Ah, the Super Nintendo. I have so many fond memories of this system from childhood. From getting it as a surprise gift by Mom and Dad, to playing a Link to the Past and being simply amazed by it(and subsequently beating it like 20-something times), to the awesome experience I had with Chrono Trigger(still can’t believe retail for that game was $79.99 when first released), the Super NES was a video game staple of my childhood, second only to perhaps the original NES. I like knowing the history and thought process involved in things I enjoy. For example, who designed the North American version of the system? What was the thought process behind the eventual look that we all know and love? Read on and find out!
Man of Design
This article discusses the original North American model design, not the latter versions or European and Japanese ones. Those may be featured in later editorials. This story starts with Lance Barr. Lance Barr of Nintendo of America was put in charge of the exterior design of the original North American Super NES. He started designing it in July 1990. The Super NES was released to the American market fall of 1991. When Lance was asked about his thought process for the design for an article by Nintendo Magazine, he said: “I was working on blue-sky designs. With video game systems there really aren’t any expectations yet of what they should look like, so design considerations are pretty open. Most people are more concerned with the software that’s available for the system.” Lance went on to talk about what he called “design semantics.” This is the concept that an object should visually characterize its function. At the time the Super Nintendo was a high-tech piece of equipment. Therefore it should look like one was the idea Lance was trying to convey.
Notice how the top of the Super NES doesn’t have a flat even surface like the NES? There are two good reasons for that. Lance explained in the same Nintendo Power article mentioned above that people don’t put bowls filled with cereal and milk or glasses of soda on curved surfaces. Spills were one of the primary service problems for the original NES( I’m sure no one reading this ever put food or drink anywhere near their NES deck). The ventilator vent was put into the back as opposed to on top for the same reason. The other reason for the curviness is that Lance wanted the SNES to have a sense of interactivity, meaning it’s something that is ok to touch and explore. In addition the bottom of the console was made flat so it could possibly be stacked onto other devices, such as the ill-fated Nintendo and Sony CD-Rom collaboration that never surfaced.
Aside from the cosmetic changes made to the North American console, the controller also differs from foreign counterparts. For example, the Japanese controller’s X,Y,B,A buttons all have a roundish shape to them. So at times it may be difficult to distinguish between the buttons, especially during the heat of battle. It was decided by Mr. Barr to change the X and Y buttons to the dented-in shape like the original Nintendo controller. This way it’s easier to differentiate the X &Y buttons from the B & A buttons without having to actually look at them.
Before Lance finally decided on the final look of the Super NES we know and love, there were other ideas on what the new system should look like. Pictured above are some of the early design plans, then the final version. A few of the initial designs would have required a substantially different circuit board and cartridge from the Japanese counterpart. A crank version with a crank apparatus which would be used to insert and eject the cart out of the system was considered, later to be given thumbs down for the final design. Lance wanted something that “was simple to use.” I don’t know about you, but I like the way the system looks (The model 2 version is an entirely different matter!).
So this is how the exterior facade of the Super NES came to be. There have been many times when I don’t consider how much thought and effort was put forth into the products I consume. For example, the cosmetic design alone took several months to finalize. I can only imagine how many different design plans were conceived before the final design made the cut. What do you think about the concept designs mentioned here? Did Nintendo get it right in terms of the final design that was eventually released? Even though it wasn’t featured here, what do you think about the model 2 design? Post your thoughts on the forum and let’s start a discussion!
Evolution of the Super NES. Nintendo Power Magazine. Vol. 25. June 1991
Pictures courtesy of Nintendo Power Magazine
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