Genesis vs SNES: Battle of the 16-bit consoles

The Sega Genesis and Nintendo SNES were natural rivals. They weren’t the only 16-bit game consoles of their era, but they ended up being the two most popular. Sega leapfrogged Nintendo with the Genesis, and the SNES was Nintendo’s answer. Let’s take a look at the Genesis vs SNES.

Overall the SNES was the better console of the two and its popularity reflects that. But the Genesis had its moments, so it retains a following today, even if it has to stand in the shadow of the SNES.

Backward compatibility

Genesis vs SNES
The Sega Genesis had much more processing power than the SNES, and that made a difference in the types of games developers made for the console.

Backward compatibility is something we almost take for granted today. But in the late 1980s, that wasn’t simple. Today, each console generation is powerful enough that, if nothing else, it can emulate the previous generation through software. In the late 1980s, you had to build compatibility into the hardware. Sega did so, but only released the adapter in Europe. In the States, backward compatibility with the Master System wasn’t a huge selling point, as the Master System wasn’t a big success here.

Sega provided some forward compatibility in terms of software, because its Sega CD and 32X were add-ons to the Genesis.

Nintendo didn’t build backward compatibility into the SNES, so the SNES couldn’t play NES titles. This would have added cost to the system, and Nintendo spent its budget on more sound channels and colors instead.

But there is one bit of hardware forward compatibility that Nintendo provided. Nintendo used the same video connector on the SNES going forward. So you can swap between an SNES, N64, Gamecube, and even a Wii without touching your television. Just unplug the video connector on the back, plug the other console into the cable, and plug the console into the wall. The power supplies are different, but at least the video connector is the same. That’s convenient.

The point here is largely moot, but the question comes up frequently.

Genesis vs SNES: Hardware

Genesis vs SNES
The SNES had much less processing power than the Genesis, but better graphics capability and arguably better sound capability. Ironically its mix of low CPU power and good graphics and sound led to a larger number of timeless software titles.

The Genesis had a much more powerful CPU, using the same Motorola 68000 processor as the first-generation Macintoshes, Atari ST, and Amiga. The SNES used a 65816 variant like the Apple IIgs used. One reason Sonic runs like his hair is on fire while Mario and Luigi take a leisurely stroll in comparison was to show off that difference. Sega wanted to show it had a much more powerful processor than Nintendo had in the NES, and the SNES didn’t close that gap.

Nintendo used a cheaper processor and tried to make up the difference elsewhere. But the meager CPU speed of the SNES surprised people even in 1990.

HardwareGenesisSNES
CPUMotorola 68000, Zilog Z-80 coprocessorWDC 65816 core
CPU speed7.67 MHz (68000), 3.58 MHz (Z-80)3.58 MHz
RAM64 KB128 KB
Audio channelsup to 108
Resolution320×224256×224-512×448
Colors51232,768
Simultaneous colors64256
Planes2 scrolling, 1 sprite layer, 1 window plane1-4 layers
Onscreen sprites80128
Maximum sprite size32×3264×64

Sega went for speed, while Nintendo went with a processor that was halfway between the Genesis’ two CPUs in capability, and spent its budget on higher-end graphics and sound. Nintendo gave a more balanced approach. Sega’s approach was akin to pairing up an i7 CPU with a GTX 1030 graphics card, while Nintendo’s approach was like pairing an i3 CPU with a GTX 2060. Which one you like better will depend entirely on the kind of games you play.

In 1988, the Genesis looked like a no-compromises console, but the world was moving fast. Coming along two years later gave Nintendo some options. The results show Nintendo was wise to differentiate itself.

Genesis vs SNES: Software

The software libraries for the two consoles are very different. The Genesis has its Sonic franchise while SNES had the Mario franchise. Outside of those, the SNES went toward the fantasy/RPG genre, while the Genesis had lots of beat’em ups and sports titles. The Genesis was better at those types of games, while the SNES was better at RPGs. The SNES gave us Bobson Dugnutt, but the Genesis had a lot more sports games, including licensed sports games.

Sports games have a short shelf life, generally speaking. Unless your favorite team did really well in a particular year during the Genesis’ heyday, you’re probably not super nostalgic for the sports games on the Genesis. And the SNES had a larger number of exclusives. Many third-party Genesis titles were available on other platforms too.

That’s why the SNES seems to have the vastly superior software library today. Its library aged better. But in 1991 or 1992, the difference wasn’t as clear cut. If you liked sports titles and fighting games, you preferred the Genesis. If you liked RPGs and the various Nintendo franchise characters, you preferred the SNES.

The SNES had the larger software library, but in any given region, the number of titles available for each console was closer to 700. If budget is a concern, the Genesis is a cheaper console to collect for, both in terms of the number of titles, and the average cost of each title. The SNES has the overall advantage here, but there’s a compelling case for the Genesis too.

Genesis vs SNES: Sound

The sound capabilities are a constant source of debate. The Genesis had two sound chips, one that provided FM synthesis (similar to a cut-down Ad Lib or Sound Blaster) and one that provided square wave like a Tandy 1000. The Genesis can do vintage chiptunes like nobody’s business. The SNES could play samples. The quality of the samples wasn’t up to modern standards, so it sounds muffled compared to a modern system. But the SNES sounds more modern. For lush soundtracks, the SNES sounds better. For a hard-driving rock or techno sound, or just the classic chiptune sound, the Genesis could do better. Neither keeps pace with today and I won’t convince you which one is better. It depends on the type of music or games you prefer.

Unlike today, in 1988-1990 you had to pick a direction. Nintendo picked one and Sega chose the other. It’s like debating Amiga sound vs. Ad Lib PC sound. Nintendo picked the direction the Amiga went, and Sega picked the direction the PC market went. In 1990, they both sounded really good compared to the systems that came before them, but they were different.

Graphics

The SNES could display more colors at higher resolutions and less blocky graphics, but the Genesis’ CPU power allowed it to move stuff around faster. This is another reason why the Genesis tended toward fast action games and the SNES tended toward more leisurely games with, in many cases, better storytelling.

On paper, the SNES destroyed the Genesis. But CPU power can even the score a bit. The SNES was more capable, but its comparative lack of CPU power kept it from doing everything it was capable of doing. The Genesis had less potential, but left less of its potential unfulfilled.

Controllers

This is definitely a case where going second made for an advantage. The Genesis controller learned from the mistakes of the NES controller, but then Nintendo improved again on the Genesis controller. The dogbone SNES controller is iconic. The Genesis controller isn’t bad.

Genesis vs SNES: Overall

The SNES outsold the Genesis almost 3 to 1, but the Genesis was hardly a flop. Kids preferred the SNES, especially early on, while teens and adults preferred the Genesis, which had the better selection of beat’em ups and sports titles. But over time the RPGs gave the SNES more staying power, while the games that played to the Genesis’ strengths moved on to newer, ever more powerful consoles.

The SNES is the better of the two consoles overall. But the Genesis did have its moments. The Genesis is an underdog, but there are reasons to consider it.

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