NES Classic Edition
What's so Classic anyway?
By Brent Hirose
This holiday season, the biggest product from video game giant Nintendo was not a new game for their 3DS handheld game system, nor was it one for their struggling Wii U home console. It wasn't an app bringing their landmark properties into the real world, like Pokemon Go, nor was it even Mario Run, a major and newsworthy departure (being the first official Mario franchise game produced deliberately off of Nintendo's own hardware). No, the biggest hit for Nintendo this Christmas was a look directly back at their past: the NES Classic, a stand alone box based on the 30-year-old system that made Nintendo a household name.
The product itself is a variation on the all-in-one plug & play video games that have existed since the mid-2000s. Atari, Intellivision and Colecovision: all of the major players from the console generation before Nintendo's breakaway success are available in similar systems. None of them were nearly as successful. Why is that the case? Nintendo was once so big it became synonymous with the very idea of “video game”, becoming a grandmother's catch-all term for whatever electronic whatsit the kids were playing those days, but plenty of 70s kids grew up loving the older consoles, swept up in the first waves of home video game entertainment.
So why is this system different?
Well, maybe it isn't. It's still a stand alone system, with no wireless controllers, internet capability or any of the other bells and whistles you might expect. It is what the box says, and, minus the ability to output into HDMI, there is little that differentiates it from the boxes that emulate the first cartridge systems* to hit the market. It has a decent collection of games with some failings– the NES Pac-Man is substandard, Ice Climbers is a frustrating, barely playable mess, and whoever decided that including Mario Bros was a good idea (when Super Mario Bros 3 features all of that game that anyone would want to play in it's head-to-head mini game) is an idiot, albeit probably a cost-saving one – and a strong brand awareness, but why is this such a hit right now?
Nostalgia for the games might be an answer, although that doesn't really seem to be the case. Yes, this is a chance to play 30 different titles again, to relive misspent childhoods and maybe even share them with the next generation, but the games featured here can't really be the main selling point. If one wishes to play the original Super Mario Brothers, that game is available through various legal means* to the NES, SNES, Game Boy Colour, Gamecube, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, Wii, 3DS and Wii U. Through less legal means** you can do so from pretty much any device manufactured past the year 2000.
Nintendo's Virtual Console turned 10 recently. For the past decade, every new Nintendo console has been able to hop online and download a copy of Super Mario Bros for $5. While the 30 titles included in an NES Classic would come to $120, twice the $60 cost for the 30 game NES Classic, with the Virtual console you are able to pick-and-choose the titles that specifically interest you - the likelihood of someone wanting to play all 30 included titles with the classic is fairly low. And then after the fact, you would have a Wii that could be used to play a variety of other games, along with surfing the web and using apps like Netflix and Youtube, instead of a plastic box that plays 30 pre-set games and nothing more. There are an abundance of Wiis in the world (it’s the 5th highest selling console of all time) and if you don't have one I'm sure there are plenty of seniors homes where their Wiis are gathering dust, discarded in a corner somewhere. However, even though many people buying the NES classic have access to a Wii, there was no notable rush to pick up these titles until now.
It bears mentioning that these digital marketplaces are still unwieldy to navigate and there are still those who hesitate to purchase things over the internet. The NES Classic, on the other hand, is simple to use and set up, much more than the archaic electronics it's impersonating. More than simplicity though, is the simple fact that it just looks like the object people remember. It's the right colour, the right shape, and while the box itself may not have the right proportional size, the controllers are exactly the thumb-destroying rectangles that people recall from childhood. That physical object, the classic NES controller, are the skin memories that so many people crave, and the games, most of which were never finished or even that great to begin with, are being given a second consideration.
As a longtime game player and collector who has never left gaming for any considerable time and who still owns an NES, the NES classic isn't for me. Perhaps not even Nintendo knew who this console was for, as they vastly underproduced it, leading to the shortage that helps make it such a hot holiday commodity. But it's hard to blame them. Not only are they a conservative company, but the product they are selling has been sold and re-sold over and over again. Your cell phone, with the right nudges, can play every NES game ever created. Why would they bank on such a readily available product suddenly catching fire?
The patent on the hardware of the original NES has long since expired. Thus, there are dozens of NES clones available on the market, along with tons of still-working official NES consoles all over the world. Used video game stores are stocked with many of the titles you grew up playing. The emulators and files to play any game are freely available. But unboxing a mint controller with the official Nintendo seal of approval? That is a very real experience, as is holding that mint controller in your hands. Perhaps it’s even worth the high scalper resale costs.
Me, I'm playing Super Mario Bros on a hacked PlayStation Portable***. Can't wait until it has its own retro system in another ten or fifteen years.
*Sadly, the first exchangeable cartridge console, the Fairchild Channel F does not have a plug and play box, which is sad, because that part of history (and that amazing name!) continue to fade into history but also not a big deal because the Fairchild was an atrocious gaming system.
**NES – Original Cart or bundled with Duck Hunt and/or Track and Field
SNES – Super Mario All-Stars
GBC – Super Mario Deluxe
GC – Playable collectable in Animal Crossing
GBA – NES Classics: Super Mario Bros
Nintendo DS- As above, in GBA slot.
3DS – Through virtual console
Wii – As above or through Super Mario All-Stars 25th Anniversary Edition
Wii U – As above or level by level through Super Mario Maker recreations.
***If you don't already know, it's pretty easy to google it.
****That's one of the ways to do it!