A couple of years ago I was browsing on eBay and I ran into an SNES game listing that left me perplexed as to whether the game was American or foreign. After a few minutes of research, I confirmed that the game was indeed American but I was a bit flabbergasted. How was I so confused about such an obviously authentic cartridge?
I frantically ran downstairs to look at my collection and confirm my suspicions. I had about 50 SNES games at the time and I started flipping through them rapidly. My mind was blown! There were two distinct styles of cartridges and it’d only really registered in my mind that the latter design existed even though I’d seen the first many times before.
You see the difference there? The whole front/bottom of the cartridge is “missing” in some way. Why? When did this change happen? And most importantly, which came first?
The Original SNES Hardware (1991)
When the original Super Nintendo was released in the summer of 1991, Nintendo included a locking mechanism that prevented games from being removed while the system was powered on.
Why did they do this?
Most likely they were concerned because the form factor was so different from the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Ignoring the NES-101 for a moment, the SNES was the first time a Nintendo owner could see the game cartridge sticking out and so easily access it while in the game system. Recall that the original NES asked you to push the game cartridge inside of it, press it down, and flip the lid to hide the game away when you wanted to play. Those last two steps were never actually required, but I’d venture to guess that 98% of gamers did it that way. So, when they wanted to change out the game, it was natural to simply stretch the thumb and turn the power off in the same motion before taking the game out.
On the SNES, with Nintendo already aware of failing 72-pin connectors on the NES, the new top loading system became the logical evolution. (Top loading isn’t the real innovation, actually, but that’s a topic for another day.) However, Nintendo was worried that the cartridge was too accessible and would result in games being pulled out while the system was powered on. (Rage quitting, perhaps?) They’d observed in testing that this risked blowing a 1.5A fuse on the system’s circuit board (commonly referred to as the pico fuse).
To get around this, they added a locking mechanism so that the game was unable to be pulled out while on. Well, let’s say “unable.” A plastic lock would insert into the cartridge front (see the Link to the Past pic above) and therefore prevent it from being pulled up and out.
The consensus is that this locking system only existed for about the first year of the system’s lifetime.
Removal of the Locking Mechanism (1992)
After a year of customer support, Nintendo realized that they were having more problems with users aggressively overriding the locking mechanism than were anticipated by the fuse issue. Gamers would forget to power down the system and then be “surprised” when the game was apparently stuck inside the system. This resulted in broken cartridges and consoles that Nintendo would have to address.
Ultimately, they decided to abandon the locking mechanism by removing the plastic lock from the console design. The change was so simple that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference just by looking at a newer system except for one possible clue: Nintendo added a warning label.
Over time, many of these stickers were removed or wore off, but only the systems without the locking mechanism have them. Basically, this was Nintendo absolving themselves of responsibility for impatient users. (Irresponsible users, future Call of Duty players, etc.)
This change avoided the locking problems on these new systems, but what about continuing problems with the original model?
Retroactive Bypassing of the Locking Mechanism (1993-)
As the locking mechanism was a physical, hardware feature, there was no way of changing it retroactively. However, Nintendo had a trick up their sleeve.
Starting in 1993, Nintendo changed the cartridge molds in a way that allowed new games to bypass the original locking scheme. By removing the plastic below the insertion space even consoles with the locking mechanism couldn’t hold the game in place anymore.
When exactly did the change happen? I like to say it started with Star Fox. Games before it seem to have the older style (though games that got re-releases have the newer style, too). After Star Fox, all the games seem to have the newer style only. What’s interesting is that the Star Fox “Not For Resale” cartridges have the older style. So the time when this game went into production seems to be when the switch happened.
And there you go, that’s why there are two different styles of SNES cart!