The NES Classic Mini Review

The NES Classic Mini has finally arrived, bringing nostalgia and retro gaming back into vogue. They are instantly so popular as to become impossible to get a hold of, but should you be paying whatever the insane prices online are asking? Is the NES Classic Mini worth your time and money?

Design

When they called this the NES Mini, they really meant it. I still can’t get over just how small it is. The mini console is about the size of a PS4 or Xbox One controller. It features some excellent build quality, too, with a look and feel that is reminiscent of the original NES. The paint job is spot on and with the exception of the cartridge reader and moveable lid, it looks exactly like a miniaturized NES console. For many of you here in South Africa, this thing is alien to you. Instead you likely used a Famicom, or pirated version of it. Yes, there’s a mini one of those too. 

The buttons have retained that satisfying click, and the plugs are all crisp and tight. The console uses an HDMI output and mini-USB power supply.

The controller feels exactly like the original Nintendo controller, with all the faults of that original design. Be prepared to combat a short cable and the stabbing corners in the palms of your hands. Still, it feels the way the games were originally, so for the diehard retro gamer it’s probably for the best. If you don’t like the original NES controllers, or you need a second controller for two player gaming and you didn’t buy a second NES Classic Mini one, you can also use the Wii Pro/Classic controller if you prefer, although the short cable is still an issue.

Set up

Setting up the NES Classic Mini is absurdly easy, reminding me of the original days of console game. It is literally plug and play – plug the supplied HDMI cable into your TV, and use the supplied USB cable to plug into the power point (you will need your own USB to power point adapter – or power it through your TV if it has USB ports). Plug in the controller and press the power button at the front of the console. Yes, that is really it.

You may, however, need to rearrange your TV cabinet and couch. The supplied cables are really rather short, an issue that is compounded by the absurdly short controller cable. I had to rest the NES Classic Mini on my coffee table (which I moved closer to the TV cabinet than normal) so that I could still play despite the controller cable being less than a meter long – I ended up even moving my couch to try and accommodate the short distances. With the lack of direct power adapter and the short cables, I’m inclined to think this device is actually intended to sit on a person’s desk, making use of a PC setup rather than gaming in the living room.

Interface

Once you hit that power button, the whole thing becomes very interesting. All 30 games are displayed, but the actual interface is hilariously 8-bit. If you leave the console to idle, Mario will come on screen and select various games at random to show off in attract mode, as well as showcase the different display options.

The NES Classic Mini can be used in standard 4:3, which will probably look right if you played the games on old TVs back in the 80s and 90s. There is even a CRT filter that injects scanlines that you can use if you really want the games to look how you remember them, although the filter actually gave me a headache in record time. Alternatively, you can opt for the pixel perfect version, which uses the original output of the games without stretching them to the 4:3 that was the norm in the era. This may mess with your usual jumps and timing, though, as the levels will be a slightly different size to what you’re used to.

Emulation

In actual fact, you might find the games in general are slightly different to what you remember. While I’m incredibly grateful to play the games with an HDMI cable instead of needing various converters and adapters as would be required with the original console, the graphics haven’t received any upgrades. Some games are more vibrant, crisp and colorful than others. I was a bit surprised to see that some games weren’t quite as bright and colorful as I remembered them.

The controls are also exactly as they were. Gaming was hard back in the NES era, and the controls could be a part of that. That said, I did seem to be faced with some extra difficulties – I’m not sure if it’s the approximately 50ms input lag on my modern TV, or a slightly different frame rate from the original games, but my timing and control abilities were off. I couldn’t pull off the same manoeuvres that were still muscle memories from the original games, and I often got frustrated when characters seemed to move after I tried to stop, or didn’t quite land the jumps they should have.

Still, the emulation quality is top-notch, with each game faithfully represented. It is worth nothing that there can be some image corruption at the screen edges, especially if you run the screen backwards and forwards. However, this is something that happened in the original games as well, and it usually only lasts for about a second before returning to normal.

It’s great to see 30 classic games so excellently recreated on the mini NES, although it does feel surprising that there is no cartridge reading or online capability of the console to allow for more games to be added over time. It’s worth nothing that gaming has changed a lot since then, though. The games on the NES Classic Mini are a lot more difficult to what we’re used to playing now. I was so happy to play Metroid, Mega Man 2 and even the original Zelda games again, but they are a lot harder than you might remember. It’s a fun challenge, but be prepared for some serious frustration, too. Also, while it is a wide range of titles, and some must play games for people who may have missed out on the original NES, the selection doesn’t quite cater to all types of gamers – I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw future classic mini consoles released with more genre specific libraries.

As a reminder, here’s the list of games:

  • Balloon Fight
  • Bubble Bobble
  • Castlevania
  • Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
  • Donkey Kong
  • Donkey Kong Jr.
  • Double Dragon II: The Revenge
  • Dr. Mario
  • Excitebike
  • Final Fantasy
  • Galaga
  • Ghosts’n Goblins
  • Gradius
  • Ice Climber
  • Kid Icarus
  • Kirby’s Adventure
  • Mario Bros.
  • Mega Man 2
  • Metroid
  • Ninja Gaiden
  • Pac-Man
  • Punch-Out! Featuring Mr. Dream
  • StarTropics
  • Super C
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 2
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Tecmo Bowl
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Additional functionality

Unlike the original games, the NES Classic Mini allows you to suspend gameplay. Unlike the old days when a phone call, family dinner or other immediate obligation meant losing your progress, you can now suspend your gameplay at any time. In fact, there are four slots per game where players can save their suspended games. Never again will you need to restart your entire Metroid play through just because you had to go do something else.

That said, you can’t suspend the gameplay from the controller. Instead, players need to push the Reset button on the actual game console. It’s not that far of a reach thanks to the ridiculously short controller cable, but it can feel counter-intuitive to a modern gamer not to be able to use buttons on the controller to access the console’s UI. Additionally, the saving and loading system is a bit clunky and can lead to saving or loading by accident thanks to some weird D-pad mapping.

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