16 bit: that tiny little phrase that means so much in gaming. That one computing spec that defined an entire generation. When you say “16 bit”, everyone knows exactly what it means. For gamers of a certain age, it represents the pinnacle of video games, the golden age. For younger gamers it’s the first games they played. For many gamers it may even just be “the games my Dad used to play”. One thing that is universal though is acknowledging the influence of the 16 bit era.
Look at any “best games of all time” list, and 20 years later the 16 bit generation still holds its own, with games like Final Fantasy VI (SNES), and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES) always showing up. Break it down to “best of a genre” and the 16 bit games have an even more disproportionate representation: Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, Super Mario World, Super Street Fighter II, and on and on. 16 bit games still manage to float up near, if not at, the top. Why is this, what was it about these antiquated, low-tech, often poorly translated games that made them so, SO good?
Just to get it out of the way. I have no doubt that at least part of the reason these games rank so highly is simple nostalgia. It’s a fact of life. Nostalgia alone wouldn’t persist this long, or this pervasively however. The fact is 16 bit consoles produced what are truly some of the finest games ever developed. Granted, If you delve deep into the catalogs of both the major systems of the time, there are a LOT of exceptionally bad games. Even a lot of the “good” ones in retrospect were pretty mediocre if we are completely honest.
But then there was this massive jump. It seems like on the quality graph, the curve from “bad” to “good” suddenly went straight up, bypassing “great” altogether on the way to “legendary”. What I think it all boils down to in the end was, ironically, the limitations of the 16 bit systems. A talented artist could make beautiful sprites or backdrops, but graphics were still too rudimentary to be a game’s focal point. A good musician could come up with some complex scores, but the sound fidelity wasn’t going to blow anyone away. The consoles were capable enough to allow for some creative freedom, but not so powerful that the tech side could be used as a crutch. The limitations forced developers to be more creative, both from an artistic and mechanical point of view, to work within and around the limitations of the hardware.
What did this mean for the end product? It meant creativity ruled supreme in 16 bit gaming. The writing needed to be a step above, the level design to be flawless, and the mechanics to be perfectly polished. If you wanted your game to stand apart, it had to be executed perfectly, because you couldn’t hide your mistakes. The most important thing however: the games had to be fun. Nobody was going to be impressed by your shinies if they were bored. Some developers learned this lesson better than others, Nintendo themselves being the masters of it, along with the likes of Square, Konami, Capcom, and SEGA.
Graphically, things were just starting to really open up for the developers. They could use more colors, more pixels, more effects, more everything. They were generally confined to flat 2D worlds, but they could infuse some wonderful art to these worlds to make them stand out. Sure, there was Mode 7 and later the Super FX chip, but by and large it was still a 2D life. So the best artists out there got down to making the best of it. Artistic style was paramount to making a good looking game, not polygon counts and bloom lighting. This led to some fantastic, stylish, and most importantly, memorable world building.
Of course you simply cannot talk about 16 bit gaming without mentioning music. From a pure audio perspective, the music reproduction capabilities of the systems were pretty bad. They were a far cry from the bleeps and bloops that came before, but nothing like actual instrumentation. That being said, the music that could be synthesized gave musicians just enough to start getting really creative. This is when composers like Nobuo Uematsu, and Yasunori Mitsuda really came into their own by trying to cram as much expression and emotion into those limitations as they possibly could. The results were some of the finest gaming soundtracks ever cobbled together.
RPGs were still a fairly small niche back then. I hardly even played them myself at the time, instead not discovering masterpieces like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI until many years later. RPGs were however just about the only place you saw any writing of any sort, aside from a flimsy paragraph or two of “backstory” in the instruction booklet which often served as little more than an excuse for giving you thousands of aliens to shoot at. (Remember those?) As such, the writing in what story-driven games there was had to be top notch. Characters had to be memorable, events had to be striking. People had to have a reason to care; otherwise they’d rather just shoot aliens. Unfortunately, localization back in those times often left a LOT to be desired, which led to Western releases being rather awkwardly presented. The fact that the themes, emotions, and experiences of these stories still came through strong enough to leave an impact on the player says a lot about how well the source material in my opinion.
The last piece of the puzzle was mechanics, pure and simple. All that artistic wizardry wasn’t much good if the game wasn’t any fun. This was a holdover from the previous 8 bit era when pretty much the only thing even the best looking and sounding games had going for them was the gameplay itself. In the 8 bit days the mechanics were the only thing supporting even the best looking collections of blocks, so developers got good at it. REALLY good. These were generally the same people who honed their craft in the 8 bit era, and now had a whole new playground to play around in. Great level design, dead-on accurate controls, properly introducing new mechanics (without tutorials!), it all had to come together; and often it did.
Games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Contra III, Shining Force, Secret of Mana, Shinobi III, and Earthbound weren’t so great by technical prowess alone. Super Mario World, Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, Link to the Past, Street Fighter II, and Final Fantasy VI aren’t considered some of the finest games ever crafted out of sheer nostalgic value. These games are amongst the best games you will ever play because they had to be. They were simply better written, better designed, and just better made than games of older generations were capable of, and games of newer generations needed to be. This is not to take away from what was done before, or since. There are a great many games of other generations new and old alike that are deserving of all the praise they get, but the 16 bit era is where it all came together in the first perfect storm of game creation.