It's been nearly a year and a half since the Nintendo New 3DS debuted, bringing with it a set of face buttons patterned after the colors of Japanese Super NES controller. While that particular New 3DS feature didn't mean much to American fans, whose 16-bit controllers came in two shades of lavender, those who recognized the visual reference took it as a sign that the New 3DS would play host, at long last, to a portable Super NES Virtual Console.
It turns out that assumption was right... though in Nintendo's inimitable way, they chose not to be predictable about it. Rather than launching the New 3DS with Super NES support right out of the gate, they finally announced, and rolled out, a 16-bit variant of Virtual Console for their portable platform yesterday. As with, well, basically everything Nintendo does, New 3DS's Super NES Virtual Console represents some welcome steps forward as well as some maddening steps backward. That's the Nintendo way, really. Their business model sometimes feels like one big Paula Abdul reference.
As of yesterday, New 3DS owners can download and play three different Super NES classics, with more to come. The particulars of launch selection probably aren't a coincidence; while Nintendo didn't mention of this at the announcement during yesterday's Nintendo Direct, the three games they put up for sale—Super Mario World, Pilotwings, and F-Zero—are the three games that went up for sale alongside the Super NES console when it first launched in America in 1991. As the console shuffled toward its 25th anniversary (this August in the U.S.), the inauguration of its virtual portable rendition with the exact same software lineup early adopters enjoyed all those years ago offers a nice parallel.
And it seems fitting, too, because the Super NES really marked the first time Nintendo gave us a a console that left fans with a nagging sensation of incompleteness. Yeah, the Game Boy was woefully underpowered, but it managed to beat the Lynx and Game Gear to market, so its shortcomings weren't so egregious. But the Super NES, that was a different story. The console could perform all kinds of dizzying tricks, as demonstrated so adroitly by F-Zero and Pilotwings... but its fancy effects came at the cost of raw hardware power, as the console ran on a processor clocked well below the competition's. It took a while for most developers to figure out the best tricks for squeezing maximum performance out of the hardware, and in the end the Super NES missed out on most of the fast-paced action games of the era.
There was also the part where the Super NES was supposed to be backward-compatible with NES games, a feature axed somewhere between the system's unveiling and launch. That nagging sensation of devaluation was a genuine shock to many consumers at the time; we'd never experienced a proper generational console transition between two pieces of hardware by the same developer, and the only major precedents led us to assume the older library of games we'd invested in would remain relevant. After all, the Atari 5200 had offered backward compatibility with 2600 games, and Genesis owners could play Master System software with an inexpensive adapter. But Nintendo decided to cut hardware costs by chopping the Super NES's second slot, despite having specifically built the console around a chip that could be made to run NES games.
Fast-forward to 2016, and here are those same Super NES launch games, debuting alongside a few maddening compromises... some more explicable than others. For starters, Super NES games only work on New 3DS systems, not the standard model. Does it seem bizarre that a handheld launched in 2011 can't emulate the Super NES, even though the PSP (which debuted in 2004) could? Perhaps, but keep in mind that modders and hackers have yet to produce a rock-solid Super NES emulator on standard 3DS systems, and Nintendo tends to shy away from technically deficient releases. That, it is widely believed, is why GBA games only ever appeared as exclusive "ambassador" games on 3DS: They involved a hardware exploit that disrupted the 3DS user experience.
Less explicable, however, is Nintendo's decision to charge full price for these new releases, even if you've already paid for them on a different Virtual Console format. Anyone expecting a redux of the Wii-to-Wii-U VC transition, where games purchased on Wii could be upgraded to Wii U versions for a dollar or two, will be sadly disappointed by Super NES on New 3DS: Nintendo continues to treat the same games for its portable and console platforms as separate products. Unlike any other multi-format digital storefront I can think of, be it iOS or PlayStation Network, Nintendo expects players to pony up separately for console and handheld versions of Virtual Console releases — despite promises of a unified account system (and rumors of the upcoming NX console spanning both portable and console formats) that would seemingly put an end to that.
Many see the high cost of entry for these games as an unfair tax on loyal fans. Whether or not that's true, and whether or not Nintendo's existing account system actually does make it impossible for them to reconcile purchases on multiple platforms through a single account through a single storefront, the $7.99 cost for (each of) these new-old releases has cast a damp, dark cloud over what should be a sunny moment for dedicated Nintendo fans. The Super NES launch trio were great games, and it feels nice to play them legitimately on a handheld system, but the audience most likely to be interested — the players who care about Nintendo classics and actually owns a New 3DS — has already bought these games a few times already. Are they really worth buying yet again?
To Nintendo's credit, they've done a bang-up job with New 3DS's Super NES library. Both NES games on 3DS and Super NES games on Wii U have looked terrible, suffering from dark, smeary visuals that do no favors to these classics. These Super NES renditions, however, are as bright and vivid as you remember them being. Not only that, but for once you actually have a choice in how they're presented; by default, graphics stretch to 4:3 ratio, making them look proportionately correct to how they appeared on old televisions, albeit blurry due to the way the graphics have to be stretched. However, you can optionally chose a pixel-accurate mode that changes the visual ratio to 16:15; this makes everything slightly squashed, but it works better on the 3DS's low-resolution screen.
The games sound, and play, as crisply as they look. While the cramped button placement of the standard New 3DS makes me vaguely regret giving up the XL model, everything else about these Super NES classics is spot-on. The games run without a hiccup, even when emulating those fancy Mode 7 scaling and rotation effects. And they perfectly capture the system's tricky audio; with a pair of nice headphones, these games sound exactly like they do on actual hardware.
As for the contents themselves, there should be little question of quality. Pilotwings manages to make what could have been a cheesy tech demo into a fun and challenging game. F-Zero is still an insanely fast and challenging racer. And Super Mario World remains a masterpiece, which is why it continues to inspire debates over whether or not it was superior to Super Mario Bros. 3 to this day. They're timeless classics... and with such excellent emulation quality on display, these New 3DS renditions offer the best legal way to revisit the Super NES launch lineup without bringing expensive, modified original hardware into play.
Still, for the millions of fans who have already paid for these games on Wii or Wii U, the cost factor prevents the portable Super NES Virtual Console from being the slam-dunk it ought to be. There's also the question of NX, which allegedly launches within the year. Will these purchases carry over once the New 3DS becomes obsolete? Will Nintendo expect us to pay for Super Mario World yet again? While I don't exactly regret forking over $24 for the privilege of test-driving this trio — I love portable gaming, and I love well-handled classic games — I also don't feel as good about buying them as I did the first time they showed up on Virtual Console, nearly a decade ago.