It was certainly a surprise today when the NES Classic Edition was unveiled (called Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System in Europe), a tiny little system that uses HDMI and will give access to 30 games right out of the box. With its extremely small form and accompanying classic-style controller it's sure to be a hit with long-term fans, while its $59.99 pricing in the US (other regions will naturally vary) makes it perfect stocking fodder, hence the 11th November release date.
There's little doubt that it's a smart announcement by Nintendo, on multiple levels. The form factor and price are immediately eye catching, and nostalgia remains a powerful weapon for the Kyoto-based company. Support for existing Classic Controllers is also welcome - though there's no mention of support, oddly, for the Wii Remote alone - and it's simply a new approach from Nintendo. We had the Wii Mini, of course, and the NES has had 'classic' game remixes and re-releases in various forms across multiple generations. Yet the release of a small device that comes pre-loaded with 30 NES games is new ground for the company.
On a pricing level it's certainly tempting, even if many of the target audience will have bought some of these NES titles multiple times before - the games are effectively $2 each, less when you account for the obvious fact that you're paying for the system and a controller. Selling extras of the new NES controllers at $9.99 is also a pleasingly generous move - Nintendo evidently applying a value that reflects the realities of public opinion around such an extra.
Beyond all of that, the scale of the interest online reflects the fact that something like this has been a long time coming. We're also in the middle of a period where a lot of fans of the company are craving new hardware, so even though this is a million miles from the next-gen NX that is still mysterious at this point, it's a fun and new (retro) bit of kit that'll be on store shelves during the busiest shopping period of the year. The odds of it flying off shelves seems high.
One observation we've been making in the Nintendo Life team is that, ironically, this is an idea that's been exploited repeatedly by SEGA for quite some time; here in the UK and around the world SEGA has licensed a lot of systems just like this over a number of years. Right at this moment there are multiple examples like this one that clone the Mega Drive / Genesis, for one, in this case with 80 games pre-loaded and the ability to run cartridges from the original system. Some of these products can have iffy quality levels, as SEGA outsources them to third-parties, but the point is that the concept has been around the block and back again.
That's not to mention unofficial cloned hardware, like the Retron 5 and Retro Freak, though these systems by their very nature - less common in the mainstream market, catered to an enthusiast audience - are relatively small-fry.
Nintendo is probably onto a Holiday 2016 winner, then, though we feel it's our duty to be realistic about the limitations and control that Nintendo is enforcing in the design of this system. The tiny box is essentially - it seems - a locked platform, with the press releases and the official website clear on the limitations here. These units, probably because of their small size, cannot run NES cartridges, nor is there any storage medium to run games through memory cards. The latter was always unlikely with Nintendo hardware, in fairness, but the absence of any online features or cartridge support is telling. This isn't a unit with scope - on face value, in any case - to expand and deliver more content; it's a locked box with 30 games.
The stocking-filling audience in November will consist of plenty of shoppers that care not a jot about that, but these are important points for enthusiasts. This isn't a clone system that allows you to expand your NES collection, even through official means; it feels like a missed opportunity that it looks set to be missing a NES mini eShop, even, to expand collections legitimately on the neat little boxes.
The only sliver of light in this area is the fact that it uses a USB cable for power [Update: the rest of this paragraph now seems increasingly unlikely due to recent developments]. Now if, and if is the right word, the USB connector is linked to the core board inside (and not just the power source) there's scope for future USB-based add-ons that can pass-through updates and new content. Think of the Wi-Fi dongles of the past, but with packs of games or even similar online access that uploads and provides access to the aforementioned mini eShop. The best case scenario is that these are features and potential products being held back by Nintendo for later announcements; the worst case is that the box is as advertised - a closed and limited platform.
Those are some potential negatives, but to pivot back to positivity let's consider this - the NES Classic Edition could be just the beginning. The European branding in particular - Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System - makes this ideal as a potential series of small recreated systems. The idea of mini units cashing in on the love many have for the likes of SNES and Nintendo 64 is obvious, and it isn't even an outrageous idea. After all, Nintendo is arguably late to the party in this area, and let's also not forget that in the past the company released plug-and-play systems with N64 games in China - the iQue range. These need not be labour or resource intensive projects for Nintendo, as it has the foundations in place for more systems down the line. Each 'generation' can also be iterated of course, with new pre-loaded games and even - if we're lucky - with some of the 'missing' features we've highlighted above.
In terms of the broader Virtual Console market this also feels like a potential beginning of a new outlook from Nintendo. On multiple occasions we've written that the Virtual Console is due an overhaul, and earlier this year we argued yet again in favour of some ideas that could increase the allure of the VC concept. At the core of all the suggestions made - bundles of games, improved cross-platform discounts / free copies in the NX era, potential subscription services - is a simple argument: Nintendo needs to lower its valuation of retro games.
It's always important to acknowledge that, in general, Virtual Console downloads are not just sloppy ROM dumps. With electronic manuals, save states (which are supported on the mini NES) and technicalities like obtaining age ratings, Nintendo can justify premium pricing. Yet just because business justifications can be made doesn't make it the right move. When the Virtual Console began on the Wii it was new and hugely exciting, and likely had sales to match. The allure has started to fade, though, with the majority of Wii U and 3DS releases now being retreads with only occasional 'new' arrivals. As a result there's certainly some fatigue in the pricing model, making this a perfect time for a refresh.
The links to previous articles at the bottom go deeper into some of our thoughts on new Virtual Console models, but the key is this - the mini NES is a tacit acknowledgement by Nintendo that retro games are struggling to maintain a value of $5-10 per title. In jumping into the novelty retro console market (outside of China) Nintendo is embracing the fact that neat design and budget prices are good fits for tapping into nostalgia. The model that flourished on Wii is less applicable than ever, and new approaches are needed.
- Talking Point: Nintendo's Legacy Makes the Virtual Console Essential, But It Must Modernise
- Talking Point: The Allure of the Virtual Console and How Nintendo Can Harness It
Looking beyond this new NES, then, the hope is that Nintendo is also working on new incentives and purchasing options for retro downloads - beyond the limited promotions we've already seen through My Nintendo. With the mini system being a locked down box (in all likelihood), there's scope to also encourage slightly more picky and discerning fans - ie those that enjoy hundreds of Virtual Console options on dedicated current-gen hardware) - to fall back in love with the Virtual Console. The answer's simple: more affordable and diverse options are needed. Nintendo has a right to earn money from its old content, but perhaps it's waking up to the fact that more sales to happy fans at lower prices can be more rewarding than high prices paid by a smaller audience.
If the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition really is a first step in a shifting approach to selling us retro games, then that's just another reason to love it.