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Virtual Console: SNES

Four rather Super titles currently up for grabs.

Nintendo was pretty reluctant to release a follow-up to the NES. Having commanded a vice-like grip on the North American and South-East Asian game markets, it waited until its opponents had all shown their hands before trumping all of them with the Super Nintendo - or SNES as it became affectionately known.

Even so, Nintendo took its sweet time. The PC Engine/Turbografx-16 had already been on the market for over three years before the SNES arrived in Japan on 21st November 1990, while Sega's Mega Drive had been around for more than two years. Needless to say, by the time the machine had hit its stride, it left its competitor's offerings looking decidedly old hat.

Also, Nintendo had the added benefit of having so many big home-grown brand names to call upon, not to mention all the big third party companies such as Square, Capcom, Enix, Konami and the like. The system was awash with big name games, and by the time it finally appeared in Europe in April 1992 it had no problem repeating the success it was enjoying in North America and Japan.

For the first time in a decade, the European gaming scene was having its head turned by incredible console games like the superb launch titles F-Zero and Super Mario World, swiftly followed by enduring classics such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Castlevania IV, Pilotwings, Super Mario Kart, Star Fox, Street Fighter II Turbo, Super Ghouls and Ghosts, Super Mario All-Stars, and in its later years Super Metroid, Yoshi's Island, Killer Instinct and the Donkey Kong Country trilogy from Rare. Not a bad legacy - and that's just scratching the surface. We've not even mentioned the huge number of incredible RPGs pumped out by SNES softcos - even if many were confined to the US in Western terms, we did at least get Secret of Mana, Illusion of Time and above-average fare like Secret of Evermore to prop up our affection.

But, on balance, European gamers got a raw deal from Nintendo - and mutterings of discontent regarding its attitude to the European market were rife at the time; something NoE is still trying to shake off to this day.

Being late with the launch was forgivable, but European gamers had to put up with shoddy PAL conversions which not only left us with enormous black borders at the top and bottom of the screen, but often versions that ran almost 17 per cent slower than the NTSC versions. To compensate, certain games were sped up (notably Mario Kart), but it was hardly ideal.

In fact, the dreaded 50Hz issue continues to rumble to this day, with all VC games bar the Turbografx conversions running at 50Hz regardless of whether you've set your console to 60Hz. At least Nintendo has eliminated borders for all of its NES, SNES and N64 releases, but many games appear to be affected by a discernible flicker.

Even more galling was the incredible 49.99 price tag levied on SNES games for most of its entire lifespan, not to mention the complete absence of some of the very best titles ever released on the system, notably Final Fantasy IV, V and VI, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG and many others. We can only hope that Nintendo learns from the past and allows PAL gamers an official route to play these games, but it would be a major surprise if it did.

One final note before we tackle what's SNES classics are available on Virtual Console: you'll need to either have an old GameCube pad handy, or fork out for a Classic Controller to plug into the Wii Remote. All games cost 800 points, which works out at about 6 or 8 Euros.

F-Zero

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An absolute bona-fide '90s classic - perhaps the best futuristic racing game of its time - and still an incredible game now once you get past the rather rudimentary visuals.

They don't date at all well on a big screen, predictably, but at the time the game was an astonishing breakthrough in the way it conveyed a sense of speed like no game before it.

Using the now-legendary Mode 7 scaling and rotation effects to brilliant effect, it effectively fudged the lack of 3D capabilities in the SNES and created a unique look for the SNES that gives games a feel that hasn't been matched since.

Proving that you don't need dozens of tracks (F-Zero has just 15), the game had an almost perfect difficulty curve, and is a game that all racing game fans should experience at some point.

Retro rating: Five stars

Super Castlevania IV

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It's a perpetual mystery why Konami appears to have such problems reinventing the Castlevania series on modern home systems, yet seems to have no problem releasing largely brilliant 2D handheld versions. The October 1991 debut of this classic action adventure in Japan awakened many European gamers' interest in the series, and it's not difficult to see why.

In fact, half an hour spent playing this well-regarded action adventure is more than enough to make you wonder how this series didn't go onto bigger things.

Set in 1691, Simon Belmont's journeys deep into Castlevania have an atmosphere and longevity which easily transcends the rather dated look that the game suffers from 15 years on.

Thanks to the flexibility of the eight-way whip/grapple and the less fascist game design tendencies of the early '90s, this is far more enjoyable to trawl through than similar games that emerged in the late '80s. Replete with regular weapons upgrades and new boss encounters, it's one of those games where there's always something new around the corner.

Classic in a similar way to Super Metroid, which we hope is also coming soon. A little rough around the edges, sure, but it's a game with bags of charm.

Retro rating: Four stars.

Donkey Kong Country

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Having, oddly, left one of its key early franchises on the back burner for most of the '80s, Nintendo chose to task the mighty Rare with reinventing one of its most celebrated brands - and it's a decision that paid off with incredible success.

The stunning use of pre-rendered visuals proved to be a master-stroke, helping give the game a slick 'next-gen' look - not only ensuring the success of the game, but helping extend the lifespan of the SNES right up to the release of the Nintendo 64.

Despite needlessly critical comments from Miyamoto at the time, the gameplay is - even now - far better than 'mediocre', despite not reaching the heights of the best Mario games.

Perhaps the problem is that Donkey Kong Country was massively over-rated at the time, leading to a rampant amount of revisionism as people subsequently try to distance themselves from it being the Best Thing Ever.

With the benefit of perspective, it's a solid, slick, chucklesome, but typical platforming romp that ticks all the right boxes. Perhaps it's biggest crime is that - visuals aside - DKC doesn't do anything that revolutionary, which was obviously a sleight to one of Miyamoto's babies.

But, to Rare's eternal credit, it has managed to create one of the few 2D 16-bit games that doesn't look terrifyingly dated in the late noughties, and, still feels delightful to play now if you haven't had your fill of platformers already.

Retro rating: Four stars.

Sim City

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A bit of an odd Virtual Console release, this, mainly because it's a game that few people associate with the SNES (in fact, the September 1992 release in PAL territories was fully three years after its Amiga/Atari ST/PC debut).

Pedantry aside, Will Wright's city-building classic marked the start of Maxis' Sim-related phenomenon, and is one of the most enduring games ever released, so who am I to argue?

As you'll probably know, you can either go ahead a design your own city, or get stuck into a series of predetermined scenarios which, for example, task you with damage control after an earthquake or throw you into a crime filled hell-hole and expect you to sort the sorry mess out. Obviously the visuals don't exactly do the concept justice these days, but the concept was clearly fantastic.

This particular version might be interesting to fans of the game who played it on other platforms because it actually has a whole bunch of SNES-exclusive features, such as two additional scenarios, some Nintendo-inspired visual changes, as well as the hyper excited tips from 'Dr Wright'.

Whether you need an old version of Sim City in your life, though, is a moot point. As such, it's not the most obvious title to download from the Virtual Console service.

Retro rating: Three stars.

Coming soon: Super Mario World, The Legend Of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Probotector, Street Fighter II: World Warrior.

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