Playing old games can be hard work.
If you happen to have the original hardware around, it usually doesn’t play nicely with modern televisions, and while there are newer devices that let you play old games on new TVs, they’re typically crummy or expensive. Meanwhile, modern video game consoles — from the Xbox One and PS4, to the Wii U and 3DS — often let you buy classic games, but this comes with its own set of drawbacks, especially when you upgrade to a new device. The process of moving games from a Wii to a Wii U is long and tedious — and you actually have to pay Nintendo for the privilege. Similarly, I’m forced to keep my PS3 in my entertainment unit because the newer PS4 inexplicably can’t play original PlayStation games.
That’s a lot of work if you just want to get in an hour of Super Mario or Final Fantasy.
But the NES Classic Edition makes playing (certain) old games incredibly simple. First announced back in July, the NES Classic is an impossibly small version of the original Nintendo console, one that works seamlessly with a modern TV and features 30 games built right in. You don’t have to worry about compatibility issues or software updates or day-one patches. It just works — and it works well.
Setting up an NES Classic is as simple as plugging in the power and connecting to your TV’s HDMI port. When you boot it up, you’re faced with a single option — choosing a language — before you can dive right into the games.
The main menu is a carousel of classic game boxes representing all of the titles you can play. You can sort them using a variety of filters, whether it’s chronological, alphabetical, or by more useful measures like whether a game has a two-player mode. (The system comes with a single controller, but you can buy a second separately for, say, competitive Bubble Bobble action.)
Outside of selecting a game, the only real reason to fuss with the menu is to choose a display option. The NES Classic offers three visual modes: a CRT filter, a 4:3 mode, and what Nintendo calls “pixel perfect” mode. The CRT filter is fun, if a bit tiresome after awhile; it overlays a copious amount of scan lines on games, mimicking what it was like to play on an old tube TV. It’s a cute idea, and it feels fairly authentic, but the other modes look so good that I’ve found myself ignoring the CRT option.
Both the 4:3 and pixel perfect modes look crisp and bright, with colors that appear richer than I remember them in my childhood. It’s especially noticeable in more whimsical games like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Kirby’s Adventure. On the NES Classic these games look better than they ever have, and are a significant visual step up from playing NES games on the Wii U, which tend to look darker, with more muted colors.
The difference between the two modes is how they display pixels. 4:3 retains the display style of the original NES, which means that the pixels are slightly stretched out to make the game match a 4:3 aspect ratio. Meanwhile pixel perfect mode renders each pixel — and therefore the entire play area — as a perfect square. They both look great, but the tighter pixels of pixel perfect mode makes it slightly crisper and cleaner.
Perhaps the most important thing Nintendo did with the NES Classic is curate the experience. There were hundreds of titles released for the NES, so it’s impossible to capture the entire breadth of that library with only 30 games. But the selection available on the NES Classic is a pleasant mixture of genres, including many of the platform’s best games.
There are the obvious options. You can of course replay the original Legend of Zelda and the first three Super Mario Bros. games, alongside other Nintendo mainstays like Excitebike, Metroid, Punch-Out, and Dr. Mario. But the company also smartly looked outside of its own roster of games and enlisted titles from third-party publishers as well.
The NES is best-remembered for Mario and Zelda, but part of what made it such an iconic platform was the incredible variety of experiences on offer. The NES Classic manages to capture much of that in a very tiny package. You’ll be able to play everything from cinematic action games (Ninja Gaiden), to arcade-style beat ‘em ups (Double Dragon II), to lengthy role-playing experiences (Final Fantasy), to exploration-heavy action-adventures (Castlevania), and sports games (Tecmo Bowl).
For the most part the NES Classic works just the way you’d imagine. Even newly added features like the option to have four save slots for each game are simple and intuitive. But there are a few questionable aspects of the device, mostly related to the hardware itself.
The NES Classic comes with a single controller that’s an almost exact replica of the one that came bundled with the original NES way back in 1985. It has the same rectangular design, and the directional-pad and four face buttons are all where you remember them being. Naturally, this makes it ideal for playing NES games. (Modern consoles like the Wii U let you use options like a sideways Wii Remote or a Pro Controller to play classic games, but none is quite the same as the iconic NES original.)
That said, I do wish there were a few updates to the controller so that it didn’t feel so dated. The most glaring flaw is that it’s a wired controller with a very short cord. My living room is set up with modern, wireless consoles in mind; the couch is around eight feet back from the television, which is fine when you’re playing a PS4 or Xbox One. But for the NES Classic, I had to pull a chair right up to the television to play. It did remind me a bit of being a kid and sitting close to the TV during marathon sessions of Zelda — but 30 years later, and staring at a much bigger display, it’s just plain uncomfortable. After spending a few hours exploring Dracula’s castle in Castlevania, my back was as sore as my thumbs.
The controller could also do with the addition of a home button. As it stands, in order to get back to the main menu and switch games, you need to push the reset button on the NES Classic itself. Like the controller’s wire, this feels like a dated throwback to a time when you had to physically swap game cartridges to play something new. In 2016 it’s just annoying.
Given that the NES Classic already makes a number of other modern concessions — HDMI support, multiple save points — it seems strange that these headaches remain.
More pleasure than pain
Annoying as they can be, these questionable hardware decisions do little to detract from what a cool little device the NES Classic is. It’s tiny, simple to use, and features an incredible lineup of games that look amazing on a high-def TV. It’s also surprisingly cheap at $59.99, a price point seemingly targeted at generous grandparents and confused friends. There are a lot of more expensive, more complicated ways to play NES games, and most don’t offer an experience as good as the NES Classic. The biggest problem will likely be finding one on store shelves this holiday season.
The NES Classic will be available on November 11th.