NES Mini hardware review

By Mean Machines Staff - 15 Nov, 2016

NES Mini

NES Mini

It's fair to say that the announcement of NES Classic Mini earlier this year came as something of a shock, despite the fact that the concept of reproduction consoles isn't a particularly new one. Nintendo's old rival Sega has been pumping out licenced Mega Drive and Master System variants for years, and we've also seen third-party imitators like the Retron 5 and Game Freak which offer support for original cartridges for multiple systems. However, the Nintendo effect should never be underestimated, and the fact that the NES Classic Mini has been given the gravitas of a fully-blown hardware release speaks volumes about how seriously the Kyoto veteran is taking this particular venture.

Now we've finally had the chance to get our sweaty hands on the NES Classic Mini we're pleased to discover it's everything we hoped it would be; the 30 games included with this alarmingly small system feel like holy relics for veteran players and established some of the biggest properties in video gaming history. Emulation is excellent and Nintendo has introduced some welcome modern features such as screen filters, suspend points and multiple save slots. This isn't some cheeky cash-grab like Sega's questionable and often half-baked efforts; Nintendo is deadly serious about celebrating the legacy of the console that changed everything. That doesn't mean, however, that it's immune from dropping some typically Nintendo-like howlers along the way, which we will come to later in the review.

What Is The NES Classic Mini?

This system is essentially a pint-sized facsimile of the original NES, which launched in 1985 and was based on the same hardware as the Japanese Famicom, released two years beforehand. While it retains the same basic design as the original, it lacks a functioning cartridge slot and connects to your television via a HDMI connection. It's powered via a Micro USB socket at the back, which means you can use one of your TV's USB ports to power it, if you have one. 30 games are included but it's not possible to add more titles.

What Games Are Included?

30 titles are included with the NES Classic Mini, a mixture of first-party classics like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong as well as famous third-party releases such as Final Fantasy, Castlevania and Bubble Bobble. Digital manuals for these games aren't included on the console itself, but you can scan an on-screen QR code on your smartphone to gain access to them online, which is a neat touch.

The full list is below:
  • Balloon Fight
  • Bubble Bobble
  • Castlevania
  • Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
  • Donkey Kong
  • Donkey Kong. Jr
  • Double Dragon II: The Revenge
  • Dr. Mario
  • Excitebike
  • Final Fantasy
  • Galaga
  • Ghosts 'n Goblins
  • Gradius
  • Ice Climber
  • Kid Icarus
  • Kirby's Adventure
  • Mario Bros.
  • Mega Man 2
  • Metroid
  • Pac-Man
  • Punch-Out!! Featuring Mr. Dream
  • Ninja Gaiden
  • StarTropics
  • Super C
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 2
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Tecmo Bowl
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
What's In The Box?

We're reviewing the UK version of the system, which comes with a controller and HDMI cable. There is no power supply in the box, but the console can be powered via a USB connection using the bundled Micro USB cable. If you've got a phone charger in the house (who doesn't?) then you're all set. Alternatively, you can power the NES Classic Mini using a USB port; most modern TVs have at least one. There's also an instruction manual in the box which explains how to set everything up.

What We Like

It may not cost as much as a major console release but Nintendo has cut no corners when it comes to production quality. The main console itself really is a dead ringer for the original, right down the type of plastic used in its construction. Naturally the cartridge slot doesn't open and the controller ports are different, but you still get the uncanny feeling of being a giant holding a normal-sized NES. It's an excellent reproduction.

The controllers are also excellent, and feel just as solid and accurate as those which shipped with the original machine. We may have become accustomed to more ergonomic controllers in recent years with more buttons and sticks, but there's something reassuring about grasping the NES pad in your hands. It just feels right, despite the decades of design progress that has happened since it was first conceived in the mid-'80s.

The moment you power on the NES Classic Mini it's clear that Nintendo has put a lot of care and attention into the user experience. The menu UI is colourful and eye-catching, boasting original artwork, catchy music and cool animations. Selecting a title is easy and it's also a breeze to manage your save states – you can even lock a particular save if you don't want anyone else to accidentally overwrite it. Each game accepts up to four individual save games, which is handy if the console is being used in a household with several avid players.

Emulation is, as far as we can discern, faultless – right down to the infamous sprite flicker which occurs when the screen is crowded. Everything feels right, including the music and frame rate, and Nintendo has done an exemplary job of replicating the system's performance. This is also a considerable step up from the emulation quality we've become used to on 3DS and Wii U, in visual terms at least; the image is much crisper and better defined on the NES classic Mini. For European gamers, too, there's the joy of playing slick 60Hz variations of these classic games.

On the topic of video, the NES Classic Mini outputs via HDMI and the unit offers three screen modes. The default is a 4:3 aspect ratio which, while not being widescreen, fills out the display better than the pixel-perfect option, which tries to replicate perfectly square pixels on your HD TV set. The third option overlays a CRT filter complete with old-school scan-lines, and makes everything look quite fuzzy – a deliberate move, as the original NES only supported RF and composite. We prefer the pixel-perfect option as the stretched 4:3 mode suffers from some strange "shimmer" effects when the screen is moving in certain games.

During gameplay, stabbing the console's reset button creates a suspend point. You can, if you so wish, place this save point in one of the game's four available slots, and even lock it to prevent it being lost. This means that you don't have to complete games in a single sitting, and the ability to save wherever you wish frees you from the restrictions of those titles which – in their original form – boasted battery backup saves at predetermined points in the game. In short, it's a great system which works very well.

What We Don't Like

The controller which comes with the NES Classic Mini is fantastic, aside from one quite crucial element: the cord. At just 30 inches the cable which joins the pad to the console itself is far too small, forcing you to sit right in front of the TV in order to play. You can use the HDMI cable to move the system away from the television and therefore gain some additional distance, but you're then hamstrung by the length of the Micro USB cable which provides power.

Why Nintendo has decided to use such a short cable is anyone's guess; even the cord on the original pads was longer than this. In an era where players are used to totally wireless controllers it feels a little too much like a trip to an unwelcome part of the past, which is perhaps Nintendo's intention – it's also worth noting that to suspend a game you have to press the reset button (unless you have a Wii Classic Controller handy), so having the console within arm's reach is necessary. Even so, it's little wonder that third-party accessory manufacturers are making extender cables for the console as well as wireless control options, but as far as official options are concerned there are none – Nintendo expects you to sit right in front of your TV to play this system. For some households, that's simply not going to be feasible (especially with TVs mounted on walls), and that might make the NES Classic Mini a bit of a wasted purchased for some players.

Cable length aside, there's little else to grumble about here. Sure, it would have been nice to be able to add more games in the future – either via SD card or via a digital download – and there are some included titles that could and possibly should have been ignored in favour of more worthy picks, but on the whole the games on offer are popular (and wonderfully varied) choices. It is a shame, however, that when you consider the abundance of genre-defining games released on the console during its lifespan, buyers of the NES Classic Mini are limited to just 30. Given the vast number of titles already available on the Virtual Console, 50 or even 100 games would surely have been possible (not to mention preferable), even if it meant an increase in price.

Verdict

It would have been so easy for Nintendo to make the NES Classic Mini a low-effort, cookie-cutter release and generate a bit of easy additional revenue this holiday season in lieu of a 2016 Switch launch, but thankfully that isn't the case. Aside from the frustratingly short controller cable and locked-down nature of the game library, this is a commendable love-letter to the NES generation. It's solidly-built, lovingly packaged and performs superbly.

Roll on the SNES Classic Mini.


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