IF NINTENDO HAS its way, Christmas 2016 will look a lot like Christmas 1986—with Nintendo Entertainment System under every tree.
On Friday, Nintendo releases its first plug-and-play retro console, stepping into a sector it has ignored until now. The recursively-named Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition is a tiny $60 box that plugs into your TV with an HDMI cable and delivers ’80s delights like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and 28 other classic 8-bit titles. It’s a simple product with a simple mission: add a little nostalgia to your holidays. This is an impulse buy—and the best part is, it plays a mean game of Mario.
Actually, the best part may be how damn cool the thing looks. It’s so faithful, if shrunken, a replica that anyone who was around for the original NES will get warm fuzzies just looking at it. The controller is a full-size replica of the original, and feels perfect.
The superficial resemblance to the classic console tends to confuse some people into thinking that the Classic is an NES, so let’s be clear: No, it doesn’t play the game cartridges you have squirreled away in the closet. No, you can’t add games. No, your old controllers won’t work. No, you can’t plug it into your tube television. This is HDMI-only, the controllers are proprietary, and the 30 games onboard the device are the only ones it will ever play.
But you may find that you don’t need more games, what with three Marios, both Zeldas, Punch-Out!!, Metroid, and more. Nintendo didn’t restrict itself to mining its own catalog, either. Many of the third-party games that defined the NES era are present as well: Mega Man 2, Castlevania, Double Dragon II, Ninja Gaiden, even Tecmo Bowl for some old-fashioned American football. (The only game that’s missing and really should be here is Tetris.)
The games display quite nicely on an HDTV and look even better than they look on Nintendo’s own Wii U console. (To be fair, that’s more of a ding on the crummy emulation software Nintendo wrote for Wii U). The default display mode sets the game image at roughly the same aspect ratio you’d have seen on your 4:3 television. You can switch to “pixel-perfect” mode in which each pixel is a perfect square, or choose the CRT filter to make the games look a lot closer to what they looked like back in the day—which is to say, like crap. Scanlines, blurry pixels, bleeding colors, and artifacting make you feel like you’re back in your parents’ basement.
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Many of the games offer a two-player mode, although only one controller is included in the box. Another pad costs $10 purchase, but here’s a surprise: The controllers are compatible with the Wii and Wii U, so if you own a Wii “classic controller,” dig it out of your box labeled “useless junk” and plug it in for some two-player Bubble Bobble, as it was meant to be.
NES games were hard, sometimes ridiculously so, so it’s nice to know the NES Classic lets you save any game at any point, using one of four save slots per game. However, this speaks to the only real flaw with the NES Classic: There’s no “Home” button on the controller. To back out of a game to the main menu and save your progress, you must press the Reset button on the console. This means you must have the console next to you. (Also, the controller cord is quite short, which also forces you to keep the console nearby.)
Depending on your home A/V setup, you may need to purchase HDMI and/or USB cables long enough to stretch across the room. On the other hand, the NES Classic is powered by USB, so you don’t have to plug it into the wall—the TV here at WIRED has a USB port nobody needed, because who uses the USB ports on their TV, so we plugged the Classic in there.
In general, the games play great. The slight lag that always comes with playing old games on an LCD television didn’t really affect me, except for the fact that I couldn’t beat the final boxer in Punch-Out!! even though I can do it on a CRT. Your mileage may vary, though, depending on your setup.
NES Classic does exactly what it promises: Pixel-perfect renditions of classic 8-bit games with a no-fuss interface on your HDTV, at a price that comes to about two bucks a game. That’s it. I’m confident in thinking Nintendo has a huge hit on its hands, and I look forward to more. Somebody had better be working on what I really want: a tiny Super Nintendo loaded with 1000 hours’ worth of RPGs.