Even just mentioning the Super Nintendo brings memories flooding back: there’s little me, sitting in the playroom at the top of the stairs in my house in Massachusetts, battling my sister in Donkey Kong Country. She still swears she didn’t need my help, but deep down she knows I was the only one who could hack the mine cart levels. My family got a SNES a couple of years after its 1991 release, and didn’t upgrade for the better part of a decade. Why would we? The SNES had everything.
For me, and for millions of others, the SNES came at a formative moment in our lives and gaming careers. Which means I’m hopelessly biased in my review of the SNES Classic, the $80 console from Nintendo that will hit (and immediately fly off) store shelves this weekend. This is in no way a modern console, and it never tries to be one. It’s instead an indulgence in nostalgia, an $80 way to undo all the psychological damage inflicted when your parents tossed your SNES without even consulting you. It feels like home.
Over the last week, I’ve been knee-deep in Street Fighter II, Star Fox, Super Mario World, and most of the rest of the SNES Classic’s 21 included games. Some of the games hold up shockingly well; others are an eye-opening reminder of how far we’ve come, and how good that is. In general, the console’s a bit of an odd beast. It’s a largely faithful recreation of the original, but Nintendo missed a few easy chances to modernize. Ultimately, I have some quibbles, but I also have Donkey Kong Country. So I can’t really complain.
The Rights and Wrongs of Retro
The SNES Classic looks almost exactly like the SNES, only this one is smaller. Much smaller. The two included controllers take up more space. It’s the size of a paperback book, not the giant coffee-table tome that was the old console. Otherwise it’s identical: the same gray color, the same two sliding purple buttons for Power and Reset, the same Eject button for popping out the cartridge so you can blow on it.
Except, wait. There are no cartridges with the SNES Classic, all the games are built in. So why is there an Eject button? You try it and you realize, it doesn’t even do anything. It’s just there. And then you try to plug in the controllers, and you realize the ports are just etchings. You have to open up a flimsy little door and plug in there.
Nintendo SNES Classic Edition
21 amazing games built in. Just holding the controller takes you back 25 years. Nintendo made smart decisions about how to display, save, and switch games.
Controller cords aren’t retro, they’re annoying. So is getting up every time you want to switch games.
So many design decisions about the SNES Classic were made with a slavish devotion to a ’90s aesthetic, in service of evoking that feeling of the original console. Mostly that’s the right thing to do. And Nintendo did add a few clever upgrades. The SNES Classic plugs into your TV via HDMI, and gets power through a Micro USB cable—you can even power it with your laptop. In fact, Nintendo made just enough changes that I wish it had made a few more.
Nintendo rightly didn’t touch the games, but I wish everything else had been up for discussion. By attaching the controllers to a 4.5-foot cable (mercifully longer than the NES Classic but even shorter than the original SNES) rather than making them wireless, Nintendo’s asking you to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of your television like you did in the old days, even though sitting that close to your 65-inch 4K TV won’t give you anything but a headache. Those controllers also ought to have a Home button on them, rather than forcing you to get up and press Reset every time you want to switch games. I can’t imagine any of these changes would have made my experience less nostalgic or enjoyable. I miss Kirby’s Dream Course, not wired controllers.
Gaming like it’s 1992
Every time you turn on the SNES Classic, after five seconds or so of booting up you’re presented with a side-scrolling menu of all 21 games. You can sort them however you want: by which you recently played, by publisher, by how many people can play at a time, even alphabetically. The 16-bit look fits right in with the SNES-era games, and even the game art is enough to bring up a decade of fond memories.
I don’t have to tell you much about the gameplay itself. Every game I tried plays flawlessly. They’re all 16-bit and hilariously pixelated, an effect enhanced by how close you have to sit to the TV, but it doesn’t matter. Every game is just as you remember it. That’s sort of remarkable, actually: so many games on the NES, for instance, don’t quite work anymore thanks to their graphics and ideas about gameplay. The SNES was the first console that really nailed level design, figured out racing mechanics, and understood how a good fight really goes. As a result, crappy graphics and all, the games hold up beautifully.
There’s only one you’ve definitely never played: Star Fox 2, a real-time space battler that feels a bit like playing your very own Ender’s Game. It’s a fascinating and odd game. I’d trade it for NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat 2, and a lot of people will long for Chrono Trigger, but in general these 21 games are an excellent variety. It’ll take you hundreds upon hundreds of hours just to play through them all, and even your favorite handful easily justify the $80 expense.
You can tweak a couple of things about how the games look as you play, in the settings menu at the top of the homescreen. You can add a background around the squarish borders of the game itself, adding lasers or making it look like you’re playing on a really big Nintendo DS. You can also pick how the game is displayed. The 4:3 mode renders games most like the original, while Pixel Perfect narrows but clarifies the picture a bit. In CRT filter, Nintendo adds back some faux scan lines from your 1990s TV, and blurs the picture a little. Those sound like bad things, but they suit the SNES Classic’s graphics, particularly in fast-moving games like F-Zero. I mostly played in 4:3 mode, but the CRT filter comes in handy.
Nintendo’s most interesting mechanic on the console, which matches the NES Classic from last year, involves saving your game. You can have four “suspend points” in each game, dropping them into a slot as you switch games on the homescreen. The act of saving is a little involved, but I figured it out quickly enough. Once you have some saved games, the SNES Classic uses them as a screensaver—you can watch Mario dance through the last few minutes of your gameplay—and lets you rewind the game yourself to play through a particularly hard moment. I died a lot in Donkey Kong Country’s underwater levels, and loved quickly jumping back in.
All this is just window dressing around the real point: Nintendo’s offering a chance to play some of its best games again, in more or less their original form. If the Super Nintendo brings up feelings of joy and nostalgia and the rosy glow of your younger days, you’ll love this thing. (If the worst-looking games you remember are from the PS2, this might not impress you.) If you can get one—and that’s a big if, given how hard the NES Classic was to find—you should. And if you get stuck on the mine cart levels of Donkey Kong Country, let me know. I’ve still got it.
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