was a great design later on for fighting games but once again the SNES dominates.

The SNES launch controller needed no improvements and introduced design elements we still see on ever controller today. The four face buttons and shoulder buttons are the modern gaming standard and we owe it all to this grey and purple beauty.

Winner: SNES

Overall

The Genesis was a worthy contender and ended up being Sega’s only successful console. The competition it provided pushed the industry forward and provided a unique perspective. It was a great system for the era and still remains a good pickup with a large enough library to keep retro players satisfied.

Categorically however, the SNES was superior in nearly every way. It’s lush color and sound felt like a much larger leap forward and allowed developers great flexibility. If I could pick just one console from this era ( and perhaps any), I’d be happy with a SNES controller in hand.

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8 comments

  1. As a previous Mega Drive owner I mostly agree with this article even if the best music you linked there is easily Streets of Rage 2! The Mega Drive also undoubtedly had the cooler looking console and controllers and overall cooler image (at least here in the UK).

    I should mention the Mega Drive’s cpu was over twice as fast as the SNES’ and when programmed properly could handle faster gameplay than the SNES and even do some of the mode7 effects of that console (sprite scaling and rotation) as evidenced in Gunstar Heroes.

    Glad I had access to both though, it was the best gaming generation yet imho.

    1. It’s all just a fun opinion. Streets of Rage soundtracks were mind-blowing for the time and still hold up as fascinating relics of what could be squeezed out of the hardware. I leaned towards SNES in that category as it was more versatile and felt like more of an evolution.

      I agree the Mega Drive had the cooler image and pushed gaming in a more adult direction. Publishers seemed to have more freedom with the Mega Drive and Sega wisely played the adult image up.

      Great point about the processor and mode7 style effects of the great Gunstar Heroes. Any game system is at its best when the developer works within its limitations. Both consoles had great games while offering unique twists that we don’t see anymore in this homogenized gaming landscape.

      1. Well said, it was a really interesting time, games like Sonic 2 and Super Mario World really showed the strengths of each console, they look, sound and play so different! It is a bit lame now that the only difference we tend to get between platforms is resolution.

        Mind you, I skipped this generation of consoles and do all of my gaming now on a PC, I’m contemplating getting a Switch though, it’s the only one that truly does things uniquely (you can always count on Nintendo for that) and I can’t deny that Nintendo magic, I get the feeling they really make games for the love of it, unlike most.

        Looks like Sega’s making a comeback as well with some recent announcements and the cool looking Sonic Mania, like they are beginning to care again, not that I would trust their consoles anymore, I got burned too many times…

        1. Absolutely, there was a real choice back then, and interesting to see how they would handle their versions of ports. Now you go where the exclusives are, or your friends.

          PC and a Nintendo console is always a great way to cover the most ground. When Microsoft started putting Xbox One games on Windows I thought that was a great way to motivate PC owners to never have to buy an Xbox. Strange move.

          Sega’s CEO and Pres actually said this hilarious quote

          “I’ve been talking to the employees about how we should start putting serious consideration into quality from this point on,”

          Better late than never. I love the ida that they recruited the top Sonic Rom hacker to make the next Sonic. First Sonic title I’m actually excited to play since the Mega Drive days.

          1. Yeah Sega pretty much admitted they haven’t been trying for a while and boy was it obvious, let’s see what the future holds.

  2. What a load of tripe! The Mega Drive 6 button controller tramped the Super NES controller. Both consoles had great games, the Mega Drive trampled the Super NES for sports games, mainly from EA. And not forgetting 3 Road Rash games. Back in the say, I played on my Mega Drive more than the Super NES. E-SWAT, all the Sonics. FIFA Soccer, PGA Golf, Alien Storm, Moonwalker, Street of Rage, Two Crude Dudes, Forgotten Worlds, Quackshot, Castle of Illusion, World of Illusion, Forgotten World. The list goes on. Nintendo relied heavy on the success of the NES, SEGA had nothing to follow from with the Mega Drive due to the Master System being a flop. A legendary era in gaming.

    1. Why do you prefer the Sega 6-button? My point was that the SNES controller set the standard for every successful controller after with four face buttons and shoulder buttons, what’s yours?

      I agree about the sports games and failed to highlight that, but in terms of games I consider classics still playable today, I feel the SNES has the stronger top-end, at least for my tastes. If you were a sports fan at the time, I could see why Sega would be the stronger offering. The SNES still had most of the EA titles and Ken Griffey Baseball etc.

      The titles you mentioned are a great example of Sega’s more interesting library. What they lacked in top-end games they made up for with a more unique offering, much like the PS4’s healthy indie roster this generation.

      And yes, Road Rash is killer, easily one of my favorite games from that generation and one of the biggest strengths Sega had.

      Thanks for the input.

  3. The sega 6 button controller didnt ship as standard for a very long time, so cannot be used as a tool to fight for the genesis in this case. The Chrono trigger soundtrack alone could win over the sound debate for the SNES…just go listen to that intro theme. My dear god. Not to mention soundtracks like DKC and Super Metroid.

    I’m a massive Streets of Rage 2 zealot too.

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