The NES Classic Edition is a $60 video game console, available today, that delivers 30 classic Nintendo games in a package that, while immediately familiar, offers some notable upgrades without ever losing sight of what it’s built to do.
Just over 31 years ago, Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America, making the then nearly century-old Japanese company a household name the world over. In fact, for many of us, “Nintendo” was synonymous with video games for much of our childhood and, for a certain kind of parent, all video games are still “Nintendos” and, well, that’s the kind of branding you simply can’t buy.
Like the crop of so-called plug ‘n play consoles that appear everywhere during the holiday shopping season, the low price and retro appeal of the NES Classic Edition is all it really needs to be successful. That it marries that with Nintendo’s famous first-party attention to quality puts this product in a class of its own.
The NES Classic Edition is a very simple piece of equipment. At just 5 inches at its widest part, it’s certainly small enough. But even those diminutive dimensions are there to sell the conceit that hey look it’s a tiny NES. Open the unit up, and it’s still mostly air in there. The NES Classic is powered over micro USB, or via the included USB power adapter. It has a power button, a reset button, an HDMI output and two controller ports using the same Wii Remote expansion port found on the Wii and Wii U wired controllers.
And that’s it. You won’t find a cartridge port on the NES Classic Edition. There is no SD card slot. There’s no ethernet or internal WiFi. It is, again, a very simple piece of equipment. But simple doesn’t mean bad; if anything, the NES Classic’s simplicity is an enormous part of its success.
Take the HDMI port, for example. It outputs a sharp 720p signal, that makes these decades-old games look better than you’ve probably ever seen them. But even the existence of an HDMI port is a novelty on a system like this. The competition from AtGames, makers of the Atari and Sega Genesis Flashback consoles, still includes a component video output, a standard that many new TVs don’t even support. And if they do, you’ll have image processing latency to contend with and, regardless, it will still look bad. The HDMI port on the NES Classic provides beautiful audio and video, all delivered with one simple, standard (and included!) cable.
Which brings us to the controller. First things first, it’s nearly identical to the original NES controller. How identical? It uses the same screws and the plastic mold is, as best I can tell, a perfect clone. This is a $10, first-party NES controller being sold in 2016 and that fact alone is amazing. But there’s one big catch: the wire.
It’s not just that it has one at all, but that it has one that isn’t compatible with your old NES is unfortunate. But more than even that is that it has a wire that is simply far too short to be used in any normal living room scenario.
The 30-inch cord all but requires you to drag the NES Classic console onto the floor to split the difference from your couch to your TV. And while this may fill you with some nostalgia — sepia-toned memories of playing Final Fantasy in your childhood den, the NES placed directly in front of the television on the floor — this memory is at odds with the length of the original NES controller, which measured an impressive 91.5 inches long. Unsurprisingly, third parties have already prepared solutions for this glaring shortcoming.
But beyond that, it’s painful to use a wired version of the NES controller when 8bitdo’s NES “Retro Receiver” brought wireless Bluetooth compatibility to the original NES earlier this year. This is surely a cost-related decision and, if Nintendo wanted to hit $60, wireless controllers were surely out of the picture. But this is all the more reason to miss the classic NES controller port which would have afforded at least the option of spending money on a wireless solution instead of on an extension cable. Again, unsurprisingly, third parties have already prepared solutions for this.
On the other hand, the Wiimote expansion port allows you to use the NES Classic controller with your Wiimote in Virtual Console games on the Wii U. With the Wii U stopping production soon and the upcoming Nintendo Switch forgoing the Wiimote and that port entirely, its inclusion here seems curious at best.
In addition to the actual games, the biggest selling point of the NES Classic Edition is surely its suspend and resume feature. Press the reset button on the console — sadly, there’s no controller shortcut — and then press down on the controller’s D-pad to save your suspend point. Each game supports up to four slots for suspend points. No more password system in Metroid, and no more dead batteries in your Legend of Zelda cartridge. This feature alone makes classic games feel modern.
The games look excellent, and represent a notable improvement from Nintendo’s Wii U software emulation. Tucked inside the NES Classic’s settings menu, players can choose from three different display modes. None of them, thankfully, will stretch out a game to fit modern widescreen televisions.
The standard option is "Pixel Perfect," which makes these 30-year-old games look as clean and sharp as retro-style titles released today, and outputs them with square pixels. That produces an image that's narrower than the 4:3 aspect ratio you may remember from your youth, so "4:3" is also an option in the menu. But if you really want that nostalgic experience, the NES Classic offers a "CRT filter" setting that renders games with scan lines, presenting them as they would've looked back in the day.
Can you believe we’ve spent nearly 1,000 words before getting to the actual stars of the show, the games? Well, here we are. There are 30 games inside the NES Classic and, while nearly everyone will be able to find a missing classic — where’s Metal Gear, and why Super C instead of Contra? — it’s hard to argue this is anything but a list of classics. This is all killer, no filler, which is a notable departure from the junk that pads out some of the other plug ‘n play consoles.
Here’s the full list:
- Balloon Fight
- Bubble Bobble
- Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
- Donkey Kong
- Donkey Kong Jr.
- Double Dragon II: The Revenge
- Dr. Mario
- Final Fantasy
- Ghosts'n Goblins
- Ice Climber
- Kid Icarus
- Kirby's Adventure
- Mario Bros.
- Mega Man 2
- Ninja Gaiden
- Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream
- Super C
- Super Mario Bros.
- Super Mario Bros. 2
- Super Mario Bros. 3
- Tecmo Bowl
- The Legend of Zelda
- Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
The 30 games are organized in a horizontal row. While this user interface looks great, and is dead simple to intuit, it doesn’t scale very well. Thankfully (?) in this case, we won’t be getting any new games on the NES Classic, so UI scale is hardly an issue. You navigate left or right, pick your poison, and you’re off and playing.
The retro experience extends even further than the console, the controller and the excellent emulation; the NES Classic even includes digital versions of the original game manuals and extra pack-ins like maps and character sheets (peruse the Final Fantasy listing for a real treat). In a world where game manuals either don’t exist, or offer little more than instructions on how to insert a disc into the console, this feature brings on the nostalgia in a way the games themselves don’t even. The last page of each manual carries this note:
Any original instruction manuals included with this software are digital reproductions of the original printed manuals. They are as faithful as possible to those documents and feature a bare minimum of edits. Reference may be made to features that can’t be used in this version of the game, or the contact information may no longer be valid. Some copyright information may be out-of-date. Please also note that printed manuals were not always released in multiple languages.
Here’s the Super Mario Bros. 3 manual:
One notable shortcoming of that HDMI connection, and the accompanying digital TV it’s connected to, is image processing and the dreaded display lag. While games can be designed to offset a modern TV’s input lag — look no further than rhythm games like Rock Band — older games had no such expectation. CRT TVs had near instant input latency, and game designers took advantage of it. The final boss of Punch-Out!!,
Mike Tyson Mr. Dream is famously unforgiving and requires split-second precision. Here’s Wired’s Chris Kohler sharing his solution for this issue:
I just got so mad at not being able to beat Mr. Dream on HDMI that I had to go downstairs and beat up Tyson on a CRT. pic.twitter.com/2cqiJ5uOiI— Chris Kohler (@kobunheat) November 3, 2016
Obviously, for games like Final Fantasy, this isn’t a problem. For platformers like Super Mario Bros., it’s more of a problem but it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment. (Note: See if your television has a Game Mode and, if so, enable it. This will remove as much image processing and, as a result, input lag as possible on your display.)
I suspect you already know if the NES Classic Edition is for you or not. At $60, the same price as a single new AAA game, this is squarely in the impulse buy category. Even if it’s not for you, it may be a perfect holiday present for somebody you know. And that’s, in short, exactly what Nintendo set out to do.
So while purists may balk at the input lag, and fans might object to the absence of some key games (METAL GEAR!?) and just about everyone can shake their head in disbelief at the comically short controller cable, Nintendo has also introduced the best retro console-in-a-box on the market — and if sales enthusiasm is any indication, it’s provided a whole new way for younger players to learn why Nintendo remains synonymous with video games for grandparents everywhere.