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The NES Classic is the perfect commercial for the Nintendo Switch

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November 17th, 2016

Crazy month, right? Donald Trump is president-elect, there's a new A Tribe Called Quest album, and — get this — people are desperately searching stores across the world to pick up a new Nintendo system. Okay, the NES Classic Edition is more of a toy than a full-on platform from Nintendo, but the frenzied reaction has to have the Kyoto gaming giant feeling good about its momentum going into early next year, when the new Switch console is released.

It's almost as if it was planned.

The NES Classic is immediately adorable, easily affordable, and obviously desirable. But it's still a purchase made with the heart, not the head. No one has been short of ways to play 30-year-old NES games in recent years, at least not if they've bought any Nintendo console released in the past decade. The problem is that a lot of people didn't buy those consoles, and a cute $60 ornament is a more accessible entry point. But the NES Classic has a more important role than simply enabling people to play old video games — it's designed to get people excited about Nintendo again.

"We decided to launch the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition [...] to provide a chance for fans who didnʼt already own the system to play our past games and share the experience with their children," CEO Tatsumi Kimishima told investors following the release of Nintendo's third-quarter earnings this month. "In addition, we felt that providing a chance to play this system again would rekindle an interest in Nintendoʼs game systems. We are expecting that these consumers will wonder what kind of fun new experiences we will bring to Nintendo Switch and give the new system a try."

It's hard to say whether this will work, especially given the lack of details on the Switch right now, but I do feel like the reaction to the initial announcement was broadly positive even from many people that wouldn't normally buy a Nintendo console. Assuming Nintendo has the software to back it up, I would expect the company to try selling people on the Switch with the same reasons the NES Classic has proven such a success.

Just look at that announcement video again — it's all about how the design of the Switch lets Nintendo place its iconic franchises into a modern context. It can be played anywhere with anyone; the Switch's tiny breakaway controllers even foreshadow what it's like to huddle around the NES Classic and sit close to the TV, an experience I've found oddly charming with the Japanese Famicom Classic Mini. Nintendo seems to see its target audience as people that are aware of its games but just need a little reminder of why they're so great.

The NES Classic is a lot more than a smart stocking-filler; it's an inspired way for Nintendo to leverage its history and propel itself back into conversation ahead of a make-or-break console launch. The Wii U undid so much of Nintendo's good work expanding its own userbase, because its tablet-based design was a half-hearted attempt to keep up with current trends rather than defining its own need to exist. If Nintendo knows what it's doing, the Switch will get right what the Wii U got wrong and slot into people's lives just like the NES Classic.