Words On Wednesday

2017-01-18 NES Classic Edition and Video Game Emulation

In mid-November 2016, Nintendo released the NES Classic Edition. This miniature version of the original Nintendo Entertainment System with 30 games pre-loaded was a massive hit, and immediately sold out.

The Good

The appeal of the NES Classic Edition is undeniably nostalgia. Video games of today are more advanced, they have better graphics, the consoles and gaming computers are more powerful. These games are arguably better than the classic games of yesteryear. People aren’t buying the NES Classic Edition because it’s the latest and greatest of gaming technology; they’re buying it because that’s what they grew up playing.

Admittedly, the whole package does sound attractive at first. For the retail price of $60 (more on that later), you get a compact little box, a controller, all the necessary cables, and 30 games. No hassle, no frustrating installation process, you just plug it up and pick from a selection of 30 retro games.

It’s not a bad deal, and it appeals to a variety of audiences. The 20-something that misses the games from their childhood. The parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle who remembers how much fun the kids had playing video games on Saturday mornings. It’s simple, and that’s a good thing. In a world of maintaining weekly raid groups, keeping that KDR (Kill Death Ratio) above a certain threshold, the NES Classic Edition offers simple, clean fun.

The Bad

Beneath the surface, however, the appeal of the NES Classic Edition begins to fall apart.

First, let’s look at the price. As I mentioned earlier, $60 for the package is a really good price point. That’s the same price as a new AAA game, and you’re getting the whole console with 30 games. An average of $2 per game is not bad at all. Good luck finding one for anything less than $100, though. Any stores with it sold out almost immediately. As such, scalpers were frequently selling units for $200 or more. At that price point, you can get a new or gently used modern day console.

The accepted theory is that Nintendo intentionally released limited quantities of the NES Classic Edition to drive up demand, but ultimately it just hurts consumers. This little device would’ve sold like hotcakes anyway, there’s no need to limit supply. Perhaps, Nintendo will eventually ramp up production enough to keep these things on shelves. Until then, finding one for the standard $60 will be nearly impossible.

Another issue with the NES Classic Edition is the game selection. Sure, some of the biggest titles on the original NES are included. Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, the games that everybody played are available. However, the omissions are concerning. Mega Man 2 is available, but none of the other games in the Mega Man series are. Castlevania is on every version of the NES Classic Edition, but Castlevania II is only on the North American and PAL versions, and Castlevania III is nowhere to be found. Double Dragon II is included, but no prequels or sequels.

In addition to seemingly obvious omissions, there are less popular games that I’m sure every NES gamer would love to have seen on the NES Classic Edition. For me, it would be Adventures in the Magic Kingdom, Hudson’s Adventure Island, Marble Madness, and Tiger-Heli. Given that there were 713 games released on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, there are bound to be obscure games that everyone has fond memories of playing. Nintendo can’t realistically release the entire NES catalog on the NES Classic Edition, so almost everyone is going to have a game or two in mind that they would miss from the 30 included games.

Recently (as in earlier this month), some people have been able to hack the NES Classic Edition and load more ROM files for NES games onto it. While extremely interesting, this opens up quite a few legal and moral issues. First and foremost, these people were able to load and play ROM files that will run on any NES emulator. This obviously means that there’s nothing more than a locked down emulator under the hood, with a simple UI to select a game. Did Nintendo develop their own emulator, or did they just grab one of the many available online? Even if they did develop their own, what makes it any different from those that have been in use for years?

Regardless of the underlying tech, breaking into the NES Classic Edition would certainly void any warranty, and likely get quite a bit of negative attention from Nintendo. Given how ruthlessly the company will pursue ROM hosting sites, and their knack for releasing old games on new platforms over and over again, this sort of vulnerability is bound to be locked down post haste. Being able to load more games onto the first generation hardware pretty much kills any opportunity for Nintendo to market the NES Classic Edition 2.0 with an expanded game library.

Even if Nintendo does leave this open and allow users to load their own game files onto the NES Classic Edition, who is honestly going to know how to. This isn’t a computer that is designed to be open, it’s proprietary hardware that was created specifically to play the games included at purchase. They didn’t make it easy to crack open, and your average user is going to be unable to get more games on it, likely even with explicit instructions to go by.

If your plan is to pick up the NES Classic Edition with the specific intention to load more games onto it, why bother with it at all? There have been NES emulators available for years, most of which can run perfectly fine on even the most dated hardware. Most of these are extremely user friendly, and you can have a retro game up and running within minutes. I would argue that Nintendo’s target audience of 20-somethings who were nerdy enough to play video games in the 80’s and early 90’s likely have enough tech savvy to set up an emulator. Maybe it’s just my Computer Science degree talking, but it really isn’t that hard to do.

The Ugly

What really throws a wrench in the gears of the NES Classic Edition is the availability of video game emulators and ROMs, and low cost options on which to play them.

As a disclaimer, I will note that video game emulators and ROM files are legally ambiguous. Many people and video game companies will say that they are completely illegal, proponents for video game preservation suggest that they are fully legal, and many people fall somewhere in the middle. These video games are technically the intellectual property of their creators, but there are legal precedents that suggest people are allowed to have digital backups of physical media that they own. The problem is that people can download the digital ROM for a game that they never physically owned. If you do choose to pursue and acquire ROM files for video games, you take the legal burden for that on your own shoulders.

I can go online right now and pick from from a variety of different console emulators. ROM files are widely available on many sites, but I won’t link them here because of the legal grey area. Using a traditional Windows desktop or laptop is probably the easiest way, and I challenge you to find someone who doesn’t have at least an old laptop floating around somewhere.

Let’s say you don’t have a Windows box, however. I don’t know about the availability of emulators on Mac or Linux, but we have plenty of other options. Got an Android phone or tablet? Emulator apps are a dime a dozen, and many are available for free. Got an iPhone or iPad? Jailbreak it and you can find some Apple friendly emulators. Don’t like playing on a touch screen? You can find a huge selection of Bluetooth or wired controllers that would allow you to play from a traditional gamepad.

Still not satisfied? Let’s talk about the Raspberry Pi. If you’re going to spend money on something to play old video games, you should at least be aware of all your options.

The Raspberry Pi (abbreviated RPi) is a tiny computer that can be purchased for cheap, runs on very little power, and can be used to tinker with tons of fun little computing tasks. With the spec bump on the latest generation of RPi, they can also run emulators remarkably well.

So you pick up the RPi from Amazon, maybe with a few extra peripherals if you need them. Grab the RetroPie software for free, and load it onto the memory card. Pick up ROM files for the games you want to play, and you’re in business. Whether you just want a bigger selection of NES games, or you want to other Nintendo consoles like the SNES, RetroPie has you covered.

NES Classic Edition > RetroPie

There are certain aspects where the NES Classic Edition is superior to a RetroPie setup.

  • Is it cheaper? Yes, when you can find it for MSRP.
  • Is it easier? Absolutely, you just plug and play.
  • Is it legal? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.
  • Is it official? Yep, straight from Nintendo itself.

RetroPie > NES Classic Edition

While the RetroPie certainly isn’t perfect, it excels above the NES Classic Edition in some key areas.

RetroPie can be loaded up with any emulator and ROM, up to maybe the fifth generation of home video game consoles, including the Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64. NES? Duh. SNES? Easily. Handhelds like the GameBoy? Like a charm. Non-Nintendo consoles like the Sega Genesis? Not a problem. RetroPie even plays MAME arcade emulation, which is more than can be said for many emulators.

While the $60 price for the NES Classic Edition is technically cheaper than what you can get a RPi and controller for, what does it matter if nobody has them in stock? On the other hand, you can get a Raspberry Pi kit from just about anywhere, and frequently for not much more than $60. Until Nintendo increases production of the NES Classic Edition to match demand, the availability of a RPi with RetroPie is an important facet.

My Experiment

As a sort of experiment, I decided to see how easily I could put together my own sort of knock-off NES Classic Edition, with all 30 included games.

Since my old favorite ROM source, CoolROM, was forced to abandon their Nintendo ROM files, I had to find a new source. That took a single Google search, and I was in business. I brought up the list of games on the North American version of the NES Classic Edition, and started downloading. During the course of a single lunch break, while I waited for the tires on my van to be rotated, I downloaded all 30 games. For absolutely no cost, I had every game available on the little gadget that people are spending hundreds of dollars on.

I then proceeded to download games for the SNES, N64, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Sega Genesis, Sony Playstation, and a few more consoles. All in all, I grabbed a little over 200 games total. Again, I paid nothing for these games.

With very little work, over the span of a few hours, I had acquired everything available on the NES Classic Edition, as well as numerous other games across a variety of platforms. Literally, all I would have to do now to have my setup complete is to actually purchase the RPi and set it up with RetroPie. If I didn’t want to do that, I could still play those games on my Windows desktop right now.

Conclusion

For some people, the NES Classic Edition is the ideal product in its category. For others, there are better options available. If you…

  • Want to play NES games
  • Are willing to be limited to 30 specific games
  • Can wait until the NES Classic Edition is readily available at its $60 MSRP
  • Specifically want first party Nintendo hardware
  • Will overlook flaws such as short controller cables
  • Don’t have the technical ability to set up an emulator on your own
  • Have scruples about the legality of ROM downloads

Then the NES Classic Edition might be perfect for you. However, if any of those conditions can be fudged for you, maybe you should investigate other options. Don’t get sucked into the idea that the NES Classic Edition is the only way to enjoy retro games in the modern day. Even if you don’t have the original console and games, there are numerous ways to play NES games. Do your research and figure out what works best for you.

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2 thoughts on “2017-01-18 NES Classic Edition and Video Game Emulation

    1. I was very disappointed when I heard that they discontinued the Classic Edition. Personally, I wasn’t planning on buying once, since I could do even more with a RetroPie setup, but it really was a nifty product. For the people who wanted something official from Nintendo, or didn’t want to deal with the setup required for RetroPie, it was perfect.

      But no, Nintendo has it woefully under-stocked everywhere, and ends production after half a year or so. I don’t understand why, but it seems like they could’ve done so much better with that product.

      Like

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