Plug-in and play machines like the Atari consoles from the days of yore (early 2000s) have given way to official "mini" consoles from companies like Nintendo, Sega, and now Sony with its recently announced PlayStation Classic. For some, these consoles are an easy way to play licensed retro games with a level of confidence in the quality of the product. But as retro games become hot commodities again, what does this signal for retro gamers and historians?
"We're really talking about two different things here: access and preservation," game historian Frank Cifaldi of GameHistory.org tells USgamer. "Something like a mini console does a ton for easy access to older games, which is awesome. All games should be accessible to everyone, and the easier we can make that, the better. I want the artists of the future to be inspired by the past."
However, preservation is something different entirely, and a new crop of retro consoles won't necessarily aid in historical efforts. "Unless they're going to pull a Star Fox 2 on us and offer something nobody's seen before, or maybe improve emulation on something that was incorrect in the past, this isn't really doing anything new for preserving these titles for a future generation, no. It's just providing easy access for games that are already well-documented and preserved."
Star Fox 2 was a never-before-released sequel to the original Star Fox on the SNES. The sequel, also developed for the SNES, never saw the light of day, though it was whispered amongst retro enthusiasts for years. The 2017 launch of the SNES Classic was the first time Star Fox 2 ever made it to market, making the SNES Classic a unique launch platform as well as a retro throwback console.
Matthew Callis of Superfamicom.org agrees with Cifaldi that these consoles are a great way to get a quick shot of retro gaming, while not necessarily offering anything to video game historians. "Most people want the hits, [to] remember to relive old times, and these cheap consoles give them just that," says Callis. But when it comes to these mini consoles as objects of history Callis notes they're more like a "cheapo DVD box set of public domain movies or TV shows."
"Licensed? Neat. Nothing is really being preserved, just [attempts] to extend rights for longer and milk it for all it is worth," says Callis. "If the machines actually played the games on modern TVs that people already owned or could dump from their own carts, that would be a different story."
Historian, archivist, and owner of Textfiles.com, Jason Scott looks at the renewed interest in retro games more from the company's side, and what these mini consoles represent for them. "[Retro consoles] force companies to confront their legacies and they're excellent insight into how seriously they take their works as historically significant," Scott tells USgamer.
And while Scott says these new re-releases of retro classics shouldn't rewrite a game's history, there are some benefits in knowing that a company isn't just throwing away its past. "It can't hurt is what I'm saying. But I suspect there are titles in these consoles that no company on Earth knows how to bring back through regular channels." Titles like Star Fox 2, which was never released until it came out in the SNES Classic.
If historians see two sides to the retro mini consoles, consumers and retro enthusiasts are asking a different question: "Are these retro consoles worth it?" The consumerist perspective offers insight into what retro enthusiasts value in retro minis (as one non-buyer on the Retro Gamer forum says, the PS1 era is too "modern" for them to have any interest in the PlayStation Classic). Opinions seem evenly divided on the PlayStation Classic for a variety of reasons, ranging from the PlayStation Classic's library, software availability, and even its age.
Over at the Retro Gamer forums user HdE calls these retro consoles "dinky" and seemingly hoped for something more substantial from Sony:
"There are some unknown quantities here. The controllers will need to be decent quality, or it's a dealbreaker. And, as somebody else has said here, 20 games is shameful. Sony could double that number fairly easily, I suspect. Even allowing for issues regarding licensing, were talking about SONY [sic], for goodness' sake.
If anyone could make miracles happen with this dinky console format, it'd be them. But at the current price point, it already feels like a lazy cash grab to me."
User Matt_B treats retro mini consoles as a separate category of product, "objets d'art" as they say:
"I think it looks good. These things sell themselves on their value as objets d'art first and foremost, and it helps that it was a design classic that marked the transition of games consoles between something you'd tuck away into a child's bedroom and that would be proudly put on display in your lounge."
Others aren't as impressed with the system seeing as though the PSN store has a sizeable PS One Classics library that's playable on a PS3. User shiftytigger hopes to see rarer classics similar to how the SNES Mini featured Earthbound. "[M]aybe we will even see Klonoa // Tobal No1 or even all those high price collectors games like Castlevania [Symphony of the Night], Kula World , Vib Ribbon[,] etc."
If historians are interested in what can be preserved, buyers are interested in what they can play, and that question is tied to the rise of retro mini consoles. Retro gaming in general is seeing its stock rise as of late. Nintendo's NES and SNES Classic consoles have done gangbusters for the company and NES games are now being offered as part of its new Switch Online subscription service. But as companies dig into its vast library of games, sites that offered cracked ROMs of rare classics are shutting down.
While the legality of such sites is questionable, they allowed access to games that are either impossible to find, or difficult to purchase. As companies find new ways to sell retro games, the need to lockdown old games that can be re-sold might comes at the expense of other old games that slip through the cracks. And when those games can neither be sold or found online, that's how we start to lose a bit of the history of video games.