I was able to pick up the system at Target for its regular $60 retail price. For that price, you get the system itself with 30 built-in games, one controller, the micro-USB power cable, and an HDMI cable—all the necessary hookups.
And speaking of which, let’s talk about the pack-in controller. It is the absolute spit and image of the original NES controller, and since I’m used to old weathered ones, feeling it brand new was surreal! Beyond the satisfying aesthetic, it performs just like an original too—the buttons feel the same, and it’s got that unbeatable Nintendo d-pad. But while the controller looks and functions perfectly, it’s bursting with issues. First of all, I’ll say that having only one pack-in controller is annoying. Many of the games included on the system are multiplayer, so if you want to enjoy them, you’ve no choice but to acquire a second one. Second of all, it’s frustrating that the controllers don’t have a Home/Reset button. It’s clear that Nintendo wanted to go full-force nostalgia with the controller design, and including a new button of any kind would’ve subtracted from that. However, the lack of such a button deducts from the functionality—without it, the only way to return to the system’s home menu is to get up and press the reset button on the set-top box itself. Now I know that you old-timers will get onto me, saying that that’s how you had to do it in the old days, but (a) this system is designed to not be like it was in the old days, and (b) having to get up every time hurts the fluid interface offered by emulation devices. In other words, when you have the ability to work with save states, swap between games in software, and edit the display, you want quick and easy access to those features. The Atari Flashback added a home button to the controller without subtracting from its nostalgia factor, so I don’t see why Nintendo couldn’t find a way to do the same. Besides, even if they didn’t want to add another button, they could’ve implemented a code to bring you back to the home menu (Hyperkin’s Retron 5 lets you do so by holding START and ↓down).
The controller is wired, which doesn’t have to be a problem, but sadly, it is—mainly because the controller cable is only 2½ feet (.77m) long. That’s less than half the length of the original NES controller’s cable, and it’s a crucial issue. Basically, you’ve got three options: you can sit extremely close to the system and your screen, you can do it like the old days and bring the console itself closer to you, or you can acquire some sort of supplement (extender cables are easy to find, and there are countless third-party wireless controllers). But any way you look at it, it’s annoying. The fourth and final complaint I have for these controllers is their connector. As I said earlier, they use the same one that’s on the bottom of the Wii Remote, which is, again, problematic. First of all, I wish it used the same ports as the original NES because, like the Atari 2600, the system had many different controllers to use (I particularly like the NES Advantage), but since the system doesn’t have the original connectors, you can’t use any of them on the system. The other issue is that the new connectors are Nintendo-exclusive, meaning you can’t use any generic USB controllers, which would’ve been nice. Because of that, you have to use controllers built specifically for the system. The only upsides to the connectors are that you can use a Wii/Wii U Classic controller on the system and that (conversely) you can use the system’s controller on the Wii and Wii U.
NES games are much easier to decipher than Atari games, but even so, if you’re not familiar with a game, you may want to read its instructions or watch a demo. Luckily, the Classic Edition allows you to do both! If you wait long enough on the menu screen, Mario will appear and will enable a demo of the highlighted game. You can also access the instruction manuals for all the games by selecting the green “?” book icon in the top banner. The system will display a QR code, which you can then scan to see the manuals. The two-step flow is a little tedious, but since you’ll be viewing the manual on a separate screen, you can have it open during gameplay.
Save states are a nifty feature. Many of the included games, such as Pac-Man, Galaga, Dr. Mario, and Excitebike don’t warrant them, but they are tremendously helpful in progression games like Castlevania and the notoriously long Super Mario Bros. 3. Now you don’t have to complete the games in one long sitting! The feature nullifies the password save function in games like Mega Man 2, and I also use it in favor of battery saves as offered in Metroid and Legend of Zelda. The other beneficial emulation feature the system offers is upgraded visuals. The original NES uses composite video output, but the Classic Edition plays in stunning 1080p HD. Therefore, the games look better than ever, especially considering how the NES 8-bit look has become a popular style all its own now. But if the upscaling weren’t enough, the system offers some display personalization options as well. Games play in 4:3 by default, but you can overlay a CRT filter or play in “Pixel Perfect” mode, which is basically a dot-by-dot mode that will keep the pixels perfectly square. The display modes suit each game differently: Castlevania looks best with the CRT filter, Zelda looks best in 4:3, and Mario 3 looks best in Pixel Perfect. Both the save state functionality and the display modes are some of the Classic Edition’s best features.
On that note…
I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t mention the popularity of hacking the system to include more games. Hackers have been able to modify it to include up to 700 games, which is close to the original’s full library. Some have even found ways to include titles from other game consoles! I’m not usually an advocate of hacking, but if more games on your NES Classic Edition seems worth the sacrifice of your warranty, then go for it—it’s certainly doable. But I lack the knowhow to tell you how to do it, so look elsewhere!
It’s certainly not worth a $300 scalper price, but is the system worth the $60 retail price? Quantitatively, the Atari Flashback puts it to shame with up to 100 more packed-in games. However, qualitatively, the NES Classic is the winner: you’ll get much more out of its titles. But even so, many of them are of extreme difficulty, and although the NES was where gaming came of age, some of the 30+ year old game design may be disappointing for the most casual fans; for them I recommend the follow-up SNES Classic Edition. As we did with the Atari, let’s compare the value of the system to that of the original components. Due to the rise in popularity of retro gaming in the past few years, the original NES has actually become pretty expensive. I usually see the console for sale at $90. Games vary in price (simple titles like Dr. Mario can go for as low as $5), but the big classics like Super Mario Bros. 3, Zelda (either of them), and Mega Man 2 can go for up to $50. The system doesn’t include any particularly rare titles. Of course, there’s always give and take, and you can go quite in-depth when looking at collecting for NES, and there are several alternatives. In fact, there are even first-party alternatives such as the Virtual Console on Wii, 3DS, and Wii U, as well as the collection of NES games included with a Nintendo Switch Online membership. So ultimately, it’s up to you—if you want to try the classics, become a hardcore collector, or be anywhere in between, there’s an NES option for you. I highly recommend looking through the many options before buying a Classic Edition.
In addition to reviewing each retro edition console, I want to compile a ranking of the systems over the course of this series. As of now, I only have the NES Classic Edition and Atari Flashback to compare, but the list will grow as the series goes on. So how do these two compare to each other? The Atari has a much larger library of games included, and it has superior controller functionality. However, the NES trumps it in terms of menu experience, display, emulation features, and (most importantly) game quality. I also find it more convenient that there’s only one version of the NES Classic Edition, while there are over eight different issues of the Flashback (inconsistency is tough, folks). So, the NES wins this round. Here’s the official ranking so far:
**For those who don’t know, the Zapper was a peripheral for the NES that resembled a handgun. It was used for shooting games like Duck Hunt, where the player uses it to “shoot” onscreen ducks. While it was popular, the Zapper’s technology only allows it to function with CRT screens. Since the Classic Edition only has HDMI output, it cannot be played on CRT screens, and since the Zapper uses the original NES connector, it cannot be plugged into the system.