Thursday, July 21, 2016

NES Classic Edition/NES Mini - Nintendo's Official Emulation Box

North American Packaging
On July 14, Nintendo announced that it would be releasing a "new" console, the NES Classic Edition.  For Europe, it is called the Nintendo Classic Mini.  It will be released on November 11, 2016 and will cost $59.99.  The console is an emulation box will include 30 built-in NES games.

The NES Mini will have an HDMI port for audio and video.  It supports two controllers, which look identical to the standard NES controller except for the Wii connector plug.  One will come with the system.  A second controller will cost $9.99 and will be available for purchase separately.  The NES Mini will be powered by a USB port.  The North American version will come with an AC adapter, but the European version will not (presumably because of the different shapes of the power sockets across Europe).  New games cannot be added to the console and it cannot connect to the Internet.  That dust cover flap is not real and the device cannot work with cartridges.  The USB port is for power only.

The NES Classic will be a small console, it can fit within the palm of an adult hand, but the controllers will be full-size like the original 7-pin controllers.  The cables are rather short compared to the originals, they look to be about 3' long instead of the 6' we enjoy with the 7-pin plug.  The Power and Reset buttons work like the originals (spring/latch and spring).

European Packaging

Below is the list of games which will be included in the console and a chart showing which games are currently available on the Virtual Console services, type of 2 player support if any, and the original save type.

Game Title Wii VC Wii U VC 3DS VC 2P Save Developer Release Date
Balloon Fight y y y s n Nintendo 08/1986
Bubble Bobble y n n s p Taito 11/1988
Castlevania y y y n n Konami 05/1987
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest y y y n p Konami 12/1988
Donkey Kong y y y a n Nintendo 06/1986
Donkey Kong Jr. y y y a n Nintendo 06/1986
Double Dragon II: The Revenge y y y s n Technos 01/1990
Dr. Mario n y n s n Nintendo 10/1990
Excitebike y y n# n t Nintendo 10/1985
Final Fantasy y n n n b Square 05/1990
Galaga y y y a n Namco 09/1988
Ghosts’N Goblins y y y a n Capcom 11/1986
Gradius y y y a n Konami 12/1986
Ice Climber y y y s n Nintendo 10/1985
Kid Icarus y y n# n p Nintendo 07/1987
Kirby’s Adventure y y n# n b Nintendo 05/1993
Mario Bros. y y y s n Nintendo 06/1986
Mega Man 2 y y y n p Capcom 06/1989
Metroid y y y n b Nintendo 08/1987
Ninja Gaiden y y y n n Tecmo 03/1989
Pac-Man y y y a n Namco 08/1988%
Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream y y y n p Nintendo 10/1987^
StarTropics y y n n b Nintendo 12/1990
Super C y y y s n Konami 04/1990
Super Mario Bros. y y y a n Nintendo 10/1985
Super Mario Bros. 2 y y y n n Nintendo 10/1988
Super Mario Bros. 3 y y y a/s n Nintendo 02/1990
Tecmo Bowl y y y s p Tecmo 02/1989
The Legend of Zelda y y y n b Nintendo 07/1987
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link y y y n b Nintendo 12/1988

Key : s - simultaneous, a - alternating, p - password, b - battery, t - tape*, # - available as a "3D Classic"

* - Excitebike could save user-made tracks to a cassette tape using the Family Keyboard and Family Datasette (or any standard cassette deck), but those peripherals were not released outside of Japan.  The functionality is still present in the NES cartridge and the necessary signals are present on the NES front loader expansion port (easily accessible with an ENIO board).

^ - Released in 1987 as Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!, re-released in 1992 as Punch-Out Featuring Mr. Dream.

%- Approximate release date for the first, licensed release of Pac-Man by Tengen.  Pac-Man was re-released when Tengen decided to sever ties with Nintendo as an unlicensed cartridge and re-released again as a licensed cartridge by Namco in 11/1993.  The version included will be the Namco one, which differs only on the title screen.

The NES Classic Controller can be used with Wii and Wii U NES Virtual Console games when connected to a Wiimote.  You can also use a Wii Classic Controller or Wii Classic Controller Pro in the second player port.

All games will have multiple suspend points, which essentially sounds like save states.  The Virtual Console would allow you to suspend your game and return to it.  Whether the traditional saving methods will work, such as the battery backed saves of Zelda and StarTropics or the password saves of Castlevania II and Metroid, has yet to be answered.

From a cost analysis, the NES Classic is a good deal.  While you can obtain every game through the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console services, it will cost $4.99 per game.  $150 vs $60 is quite the difference.  If you instead wanted to buy a NES and collect each individual cartridge, you will probably pay an average of $20 per cartridge unless you get lucky.  A front loader NES costs about $60, so $660 vs. $60 is a huge difference.  

Perhaps the biggest question is what kind of video quality will you get from the NES Classic Edition.  The Wii is capable of 480p and only supported component video.  The Wii U is capable of 1080p and supports HDMI.  However, the video quality from the Wii U is rather dark and blurry compared to the Wii or a NES with a NESRGB or Hi-Def NES Mod.  The Wii Virtual Console supports 240p for NES games and is a little darker than a real NES.  The Wii U Virtual Console may have improved sound emulation.

Here are some comparisons with a real NES and its native composite video:

And here is one vs the NESRGB :

By the time you get to the Hi-Def NES, the comparison to the Wii U is just too one-sided :

Note that the Wii U's pixel aspect ratio is a bit stretched compared to the earlier systems.  The Hi-Def NES Mod as well has difficulties with the pixel aspect ratio.  Both are rather confined to the rather inflexible resolution support of HDTVs.

Update 07/21/2016 : According to the official trailer, the video output will look much brighter and sharper than the Wii U :

Latency is an open issue.  A real NES Controller is a simple device that sends out 8 bits of data in a serial stream and is read by the CPU one bit at a time until the state of all buttons is known.  An Wii-compatible device has a sophisticated packet protocol and the console has an emulation layer requiring processing of the input before it registers the result to the emulated game.  Also, it is not known whether this device is outputting 720p or 1080p, anything other than 1080p may induce noticeable latency by many HDTVs.  NES games are not known for their tolerance for high latency inputs.

For those without prior experience with Virtual Console titles, note that in some circumstances, the original ROMs have been altered.  One of the most obvious examples is Tecmo Bowl.  Tecmo Bowl was notable in its time because it has a license from the NFL Player's Assocation.  This allowed it to use the names of real players in the game.  It did not have a full National Football league license, so it could not incorporate the logos of the real teams, that would have to wait for its sequel, Tecmo Super Bowl.  But for the VC release, the players' names had to be removed, doubtless because Tecmo's license with the NFLPA had expired or would not extend to the emulated game.  This does not require much in the way of ROM hacking to cull the names and leave the numbers.  Tecmo Super Bowl would have required graphic redesigns because it incorporated team logos in its graphics, which is why it has never been officially re-released.  That has not stopped ROM hackers and appreciative players from unofficially updating the game to support new seasons and teams.

Other games with notable changes include Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda.  These games (PRG1 for Zelda) both had an on-screen warning to hold reset when powering off.  Of course, this warning is meaningless and confusing when the games are emulated, so they would have been removed.  

Nintendo has been very conscious about epilepsy-triggering graphics effects for over a decade.  Thus when you loose all your lives in Zelda II, you will not see the screen rapidly flashing when you die on your final life.  This has been consistent since The Legend of Zelda Collector's Edition for the Gamecube back in 2003. Similarly, the screen will only show orange instead of orange and black when you get a scepter from one of the Koopa Kids in Super Mario Bros. 3.  Other effects relying on "flash" may not be so noticeable in these versions.

The list of games is very solid, every one of these games is well-worth playing.  You have practically the whole set of classic Nintendo developed games.  There are 13 of 30 games by third parties, which is impressive.  Most of the best black-box games are there.  Mario is fully represented.  Eight games support two players simultaneously, which is especially important given these times when sharing the couch and screen is often given the short shrift.  The system is strong on platformers and the more meatier adventures.  It is not particularly representative when it comes to RPGs and sports titles, but they tend not to age very well.  Arcade-style games are much better represented.

There are some hard games on this list.  Even I cannot beat Ghosts 'N Goblins, (but I can almost get through level 6).  People coming back to the NES may forget how Castlevania ramps up the difficulty level in stage 4 or how tough it is to survive through Death Mountain in Zelda II.  Double Dragon II gets unfair on the Supreme Master difficulty level and Ninja Gaiden will show you no mercy by The Hall of the Brahmans.

Control was evolving throughout the NES era.  Players used to Super Mario Maker will have to readjust themselves to the much more limited control scheme of Super Mario Bros.  Ghosts 'N Goblins and the Castlevanias are rather inflexible.  People will wonder why Samus cannot duck in Metroid and why Pit will fall off a ledge to his death by ducking in Kid Icarus.  Mike in StarTropics controls rather robotically, this was much improved upon in the sequel but you would not learn that from the NES Mini.  People tend to forget that classic games often would not let you adjust the length of your jump or control the length of the jump in mid-air.

Unfortunately, a completionist will not be fully satisfied by this console, given the absences of games in the Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, Double Dragon, Castlevania and StarTropics series.  I sincerely doubt the version of Donkey Kong included will be the "Donkey Kong Original Edition" with the cement factory level.  Also, I believe that the European version of the console will not be Probotector II or Shadow Warriors (Super C and Ninja Gaiden).  I doubt anybody will be enjoying the mostly-superior version of Mario Bros. Classic Series released in Europe either.

Other stats : By release date, we have 7 games released in 1985 and early 1986 (before 3rd parties began to publish in the US), 7 games released in late 1986 and for 1987, 6 games for 1988, 3 games for 1989, 6 games for 1990 and 1 game for 1993.  By cartridge hardware, 9 have no extra hardware, 11 use MMC1, 2 use UNROM, 1 uses CNROM, 5 use MMC3, 1 uses MMC6 and 1 uses MMC2.  By size 7 games use 24KB, 2 games use 40KB, 1 game uses 64KB, 5 games use 128KB, 1 game uses 160KB, 10 games use 256KB, 1 game uses 384KB, 1 game uses 512KB and 1 game uses 768KB.

So ultimately, who is this product for?  It isn't for the completionist, and anyone who has a sizeable Virtual Console library will likely see little benefit from it.  The Nintendo collector will buy one just to have.  People who eschew emulation or emulation they have to pay for will stay away.  This product is for the casual buyer.

Console emulation boxes aren't new.  atgames has released Atari Flashbacks (3-6), an Intellivision and a Colecovision Flashback and a Sega Genesis console and handheld.  Before atgames, Atari had released the Flashback and the Flashback 2 and there was also the C64DTV 30-in-1.  Namco has been selling a stick with Pac-Man in some form or another for years.  The Flashback 2 and the C64DTV remain the gold-standard for the emulation box, because they are really not emulators at all but hardware recreations of the Atari 2600 and the Commodre 64.  They can be repurposed into fully-functional systems.

Nintendo is the only hardware publisher still around who has not yet thrown itself into the emulation box scene.  atgames is their closest competitor in this regard.  Its Flashback 6 costs $49.95 and comes with 100 games.The Sega Genesis Classic Console comes with 40 real Genesis games and costs about $39.95.  This gives a price per game value of $2 for the NES, $1.00 for the Genesis and 0.50 per Atari game.

Even though the emulation on the Virtual Console can withstand some improvement, the emulation for the atgames products is garbage.  Graphical glitches exist on the atgames Atari Flashbacks and have persisted despite multiple reissues.   Its wireless controllers are infrared, not exactly cutting edge or cutting it after the Wavebird.

The atgames Genesis console uses a Genesis-on-a-Chip and can use most Genesis cartridges thanks to the cartridge slot but supports only composite video and mono audio where the real hardware supported RGB video and stereo audio.   Wireless controllers for the Genesis also use infrared technology with all its faults.  The sound output is god-awful, words are simply lacking to describe how poor it is compared to any Sega Genesis Model 1, 2 or even 3.  Unless you are deaf, it's unacceptable.  Here are a few examples :

Despite a personal concern about lag and value, this device will sell like hotcakes this holiday season.  The price is competitive, the game selection is excellent, and the functionality is acceptable to most people.  The early buzz is really positive.  Given that Nintendo has been known to be conservative with the number of hardware units it manufactures, there may be a shortage of units at times during the holiday season.  


  1. I was waiting this article from you :D

    Let's see if you get it about the video quality and (i wish yes) you open it,or other people look inside to see if it's possible to repurpose it. This would be great!

    If it's flasheable (with new games) and the video and sound emulation is ok (and video output ok) it's definitively a win-win.

    thanks for review!

  2. It is nice and refreshing reading an educated article like this one. Also, you made me remember horrible memories from my childhood, thank god they're not including Battletoads (a hip game to play today but one of the most hated games of its time).

    While the product quality no doubt will be way better than any atgames product, this is for the collector. I admit I intend to keep it on the living room and play it once in (a very) while.

  3. I cannot wait to purchase one for myself. I miss the original games unlike nowadays..

  4. look at this !!
    :))))) someone leave behind Nintendo with better product :DDDD

  5. I think the European/Rest of the World package doesn't include a power charger is a cost cutting and waste saving exercise. Nintendo, Sony have been doing it for years with the 3DS/Vita etc.

    USB chargers in Europe use a Type C socket which work everywhere there except (not surprisingly) the UK.

    In the US Nintendo removed the power charger from the 'new' 3DSs but apparently many people complained as they felt ripped off.

  6. No evidence it is not running on a modified NES on a Chip hardware, emulation is actually speculation at this point and not fact.