Winning The Console Wars – An In-Depth Architectural Study

From time to time, we at Hackaday like to publish a few engineering war stories – the tales of bravery and intrigue in getting a product to market, getting a product cancelled, and why one technology won out over another. Today’s war story is from the most brutal and savage conflicts of our time, the console wars.

The thing most people don’t realize about the console wars is that it was never really about the consoles at all. While the war was divided along the Genesis / Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo fronts, the battles were between games. Mortal Kombat was a bloody battle, but in the end, Sega won that one. The 3D graphics campaign was hard, and the Starfox offensive would be compared to the Desert Fox’s success at the Kasserine Pass. In either case, only Sega’s 32X and the British 7th Armoured Division entering Tunis would bring hostilities to an end.

In any event, these pitched battles are consigned to be interpreted and reinterpreted by historians evermore. I can only offer my war story of the console wars, and that means a deconstruction of the hardware.

An Architectural Study of the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo

The traditional comparison between two consoles is usually presented as a series of specs, a bunch of numbers, and tick marks indicating which system wins in each category. While this does illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of each console, it is a rhetorical technique that is grossly imprecise, given the different architectures. The usual benchmark comparison is as follows:


Conventional wisdom – and people arguing on the Internet – tells you that faster is better, and with the Sega console having a higher clock speed it’s capable of doing more calculations per second. Sure, it may not be able to draw as many sprites on the screen as the SNES, but the faster processor is what allowed the Genesis / Mega Drive to have ‘faster’ games – the Sonic series, for example, and the incredible library of sports games. It’s an argument wrapped up in specs so neatly this conventional wisdom has been largely unquestioned for nearly thirty years. Even the Internet’s best console experts fall victim to the trap of comparing specs between different architectures, and it’s complete and utter baloney.

Let’s take a look at one of these numbers – the CPU speed of the SNES and the Genesis/Mega Drive. The SNES CPU, a Ricoh 5A22 is based on the 65C816 core, an oft-forgotten 16-bit offshoot of the 6502 and related chips found in everything from the Apple II, Commodore 64, and even the original Nintendo NES. The 5A22 inside the SNES is clocked at around 2.68 MHz for most games. The Sega used a 68000 CPU clocked at 7.67 MHz. By comparing just these two numbers, the SNES wins, but this isn’t necessarily the truth.

In comparing the clock speed of two different CPUs, we’re merely looking at how frequently the bus is accessed, and not the number of instructions per second.

In the 68000, each instruction requires at least eight clock cycles to complete, whereas the 65C816 – like it’s younger 6502 brother – could execute an instruction every two or three clock cycles. This means the Sega could handle around 900,000 instructions per second, maximum. The SNES could compute around 1.7 Million instructions per second, despite it’s lower clock speed.

Even though the Sega console has a faster clock, it performs fewer instructions per second.

And so we come to the crux of the argument; the statistics of the great console wars, while not wrong, are frequently misinterpreted. How then do we decide an outcome?

The Architecture of the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive

While the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive is usually cited as having a 68000 CPU, this isn’t a complete picture of what’s going on inside the Sega console. In effect, the Genesis is a dual-processor computer with two CPUs dedicated to different tasks. The 68000 handles game logic and graphics, but surprisingly not much else. A Z80 — a CPU introduced a decade before the Genesis/Mega Drive — is used for reading the state of the game pads, and playing audio.

Interestingly, the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive contains most of the components of Sega’s earlier console, the Sega Master System. With the addition of a Power Base Converter, Master System games can be played while the 68000 CPU is in idle.

The  Architecture of the Super Nintendo


The SNES is a different beast entirely. Everything is controlled through the 5A22 / 65816 CPU. The controllers are fed right into the data lines of the 5A22, and DMA instructions are able to shuttle data between the two slightly different Picture Processing Units.

An interesting difference between the two consoles are the connections between the cartridge slot and various peripheral chips. Nearly the entire cartridge connector of the Sega machine is dedicated to the address and data lines for the 68000 CPU. While there are a few control signals thrown in, it’s not enough to allow the cartridge direct access to the video display unit or the FM synthesis chip.

The cartridge connector for the SNES, on the other hand, has direct access to one picture processing unit and the audio processor. The exploitation of this capability was seen in games ranging from Star Fox with it’s SuperFX chip, to Mega Man X games with its math coprocessor, to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and its Super Accelerator 1 chip that is basically an upgraded version of the main SNES CPU, the 5A22.

Comparative designs, and who won the console wars

Time to make a holistic analysis of each competing platform. By far, the SNES is a more capable console; its cartridges are able to send data directly to the PPUs and audio processors, it’s faster, and there’s more work RAM, vRAM, and audio RAM.

The Sega 'Tower of Power'. Image credit /u/bluenfee
The Sega ‘Tower of Power’. Image credit /u/bluenfee

The Genesis / Mega Drive may be seen as more expandable thanks to the Sega CD (the first CD-ROM based game console, the Sega 32X), an upgraded coprocessor for the Genesis, backwards compatibility with a Master System Power Base converter, and a number of strange cartridges like Sonic and Knuckles with ‘lock-on’ technology. However, it’s actually the SNES that is more expandable. This is most certainly not the conventional wisdom, and the difference is due to how expandability was implemented in each console.

To add additional capabilities to the SNES, game designers would add new chips to the game cartridge. Star Fox famously exploited this with the SuperFX chip, and the list of SNES enhancement chips is deserving of its own entry in Wikipedia.

In comparison, the Genesis / Mega Drive could only be expanded through kludges – either through abusing the ASIC chip between the 68000 and Z80 CPUs, or in the case of the 32X add-on, bypassing the video display unit entirely.

In any event, this is purely an academic exercise. Games sell consoles, and Nintendo’s IP portfolio – even in the early 90s – included characters that had their own cartoons, live action movies, and cereals.

While this academic exercise is completely unimportant today – there probably won’t be a game console that ships with cartridges any more – it is an interesting case study on extendable computer design.

78 thoughts on “Winning The Console Wars – An In-Depth Architectural Study

    1. It’s often forgotten that “Blast Processing” was a real thing. It was a technique the programmers could use for a short term boost in processing speed. To be honest I don’t quite remember how it worked exactly, but that’s more than the marketing guys understood.

    1. Back then (1991), PCs really really sucked when it came to graphics (no sprites except for the mouse cursor) and audio (one channel square wave). The Commodore 64 could still beat the PC in ’91 when it comes to games. And don’t make me mention the Amiga.

      Commodore does what Nintendon’t.

        1. Much more appealing to me, amiga cd32. Fairly well understood architecture, easy to code for, no crappy drm or copy protection on the discs to spoil you being able to make your own and nice little tidy package to sit under the tv.
          I used to write demos and game software on the a500, and later on went to make the jump to x86 and it was just a fragmented mess after the relative hardware stability of the amiga. Still my favourite console in my collection.
          Its just a damn shame that commodore’s management couldnt organize a pish up in a brewery around that period or we could have seen a fairly open machine on the market to tinker with a lot longer, it shifted 100,000 units in europe alone, then mis management managed that whole stuck in a warehouse leading to bankrupcy debacle and it never even made the US market.

          Never really got into the whole having to have a game cartridge thing on the snes, and sega sort of passed me by then too as didn’t see that much of a homebrew scene in comparison to the amiga etc. I dont remember having any real enthusiasm for consoles until the 3d0 launched with need for speed and Zarch (aka virus) on the jaguar was pretty interesting as I had been rather addicted to elite on the c64 also by david braben, and then the ps1 arrived with its easy to defeat disc protection schema around the time of cheap scsi cdrecorders which lead to the homebrew scene lighting up once more and into the original xbox which was basically a rather bespoke minimal pc inside once you got in. I still have a free mcboot’d ps2 + wii that can run homebrew.
          My collection starts with a radeon tele-sports bat n ball machine and some pre jamma arcade machines and stops at the ps3 and 360 era, wife asked me if I want a ps4 or xbox one for xmas and the answers no. Not interested in consumer devices without much modding possibilities and I can’t imagine being able to get hold of a dev kit and hit the hardware on anything as locked down as a modern console so for me there it ends. Pity as a modern cel processor appeals after having had a play with ppc’s (genesi not mac…) after the amiga too.

          1. How wasn’t the Amiga a clusterfuck when it came to upgrades and expansions?

            You had ten different types of RAM, slow, fast, and different chips doing half the job of the other chip in a criss-cross fashion, and when you added some expansion you’d have to turn off another…

      1. “Commodore does what Nintendon’t.”

        As a Commodore girl and a Sega chick, this makes me happy. I was an extremely happy kid (having gotten my C64C when I was five, and my Genesis Model 1 when I was 10), what with my glory days of Sonic and Vectorman and MicroMachines Racing. And of course, I never stopped playing Jumpman and Ultimate Wizard.

        1. That is amazingly dependent on what you mean by “then” and the assertion that “PCs didn’t suck”.

          The fastest PC in 1991 (for a consumer at least), would like have had an Intel 486DX running at 50 MHz. You’d have been lucky to have 4-8 MB of ram and a graphics card with 2 MB at most of VRAM (1 MB or 512 KB more likely).

          And the odds are decent that you’d be relying on ISA expansion cards for video and audio, unless you were fortunate enough to be rocking a VLB graphics card.

          Most likely you’d still be running MS-DOS.

          The Nintendo SNES would have toasted the /average/ PC for actual gaming.

  1. We have to consider development costs. Nintendo had 90% of the console market with Nes/famicom, and money to develop a huge project. Sega made genesis with non-sold parts of sms and some arcade machines. Its simpler, and direct.

    1. Actually, Sega was way more willing to take risks in hardware design. Yamauchi blocked any attempt to do new things (hardware-wise), “old, cheap, well tested components used in new creative ways” was their trademark. Historically, Nintendo almost never spent that much money creating their new consoles, GameCube being probably the only exception and the crappy “red-only not-that-portable” VirtualBoy the clearest example of the bad consequences.

  2. Super Mario kart on the SNES, the best multiplayer driving game ever.
    Drifting before drifting was cool.
    We played that to death and perfection. One single slip up would cost you the race.
    No “catch up” mode or other player helpers. Pure seat of the pants skill and weaponry bonus.

  3. I should note that the Sega CD and 32x were different devices (I think you were trying to say that above, but it’s garbled).

    Also, I find it interesting how both the Genesis/MD and the Playstation2 handle backward compatibility. They’re both essentially the previous gen’s console with a more powerful computer tacked on. But the older hardware is still needed for stuff like reading the controllers and audio.

    1. Genesis is not similar to the SMS. It contains the same cpu for sound control and the vdp was a redesign but that’s where the similarities end.

      Same for PS1 to PS2. They are both completely different. But the PS2 is basically two consoles in the same box.

      I think it was a waste of money to do that. Nobody ever used PS2 for PS1 gaming.

  4. Nice reference to the Gear Wars from Rick & Morty.

    …oh wait, was the R&M ref a callback to something else? Oh no… hipster cred failing… too much parent time…

    I really enjoyed reading this. I’d love to see more comparative breakdowns of common media appliances.

  5. I love it when “historians” reinterpret history!

    It happens in every field of endeavor, whether it be “the north could have won at Gettysburg with bows and arrows and had nothing to do with the greater range of rifled versus smooth bores” or the Apollo program was just a “west versus east” pissing contest.

    Nintendo “won” because of Mario and those dumb “fighting” games, nothing else and they are still flogging that deceased equine.

    A console platform lives or dies on its fanbase, little twats don’t give a rats ass what is “under the hood”.

    I’ve been “gaming” since the very beginning, I’m talking “Pong” here, the original one done in 7400 TTL, not the AY-xxxx chip.
    Those first consoles that HAD the AY-xxxx chip, switch selectable to play a couple of bat and ball games, maybe with a light pen style “pistol” to “shoot” shit with, sold like hot cakes, then died out.

    Then we had Space Invaders (shudders) that folks would play for hours.

    Things progressed, sorta, my first job out of high school was in a 1980’s video game arcade, I still had to maintain Pong and Space Invader machines well into the 1990’s!!!

    Sheeple like what is familiar, it doesn’t matter if it’s any good (this is why ford can sorta still sell cars).

    The Nintendo arcade machines were popular, they managed to translate that commercial success into the console market in a way that Sega or Atari (remember them??) never did.

    Anyone remember Exidy? The Exidy Sorcerer???
    The couple of arcade games Exidy had were kinda ok, the console was kinda ok,

    Anyone remember the Fairchild F8 console??
    Same deal, the only reason game arcades “worked” was the hardware was better than what most of us could afford at home, when a console is about as good as what you could play in an arcade, why bother?
    Atari tried to make a (terrible) home computer system, then tried to sell it as a console without a keyboard.

    The number of times I’ve had arguments with idiots over “Sega is lame, Nintendo is better” is staggering, it’s like the whole iThing crap, almost like a religion, “it’s better because it is”, no logic, just “passion”.

    1. yawn, crazy old man that with excellent points, but invalidates own point with bad analogy that is objectively false. “this is why ford can sorta still sell cars.” Ford can sorta still sell cars because of excellent timing with respect to organizational changes and extremely prudent manufacturing investments. yea yea your gut tells you only immune he-mans of yore can see through the drivel that dominates the “sheeple” decision making process.

    2. I love it when “literates” reinterpret a post.

      “Nintendo “won” because of Mario and those dumb ‘fighting’ games, nothing else and they are still flogging that deceased equine.

      A console platform lives or dies on its fanbase, little twats don’t give a rats ass what is ‘under the hood’.”

      “In any event, this is purely an academic exercise. Games sell consoles, and Nintendo’s IP portfolio – even in the early 90s – included characters that had their own cartoons, live action movies, and cereals.”

      You’re shitting on him for saying the exact same thing as you. Except he has eloquence, you have misplaced anger.

      Sheeple: Following the herd while believing that you’re pretty a special snowflake.

      1. This. Besides, Nintendo “won” because of the controller. We liked the blood in MK on the Genesis, but it wasn’t enough to counter only having 3 buttons (forget the 6 button thing they tried… the layout works great in an arcade machine (ala Street Fighter), but didn’t translate well to a handheld controller, IMHO).

        The shoulder buttons on the SNES controller are what did it for me. Easy blocking in MK and we got so good with SFII that we regularly had one-handed “tournaments” where you held the controller against your cheek and just used the d-pad and left shoulder.

      1. the Atari ST was a great machine!

        I’m talking about the 400 with the membrane keyboard and the 800, both of which had a 6502.
        The ST was a 68000 machine and much under rated, if I bothered I could dust off the couple I have in storage.


        I’d love you to try stamping anything on my neck, I could use a good laugh…

    1. Correct. The PC-Engine CD-ROM drive was released in late 1988 in Japan. The Sega-CD was released in late 1991 in Japan. In fact the TurboDuo which was the intergrated version of the main console and CD-ROM drive came out before the Sega-CD attachment.

          1. Set guns to ban mode – But captain they they will never oscillate with all this feed back. I’ it’s true captain, the ‘Q’ factor – she can’t take any more feedback.

    1. I imagine these days it’d actually be pretty easy – though getting quality graphics out may not be. But essentially riffing off things like the Arduboy with the games being stored on cart format external cards.

      On the other hand, maybe people have done enough of the work for you to start down the path of quality output with FPGAs by emulating other chips on them directly.

  6. The photo of the “Tower of Power” is nonsense.

    Besides plugging in the Master System power base into the 32X (never met anyone that felt the need to do this), the Cleaning System is plugged in above it. Do I need to state what is wrong with that? Then the two Sonic & Knuckles games above the Game Genie.

    As a humorous chide against the Genesis design choices, I get it. But as a reference image in a tech article? C’mon….

    Yeah, this is about the fanboy crap. This is about presenting an article on a t3ch oriented site with respect to either side. If you can’t do that, regardless of which side is deemed “better”, then the article is worthless.

  7. Hey Brian, I hate to point it out, but the Sega Nomad wins this argument for Sega. :P A decent quality handheld worth having (even if the screens did ghost a bit too much). Oh, and the prices weren’t kept at artificially insane rates. ;)

    1. Nomad also wins points for being the only portable made (homebrew portabalized consoles don’t count here) that used the same cartridges as the console version. Even better was its capability to be used like a console by connecting it to a TV and second controller.

      The only others that come close are the GameBoy addons for the SNES and GameCube. But those went the opposite way from Nomad, plugging portable games into a console.

      Did any Cube games other than Pac Man exploit the ability to use a GB Advance for a fifth player?

  8. One minor correction. It is stated that:
    “In the 68000, each instruction requires at least eight clock cycles to complete, whereas the 65C816 – like it’s younger 6502 brother – could execute an instruction every two or three clock cycles.”.

    This isn’t quite correct. The 68000 had many 4 cycle instructions also. For example 32-bit register move “MOVE.L D0,D1” (I don’t believe 65816 could do 32-bits in one instruction) or 16-bit register addition “ADDQ.W #1,D0” are 4 cycles (see ).

    I suspect which is faster between an ~8 Mhz 68000 or a ~4 Mhz 65816 CPU depends on the task at hand (on a level playing field – not SNES vs Genesis systems).

    1. There is a lot of errors, I reported some of them on twitter in reply to the article post.
      This is the kind of bad article that made people believe that the NeoGeo have an hardward zoom. It has no source so it can’t be trusted.
      And unfortunately this article will say on the internet and people will cite it as source elsewhere.

    2. Yes, I noticed that. Clock for clock, the 68000 can compete with a 65816 for several reasons:

      1. The basic instruction cycle requires 4 clocks, not 8; and this includes all word-length register to register arithmetic and logic; frequent immediate cases (such as moveq #n,d0) and 32-bit moves. Even with shifts the 68K has the edge, since it manages multi-bit shifts at 2 cycles per bit (so a 7.3MHz 68K is twice as fast as a 3.6 MHz 65816).

      2. The 68000 has 16 x 32-bit registers and it’s instruction set is double-operand which makes it very versatile. It’s the bandwidth of data that can be pumped through the 68K that makes a huge difference to its performance. For example, the 68K as enough registers for subroutines to be entirely register based whereas the 65816 would need lots of LDA/Operate/STA sequences.

      3. The 68000 can move data around much faster than a 65816 using its movem.l instruction. Movem.l can move up to 12 x 32-bits from source to destination using just (8 cycles * 12 + 8)*2 = 216c for 48 bytes, or roughly 4.5 cycles per byte. A 65816 can only manage 7 cycles per byte.

      4. The 68000 can handle 32-bit arithmetic several times faster than a 65816.

      5. The 68000 is far easier to program than a 65816, it’s easier to squeeze performance from it.

      1. This articles are what some old youtube collectors use to compare both consoles. its so sad when they try to trow shade on each others while forget to talk about the bus and related stuff.

        plus as far i know the 6800 coud accept instructions in C instead assembly only.

  9. The Genesis / Megadrive block diagram has some glaring errors in it that the 68k address bus is 23 bits wide (word access, so really 24 bit or 16MB) and the z80 address bus is 16-bits wide and was mapped into the 68k’s address space.

  10. “…but the faster processor is what allowed the Genesis / Mega Drive to have ‘faster’ games – the Sonic series, for example, and the incredible library of sports games. It’s an argument wrapped up in specs so neatly this conventional wisdom has been largely unquestioned for nearly thirty years. Even the Internet’s best console experts fall victim to the trap of comparing specs between different architectures, and it’s complete and utter baloney.

    If SNES was indeed way more powerful than Mega Drive, and this statement above is utter baloney like you stated, then how come there weren’t fast sports games on SNES. People from the hacking/homebrew scene still didn’t manage to port Sonic to SNES without occasional stutters.”

    1. If the SNES was as slow as some people seem to think, how come it could pull off a game like Rendering Ranger R2 running at full screen, 60fps, with all that action going on with no slowdown or stutter at all, and all while running in its slower 2.68 MHz SlowROM mode no less, so at barely 75% of its full speed/capability?

      If you’ve not seen it, you should check out some YouTube footage, and pay particular attention to the shmup levels. . . .

  11. SNES was obviously more powerful, but so it should have been. It was two clear years newer. It wasn’t night and day though and so much relied on what the developers could get out of the machine. The fact Genesis got to market two years before was a bigger advantage than launching later to have better specs, but having to fight the hype of the SNES.

    1. Genesis sales didn’t really pick up until 1991 when Sonic came out. As for ease of programming, Konami’s first game was Bloodlines and I think they hit the ground running without to much effort.

  12. The SNES does not run at 1.79 MHz (and just straight listing it the way you have here will be misleading for a lot of people). You don’t count the miniscule amount of time it drops to 1.79 MHz while it polls a controller, which is about 0.1% of the time, as the speed of the system when stating numbers like this. The SNES is a 3.58 MHz console be default, with the one meaningful caveat being that it would be gimped to run at 2.68 MHz if the developer/publisher cheaped out and went with a SlowROM cart rather than a FastROM cart. But that’s a case of the cart artificially slowing down the system below its default speed than a speed limitation of the system itself. Again, the SNES’ CPU speed is 3.58 MHz (ignoring the artificial gimping by cheap developers). That’s the correct figure that should be stated in this comparisons.

  13. I was going to list all the errors you made but what’s the point.

    If you’re interested ‘blast processing’ means you can modify the video ram during ‘active display’ as opposed to ‘h-blank’ and ‘v-blank’ which has little practical application.

    But the reason the Mega Drive is far more powerful than the SNES is due to the integrated nature of the system, namely the location of the DMA (memory management unit) being inside the VDP, which gives the sound and video ram direct cartridge access – bypassing the cpu bus. This allows graphic and sound information to be transferred without interrupting the cpu operation or work ram bus. In addition to this, the bus is 16bits wide (for graphics), runs at a faster transfer rate, with a faster cartridge rom data transfer speed.

    The SNES architecture is not integrated, so transfer of graphics and sound data will require the cpu to halt operation until the dma transfer has completed.

    So what you said was the opposite of correct. It’s the other way round.

    When it comes to sprites, the Mega Drive handles about 20% more on screen (also much more unique) and it’s 13Mhz vdp is much more capable than the SNES 5Mhz PPU sprite pusher.

    The SNES has 15bit colour and 8, 4bit pallets to the Mega Drive’s 9bit colour and 4, 4bit pallets. So SNES tops out at 128 colours on screen to 64 for the SMD. Is that a measure of power? Arguably. But the overall system works around 20-30% more slowly than the Mega Drive and I’m being conservative.

    1. Look, I know the Genesis is more capable under the hood in many ways that the SNES, but you should at least get the most basic stuff about SNES right.

      For example: The SNES can display anywhere between 128-256 colours for the backgrounds depending on the background mode used. And it has 128 colours always dedicated to sprites, which are shared with the backgrounds when the background is using one of the 256-colour modes, but otherwise are completely independent and on top of the background colours. And that’s before any colour math and the like is applied.

      SNES typically has twice as many colours available for backgrounds alone than the Genesis has for backgrounds and sprites combined, and it had twice as many colours available for sprites alone than the Genesis has for backgrounds and sprites combined, which can make a huge difference in the right hands. But, generally speaking, the SNES tops out at 256 colours total onscreen vs the Genesis’ 64 in standard/typical use for both consoles, which is four times as many colours onscreen for SNES.

      And that’s just one thing many of these SNES vs Genesis bullet point lists usually written by Genesis fans tend to get wrong half of the time.

      1. The SNES has 8 colour pallets as far as I can tell, which are generally 4bit/16 colours. But depending on the mode, those pallets might also be 2bit/4 colour or 8bit/256 colours. Modes 3 and 4 have the 8bit pallets, which I’m thinking is just 1 pallet, which applies only to the first background layer (of two) and not the sprite layer. The second background layer is either 4 or 2bit respectively. I don’t actually know how many pallets are available here for each respective layer. But given that 8bpp is 256 colours and the low bit second background layers must use different pallets I can only assume that the 4 and 2bpp pallets must choose from colours already selected in the 8bpp pallet/s. Otherwise the colour count would exceed 256.

        In a way, the SNES modes are a bit of a mess. You can have more of something like layers but less bits per pixel in the background pallets and a loss of things like column scrolling.

        I’m assuming the SNES has 8 pallets but there’s no information on how many are available for the respective modes. I think this number may vary.

        But if there is only 1 pallet available in 256 colour mode (which as 8bpp is 256 colours this must be the case, because two 8bit pallets would be 512 concurrent colours), this is allowing greater colour depth, but then you have to choose all your colours from that pool of 256 colours (without swapping the pallet) every time you want a new colour, rather than choosing from the full 15bit/32k colour space.

        It is saying that mode 0 has 4 layers of 2bit/4 colour pallets with 32 colours available per layer, which is 8 pallets per layer. But it’s not saying if each layer has access to an additional 8 pallets, making for a total of 128 colours. I’m assuming it is.

        Mode 7 is also using a 256 colour pallet for the background transform layer but it looks to be direct colour. The foreground sprite layer appears to have access to 8, 4bit pallets, but this might actually be less.

        So yeah. 256 on screen colours is theoretically possible. But only on one background layer. Then you are unable to select from the master pallets as 256 colours is the limit of it’s capabilities and as it’s just 1 pallet, your other sprites or tiles are unable to choose new colours from the wider 15bit colour space. I doubt any games ever used the 256 colour pallet modes 3 and 4 honestly.

        In fact I think 90% of games ran in mode 1, which is three background layers; the sprite layer at 4bpp (bits per pixel) and bg layers at 4 bpp, 4bpp and 2bpp/4 colours.

        Again, I’m not sure what’s happening with the available number of pallets here, it’s possible that layer 3 is taking say, 2, 4bit pallets and dividing them into 4, 2bit pallets. I have no idea. But 8, 4bit pallets is 128 pallet entries. Even though a background layer in mode 0 (4 bg layers) is only 2bpp per layer, I’m guessing that layers 1 and 2 (mode 0), at 4bpp are sharing 6 pallets and layer three has split 2 pallets into 4. The table I’m reading just has question marks.

        The table has colour count at 121 though, and not 128. I guess because the first pallet entry is always transparent, except for the pallet for the bottom layer of background tiles.

        The Mega Drive has 61 colours available, with 2 background layers, compared to mode 1’s 121 colours over 3 background layers.

        It’s also notable that the Genesis has the ability to swap it’s pallet much more easily and speedily than the SNES. This doesn’t represent additional concurrent colours, but does offer more potential for animations and effects such as pallet cycling.

        Then the SMD also has shadow and highlight. A pallet entry can be selected as a shadow or highlight and tiles or sprites with a lower display priority will be darkened or lightened when the pixel with that setting passes above them.

        Then the SNES has transparency. This isn’t something I have a deep understanding of but you can’t use it willy nilly. You will still see a mesh pattern used in games to simulate transparency. This increases on screen colour count though, above the standard 121. As does colour overlay shapes, dubbed ‘window’ mode which allows colour math of additive or subtractive for the layer, ‘window’ (shapes using hdma) or the whole screen. This significantly increases on-screen colours. Pallets 4-7 only are affected by colour math.

        So the SNES can output a lot of colour from an impressive 15bit pallet. It can actually display alot more than 256 colours at once.

        There is the option for direct colour, bypassing the pallets completely, giving you over 2000 colours to select from. I don’t know if any games used it.

        But when it comes to directly selecting colours from pallets, in practice, it is, for the vast majority, if not literally every game, 121 colours maximum (not allowing for blending effects).

        The standard pc 8bit vga card is frankly superior. With a pallet space of just 256 total colours, without the burden of pallets, the pc gamer enjoyed clock speeds over 33Mhz, making sprites and pallets unnecessary, allowing no limit to what pixel could display what colour where and when.

        1. Again, some good stuff, but there’s a lot of people clearly not fully understanding what the SNES is actually capable of, so, what I’ll do is just post a couple links to articles I wrote myself that go over all the background stuff I’ve learned over the last couple of years, including how all the colours work around that, and even one listing some of the things the SNES objectively does better than Genesis:

          And I’ll post this video just to show how much something ilke Mode 3’s 8bpp 256-colour capability is largely ignored and/or misunderstood by both SNES fans and haters alike.

          And I’ll also post this in response to one of your previous VDP comments too:

          Because we all know the Genesis has the fast CPU, but that’s not the complete picture, and most people never get to hear much of anything else around this stuff, which isn’t a fair and equal discussion with all the facts present.

          Note: I’m not trying to knock the Genesis, which is a powerful little system and very capable under the hood, but more just stop this basically false narrative and re-writing of history that’s happening in modern times, where a bunch of hardcore Genesis fans try to manipulate everything to basically say “Genesis does everything better than SNES and/or can just fake it with it’s godly CPU and whatever else”. Not that you’re doing that here, but I’ve just seen it enough now that I feel compelled to point it out any time I read anything posted by some hardcore Genesis guy.

          I think the SNES is a lot more capable than the current narrative around the Internet is leading and allowing people to understand.

  14. “This means the Sega could handle around 900,000 instructions per second, maximum. The SNES could compute around 1.7 Million instructions per second, despite it’s lower clock speed. Even though the Sega console has a faster clock, it performs fewer instructions per second.”

    Is there some concrete way you can describe how this actually benefits the SNES over the Genesis, maybe using an example or two of how it would actually work in practice in a game or whatever, that even a layman can understand?

    Because, on the segaretro site comparing all the Genesis specs and numbers with SNES, there’s no real mention of this that I can see, and it just makes it seem like the Genesis is basically faster/better than the SNES across the board (other than the typical stuff like colours), so anyone reading that would obviously assume it actually is a clear-cut win for Genesis and the SNES doesn’t even come close in any related spec around speed and such, which seems a little misleading if the number you mention is actually important.

    So, I’d just like to get an idea of how being able to calculate all those extra instructions per second practically benefits the SNES and maybe at least compensates for all the other under-the-hood and very low-level figures that seem to be in Genesis’ favour.

    1. Numbers can be misleading. For instance, SNES has 128KB of work ram, of which only half is accessible at any one point. But tables don’t mention that.

      It suggests the SNES has 256 sprites at 64x64px. But it actually only has 17 sprites at 64×64 and 128 sprites at 8x8px maximum. The Genesis has 80 sprites at 32x32px to the SNES’s 32 sprites at 32x32px.

      The SNES audio DSP runs at 2Mhz, but the chip is capable of 22Mhz, but only the later number is mentioned on the SNES wiki page.

      The SNES cpu is also capable of 21Mhz, but must operate at a speed within the capabilities of the data bus to w(work)ram. Which is a nominal 3.6mhz if a fastROM cart is used when accessing the bus (nearly always).

      Old consoles slow down to the speed of the slowest component. In the case of the SNES, this is the bus. Data transfers use clock cycles. You have transfers from rom to w(work)ram, a(audio)ram and v(video) ram, wram to vram and aram. Then, to animate the sprites you need a constant stream of updates to their co-ordinates (sprite attribute table). The SNES cpu has no free time.

      Transfers to aram and vram take a relatively long time due to the speed of the data bus and can cause pauses when loading.

      You can queue 8 dma requests. But they don’t transfer in parallel.

      Even at low clock speeds, the SNES cpu might outperform the 68K in certain operations. But that’s not indicative of a real world scenario when running a game requires the cpu to perform numerous tasks at once.

      Then if you have 16bit instructions, the 8bit external pipeline requires two cycles to perform the transfer.

      The above article is riddled with mistakes. The diagrams he made are quite wrong.

      Theoretical benchmarks offer no real indication of performance in practise. You can write a 10 line program to demonstrate how quickly a chip handles that one thing, but it’s not useful in gauging overall performance in practise.

      More important than clock speeds or Kbps bus speeds is architecture. How easy is it to program? Old consoles aren’t like modern computers. There’s no operating system. Just a simple program to initialise the various chips and establish a connection with the cart rom. The rest is up to you. The snes is fiddly. You have to manage it’s memory in small chunks, there are a lot of rules. The 65C816 cpu in the SNES has fewer ‘registers’ and ‘addresses’ at smaller bit width than the 68K cpu (I can’t find out how many), making programming complex things more convoluted and the ‘instruction set’ (which is basic cpu commands), is also more limited. You have to work a lot harder to get similar results. So in the end, the games run slower and are less complex.

      I would say that if you want an indication of the superiority of the Mega Drive, to consider Westwood’s Dune 2. The SMD can keep track of a full map of units and bases, handle ai and all those variables and put out a killer soundtrack.

      There’s nothing on the SNES that compares to that level of complexity. I’m not saying the SMD is straight up better, but there’s nothing on the SNES that compares to that feat of engineering.

      I should mention that in an earlier post I stated the SMD could access the rom without interrupting the cpu. Not the case. Both systems must consume cpu cycles for dma transfers apparently. I’m still not entirely clear on this point.

      1. I think one problem here is this automatic assumption among Genesis hardcore types that more technical complexity in a game is better than more visually beautiful art, nicer sounding audio and better controls for example, which might be true from some programmer mentality point of view or to help with some online fanboy arguments, but it really isn’t from say an artists or typical gamers point of view.

        And the “slower” thing would be as important to both consoles, but, your assertion that SNES games run slower is a false correlation to causation statement certainly largely based on a bunch of games running in SlowROM and with badly optimized code, because, as long as a SNES game is designed and programmed properly, it will run at the max 60fps that both these consoles are capable of. You can’t make the Genesis run any better than that, no matter how hard you try.

        Now, again, you could argue the Genesis can throw around more stuff calculating more complex physics and so on, but, once again that assumes some technical achievement is more paramount that the art, audio, gameplay and control achievements. That’s not an objective truth. I mean, you might have chosen the Genesis over the SNES back in the day because it had more explosions in Contra: Hard Corps or whatever, but literally multiple millions more people chose the SNES specifically because it had nicer looking visuals in general, prettier explosions, better audio, and better controls in Contra III or whatever. So, have the win in CPU speed and some random other technically stuff under the hood (although definitely not all of it for sure). But I’m taking the win in terms of most of the stuff that comes out the other end in the ways that most people actually care about. You can have Dune II’s many units, and I’ll take Donkey Kong Country 3’s near Pixar level of visuals and similarly brilliant audio plus top tier controls and gameplay:

        I guess it comes down to what you actually think you’re winning at the end of the day, because, by almost every single meaningful metric that I can see, the SNES simply won the console war: It sold more consoles total, by around 15 million units, it has more million+ selling games (49 vs 18), it’s biggest selling games sold more than Genesis’ biggest selling games (20.6 millions for the top seller on SNES vs 15 million for the top seller on Genesis), it objectively has a better controller (demonstrably so), more of its games still appear in almost every Top 100 list than Genesis, It has prettier looking visuals for the most part, it [arguably] has nicer sounding audio for the most part, it has 1757 game vs Genesis’ at roughly 878, the SNES most beloved games and characters (Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Super Mario Kart, A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, etc) are still having far more influence and impact on the industry even today than the Genesis most beloved games (Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage 2, Gunstar Heroes, Thunder Force IV, Phantasy Star IV), even the recent SNES Classic Mini sold 5.28 million units to the Genesis Mini’s roughly 300,000, and, just like the Genesis does a bunch of stuff under the hood better than SNES, SNES still also does a whole bunch of stuff under the hood better than Genesis, etc.

        So, you know what, I guess I can understand why all these random tech-specs are so important to the most hardcore Genesis fans in modern times.

        1. At least you understand, unlike the writer of this article, that the SNES is not more powerful than the Genesis. It has more colour. You even said it’s sound was “arguably” better. Which is more than most SNES proponents would concede. Genesis sound is never considered even arguably, on par with SNES sound.

          If you prefer the sound of the SNES and consider colour more important than other factors the Genesis is better at, that’s fine,

          But you’re not claiming, like the article writer is, that the SNES is more powerful.

          1. Well, let’s not get carried away, as there are many things I consider better about the SNES other than just the colours. Yes, it can display 4x as many colours on-screen, chosen and divided into smaller palettes from a master palette that’s a whopping 64x larger, but it also has up to twice as many backgrounds, proper colour math or transparency, a more cycle-efficient CPU, a more efficient VDP, can process more total sprites on-screen, more [8×8] sprites per scanline, has a higher max resolution (512×224 vs 320×448), has superior column scrolling (down to every 8 pixels vs every 16 on Genesis), has built-in mosaicing, has built-in window/shape masking, has larger max size in-built sprites (64×64 vs 32×32), has HDMA that allows for a range of easy effects such as display smooth background colour gradients, updating background line/row scrolls, and updating both Mode 7 backgrounds and window/shape masks per scanline, indeed has built-in background scaling/rotation/shearing for some stunning pseudo 3D effects, can have more unique background tiles and larger tilemaps than Genesis when using certain background modes, has superior audio capabilities when it comes to PCM specifically (which the Genesis can also do, but just not as well), can do surround sound (Genesis can’t), has 8x as much audio RAM, has twice as much work RAM (128 KB vs 64 KB). And, beyond tech-specs, it has a superior controller (which comes as standard for all SNES owners in the box), has a library of games that’s over twice as big (around 1700 vs 800), and I and most other critics consider its best games to be superior to those of the Genesis, hence why so many SNES titles still appear in every Top 100 Games of All Time list and usually almost none or indeed no Genesis games do, etc.

            The Genesis has many of its own strengths and advantages too, like a faster CPU speed, higher standard resolution, more versatility with how it uses the VRAM between sprite tiles and background tiles, can show more sprites [above 8×8] per scanline before flicker, etc.

            But, to just say “SNES has more colours” and leave it at that is totally disingenuous, and I think you know that fine well.

            If what you care about is pure tech-specs, you can well argue in favour of the Genesis in many ways, and equally in favour of the SNES in many ways too. If you actually care about what comes out the other end though, from the visuals and audio to the controls and gameplay, and indeed the library of games on each console, you’d be hard-pressed to convince the 49.1 million original SNES owners [and most other people for that matter] that the roughly 35 million original Genesis owners picked the better console of the two.

            So, make of that what you will.

          2. Also, just to add something else into this discussion that I only truly understood recently about the so-called “Blast Processing” of the Genesis:


            Both Sega and indeed many Genesis fans have been using basically lies for decades at this point to convince SNES fans of things that simply aren’t true. They’re designed to oversell the capabilities of the Genesis and undersell the capabilities of the SNES. And this goes beyond just “Blast Processing” too.

            Well, given the chance, I’m here to correct some of those lies and spread a little bit more of the actual truth.

            The funny thing is that, when you learn about “Blast Processing” and see it for what it actually is, it turns out the SNES is just superior there in most use-cases, because, not only does its 8bpp 256-colour Mode 3 [and Mode 4] produce nicer looking higher-colour images overall than the Genesis’ infamous “Blast Processing” method, but it can do so with background tiles to spare, with indeed a whole extra background layer too, where it can still scroll both backgrounds for added parallax, can use all the normal sprites at the same time as well, the CPU isn’t stalled in the slightest, the sound processor isn’t stalled in the slightest, etc. SNES’ standard Mode 3, it turns out, is, in a typical use case, just plain superior to “Blast Processing” basically across the board. Go figure.

            It’s much like how most Genesis fans says “The Genesis CPU is much faster than the SNES slooow CPU, at 7.68 MHz vs 3.58 MHz”, yet conveniently forget to mention that:

            “While the Genesis has a faster clock rate, it take multiple cycles to do instructions. The quickest instructions take four cycles, and you can quickly run over a dozen cycles by working on longs and using certain addressing modes. In contrast, the 6502/65816 tends to do most instructions in one or two cycles.” –

            That’s an important factor to just leave out of the discussion.

            Now, how many times do you wanna bet that similar claims about Genesis being “superior” in some area, which most people haven’t really bothered to either learn about in depth or indeed directly test and compare themselves, will actually turn out somewhat similar. . . .

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