Based upon the various decent emulators out there, it's not hard to run NES games. They're 30+ years old, and in this modern era of GPUs and accessible operating systems people are playing 8-bit games on a dizzying range of devices. Some of us, of course, spend decent money for official ROMs from Nintendo, with the added bonus of electronic manuals and a feeling of 'supporting' the company.
After the novelty and thrill of the Wii Virtual Console, at its time a fresh idea and fun way to 'own' retro games (though you're really 'leasing' them, but let's not go down that rabbit hole right now), Nintendo's had a mixed reputation for its handling of its old library. On 3DS we had the pleasure of buying portable classics, but on Wii U we got a sense of how the concept was rapidly running out of steam. Nintendo had to resort to releasing DS and Game Boy Advance games on the system, attempting to frame them as ideal for the GamePad; that was a stretch in the case of various DS games. After the sizeable Wii library we saw a number of third-parties disappear, with a slow release rate and numerous rehashes on the most recent system. As for Switch, it's not clear whether Nintendo's even figured out its VC plans (beyond a free monthly game in the online service) for the new system; if it has then it's not sharing the details as yet.
The model that served Wii so well, including the pricing structure, has felt like it's butting up against modern day consumer expectations. So it seemed Nintendo finally tapped into what so many fans wanted when it brought us the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition (Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System in Europe). A budget price of $60USD, a delightfully tiny and cute form factor, and high quality emulations that pop in 720p with clear, sharp pixels and colours. After the somewhat smeared and disappointing output of various VC titles on Wii U, when announced the Mini felt like the 'retro' experience we were waiting for.
The NES Mini isn't perfect, of course. For one thing it's a pity that it's a locked system, as a built-in NES eShop with regular updates would have been terrific. Its biggest problem, however, is the daft short cable on the controller - it's always been amusing that the big N and some supporters say this is 'authentic', when we're playing 30 ROMS in HD on a console the size of a sandwich. All it means is that players need to position themselves near the TV or mess about with extensions, when an easy win would have been a simple Bluetooth wireless pad in the box. Perhaps authenticity was less Nintendo's goal than using up some spare parts, as the admittedly lovely Mini NES pad is running off an old-style Nunchuk connector.
In any case, overall it's a great little system to own, but the big problem is that there were never enough of them. Nintendo conveniently chose the dawn of a Holiday weekend (as it is in many though of course not all countries) to admit that the system is now essentially discontinued. The wording of some statements leaves the door open for a future return, but as it stands the April shipments to North America, Europe, Australia and Japan - such as they are - will be the last. When they're gone that's it, game over.
Some have suggested this is to clear the way for NES games on the Nintendo Switch, but is that really a valid reason, if that's even the case? We're talking about very different offerings between a potential Switch Virtual Console and the NES Mini, so even if that turns out to be correct - on which we're doubtful - we'd still suggest that doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
Nintendo never seemed to get very close to meeting demand with the diminutive system. Worst of all, its arrival late in 2016 made it the perfect festive treat, but launch day units were mostly snapped up by pre-orders; some ordered ahead of time and waited weeks or months for retailers to get enough units to honour orders. If you hesitated to pre-order one under the impression Nintendo would ship lots of a cool and popular product, you were probably left without. We had writers in the Nintendo Life team so desperate for one that they imported the miniature Famicom out of Japan or succumbed to scalpers on eBay.
Nintendo of America, in particular, acknowledged that many had been left frustrated in the quest to buy a NES Mini? Yet how did Nintendo get it so wrong?
Remarks early in the year from Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima suggested it was a logistical issue of getting enough parts, also promising more stock was coming. Perhaps Nintendo burnt through leftover Wii Nunchuk / Classic Controller connectors and struggled to find an economical way to produce more for the controllers, or it could be any aspect causing issues - the board, the case and so on. Yet whatever the cause it seems like a rookie error from a company with such a long record of hardware manufacturing.
Of course we've seen similar problems with amiibo and 'limited editions' of various things in the past, as Nintendo's relentless streamlining to generate profits from falling sales has began to bite. In the case of NES Mini it seems to be a particularly daft mistake, though, as Nintendo should know from past examples that tapping into nostalgia brings big sales. The company had a great idea - or rather finally got on board the mini-console trend - and then botched it by frustrating many that couldn't buy one. Yet it's just a small board in a case running ROMs; shortfalls are surely down to poor organisation more than actual technical challenges.
It's on occasions like these when it's so easy to get frustrated by Nintendo; at times it's a company that makes a big mark in the entertainment world and looks every bit the powerful corporation, but then a failure to manufacture more than a couple of million units of a very popular product makes them look small time, and rather like they couldn't organise a drinking session in a brewery.
Thankfully the company has shown a bit more awareness of the importance of stock with the Nintendo Switch. Some estimates show the company passed its two million target for the system in March (official figures will come next week) and there has been a sense of manufacturing being mobilised to try and meet demand. They're still tricky to find, yes, but arguably no more so than any other home console having a strong launch; restocks, at least, have been happening.
The lesson Nintendo needs to learn from the NES Mini, though, is that it can't treat smaller products with high demand like niche limited edition products. It's wasting not only potential sales, but also eroding the buzz and goodwill that devices like these generate. Should Nintendo produce another budget retro system in future, it should take it seriously and strive to meet demand - the profit margins may be modest, but the hype is great for the company's brand.
In any case, the NES Mini feels like one of those rather irritating Nintendo stories. A great idea, executed quite well, that created a lot of excitement and demand. In failing to capitalise on that Nintendo missed an opportunity; yet again it needs more confidence, boldness and less timidity when giving fans what they want.
Meet demand - that's the number one requirement.