NES Classic Mini: Review

nes3Disclaimer: If you were one of the unlucky ones who missed out on getting a NES Mini, then what I’m going to say below will probably not help. Aimed firmly at the nostalgia-fueled retro gaming market, the Mini sets out to recreate Nintendo’s beloved 30 year old console for a modern audience. Yet despite the baffling stock issues, and some odd design choices, they’ve succeeded.

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Nintendo brought the original NES to Australia in 1987, and while it wasn’t an immediate hit like in the US and Japan, come the early 90s, we all knew at least one person who had the console (if not yourself!). A neighbourhood favourite, the NES taught us platforming, how to play with (or against!) friends and introduced us to the likes of Mario, Green Mario, Mega-Man, Simon Belmont and a host of other memorable gaming characters. So when Nintendo announced that they were working on a miniature version of the venerable NES, the reception was (initially) incredibly positive.

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One of the biggest questions prior to the Mini’s release was how Nintendo would handle the hardware side of it. Thankfully, Nintendo opted against utilising a cheap “NES on a chip” setup, and instead built the Mini around a quad-core processor with 256MB of RAM, running a variant of Linux. Sounds pretty hardcore for emulating an 8-bit system right? The extra power is well used though, as the NES Mini offers three different display filters and the ability to output in 1080p, along with room for up to four save states per game!

Older brothers posing with the new arrival!
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The included display filters are Nintendo’s answer to the problem faced by anyone trying to run old hardware on modern TVs, and getting stretched or blurry images. The default mode is 4:3, which sets the display to the aspect ratio the NES displayed in and still manages to look fairly clean and clear. CRT Filter applies a scanline effect to the picture, which gives it a blurrier “old school” look. Lastly, there’s the Pixel Perfect mode. This mode makes every pixel a perfect square, which Nintendo describes as letting you see the games exactly as designed (at the cost of the picture being slightly narrower than the other two modes). When it comes to emulators, I’ve always disliked CRT/Scanline effects and this isn’t an exception, as I found the fake blurry look to be a real turn off. My personal preference is the Pixel Perfect or 4:3 modes, with the former looking much better on larger TVs, while the latter looks better on smaller sets.

Bub helping compare the different display filters
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On the software front, instead of running with existing Virtual Console releases for the games, Nintendo’s NERD (Nintendo European Research & Development) division opted to create a slick new emulator for the Mini to get the feel “just right”. I remember playing Super Mario Bros. on the Wii Virtual Console and being put off by the controls, with the movement feeling laggy or “off”. Here, Mario moves and jumps with pinpoint precision, just like it was when I played it on my full-sized NES. I’m also a big fan of the front-end Nintendo has designed for the Classic Mini, as it’s clean, fast and gives you everything you need straight away (although I would’ve loved to have seen some history for each game!).

Mega-Man 2 still looks and plays brilliantly!
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The attention to detail doesn’t stop with the hardware and front-end either, as the included controller is a near-perfect replica of the original. Picking it up will definitely trigger memories of the last time you used one, and feels like the same uncomfortable grey rectangle we all grew up with. Sadly, the 1.5-2m long lead the original NES controller had didn’t come for a ride, as for some baffling reason Nintendo made the Mini’s controller cords 50-60cm long (at best)! This means you need to get the Mini really close to you, or sit right up against the TV in order to use it comfortably and avoid sitting with your nose against the screen. There are already third party extension leads and wireless controllers available, but this is something that really should have been sorted out before the launch.

Classic controller look and feel, but with an teeny, tiny lead
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As the Reset button on the system is how you return to the main menu or to utilise the Save State feature, it could be why they’ve gone with the shorter leads. Either way, it’s still incredibly inconvenient and really flies in the face of the polish given the rest of the unit. I can understand not building a reset button into the controller in order to be faithful to the original design, but we’re dealing with a modern recreation of a 30 year old system, so “authenticity” has already gone out the window! After using it for the last few days across a number of TVs, I’d suggest getting a longer HDMI lead so you can sit the NES Mini near you – or look into a number of the previously mentioned third party options.

Some of the best games made for the NES in one easy to use menu
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And what about the games? The list of 30 pre-installed games are all worthy of the Nintendo Seal of Quality™, with very few among them that wouldn’t feature in at least one person’s top 10. The single best part though, is that we’ve received the original 60Hz NTSC versions with the Mini. That means not only is everything running at full speed (Bubble Bobble is significantly more playable than its PAL release!), but it also means no more black borders at the top and bottom of the screen.

Double Dragon II in glorious 60hz full-screen is fantastic…
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One minor, but interesting point is the lack of seemingly random graphics above and below the playfield that was present in a number of PAL region games. These were the result of a programming trick that took advantage of “hidden areas” on NTSC televisions to store graphics to be used later in a level, and was invisible to our friends in Japan and the US. For Australia, games like Double Dragon II would frequently show these random sprites due to the smaller display area. It’s a minor thing, but Nintendo’s choice to use NTSC games on the Mini means we’re seeing these games as they were originally intended.

…While this is from the 50Hz PAL version with the “hidden” sprites showing
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There’s a lot to love about what Nintendo’s done with the NES Mini. The included games are arguably a snapshot of some of the best the system had to offer, even if you’re not able to add any extras games to it. The overall presentation from the menu interface and save state support, to the physical design of the Classic makes this a slick little nostalgia machine. While there’s questions around how many extra shipments we’ll see, if you love the NES and the opportunity comes up to get one for the RRP, then it’s well worth it. Just don’t pay hyper-inflated eBay prices!

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blahjediAaron Clement
Tassie based retro gaming guy. Father of 3 and married to the very tolerant Kellie Clement. Coffee powered!

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NES Classic Mini: Second Australian shipment will be available in December

nes-classic-edition_titleHey peeps, did you miss out on the first batch of Nintendo’s NES Classic Mini? If you did, don’t stress, as Nintendo have announced that a second Australian shipment will be made available in early December. As Nintendo have stated, check the details with your local retailer!