A few days ago, Eurogamer editor-in-chief Tom Bramwell observed that the Beyoncé-style tactic of dropping a completed album on the public without warning would be a welcome tactic for games publishers. Evidently Nintendo was listening, because two days later they gave us NES Remix, a game launched on eShop without a hint of advance warning.
At $14.99, NES Remix is even priced like a CD. This fact has clogged up a lot of the online discussion of the game. Look, like it or not, the sooner you come to terms with the fact that Nintendo openly refuses to race iOS pricing to the bottom, the sooner we can stop wasting time on stupid tangents about how games aren't cheap enough for you. Pricing is, as they say, what it is.
Besides, this game itself is no slapdash throwaway effort. Yes, it tosses a bunch of old NES titles into a cement mixer to tumble them into fragments and mash-ups, but developers Nintendo and indieszero have a lot of thought into how these disparate pieces work. I've seen comparisons to the microgames of WarioWare, and sometimes that's true -- some challenges consist of nothing more than performing the most rudimentary action possible, such as jumping a single barrel in a tiny slice of Donkey Kong or walking into a cave in The Legend of Zelda and grabbing a sword. This hardly represents the sum total of NES Remix, however, and eventually single challenges consist of much more complex tasks, like completing the final stage of a Donkey Kong game or running through a full level of Super Mario Bros.
No, what we really have in NES Remix is a distillation of the Nintendo design process, broken down into separate chunks. Nintendo's best games work so well because they teach you to play as you go; not coincidentally, the least entertaining sets you'll face here come from lesser titles like Ice Climber and Mario Bros.
I find NES Remix especially fascinating for entirely personal reasons. Over the past year, I've been writing a series of blog posts on the intuitive (and often unintuitive) design of classic games, many of which were made by Nintendo, and NES Remix is pretty much that project in video game form. The minigames here dissect titles like Donkey Kong Jr. and Excitebike, breaking their individual components into standalone tasks that grow progressively more complex, then bringing it all together with challenges that require you to synthesize and combine what you've learned. This is simply how the best games work, and all NES Remix does is show you what things look like behind the curtain by breaking each component of game design into a discrete event.
But don't make the mistake of thinking NES Remix is merely an academic exercise. All of that is incidental to the fact that it's a fun, addictive collection of hundreds of minigames based on familiar properties. You don't have to care in the least about what makes video games tick, you just have to enjoy increasingly complex tasks of skill as you race to earn bragging rights. NES Remix grades your performance with one to three stars, with a secret fourth rank (three glowing stars) for truly superb performances. You also unlock stamps to use in Miiverse as you go along, just like in Super Mario 3D World; apparently stamps have become Nintendo's answer to Achievements.
Even this is all just window dressing, though. The reason you'll really keep playing NES Remix is the eponymous Remix mode, which you unlock by earning stars. As the name suggests, Remixes go the extra mile with these old games, applying tricky graphical effects and even smashing characters into new settings. You may be able to win a race in Excitebike, but can you do it in the dark with only your bike's headlights to reveal a portion of the track ahead? Can you beat the first level of Super Mario Bros. entirely in silhouette? Can you finish world 5-1 if it's suddenly covered in ice? The remixes constantly put surprising twists on familiar mechanics and situations, and while I haven't unlocked them all quite yet you'd better believe I intend to try.
The only question I have after playing NES Remix is, what took so long? This seems like it should have been an obvious project for Nintendo, so the fact that it's only now coming out is a little hard to believe. Well, OK, I do have one other question -- why is it only on Wii U? There's nothing here that couldn't have worked just as well on 3DS. This could have been a quick and easy way for Nintendo to experiment with a cross-buy, cross-save venture, but it looks like Sony still totally crushes Nintendo when it comes to platform synergy.
Until the SNES era, I grew up in a console-less household; all our family's gaming was done on Atari 8-bit and ST computers until then. Consequently, I missed out on a lot of NES games at the time they originally came out and consequently only had a passing familiarity with the most well-known stuff like Super Mario Bros.
Trying to go back to a lot of these NES games without the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia perched on my nose is difficult. I haven't bought many NES-era Virtual Console titles because I don't have much frame of reference for many of them and consequently am somewhat hesitant to spend money on them -- even though it's not much in many cases.
What NES Remix does, among other things that we'll get to in a moment, is provide a brilliant taster of a selection of NES games, both classic and... not-so-classic. Through the various minigames, you not only learn how the game's basic mechanics work, as Jeremy says, but you also get a pretty good feel for the game as a whole, too. It is, in many ways, the world's best demo -- and in fact, the game conveniently provides a link to the eShop so you can purchase the full Virtual Console versions of all 16 games should you find yourself particularly enjoying one.
It's more than that, though; it's a surprisingly sprawling series of gaming challenges that start off deceptively simple but gradually work their way towards demanding nigh-superhuman reflexes and skills. Fortunately, the game is paced so immaculately that by the time you reach the tougher challenges, you're more than capable of handling them. It is Nintendo's game design philosophy distilled down to its purest form, and a damned enjoyable game in its own right.
Totally, completely and utterly recommended. Now roll on Super NES Remix!
The Final Analysis
- Visuals: What you see is what you get with this package of 8-bit challenges, though the remixes do some inventive and clever things with those ancient sprites.
- Audio: Familiar, iconic music and sound effects will pluck at your hindbrain in the best way possible, though the newly remixed incidental tunes tend to be strident.
- Interface: Pretty simple and straightforward, though it does continue the irritating Virtual Console trend of mapping NES buttons to the equivalent Wii U buttons (despite how awkward that proves to be) with no control customization. It's 2013, Nintendo. You forgot again.
- Lasting Appeal: NES Remix offers hours' worth of mini-events, and the scoring system encourages replay for perfectionism. The one critical flaw is the use of Miiverse in place of proper leaderboards (as opposed to complementing them).
Simple, addictive, and incredibly replayable, NES Remix is one of the smartest games Nintendo has made in ages. No one in gaming (save perhaps Sega) owns as rich a back catalog as Nintendo, and this is a great way to rework all those musty black-box NES games into a form that feel palatable to a contemporary audience. It even manages to make Urban Champion kind of fun; truly, a Christmas miracle.