The NES Classic has already become the toy people are willing to stand in line to buy this holiday season, and the supply seems to be incredibly limited. I showed up at an out-of-the-way Walmart in Ohio at 11:15 last night in hopes of grabbing one to write about it, and the line was already four families deep. I was the fifth person to show up. The store had six units to sell.
Right now, the most popular story on this site is the one giving people guidance on how to buy one. The second is the review of the hardware. Social media is filled with strategies on how to find one today, if not the next few weeks. People will be sitting at their computers at 2 p.m. PT today to try to get one from Amazon. It’s hard to overestimate how excited people are about this hardware. The fact that Nintendo can’t satisfy this demand is utter bullshit, and possibly part of the marketing plan.
But why? I keep hearing from people who point out that our PCs and laptops can emulate these 30 NES games just fine, and it’s never been easier or less expensive to put together a custom system using things like the Raspberry Pi for emulation. It’s also pretty easy to track down an actual NES, although there are games included with the Classic that are hard to find when it comes to secondhand cartridges.
So why are people waiting in line to spend $60 on a product that seems so redundant?
People underestimate the importance of simplicity, but Nintendo never does. The NES Classic connects via an HDMI cable, it should work on every TV made in the last decade, and you don’t even have to swap cartridges. You don’t even have to plug into the wall; it’s powered by USB, and most modern displays include USB ports. Not only that, but you don’t have to worry about a kid or animal chewing through the power cable. Everyone has a few micro USB cables sitting around.
Nintendo picked 30 games that are a good representation of the NES era, and threw in enough options to be helpful but not so many as to be overwhelming. The rear of the system only includes two ports, and they’re both clearly marked.
A word I like to use when describing electronics of this type, and it’s one of my favorite traits in hardware, is “welcoming.” The NES Classic is welcoming. It has a clearly stated goal — to let you have fun playing NES games — and it accomplishes that in a way everyone can understand and enjoy.
Compare that to the PlayStation 4 Pro, which is a mess of competing standards and distracting limitations. It may be odd to compare a $60 “console” that’s completely closed with a $400 refresh of an existing platform, but it’s instructive to do so. They’re both competing for your time and money.
Deciding whether to buy a PS4 Pro is complicated and somewhat headache-inducing, even if you follow and understand technology. Deciding to buy an NES Classic is easy. You don’t feel like you have to do hours of research, and there’s no chance of being surprised that it doesn’t work the way you expected with your television.
Simplicity is a huge draw.
Nostalgia is real, but so is novelty
Don’t discount the value of nostalgia. Everyone I met in the line last was my age or older. It was a 30-something crowd of both men and women who grew up with the NES. People will absolutely pay to try to get some of the magic from their youth back, and Nintendo has provided many of us with wonderful memories from our childhood.
An emulator doesn’t deliver the sense of nostalgia and fun you get from looking at an actual NES or the original controller. Sticking so closely to the original hardware design was a smart decision, and it instantly separates the official product from all the third-party knockoffs that feature questionable emulation and “modern” aesthetics.
But Nintendo didn’t make a replica of the NES. The company took the design of the system and shrunk it down. It’s not just an NES; it’s a cute NES. People may sneer at the idea that being adorable sells hardware, but it does. It’s also a hardware design decision few companies make, which is part of the reason the NES Classic feels so novel.
If you learn nothing from the NES Classic, think about this: There is a market for cute electronics, and no one seems to want to fill it. Nintendo is absolutely comfortable having that market to itself, and other companies are so busy trying to make their electronics look serious and expensive that they don’t think about aiming for something that’s cute.
My wife is not that into video games, and she was rather skeptical about me leaving late at night to wait in line at a Walmart for a piece of hardware based on hardware we used to own. But once I returned and took it out of the box, she squealed with delight and wanted to hold it and play with the controller. She had nothing but nice things to say about its design and function, and the fact that the hardware is novel and cute absolutely turned her around.
Nintendo didn’t have to pack in a cool, retro poster. It didn’t have to scan and upload the original manuals for these games. But those details are part of what helped turn this from a regular product launch into packs of dew-eyed, older gamers waiting in line at midnight.
Nintendo nailed the combination of novelty and nostalgia, and that matters. The NES Classic Edition has already become something of a fetish object for older players with the ability to spend $60 on trying to recapture their youth, or to play these games with their children. Sticking to the original design but shrinking it just seems so obvious, but so does every good idea after someone else makes a killing executing it flawlessly.
It works every time
Yeah, we all like to joke about blowing on cartridges as a way to tell each other we have a lot of shared gaming memories, but the fact remains that the original NES hardware kind of sucks.
There are ways to improve the reliability of existing NES systems, but those are way more work than most folks want to put into playing classic games. People will pay for something that works perfectly out of the box.
The NES Classic works perfectly, and does exactly what it needs to do. Buying an actual NES system and refurbishing it may be tempting to some, but most of us just want to play Zelda, dammit, and we want to play it now.
It’s 100 percent legal
I honestly don’t think this is a huge driver for sales, but I think the legality of the ROMs in the NES Classic indirectly ties into all the points made above.
Let’s say you download an NES emulator. Where do you get the ROMs? The answer, if you’re reading Polygon, is likely anywhere. Or everywhere. Finding ROMs for games this common isn’t much of a task for most people who are gaming enthusiasts or relatively internet-savvy.
But the NES Classic is a mainstream product; people who don’t normally purchase games are lusting after one. Telling those folks to go to the shadier parts of the internet, and risk downloading malware in order to grab ROMs of their favorite games, is both questionably legal and a huge pain in the ass for the player. Plus, they don’t want to find a USB controller and configure things properly in an emulator.
This absolutely ties into the simplicity aspect of my argument. But the fact that NES Classic buyers know that the companies who own the rights to these games are being paid for their use could help incentivize more publishers to open the vaults for official re-releases of their back catalogs.
But when you tell someone to just use an emulator, keep in mind that that approach comes with a whole lot of baggage and assumed knowledge.
This is a smart product, and Nintendo will learn from it
Nintendo’s back catalog, and the warm feelings from grown-up gamers who have money to spend on this sort of thing, is one of its most powerful weapons. The NES Classic is a product that few companies would consider, and even fewer could pull off so perfectly.
The interesting thing to me isn’t what Nintendo will learn from this launch. It’s how likely it is that other companies will ignore the lessons the NES Classic teaches about thinking about your hardware and library in a different way.
People don’t just want it because it’s rare, although that’s going to help keep the NES Classic in the news cycle; they want it because it’s a great product. And it’s a great product that’s uniquely Nintendo, and opens the door for the Super Nintendo and even classic Game Boy hardware to get the same treatment.
It’s not about being able to buy a standard NES or the ubiquity of emulators. It’s about the entire package that Nintendo put together to make the NES Classic feel special and worthy of our desire. Today’s lines are just the beginning, and people aren’t being lemmings, nor does the success of the NES Classic surprise anyone who has followed Nintendo for the past decade.
Tonight I’m going to hook up my NES Classic to my TV via HDMI and start playing the classic Super Mario games with my kids. The secret isn’t to find a way to manipulate retail releases to encourage lines and news coverage; the secret is releasing a product that makes people feel like it was worth it.