The NES Classic is Not Just a Flashback

Games Features NES Classic
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The NES Classic is Not Just a Flashback

Nintendo has one new piece of hardware coming out this fall. And by “new,” I mean the exact opposite of that word.

The full title of this machine (in the United States, at least) is the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition. What’s in the box: a shrunken NES that fits in the palm of your hand; a controller styled exactly like the original NES controllers; and thirty NES games pre-loaded into the system. At first glance, the idea resembles similar products available at your local drugstore for years. You can buy a Sega Genesis “Classic Game Console” with 80 games right now. You can also buy an Atari Flashback including 100 games. Each are around $50. Each are known as “plug-and-play” products, meaning you just hook them up to your TV at home and they work. No internet set-up, no buying of extra gear. Squint and the NES Classic Edition looks remarkably similar.

Every time I’d walk past these Plug-and-Play games, I’d feel a modicum of pity. Here lies Sega and Atari, once former greats of the gaming industry, now beaten and battered to the point where they’re willing to sell their valuable assets to the highest bidder. I’d pass these plastic pretenders on Aisle 5 and ignore them, preferring the jolt of reassurance from another bag of M&Ms to this fake nostalgic cashgrab.

Yet the response to the NES Classic Edition has been brimming with positivity ever since it was announced. There is a very real chance I’ll be parting with my hard-earned freelance dollars to scoop one up this November. I’m sure I won’t be alone. But this is not just simple nostalgia coloring a generation’s perspective. The NES Classic is an entirely different beast from Sega’s and Atari’s. And the reason is simple: AtGames.

AtGames is the manufacturer of both the Sega and Atari plug-and-play systems. On their website, they boast about “develop[ing] innovative interactive entertainment products for worldwide distribution.” Since 2001, they’ve made dozens of these, each compiling old games and giving consumers simple ways to play. They’ve sold millions. But there’s a whiff of something off here, the same difference between drinking generic cola and slurping down a Coca-Cola in the iconic bright red can.

Sega no longer makes hardware. Neither does Atari. The latter’s struggles after the game industry’s Crash of ‘83 are well-documented; the former’s death-spiral was an echo of its precursor’s fall, brought about by hubris and swiftly changing markets. Nintendo’s doom has been predicted since the beginning. Somehow the company from Kyoto has stuck around, head above water, resisting the inevitable. And that’s the biggest difference between the NES Classic and those other plug-and-play novelties: the company with the name on the box is still alive.

Whereas AtGames’ Sega and Atari facsimiles were singular products brought back from the dead, this NES Classic will sit alongside other Nintendo consoles on the same shelves. The “new” NES controllers will actually plug into a Wii Remote, enabling you to play any downloaded NES games on your Wii or Wii U Virtual Console. There is a synergy here that was not possible for previous plug-and-play retro novelties. And though the end result may be the same—new product plays old games—Nintendo is hoping to convey this as a position of strength instead of a last gasp huffing of nostalgic fumes.

Since the designer and manufacturer of the original games and hardware is the same group selling this new version, they have a stake in its reception. They’ll take pride in the build quality. They’ll use their global marketing power to make sure people know it exists. They also won’t water down the overall product with filler. Next time you mosey past a “Genesis” in your local drugstore, take a look at the games list. Sure, it includes Sonic and Shinobi and Phantasy Star. But you can also play such hits as “Fire Fly Glow” and “Table Magic” and “Brain Switch.” If you don’t remember these from your 16-bit-playing days, don’t be alarmed: They didn’t exist back then.

Half the games included were not even originally made for the Sega Genesis. They resemble cheap flash games, those free games you can play in your browser. Now, through the power of emulation and the lowering cost of transistors, you can sit in your living room, hold a flimsy Genesis controller in your hand, and play a round of “Bulls and Cows.” Or challenge your roommate to the tense action of “Fight or Lose.” Or master the nuance of “Mr. Balls.”

To be fair, these simple games are styled after arcade hits that were ported to the original NES—many of which will be included in the NES Classic. Taste is subjective. But this new effort feels distinct if only in the surrounding circumstances of its release. AtGames’ Sega and Atari products are sponges soaked in stale water: What once was a living creature is no longer, yet through modern technology can still bring sustenance. The NES Classic feels more like a severed Starfish arm: a limited, though functioning, version of the real deal. And though small, it may well grow into its own, thriving creature.

In Europe, the system will be called “NES Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System.” The naming convention suggests the first in a line of future products. AtGames’ Sega and Atari boxes were one-offs because those systems existed only in the past, their creators no longer virile. Contrary to many predictions and ill-founded hopes, Nintendo lives. With an unknown new system codenamed NX still to be revealed and a burgeoning mobile division set to roll out two more apps in the fall, the NES Classic is a sign that Nintendo continues to evolve, if slowly, so as to stave off the annihilation that awaits us all.

And you can soon play Tecmo Bowl on your HDTV with a real controller! The future is bright, and it looks like 1986.

Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.