It feels fair to say that graphical improvements between console generations in recent years have been relatively gradual. The PS5 and Xbox Series X are obviously more powerful than their predecessors, but the differences sometimes come down to framerate and fidelity. By comparison, the graphical leap from NES to SNES was massive.
For the first time, the color palettes of games were held back by relatively few limitations. Most sprites actually looked like they were meant to represent. Backgrounds were heavily detailed and properly animated, while an industry-wide embrace of the entire pixel art concept inspired new visions that remain beautiful to this day.
That was just the beginning of what the SNES was capable of, though. With a little creativity and enhancement chips that unlocked increased power, developers were even able to squeeze some early 3D effects out of Nintendo’s 16-bit console and produce some truly impressive visuals that still hold up. It wasn’t easy to separate and rank so many incredible styles and technological achievements, but I think that these are the 15 best-looking SNES games ever.
The original PC version of Doom has now been ported to damn near everything, including toasters (seriously). Even still, the SNES version is obviously not the best way to experience this FPS classic. It only includes 22 levels, it’s missing quite a few graphical effects, and the frame rate can be downright nauseating.
Still…it’s Doom! On the SNES! By all accounts, the console wasn’t designed to run anything like Doom. Yet, the Super FX 2 chip included in the Doom cart was apparently powerful enough to support what has to be considered an impressive port. This was mind-blowing stuff in 1995. For many of us without a home computer at that time, it was also the most affordable way to experience Doom.
14. Kirby’s Dream Land 3
Like Kirby’s Adventure on the NES before it, Kirby’s Dream Land 3 showed up late in the SNES lifecycle. Of course, its late to the party arrival meant that it ultimately wowed gamers with one of the most graphically impressive games on that system.
The SA-1 chip allowed for the game to be displayed in a pseudo-high-resolution mode, making for one of the most colorful SNES adventures that still ran at a high (if sometimes inconsistent) frame rate. What really elevates Kirby’s Dream Land 3, though, is its wonderful art style. Everything is just so surreal and welcoming. There are good reasons why Nintendo hasn’t tinkered with the Kirby formula too much over the years.
13. Earthworm Jim 2
In the ‘90s, a lot of developers tried to hit it big with the next gaming mascot on par with Sonic or Mario. Most of these games are now largely forgotten (and rightfully so…they were usually terrible), but Earthworm Jim always stood out thanks to its surreal art style and buttery smooth animation. The game still looks like a Saturday morning cartoon in motion.
Unfortunately, the Earthworm Jim franchise never again reached the heights of this 16-bit sequel again. While Earthworm Jim 4 was announced for Intellivision Amico, it’s not clear whether that game (or, let’s face it, that console) will ever actually materialize.
12. Street Fighter Alpha 2
Street Fighter Alpha 2 is another one of those games that just shouldn’t have worked on the SNES. It was simply too detailed and too fast for a 16-bit console. Yet, with the help of a special decompressor chip, Capcom was able to make the game sing on the aging hardware.
To be fair, some sacrifices were made in the process. The music certainly isn’t as good as it was in the arcade version, and a few tracks were cut altogether. Still, relatively little was lost in transition so far as graphics go, and the SNES version is still quite playable. It might not be the best version to play now, but this was great stuff in the ‘90s for anyone who couldn’t yet afford a Sega Saturn or PlayStation.
11. Super Turrican 2
No one is going to accuse Super Turrican 2 of originality. The actual gameplay was heavily inspired by Contra and Bionic Commando, but the game’s visuals make for one hell of a spectacle that few other titles at that time could match.
Everything in Super Turrican 2 is big, bright, and, most importantly, blows up real nice when you shoot it. It also moves incredibly fast as highlighted by some very cool vehicle segments featuring a space motorcycle and even an underwater motojet. Yet, despite multiple releases in the early ‘90s and strong early reviews, Super Turrican 2 was the end of the line for the franchise. Sadly, it’s not even available via digital storefronts at the time of this writing.
Axelay was simply ahead of its time. The game is absolutely gorgeous from the get-go, thanks to the immediate impact of one of the most stunning openings on the SNES. From there, the game properly begins with a beautiful Mode 7 vertical scrolling level that transitions into some jaw-dropping horizontal shooting sections. Regardless of the view, the game just looks fantastic.
If you beat the game twice on the highest difficulty, a message appears that promises Axelay 2 is on the way. That never materialized due to low sales, but much of the team did go on to found Treasure and release the even more impressive Gunstar Heroes for the Sega Genesis the following year.
9. Chrono Trigger
One of the greatest games of all time is still one of the best-looking games on the SNES. Visually, the most impressive thing about Chrono Trigger is that the game remains so incredibly well detailed across multiple time periods and numerous enemy design concepts. No matter which of the game’s dozen endings you’re going for, you’ll rarely encounter re-used assets.
Oh, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that Chrono Trigger features some of the best-animated attacks of any RPG of the ‘90s. There’s a good reason why so many Chrono Trigger fans keep replaying the game decades after its release and why Square has barely touched the original graphics through its many re-releases.
8. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
As the SNES began to wind down in 1996, it became abundantly clear that the console was capable of pulling off some surprising graphical feats with the right programming tools and know-how. Honestly, Super Mario RPG is still in the running for one of the best-looking games of the ‘90s. Square went all out with rendered 3D graphics and special lighting effects to create one of the most beautifully realized games of its era. The Mushroom Kingdom had never looked this good before-and it’s never looked quite the same since.
After Legend of the Seven Stars, Mario RPGs split into the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series (neither of which were developed by Square). While those games are excellent, it’s hard not to dream of what a true Super Mario RPG sequel from Square might have looked like in the late ‘90s or early 2000s.
7. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
Super Mario World still looks great, but it’s a fairly typical-looking 2D platformer for the era. With the power of the Super FX2 chip, though, Yoshi’s Island took things in a bold new direction, placing the green dinosaur and Baby Mario in varied worlds that look straight out of a coloring book. If nothing else, this game is a testament to how the right art style can elevate one great-looking game using relatively similar technology over another.
The graphics in Yoshi’s Island have truly stood the test of time, and it will always be one of the best-looking SNES games thanks to its unique art style. No other game in the Yoshi series has matched this one’s near-perfect level design.
Terranigma is one of the best-looking SNES games that’s still barely known in North America. The third chapter of an unofficial trilogy that includes the cult classics Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma is a lavishly animated action RPG that features some of the most beautiful villages, forests, caves, and dungeons you’ll find in the 16-bit era.
Sadly, the release of the first wave of 32-bit consoles likely prevented Terranigma from getting the stateside release it so very much deserved. Of course, with Square Enix dipping into its back catalog more and more these days, don’t be surprised if a port or remake of this gem comes here sooner rather than later.
5. Trials of Mana
If this list was limited to North American SNES games, Secret of Mana would certainly have a place on it. Since we’re talking about global releases, though, then that game’s Japan-only sequel, Trials of Mana, just can’t be ignored.
This was Square at the height of its 16-bit powers. They took everything they learned from classics like Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger and crafted one of the most beautiful games of its generation. From the very beginning, the goal was to develop a game as close to 3D as possible without actually making the move to 3D rendered graphics as other titles had, and the results really speak for themselves. Trials of Mana looks better than a lot of PS1 RPGs. While the recent remake also looks, it’s still worth tracking down the localized original version via the Switch’s Collection of Mana to experience this one in all its 16-bit glory.
4. Star Ocean
It’s still hard to believe that tri-Ace got Star Ocean to run on the SNES. As we see throughout this list, though, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of experienced programmers working with the right technology.
Star Ocean utilized the S-DD1 chip (the same used in Street Fighter Alpha 2). That complex compression chip managed to produce almost 32-bit quality graphics on the aging SNES hardware. Seriously, no other SNES RPG is this detailed or this well animated. Like too many other great RPGs of the ‘90s, though, the SNES version of Star Ocean never officially made its way West. An HD remake is now readily available on the PS4 and Switch, but honestly, the original still looks better in a lot of ways.
3. Star Fox
Yes, Star Fox looks primitive today. You could even argue that the graphics for other SNES games have aged slightly better. In 1993, though, this was revolutionary. Fully 3D games were a rarity even in arcades, and few believed a game like Star Fox could possibly run on the SNES. It’s a small miracle that Argonaut Games was able to develop the Super FX chip that made it all possible without charging consumers a small fortune for the privilege of playing it.
Even other games that used that chip couldn’t come close to the quality of the 3D visuals on display here. It can’t be overstated just how much impact the original Star Fox had on the entire industry. In terms of visuals and gameplay, this was the basis for pretty much everything that came next in the 32-bit era and beyond.
2. Rendering Ranger: R2
Rendering Ranger: R2 is one of those late-cycle console games that will always be something of a technological mystery. With development led by the director of the Turrican series, Rendering Ranger takes obvious inspiration from that franchise while expertly incorporating ship-based shooter levels.
Regardless of stage type, this game’s graphics are bold, beautiful, and smoothly animated. Rendering Ranger looks more like an early PlayStation or Sega Saturn game than a 16-bit title. You really have to see it in motion to really appreciate its full impact. Initially, this game received an extremely limited release in Japan, but Ziggurat Interactive recently announced it’s coming to PC and modern consoles, which means that more gamers will finally be able to experience one of the best-looking games on the SNES.
1. Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!
To fully understand Donkey Kong Country‘s impact, you first have to understand what the console war was like in the early ‘90s. The Sega Genesis was gaining traction with superior arcade ports like the original Mortal Kombat. The Sonic series was faster, cooler, and arguably better looking than most early SNES games. And while adoption for the Sega CD was low, Nintendo just didn’t have anything that could compete with that device’s advertising-friendly next-gen FMV features.
Donkey Kong Country was a risk. The Donkey Kong franchise had been largely abandoned for years. At that time, Rare was a good, but not top-tier, developer trying to use technology meant for the N64 to somehow created fully 3D rendered visuals on the SNES. The results shocked everyone. There still aren’t many SNES games that look like it. While this top spot could have easily gone to the first DKC or its incredible sequel, Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble! takes the prize as the most refined and beautiful game in the trilogy. It’s that kind of SNES game that not only holds up to technical breakdowns but retains that magical retro feel.