Today I’d like to share something that I figured out when I was nine: why Super Nintendo graphics looked nicer than Regular Nintendo graphics. I think we all have examples of these kinds of things, things that make perfect sense in the mind of a little kid, and that we are, at the time, monumentally proud of. Like tapping into one of the secrets of the universe, or something. It’s a powerful feeling.
But that doesn’t change the fact that nine-year-olds are stupid and wrong about everything.
I was so happy when I figured it out that I explained it to my mom in some detail. I remember feeling that if I explained it well enough she might be so proud that she would go out and buy me one. (I was wrong about that, too.)
First, I observed that Regular Nintendo games looked kind of flat and blocky compared to Super Nintendo games, which looked colorful and round. So the first thing I had to figure out was where the graphics actually came from. I knew that Regular Nintendo games were drawn with tiles, so if you wanted to draw Level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. you didn’t really have to draw the whole level. All you had to do was draw, like, six or seven pictures and then use the same ones over and over. Furthermore I knew you could use the same picture multiple times without having to draw it multiple times just by changing the colors, like OGREs and GrOGREs in Final Fantasy.
It stood to reason, then, that all the graphics you could need for a game could be stored right there in the game cartridge. I knew the inside of a Nintendo game had these little green plates, and that the plates were covered in little notches and ridges and things. All the tiles and graphics a game needed were etched right onto the plate, one instance of each, and then the computer inside the Nintendo put them all together so you could play a game. Initially I imagined a man hunched over a desk drawing the graphics directly onto the plates, tiny trees and IMPs and Search Snakes, as though building a ship in a bottle. But then I decided that was stupid and probably they just had a factory where they could draw the graphics on a computer, and then a robot arm etched the graphics for them. That’s how they mass-produced the plates.
But the plates were made of low-quality material, because Nintendo was a small company when they were just starting out in the 1980s. The only plates they were able to afford had microscopic imperfections; they weren’t smooth enough to draw perfectly round graphics. Now, regular drawing paper has microscopic imperfections too, but that didn’t matter because the things you were drawing were so big. The Nintendo graphics had to be drawn super duper tiny, so you could fit them all in, otherwise the imperfections wouldn’t have made a difference. So that’s why everything in a Regular Nintendo game looked all blocky.
After years of selling Mega Man and Legend of Zelda, though, Nintendo was finally able to afford higher-quality material to make the graphics plates. These new plates were perfectly smooth, all the way down to the atomic level, so when they drew the Mario graphics they looked a lot rounder and prettier. (I was especially proud that I was able to slip the word “atomic” in there. Maybe we had just learned about atoms in school, or something.)
Mom was impressed with my reasoning, but it didn’t change the fact that she didn’t have $200 to buy me a Super Nintendo. Ah, lament.