Creative Limitation And The Super Nintendo Sound Chips

The Super Nintendo recently experienced a surge in popularity, either from a combination of nostalgic 30-somethings recreating their childhoods, or because Nintendo released a “classic” version of this nearly-perfect video game system. Or a combination of both. But what made the system worthy of being remembered at all? With only 16 bits and graphics that look ancient by modern standards, gameplay is similarly limited. This video from [Nerdwriter1] goes into depth on a single part of the console – the sound chips – and uses them to illustrate a small part of what makes this console still worth playing even now.

The SNES processed sound with two chips, a processing core and a DSP. They only had a capacity of 64 kb, meaning that all of a game’s sounds and music had to fit in this tiny space. This might seem impossible if you’ve ever played enduring classics like Donkey Kong Country, a game known for its impressive musical score. This is where the concept of creative limitation comes in. The theory says that creativity can flourish if given a set of boundaries. In this case it was a small amount of memory, and within that tiny space the composer at Rare who made this game a work of art was able to develop a musical masterpiece within strict limitations.

Even though this video only discusses the sound abilities of the SNES, which are still being put to good use, it’s a good illustration of what made this system so much fun. Even though it was limited, game developers (and composers) were able to work within its limitations to create some amazingly fun games that seem to have withstood the test of time fairly well. Not all of the games were winners, but the ones that were still get some playtime from us even now.

18 thoughts on “Creative Limitation And The Super Nintendo Sound Chips

  1. Thank you for the acknowledgement that “Not all of the games were winners”. It’s a refreshing dose of realism.

    There seems to be this recent meme of sorts that games were better “back in the day”, but they weren’t. There were upwards of 1500 titles released for the SNES – how many of them are actually remembered fondly by people?

    1. This is survivorship bias at work, and it happens across all media:
      Games, music, video, painting, writing, tools, furniture, etc: the good stuff survives and the bad stuff gets forgotten or thrown away.

      The only thing I would say in defense of the those people that think everything back in the day was better is that modern life with mass production and mass distribution can lead to a market that is overly saturated with bad products, but people are still making things that will last for decades, they’re just a little harder to find.

      Although, now that I think about it, at least in terms of tools, we as a society have gotten into a throw away culture; so how many older people think their old tools are better made just because they actually took the time to maintain and fix them, rather than throwing it out and getting a new one.

    2. “Of the console’s 1758 official releases, 721 were released in North America, 517 in Europe, 1,447 in Japan, 231 on Satellaview, and 13 on Sufami Turbo. 293 releases are common to all regions, 148 were released in Japan and the US only, 163 in Europe and the US, and 30 in Japan and Europe. There are 969 Japanese exclusives, 121 US exclusives, and 35 European exclusives.” — Wikipedia

      I remember making a list a number of years ago of Super Nintendo games I wouldn’t mind owning and of the 721 North American released games I had a list of around 200. That’s around 27.7% of the north american library. I did similar lists for other consoles and no other console came close to that number, If you include games only released in Europe or Japan, that number would go up. The sheer number of high quality games released on the Super Nintendo is impressive versus any other console released ever. Of course, not all of those 200 were the highest quality, but even the medium quality games were still quite good. To put this in perspective, the NES had 678 games released in North America and I didn’t even hit 100 for that system. The 16-bit era hit that sweet spot between decent graphics, tight controls and decent music/sound quality. The Super Nintendo completely dominated the Japanese market and companies could pick the best of the best to bring to North America resulting in a much larger than normal crop of great games. Are there a lot of crap games of the Super Nintendo? Yes, there are but for a variety of reasons, the signal to noise ratio is much higher than most people realize.

    1. None? That’s a big exaggeration, though I do share your frustration.

      I just had a request from a client for IE8 support on a new website. I managed to argue them up to IE9 for now, and we’ll monitor if anyone is actually using IE8.

      If you’re getting performance issues, it’s likely to be:
      – you’ve installed a modern browser, and it’s attempting to provide features your computer isn’t fast enough for. The website will say “can you do X?”, and your browser says “yup!” And do it in SW when there’s no HW support or it’s just really slow. There are settings to disable some features like 3D, but not enough, and they don’t switch automatically based on performance.
      – the developer has added a polyfill to give you the same experience, which may mean a large amount of extra code to execute, rather than letting the experience degrade appropriately to what your device can handle. This may be done due to ignorance, but in my experience is usually due to an additional requirement “add all the nice stuff it does on chrome to IE10/9 at the last minute, because the CEO showed the demo to their mum/cousin with an outdated device and suddenly wanted it to look the same, despite the previous agreement on delivering an appropriate experience on older browsers.

      Note that Polyfills aren’t themselves a bad decision – most older browsers are on machines which are fast enough to run them, just not kept up to date.

  2. The video is seriously flawed, as pointed out in the comments. And Hackaday apparently didn’t catch the errors, instead you just copied them without thinking. One example: “they only had a capacity of 64 kb, meaning that all of a game’s sounds and music had to fit in this tiny space.” Really? It’s RAM, I’m pretty sure you know what RAM is about…

    1. Did it have a HDD to do a swap memory or cache? Nope.
      All of the music was supposed to fin in the RAM because… There was nothing else. Ah, and it was less that that because the video took some 12k out of contention.

      1. Did you actually read the article or did you go straight to the comments? Any idea which RAM chip we’re talking about here? I’m not even going to explain this… No time to waste on idiots.

  3. Sorry, but video you shared, while slick-looking and well presented, is spreading misinformation. Specifically the part you paraphrased, “The SNES processed sound with two chips, a processing core and a DSP. They only had a capacity of 64 kb, meaning that all of a game’s sounds and music had to fit in this tiny space.” Multiple comments have pointed this out already, but it’s concerning to me that people keep using this amateur research as a source.

    Explanation: All of the music had to be resident on the cartridge, but not the SPC’s 64k of SRAM. The CPU would usually bootstrap that with a player routine and instrument samples, using instructions on the cartridge. Almost every SNES game will keep common gameplay samples (like sound effects) loaded, but usually the player routine or song and its instruments will be swapped. This is why some games have a slight delay or a fade to black, before changing songs. The CPU is often completely tied up copying to SPC SRAM, unless the programmer was clever enough to serialize this with the game loop.

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