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The NES Classic is an encore for the console that saved gaming at home

It’s not simple nostalgia

NES Classic photos Samit Sarkar/Polygon
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

On the face of it, it doesn't make much sense that the NES Classic Edition should be a true consumer-craze item drawing long lines of people to buy it and genuine disappointment when they can't. It more resembles a conversational piece of living-room decor than gaming hardware: 30 antiquated games, beaten decades ago in every basement and dorm room across the nation. It doesn't even pioneer the concept of an all-in-one nostalgia console, with throwback hits from the synth-pop, tracking-line 1980s. Atari, or whatever hedge fund now controls its copyrights, did that more than a decade ago and no one cared then like they do now.

Simple childhood recollections don't drive such intense interest in the Mini NES' launch. Indeed, few of the most ardent Nintendo fans beating the department store glass have any living memory of the console's original debut in the west — the late summer of 1986 (having debuted in Japan and in select North American markets before).

I was 12 going on 13 then, and I can still picture when then NES showed up in our catalog showroom downtown, and in the Sears Wish Book in the mail. Gratitude does not even begin to describe the feeling of an eighth-grader in 1986, who had been raised on the promise of arcade video games in the living room, and who saw that flicker out in three hard years after Atari failed and the medium retreated to the arcade cabinets of mini-golf courses and the PCs of older brothers and weird neighbors.

Pac-Man for the Atari VCS (or 2600), 1982.

Console video gaming really did die in the middle of the decade. I was there. It happened. It's not just a convenient narrative for ironic documentaries. We had the same seven cabinets at the teenage hangout here in town for all of Reagan’s second term. The variety taken for granted in our living rooms today was available only if someone invited you to a birthday party at Putt-Putt, or you went shopping for back-to-school clothes at the mall.

The NES dragged us all out of that purgatory. I vividly remember my best friend telling me that Super Mario Bros. was included with the console, realizing it was the same thing I was playing in a convenience store, and marveling at the technological feat it represented. I'm serious. I grew up in a time when home console games were distinct and extremely limited shadows of their arcade namesakes. The Nintendo Entertainment System was going to kiss away all of those tears. It was going to surpass what we played at Aladdin's Castle.

And did it ever. Metroid put the stamp on that, synthesizing long-tenure, role-playing game qualities with pick-up-and-play action. We take it for granted today, but 30 years ago, you only found games with its depth on a floppy disk, and they all had inscrutable gameplay and inaccessible stories. I recall sneaking out of high school at lunch in my freshman year with a couple of cooler, bigger guys on the varsity football team, going to their house, and being amazed as they picked up The Legend of Zelda and argued about how to finish a dungeon.

I don't mean to make this generational or to lecture younger readers on their experiences or feelings. Their 1990s were a prosperous and optimistic decade distinct from my 1980s. And surely, nothing said Friday night like your beleaguered mom or dad taking you and a friend to the Blockbuster for something to play during a weekend sleepover.

But the instant and constant devotion we’re seeing for Nintendo's newest little toy is not necessarily childish or trite. And even if the want of it is sheepishly admitted, the emotion is still perfectly explicable. This isn’t the futile reclamation of a happy memory. It’s just saying thanks for one.

The next level of puzzles.

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