Super Nintendo Classic Edition review: the perfect way to play 16-bit classics
The Super NES Classic Edition is perhaps the most obvious product Nintendo has ever made. Given the frenzy surrounding the NES Classic, it seemed inevitable that the company would produce a miniature version of its 16-bit console as well. Launching this Friday, the SNES Classic is pretty much identical to its predecessor in terms of execution, but with a different form factor and new lineup of games. That means it’s a simple and effective way of playing old-school games on your modern television.
But the SNES Classic also provides a different value proposition compared to its 8-bit predecessor. For one thing, it costs $79.99 compared to the original’s $59.99. That price gets you an extra controller, but fewer games. Whereas the NES Classic included 30 built-in titles, with the SNES you only get 21, including the never-released Star Fox 2. That number is misleading, though. While the SNES Classic features a smaller number of games, those that it does include are much bigger and more expansive.
The miniature NES was great for getting in quick doses of nostalgia, whether it was Super Mario Bros. or Pac-Man. But the SNES Classic demands your time, and it’s much more rewarding because of it.
Like the original, the SNES Classic is essentially a tiny plastic box that looks just like the original Super Nintendo, only a lot smaller. It comes with two near-identical replicas of the SNES’s controllers, which plug into the console using Wii-style ports. (This also means that you can use them with the NES Classic, Wii, or Wii U.) In order to accommodate these ports, Nintendo has created a tiny flap at the front of the device where you plug in the controllers. It’s a bit awkward to open and feels pretty flimsy. Overall, while the SNES Classic is definitely a cute machine, it tends to feel like a cheap plastic toy.
One of the great things about it, though, is its simplicity. Setting up the SNES Classic requires virtually no effort: you plug in the power, connect the HDMI cord to your TV, and you’re set. There are no wireless connections to deal with, no firmware to install. It’s plug-and-play at its finest. Accessing games is similarly simple. The SNES Classic’s main menu is a carousel of game boxes, which you can organize in a number of ways, whether it’s alphabetical, by most recently played, or by separating the two-player games from the single-player ones.
The only real options you need to worry about are the three different display modes. Just like on the NES Classic, you can choose from a faithful 4:3 version of the game you’re playing, or a “pixel perfect” mode that pulls everything together so it looks tighter and crisper. There’s also a mode that lets you simulate an old-school tube TV by displaying virtual scanlines on the screen. Each mode looks great, though I’m partial to the visual pop you get from pixel perfect mode. The SNES Classic also adds in different background options to fill in the black bars at the side of the screen. These range from colorful patterns to faux-wood paneling, but I found them all a bit too distracting to be useful.
These similarities are mostly a good thing, since the NES Classic was an excellent machine. But they also mean that the SNES Classic retains some of the issues of its predecessor. For one thing, there’s the lack of a dedicated home button on the controller; in order to change games or swap display options, you need to get up and hit the reset button on the console itself. Similarly, while the SNES Classic’s wired controllers are two feet longer than on the NES Classic, they still only come in at five feet long, so you’ll need to be fairly close to the system to play. (Of course, there will be some wireless options from aftermarket companies.)
The one major addition to the system’s functionality is a new rewind option, which lets you jump back in time to undo a mistake. It’s a great idea that’s been implemented in a number of retro re-releases over the years, but on the SNES Classic, it’s far too clunky to be very useful. In order to rewind a game, you first need to get up and hit the reset button, then jump into the game’s saves and select the rewind option. In theory, rewinding is a great way to alleviate some of the frustrations inherent in fast-paced retro action games. But given all of the necessary steps required to use it, I’ve barely even bothered with the feature.
Of course, the hardware is really just a vessel, a way of getting games that are nearly three decades old to play nicely with your modern TV. In that regard, Nintendo knocked it out of the park: the SNES Classic’s lineup is virtually perfect, with little filler material. As I said, the biggest difference in the jump from 8-bit to 16-bit is just how big these games are. A huge chunk of the SNES Classic’s library consists of expansive titles that will take you dozens of hours to complete.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with the sheer number of lengthy role-playing games on the console. Four of the genre’s most iconic titles are on the SNES Classic, including the quirky and beloved Earthbound, the epic Final Fantasy III (now more commonly known as Final Fantasy VI), the vast action-RPG Secret of Mana, and weirdly entertaining Super Mario RPG. These were the epics of their day, complex, story-driven experiences that are best enjoyed in prolonged sessions. They’re not games you can just play for a few minutes and move on; they require dedication.
The same is true for many of the other titles included on the console. The original NES was an undeniably important machine, filled with iconic and beloved games. But many of those games — particularly those created by Nintendo — feel almost like rough drafts that were finally perfected in the 16-bit era. Games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past are all experiences that build off of their predecessors to create what are often thought of as the pinnacles of their respective series. (At least when it comes to 2D iterations.)
This concept of sequels that improve on their predecessors, through both design and the technological leap to new hardware, extends to some of the non-Nintendo games included as well. Castlevania IV is a much more complex affair than the trilogy that preceded it, as is the excellent Mega Man X and the white-knuckle action of Contra III. These were all concepts that started as 8-bit experiences, but on the SNES they were given room to breathe, with larger worlds and more complex ways of interacting with them.
The drawback to all of these amazing single-player games is that the SNES Classic is somewhat lacking when it comes to quick, pick-up-and-play multiplayer experiences — which is especially strange considering the inclusion of a second controller. There are a few great options, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II Turbo, and it’s a lot of fun to play platformers like Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country as a co-operative experience. But if you want to break out your SNES Classic for some quick fun at a friend’s house, there are surprisingly few options.
Aside from that, it’s hard to find much fault with the games Nintendo decided to include. Sure, it would be nice to have Chrono Trigger, and Super Ghouls’n Ghosts hasn’t aged especially well, but the rest of the collection both plays and looks great in 2017. And while most of these games are readily available through other means — I’ve lost count of the number of copies of Super Mario World I own — there are a few that can be tough to play today. That includes Yoshi’s Island, which has never seen a direct port, as well as Star Fox 2, which was actually canceled more than two decades ago. The SNES Classic version is its first official release. (Stay tuned to The Verge for more on Star Fox 2 later in the week.)
There are many other ways to play most of these games. You can download SNES classics for a few bucks each on the Nintendo 3DS or Wii U, and there are aftermarket consoles that make it possible to play the original cartridges on modern TVs. What makes Nintendo’s Classic line so appealing, though, is how simple it makes the process. Nintendo has curated an amazing collection of 16-bit games, and stuck them in a tiny box that requires no fuss to set-up or maintain. You can just play. It’s retro gaming without all of the work — except for hunting one down in a store.