What is 16-bit? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

In a previous “What is?” article, we provided the details about 8-bit systems. For this edition, we would like to progress to the generation, 16-bit. In case you missed our article on “What is 8-bit?”, let’s review what a bit means. Most people tend to associate the term with exclusively graphics and sound, but it is a unit of measuring binary data in micro processing. With 8-bit power, it can process binary 256 units of data, and 16-bit can process a little over 65,000 units. Thanks to this significant increase, the games between the late-1980’s and mid-1990’s took the industry to the next step it needed to go in and beyond.

How were 16-bit Sprites Made?

As we discussed in “What is 8-bit?”, the sprites were constructed by filling in colors on grids in a cell. While the concepts were drawn on graphing paper to be converted into binary data in the 8-bit days, for 16-bit, designing on graphing paper wasn’t necessary anymore, though this was done with the RPGs of those days. But with fighting and platform games, character designers could just draw their animations/poses like they were doing a manga or anime, scan the drawings, and trace the drawings with pixels, and then fill in the rest with the appropriate colors depending on the power of the console it was on.

The Beginning of the Console Wars

While the original Nintendo Entertainment System made 8-bit a historical label, Sega took the initiative at the end of the 1980’s by releasing their 16-bit console, the Genesis, or the Mega Drive outside of the United States. The first edition of the console clearly had 16-bit beneath the cartridge slot in order to make its mark and to make the label associated with their company and brand. If you got a converter, you could even play Master System games on the Genesis console. And thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign, it became its huge success in the US, Europe, and South America while it was a moderate hit in Japan.

A couple of years later in 1991, Nintendo finally debuted their 16-bit system, the Super Nintendo. Thanks to the strong reputation that Nintendo established with their debut console, the Super Nintendo was an instant hit despite a recession in the US at that time. And just like how the Genesis had a converter to play Master System games, the SNES would eventually have the Super Game Boy to play Game Boy games on a regular screen TV with some color. Though the TurboGrafx-16 is a forgotten footnote to non-Japanese 90’s kids, it was a huge hit in Japan under its name over there, the PC Engine. In fact, it was actually going toe-to-toe against the Super Famicom in Japan! Unfortunately, a majority of its library tended to appeal to Japanese gamers by featuring games based on anime of the time, which wouldn’t have succeeded with international audiences.

As previously stated in this article and in some of Honey’s Sega related publications on this site, the success of the Genesis in the US is thanks to an ad campaign by making itself look edgy and cool. They wanted to make Nintendo look like yesterday’s news and it was working. In fact, the Genesis outsold the Super Nintendo four Christmas seasons straight in the 1990’s! But what was the selling point for the Genesis? Blast processing!

Hardware Differences and Blast Processing

So exactly what does blast processing mean? It just means the Genesis had a faster CPU processor at 7.67 MHz, and the Super Nintendo’s was 3.58 MHz. Due to this particular hardware difference, the Genesis was able to put out fast-paced games like Sonic with its horizontal scrolling from one end of the screen to another. However, Super Nintendo’s hardware wins in the visual department with the Genesis capable of displaying 64 simultaneous colors, the video processor of the Super Nintendo allowed to have 256.

In addition, the Super Nintendo could display twice the sprites as the Genesis and had superior resolution. And thanks to mode 7 technology, it allowed maps to rotate and scale from the bottom of the screen to the top and the reverse like in F-Zero. Due to these differences, the graphics of the games on the Genesis tended to look rather rough and edgy while the Super Nintendo’s was much smoother and brighter.

Genesis tried to overcome its graphical inferiorities by having hardware add-ons such as the Sega CD and the 32X, but the prices of those additions much more than the actual console itself. For some Super Nintendo games such as Star Fox, they had special FX chips to help support its then high graphical capabilities in relation to its 3D capabilities.

In terms of sound, both systems were very excellent as making their sounds distinct and memorable. While the Super Nintendo has eight channels of audio compared to Sega’s six, and twice the sound RAM, the Genesis had a synthesizer that they exploited. Thanks to the Super Nintendo’s additional sound RAM and having two more channels of audio, some of the voice effects you would hear in Mortal Kombat such as Scorpion’s “get over here” line were a lot smoother in comparison to the Genesis version, which sounded very static. Thanks to the synthesizer of the Genesis, it allowed a very soundtrack centric experience that felt a lot like going to a club and to party like it was 1994.


Speaking of Mortal Kombat, it was also one of the games at the forefront of the console wars. In addition to the Blast Processing and Genesis Does What Nintendon’t campaigns, the first Mortal Kombat on the Genesis had a hidden code (just press A,B,A,C,A,B,B at the code screen) where you could activate the blood from the arcade version, while the Super Nintendo version didn’t have any blood to stay within Nintendo’s family policies. In addition, the Genesis release had the fatalities from the arcade version such as Johnny uppercutting his opponent’s head off, while the Super Nintendo version just has him kicking the opponent in the chest.

Though Sub-Zero’s fatality in the Super Nintendo release is rather brutal with him freezing his opponent and then breaking them into pieces, it still doesn’t compare to him ripping their heads and spines in the Genesis version. So if you really wanted edgy back in the day, Mortal Kombat on the Genesis was definitive proof of that. Inevitably, Mortal Kombat would be one of the games that would become the beginning of video games having a negative effect on children to the point it became a Congressional hearing. But due to the first game’s more mature content, it brought a lot of attention to the Genesis version for customers who wanted an experience more in tune with the true nature of the franchise. However, the sequels for both consoles would both contain the same fatalities and other finishers for a more even competition.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic the Hedgehog may have been kid friendly, but he had a different kind of cool to him that made him mass appealing. It’s the franchise that perfectly represented everything distinct about Sega and the Genesis console itself. The character moved at a really fast speed without the use of too many power ups. In addition, if you let Sonic stay still for awhile without him moving, he will tap his foot and change expression into frustration, which was considered a distinct and ground breaking animation for its time. The character took many influences from Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Michael Jackson, Santa Claus, and strangely enough, then US President Bill Clinton. As the series progressed into the sequels, collecting the chaos emeralds allowed Sonic to turn into a yellow Super Sonic, which was inspired by the Super Saiyan transformations of Dragon Ball Z, which creator Yuji Naka has admitted to being a huge fan of.

The stages were very bright and the music just matched the pace and excitement. For some of you J-Pop buffs reading, Masako Nakamura of "Dreams Come True" actually composed the soundtrack while the legend himself, Michael Jackson, who was also a fan of the series and the Genesis console, would help with some of the tracks for the third game. In fact, if you are familiar with his song Stranger in Moscow, you might notice the ending theme song to Sonic 3 shares some similarities to it. Unfortunately, Jackson refused credit because he didn’t like the quality of the sound by the console’s sound chip. However, a Sega executive also claimed he was not credited because of his accusations of child molestation in the early 1990’s.

Star Fox

As stated earlier, the Super Nintendo could display early 3D graphics thanks to its Super FX chip, and one of the first games released with this feature was Star Fox. In an artistic sense, the game takes influences from Japanese mythology, humor, and the classic Thunderbirds puppet drama. If you are familiar with the story of Star Fox, Fox, and his crew are under the command of General Pepper, a dog and they are to fight Andross, a monkey. This is a play on Kenen no Naka, or a dog-monkey relationship, a Japanese idiom that equates to fighting like cats and dogs meaning they don’t get along. As for Thunderbirds, it played inspiration with its advertising and box art of using puppets to represent its cast.

The game plays like your typical rail shooter but has quality replay value due to the various paths the player is given to reach the final stage. At times, your wingmen are going to request for backup and fail to respond, you can lose them for the rest of the game.

Turtle Power!

If there is one timeless classic for not just the Super Nintendo console but the 16-bit generation as a whole, it would have to be Turtles in Time, the fourth Turtles game by Konami and a sequel to the first beat ‘em up TMNT game. It combines elements of both the original 1990’s movies and the Fred Wolf cartoon series. Thanks to the Mode 7 feature, the SNES had an exclusive level called Neon Night-Riders where the Turtles are on hover boards and scale upwards on the future highways while fighting the Foot Clan. In addition, it allowed players to grab a foot soldier and throw them towards the screen. As they flew towards the direction of the screen, they got big to the point you’d swear they were going to pop out.

This feature is exploited in an early battle with the Shredder whose backside is pointed towards the screen as if he is piloting a mech, and you must throw foot soldiers towards him in order to win. In addition to its use of the theme song, it makes great use of Pizza Power from the infamous Coming Out of Their Shells rock tour (if any of you long-time fans know what that is) and the voice effects are used to get fans to scream Cowabunga with the turtles after every stage completion. So if you want the ultimate Turtles experience for all generations, find it on the Super Nintendo with Turtles in Time.

Final Thoughts

While the Super Nintendo was technologically superior in almost every way, Sega managed to exploit that one thing and give it another name, Blast Processing. If you say that the CPU has a faster clock speed just for the sake of it, does that make any impact, probably not? Just give it a name and a demonstration like you see in the old commercials on YouTube, and you can probably buy into it. For some of you older readers that lived through those days, did those commercials affect you in any way? What about for some of you younger readers?

Try watching some old commercials and put yourself in the shoes of 1990’s kids. How do the Genesis commercials resonate with you? Would it have convinced you to get a Genesis? If so, please share a comment. If you have any memories of the 16-bit days or any information you’d like to share, you are also welcome to comment.

Star-Fox-super-NES-game-682x500 What is 16-bit? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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