Console Review: Nintendo Classic Mini Nintendo Entertainment System

It was only a matter of time really… we’d seen plug and play systems recreating the Atari 2600, Colecovision, Intellivision and the Sega Mega Drive so truthfully it was no surprise that sooner or later Nintendo were going to join in and release their own unit. What surprised everyone was that rather than entering into a partnership with with a hardware manufacturer as several companies did with the likes of ATGames, Nintendo decided to go it alone with the development of the Classic Mini – their new incarnation of the legendary NES…

Right from day one, as you’d expect, this console was met with a mixed response from the “hardcore” retro gaming community. There were those genuinely excited about it and others quick to dismiss it as nothing more than a cash-in from Nintendo wanting to “take advatange” of gamers and rip them off in the same way that Sega, Atari and others had allegedly done before them. I’ll come back to this shortly and why the console has angered some quarters of Nintendo fans, but for most the console became the most desirable Christmas present of 2016.

nes-classic-edition

The Classic Mini is an interesting beast. As with all of these reimagined retro consoles, it doesn’t use any of the original hardware at the heart of the device. Instead, in this instance itis based around the Allwinner R16 SoC powered by a Dual Core Cortex A-7 processor and the console side of the operations is run via emulation. While this may infuriate purists, the reality is that this is the only cost-effective option that can be offered. Putting the original chips back into production would make the console considerably more expensive than the £49.99 asking price. Being a relatively simplistic console compared to the hardware being used means that emulation is not only flawless but the hardware can offer several added bonuses to the players…

Inside the box itself is the console, a HDMI lead, full size recreation of an original NES controller (albeit using the more modern connectors used by Nintendo from the Wii onwards), the instruction manual and a USB power lead (although it has to be noted that there’s no plug, just a lead so you need to provide that yourself). The console itself is a miniaturised version of the NES with the power and reset buttons on the front as well as ports for two joypads (which are also compatible with the Wii’s gamepad controllers). Sadly the console isn’t compatible with original NES cartridges although the original carts themselves have a larger footprint that the Classic Mini so fitting them into the console would be something of a minor miracle. The cartridge port cover seen on the console is purely a cosmetic touch and doesn’t open.

On switching the console on for the first time you can choose the system language and this is where you immediately notice the first difference between this and the ATGames Sega Mega Drive… Nintendo have built the Classic Mini with internal flash memory for storing system data and – more importantly – game saves. As well as emulating game saves to the virtual cartridges, each of the inbuilt games can support four virtual save states. By resetting each game and returning to the main game menu, rather than quitting the game completely it is temporarily “frozen”. You have the choice to save that state to return to it at a later time, or simply move on to another game. Ideal for those intense moments when you need a break or RPGs when you can’t get to a save point!

NES Classic
NES Classic

From the menu you have the list of built-in games themselves to choose from or several options (your preferences for which are saved to the console). You can choose between three different display types – 4:3 replicating old TV resolutions, Pixel Perfect (offering perfectly square pixels showing off the game’s visuals just how the artists intended) and Classic giving the games a simulated CRT screen look, complete with scanlines, although 4:3 mode looks great on a 40″ TV with the super-crisp display offered through the HDMI lead but I am digressing here… There is an option to view the instruction manuals for all of the games but that simply displays a QR code for you to scan in and view the manuals online which did leave me disappointed and the chance to reset the console back to its default settings. But what I am sure you really want to know about are the games…

The console has a total of 30 games integrated into the system and this is what has really caused controversy amongst some gamers as I mentioned earlier. Unlike some “new” retro consoles, there is no way to expand the library of games on the Classic Mini, and no cartridge port like the ATGames Mega Drive so the only games that you can play on this console are the 30 bundled titles. When this fact was confirmed in advance of the console’s launch by Nintendo many were up in arms over the fact, with countless hurling obscenities in Nintendo’s direction. The usual arguments surfaced with some claiming that they could build the same system themselves considerably cheaper using a Raspberry Pi, pre-loading some emulators and an SD card and buying a USB controller. And yes, assembling all of that might cost them less than £49.99… but it wouldn’t be legal and none of them games would be and I’d wager that the user setting the system up wouldn’t have paid anything to license any of the games they were installing. This is the first thing that people forget when looking at this and other consoles like it.

They are not designed for or marketed at the retro gaming community that uses original hardware and emulators. These consoles are meant to be fun, self-contained systems to bring players a selection of the best games that a console had to offer, something you could get out of the cupboard and plug in for a few hours and just enjoy it. Systems that anyone in the house can use straight out of the box from the day they are purchased whether they were fans of the consoles when they were first released, or whether it’s their first introduction to Sega, Atari or Nintendo.

So that being the case, what games have Nintendo included to showcase what they felt were 30 of the best games to represent what gaming on the NES was really all about? Quite simply, Nintendo have delivered a real blockbuster line-up for the console drawing games from their own archives and some classics from other partners such as Konami, Square Enix, Namco, Taito and other equally impressive publishers. So what do you get for your money? The games include a mix of the fabulous NES ports of arcade classics such as Donkey Kong, Galaga, Pac Man, Bubble Bobble, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins to Nintendo stalwarts Super Mario Bros (including the first three in the series). Konami are well represented with Castlevania, Castlevania II and the superb but punishing Gradius.

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I mentioned the save state function though and the console’s ability to support save game features that the original cartridges would have had. So far there isn’t really a need for that in the games mentioned until you get to the big hitters in the bundle… The Legend Of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link and Final Fantasy! Even disregarding the games I haven’t talked about, there really is something for everyone and it’s easy to see that there are hours and hours of gaming to be had with this by anyone, regardless of the type of game genre you are passionate about. When you look at the list of titles and realise the amount of licensing that has obviously gone into making this console a reality, you can understand why there are “only” 30 games here. Any more and the machine would have cost considerably more but the diversity and quality of what is here more than makes up for that and I can’t fault the selection Nintendo have provided.

I really have been impressed with the console and I’ve found myself returning to play it almost continually since receiving it Christmas Day from my wife and it has rapidly become one of my favourite presents from her since a cheese cookery book that she bought me the year we got together (don’t ask!) but that’s a story for another time and place… I’ve been able to sit down for endless hours of RPG entertainment one minute and then short gaming sessions with platform games or shoot-em-ups. It’s got ample variety to meet whatever needs I have and to suit whatever gaming mood I am in.

For me, it even managed to persuade me to sell my original NES console in favour of the Classic Mini which says a lot about this system. While I only owned a bare console with no games, most of what I wanted to play or would have been likely to play were already here and rather than investing in another retro games collection I certainly feel that opting for this instead has given me a better appreciation of the NES as a games system.

Sadly there IS a downside to the Classic Mini. It’s not the lack of expandability as that’s not something I wanted nor expected from this console. I already own an extensive collection of plug and play devices and I’ve never complained about them having a fixed amount of software on them. I’ll be honest and say that the controller itself isn’t the most comfortable for prolonged periods of use but I’ve never been one for Nintendo’s controllers anyway and always found them lacking ergonomically. I haven’t tried it out with the Wii Gamepad although I would hope that it would make for a more comfortable experience. However, comfort aside, the controller is the console’s biggest weak point. Or more accurately, the controller’s lead. The cable to the console from the controller is shockingly short. For those of you who keep the Classic Mini under your TV set you’ll find yourself having to sit right infront of your television in order to use it. I had to have the console several feet in front on the TV in the middle of the floor and even then the cable wouldn’t allow me to sit on the sofa to play so I had to sit on the floor while using it! Extension leads can be picked up online easily enough but something like that shouldn’t be an issue that gamers should have to deal with out of the box.

That gripe aside, it’s a stunning piece of hardware and is a must have for any retro gaming enthusiast. It’s just such a shame that it’s launch was tarnished by low stocks hitting stores which were then overrun by scalpers who chose to take advantage selling what few units were available at vastly over-inflated prices. Definitely worth getting and it’s a purchase you won’t regret… but wait for the stores to re-stock and don’t give in to the profiteers!

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