By Marshall Garvey
As video games continue to soar as a cultural juggernaut, now making more money as an industry than both the film and music ones combined, the need for books that aptly compile their history grows accordingly. Not just any kind of book, but more specifically big books, the kind of exhaustive tomes that are almost as big as the coffee tables they’re meant to adorn.
Fortunately, a dedicated field of gaming scribes has arisen to undertake the mission of committing every morsel of console nostalgia to the printed page. Among the finest is Brett Weiss, a Fort Worth, Texas-based freelance writer and YouTuber who has penned a number of veritable gaming encyclopedias. Among them is the superb The 100 Greatest Console Games: 1977-1987, which showed Weiss’s penchant for channeling his longtime enthusiasm for vintage gaming into concise capsules that are accessible to readers of all persuasions.
Borderline consummate as that book is regarding its subject matter, Weiss went even bigger for The SNES Omnibus: The Super Nintendo and Its Games. So much, in fact, that the project is split into two separate volumes, with volume one’s 350 games spanning alphabetically A thru M and volume two’s 375 going from N to Z. That’s right: there’s so much worthy of note about the SNES, that you can technically publish a book about it that doesn’t even include any Star Fox, Super Bomberman or Super Star Wars games.
It’s an appropriate choice too, for if ever there was a game console worthy of multiple books, it’s the Super Nintendo. Upon its release in Japan in 1990 (followed by North America in 1991 and Europe in 1992), the SNES took the existing notions of what a home console was capable of and demolished them with 900 tons of TNT. Its visual capabilities, up to 256 colors on-screen out of a palette of 32,768, were jaw-dropping for the time. This color range included multiple foreground and background planes that could be scrolled horizontally and vertically, allowing for more possibilities than players could have ever envisioned before.
It also cranked the idea of a control scheme up to 11, with eight-button controllers (six action buttons by default) that blew the original Famicom’s two and the Sega Genesis’s three action buttons out of the water. While those systems eventually adopted controllers with more buttons, the developers couldn’t count on all of the consoles’ owners having the updated designs, thus requiring the games to maintain limited control schemes. The SNES, meanwhile, was gloriously untethered in what its games could accomplish from its debut until it was finally discontinued for good in Japan in 2003.
Those unprecedented technical specs were fulfilled by an armada of revolutionary titles: Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, Super Castlevania IV, and seemingly infinite others. Many of them were commercial and critical smashes upon release, others low-key cult classics that grew in stature over time. Of course, there are also many titles that have faded into obscurity.
Especially in the year that marks the console’s 30th birthday, it’s the perfect time not only to appreciate the enduring influence the SNES has had on subsequent consoles and games, but to delve into its entire canon. There is no better way of doing that than getting cozy with both volumes of The SNES Omnibus, which studiously and passionately recounts every single game ever released on the system in the United States. Essentials, license games, sports, cult classics, arcade ports…it’s all here.
Much like the 1977-1987 book, Weiss understands the value of leaving no stone unturned. It would have been easy to merely focus on the enduring classics that everyone remembers. But in order to really get a retrospective of any kind right, you have to give just as much real estate to the stuff that’s been forgotten or overlooked as well. Especially for those who didn’t grow up with the SNES, the attention given to literally every U.S. release is illuminating.
Which isn’t to say the classics aren’t given their due. Favorites like Earthworm Jim, A Link to the Past, Star Fox, Street Fighter II, and Super Mario World get more plump passages exploring their legacies, as well as additional review quotes, gamer insights, and memories. As thoroughly discussed as many of those titles may seem, Weiss chronicles them with a lucidity that makes the reader appreciate them anew.
Design-wise, both volumes are beautifully laid out. The formatting is simple and uncluttered, which complements the brevity of the chapter and keeps one flipping through the pages. Each chapter is packed with enough box art, screenshots, and vintage advertisements to unleash copious amounts of nostalgia. The love and wit on display in a lot of the original ads feels like a lost art form in today’s era of E3 and social media hype. If only more AAA titles were marketed with the snark of Earthworm Jim!
Most important is the writing and anecdotes. Weiss knows his stuff, and gives a succinct but thorough rundown on every single game. Occasionally, he sprinkles in a personal memory or a fun fact to round things out. Each passage is supplemented by quotes from both contemporary and recent retrospective reviews, which give the reader a sense of what it was like when the game was first released and how it ages today.
The best part of a given chapter is often the “Insider Insight,” where other gaming writers provide their personal views and memories of the game. Krystle-Dawn M. Willing’s recollection of how Earthworm Jim fused with her youthful idiosyncratic obsessions is perhaps the best, while Alex Thompson’s story of how his new step uncle bequeathed an SNES and an unexpected love for Fatal Fury exemplifies the unique manner in which video games can connect people.
Having analysis and stories from such a wide variety of voices not only gives each chapter more heft, but really conveys the gravity of what this system and its games mean to multiple generations of players. Weiss has cut no corners in this department, gathering viewpoints from dozens of A-list gaming figures like Patrick Hickey Jr., BIll Loguidice, Zoe K. Howard, Patrick Scott Patterson, Sam Kennedy, and Chun Wah Kong. The cumulative result is an encyclopedia that isn’t just definitive, but authoritative. Weiss’s utilization of his connections and willingness to give them a voice is a model other authors would be wise to mimic.
Yet the superb written insight isn’t limited to the paragraphs in each game’s own chapter. Both volumes also contain highly detailed retrospective essays at the end that give the book a deeper feeling of completion. Volume one has a helpful essay from Rusel DeMaria tracing the origins of the console wars, followed by Alex McCumbers’ guide to emulating and its seldom-discussed history. Volume two concludes with Zoe Howard’s wall-to-wall examination of the Super Game Boy (a cartridge that allowed one to play Game Boy games on the SNES), and a perceptive dive into the deeper meaning of Super Metroid by Ken Horowitz.
Whether you came of age eagerly crouched in front of your TV, controller in hand as you hadoukened your friends in Street Fighter or plunged into the depths with Samus, or are only experiencing the SNES oeuvre as a retro gamer, The SNES Omnibus belongs on your gaming bookshelf. It is made with the exact marriage of love for the medium and painstaking effort to compile knowledge that makes a coffee table book worth its price tag.