Posted June 6, 2014

My original Super Nintendo, which I must’ve bought around the summer of 1991 when I was 16, was plugged into an 80s wood-enclosed Zenith tv. I don’t really remember the picture quality but I can’t imagine it was stellar. Still, it had that CRT meshy scanlined glass box glow that we’re still trying to recreate. I sold that SNES a few years later, along with several other consoles.

The next SNES I owned was given to me by a friend several years ago, his childhood console. It sat in my closet until a year ago when this stuff became interesting to me again. Plugging it in I had realized it looked like shit on a modern tv until I learned about upscalers and SCART plugs. This worked well until the SNES broke — possibly one of the PPU chips on the pcb stamped 1990 was dying, causing disappearing layers and sprites in certain games. So I bought another one on eBay for $40, easy enough. It ended up being a 1994 SNS-CPU-RGB-01, which sounded fancy, but really all SNES pcbs, with the exception of the Mini, generate an RGB signal. It looked ok, though never great, with a general darkness to the image and some blur. I had read in the past that some editions of the SNES looked better than others, specifically the 1CHIP, a 1995 revision which replaced the CPU and 2 PPUs with 1 chip, resulting in a crisper, more defined image. Around this time I started some lengthy email threads with a nice gent from Instagram who mentioned his own adventures in searching for a 1CHIP Super Famicom. He pointed out that there were, of course, three varieties: 1CHIP-01, 1CHIP-02 and 1CHIP-03. Was one better? The consensus seems to be that the 1CHIP-03 produced the highest quality picture. But really, how much better could it look than a typical SNES?

Of course, being obsessive and idiotic, that question kept haunting me, so I started peaking back at eBay. Any “1CHIP” listings? Nope, and if there were the seller would surely be charging appropriately. Instead, pictures of the console’s serial number held the key, and fortunately there are some handy forums out there connecting the rest of the dots. Only I didn’t connect those dots quick enough and rushed my first purchase, which wasn’t a 1CHIP and looked slightly worse than mine. I sold it back on eBay within a few hours and started the hunt again. Search, sort by lowest price, scroll past the “just for parts” listings, then start opening prospective sales in new tabs and hope the serial is readable. I repeated this over three weeks, sometimes an hour or two at a time. It often felt pointless and silly, what were the odds of finding something so specific in thousands of listings? Why can’t I just be happy with what I have? But then I’d come across a serial tauntingly close and keep going.

Finally one surfaced, in good shape for about $50. A few days later I plugged it in, pressed power and watched as the red light turned on and then back off. Dead! Refunded. I just about gave up and considered all the other good stuff I could be doing instead with my time. Which is really a sure fire way to return to what you were just doing. Then I found a very dirty 1CHIP serial, like brown dirty and listed as “untested” for $25 obo. I offered $20 and he accepted, probably pushing my luck but it was filthy, untested, and non-returnable. This was my backup 1CHIP I thought, and maybe with a few more searches I could luck out with a 1CHIP-03. Finally, one last search for the day and out of nowhere there it was, a “clean 1CHIP-03” for $89, complete with photos of the serial number and pcb. This seemed too good to be true and at this point I felt more secure about the brown version which passed silently in the night rather than parade itself. I sat back and waited for the packages to ship.

The brown 1CHIP arrived first, shipped in a shoebox, dirty but somehow I was able to bring it back to its original grey glory. The pcb wasn’t very clean either though it quickly shined up. It was stamped 1995 SNS-CPU-1CHIP-01. I nervously hooked it up and put my test carts into action: Super Mario World, Legend of Zelda and Yoshi’s Island. I watched as an improved image appeared on the screen, sharper and brighter, more colorful, and in general just much cleaner. That sharp, white text! Those scanlines! The next evening the 1995 SNS-CPU-1CHIP-03 was at the door. It was super clean, like brand new clean, with spotless insides and no tinkering in sight. Again with the test carts and again great results. A smidge better, though certainly not as obvious as between a non-1CHIP and 1CHIP. I threw several more games at it and watched as they all danced on the screen begging to be played (daddy’s here, I whispered). I almost wanted to play DoReMi Fantasy all over again.

Of course there’s one footnote. I noticed in a couple games so far there are sequences in which the 1CHIP versions of the SNES loses sync with the tv: the intro of Yoshi’s Island and fight sequences in Tales of Phantasia. This can be stabilized by pushing the XRGB-mini’s sync level from 9 to 30. A forum member suggested it was likely the sync stripper in my XRGB-mini adapter causing more trouble, and retro gear aficionado Fudoh suggested that Yoshi draws more power than other games and the white peaks during the intro causes the dropouts. Adjusting the sync level for these rare situations is easy, but makes me wonder again where those XRGB-mini custom profiles are.