I was listening to the Bill Simmons Podcast earlier this week when the host unexpectedly brought up the NES Classic, which he hoped to pick up so he could play with his kids.
"It's not like landing an airplane," he said. "You can just play Tecmo Bowl and there are only four plays and my son can get that."
It's not like landing an airplane.
You hear that line a lot with lapsed gamers, especially ones in their late 30s and early 40s. As graphics have improved, games have become steadily more complicated, with even comparatively accessible first-person shooters like Call of Duty demanding an innate familiarity with the entire controller. Plenty of adults own consoles these days, but there's a real longing for the comparative simplicity of the 8-bit era, warts and all.
Enter the NES Classic, which simply can't seem to stay on shelves. It's not just that Nintendo declined to ship enough stock (though that's certainly been part of it): It has a certain innate appeal to anyone who grew up playing games, particularly the NES. It hearkens back to the days when you could simply plug in a cartridge and start playing without having to connect to the Internet or download updates.
But it's even more than that. After all, retro consoles are nothing new. All-in-one Atari consoles have been available at places like Target for years now, and "Sega Genesis Classic Game Consoles" have been available for ages now. But these consoles have frequently been cheaply made, and their emulation has been middling to poor. The aforementioned Sega Genesis Classic, for instance, is well-known for its horrible sound emulation issues.
The market was hungry for the deal: a proper retro console that could double as a classic game player and a conversation piece. And Nintendo was uniquely positioned to deliver it.
A moment in time
Nintendo is unique among classic consoles in that it had virtually no competition in the home console market for close to a decade. Iconic as the Atari 2600 might have been, it was still mixed up with competitors like ColecoVision and Magnavox. It was also still very early days for the medium, and while games like Pac-Man became bonafide sensations, their impact was mostly felt in the arcades.
When the NES came along, it stepped into the void of a market that had collapsed under its own weight. With the competition in total disarray, it was able to leverage historically great marketing and accessible design to appeal to millions of young Americans. True, not every gamer played the NES, but those that did found that it left an indelible mark on their childhood. Even non-gamers were apt to be able to recognize the familiar mustachioed visage of Mario, who became so popular that he had a higher Q score than Mickey Mouse.
In the years that followed, the market became more diluted as first Sega came along, then Sony and Microsoft, and eventually mobile. Before that happened, though, Nintendo became a kind of cultural link to an era of entertainment that has become lodged in our collective memory banks. The Red Letter Media review of the Star Trek reboot actually has a pretty good image illustrating why that's the case. (Note: My apologies to anyone who just lost an hour to rewatching the Plinkett review).
Basically, the further back in time you go, the clearer your memory is of certain entertainment brands because there wasn't so much competition. The NES appeared in an era where we didn't have Netflix, smartphones, or even many videogames, making its impact that much greater.
What's actually impressive is that Nintendo has managed to remain popular and relevant while much of its competition has fallen off the map. Games like The Legend of Zelda and Pokemon still inspire a kind of mania among hardcore gamers, and plenty of twentysomethings look back wistfully on growing up with the Nintendo 64 and the GameCube. In one way or another, Nintendo and its beloved characters have continued to remain synonymous with gaming.
But while a hypothetical SNES Classic or N64 Classic might still generate excitement among hardcore gamers, it's hard to imagine it resonating outward into the mainstream in the same as way as the NES Classic. Both consoles launched with considerably more competition, fracturing the market and pulling kids in many different directions. The medium also matured in the '90s, and wasn't quite the novelty that it was in the '80s, though it was still very popular. Thus, while the SNES in particular is a highly-regarded gaming console, it's not quite as iconic as the the NES. After all, there's nothing quite like your first love.
Seal of quality
Of course, being a nostalgic videogame property isn't necessarily enough either. Just look at Sega and Sonic the Hedgehog: with respect to Sonic fans, the series went off the rails a long time ago, and it has yet to really recover. A "real" Genesis Classic might do well with hardcore fans, but Sega's properties no longer have quite the same cultural cachet, much as we love a round of Streets of Rage 2.
Nintendo, by contrast, has carefully curated its image over the years. It has been careful with (most) of its properties, releasing only one or two games per generation. When there are signs that interest in a property is waning, as in the case of New Super Mario Bros., they usually step back and wait for interest to reset.
That, combined with Nintendo's reputation for quality, tends to generate rabid interest in their games. Fans are deeply frustrated by Metroid's apparent disappearance; but you know that the second a new one gets announced, they will go bonkers. Just look at the response of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
How does this apply to the NES Classic? Here's how: Nintendo's properties are still hugely influential, and interest in classics like Super Mario Bros. 3 remains high despite wide availability across the 3DS, Wii, Wii U, and even the GBA. Moreover, Nintendo's name recognition and reputation for quality is enough to drive interesting in almost anything they do. Consider Miitomo: a middling app that was nevertheless able to burn up the charts before flatlining. If anyone but Nintendo had made Miitomo, it would have been dead on arrival.
With that in mind, the NES Classic checks all the boxes for Nintendo: it's a slick-looking little console that instantly recalls the company's heyday back in the '80s; it has a carefully curated list of classic games (Castlevania! Tecmo Bowl!); its emulation is on point, and most importantly, its accessible. Unlike the Wii or the Wii U, the NES Classic doesn't require you to navigate your way through a complex series of menus and an eShop to download a game—you plug it in and it works.
Could it be better? Oh heck yeah. It's not possible to download extra games to the device, and as everyone has pointed out, the cords are way too short. If Nintendo had wanted, the NES Classic could have been a real collector's piece, with every game featuring a digital exhibit like the one in Kirby anniversary. But as far as capturing the attention of lapsed fans, it gets the job done. If nothing else, Nintendo has once again proven that they really know how to get the packaging right.
Ultimately, the NES Classic is a testament to the power of nostalgia, branding, and accessibility. Nintendo was in a unique position to leverage all three, and that's why you see not just hardcore fans but 40-something adults scrambling to try and pick one up. Hell, I own pretty much all of the games on the NES Classic many times over, and even I'm sorely tempted just by virtue of how cool it looks.
Artificially low supply or not, the NES Classic was destined to be a hit. And in that respect, it may be one of a kind.