With Super NES Classic, Nintendo continues to rule the retro games market
NES Classic Edition launched in 2016, consistently sold out until it was discontinued in 2017
For the second year in a row, what's old is new again for Nintendo.
This week, the Japanese gaming company announced the Super NES Classic Edition, a shrunken-down version of its video game console from the 1990s, pre-loaded with 21 games.
It's the much-anticipated follow-up to last year's NES Classic Edition, a re-release of its breakout 1980s device.
Nintendo isn't the only company cashing in on its gaming past, of course. Retro games are re-released on mobile devices, current consoles like the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One and the PC on a regular basis.
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You can even find other retro boxes with built-in games from other publishers, such as Sega, Coleco and Atari. But none of them generated the amount of buzz the NES Classic did, or suffered from the same consumer craze and unit shortages.
Early reception for the Super NES Classic suggests the trend will continue — pre-orders for the console in the U.K. and Australia quickly sold out online. It's scheduled to hit store shelves Sept. 29.
What makes their brand of nostalgia so compelling? To paraphrase their '90s-era competitor Sega: What does Nintendo do that others don't?
Classic Editions built in-house
For one, they produce their Classic line of retro consoles in-house.
Third-party companies produce a wide variety of retro consoles. Some of them have games pre-loaded like the NES Classic, while others, like the Retron 5, can play game cartridges from multiple old consoles. But they vary wildly in price and build quality.
Other than its smaller form, the NES Classic looks and feels remarkably similar to the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Mashing on the A and B buttons or the directional pad feels just like it did in the '80s.
Part of this is thanks to patents: Nintendo invented the cross-shaped directional button in 1982 for the Donkey Kong portable game. Other games companies built their own versions, each with a slightly different construction. But none of them feel the same — or, arguably, as good — as Nintendo's.
Travis Sachdeva, a sales associate at Toronto games store A&C Games, says that discerning gamers and collectors will instantly recognize a third-party product's shortcomings.
"You can really tell when it's the original design versus an after-market cheapo," he says.
Physical vs. digital
That build quality completes another crucial element of the nostalgia equation: video games as a tangible product, not just a digital one.
Author David Sax vividly remembers playing Street Fighter II on the Super Nintendo as a schoolkid in the '90s. To him, playing a game on the original hardware can be just as important as the images projected onto the television screen.
Sax has examined the particular appeal behind the growing interest in old media, like listening to music on a vinyl record or snapping a photograph with a Polaroid camera, in his book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.
"It's not a flat surface that you can kinda do anything on," says Sax of gaming on a controller instead of a smartphone. "It's a part of it, right? The mashing of the buttons, the Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start [that's the Konami Code]. It has its own feel and you know you're doing it — and there's a pleasure to that, too."
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That said, some concessions had to be made for modernity. The games are already loaded onto the NES and Super NES Classic instead of requiring separate cartridges for each title. So you won't get to relive the ritual of blowing into a cartridge slot and locking it into the console port.
The games also output in high definition, and include some more modern conveniences, such as being able to save your in-game progress.
The NES Classic also has a mode that tries to emulate the scanlines that would appear on a cathode tube TV, but the effect doesn't quite match how it looked on old screens.
"The thing about nostalgia is that it's always best in the memory, right?" says Sax. "It'll look different because it'll be on your 60-inch LCD TV versus on a 1985 Sony Trinitron. So it'll be different. But that's what you're getting into."
Nintendo's games also enjoy a degree of exclusivity compared to other catalogues from the era.
You can only find games such as Super Mario World, Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on official Nintendo hardware — either the original releases or as digital "Virtual Console" downloads on newer platforms such as the Wii U and 3DS.
Nintendo takes the exclusivity up another notch with the Super NES, as it includes Star Fox 2, which was cancelled before its planned 1995 release. This marks its first official release of any kind, anywhere.
It doesn't hurt that the top games in the Super NES's library have aged remarkably well. A Link to the Past, Super Metroid and Final Fantasy III are often cited as the best in their respective series, despite being succeeded by countless sequels on newer, more technologically advanced devices.
They're also among the most prized games to retro collectors.
At A&C Games, many of the titles included on the Super NES Classic sell for $100 or more in their original format. An original Super Nintendo sells for upwards of $100 as well.
"We have a lot of people who are looking for these classic Super Nintendo games that are generally quite pricey," says Erika Szabo, a sales associate at A&C Games.
"Those are high-ticket items for us. They don't last very long [in stock] and they are higher in price."