Hey Big N, What’s Next?
By and large, we human-types like things in linear fashion. We binge watch our shows by season and by episode, we like our phone books alphabetized and when it comes to experiencing our video games from years ago, we sort of expect a natural progression there too.
This point is especially pertinent when it comes to the actions of Nintendo; who have recently discovered gold in the form of the retro market thanks to their plug & play NES and SNES Classic Editions Minis.
When the original 8-bit NES Classic Edition came out in 2016, the world was awash with rumors of Nintendo following suit with a similar self-contained package using titles from their 16-bit Super Nintendo library. What began as simple speculation came to be when in 2017 North America received the SNES Classic Edition Mini.
Natural progression tells us that won’t be the last we see of Nintendo’s Classic Editions but where they go from here brings up some very interesting discussions. The net, it seems, wants to believe very badly that the N64 will be the next system to get the Classic Edition plug & play treatment. So much so that box art mock ups are all over with a little searching, Youtubers are claiming to have deciphered the list of games it will include (if these predictions are true, we’re only looking at 19 games this time around).
Search the term N64 Mini in Youtube and be prepared for information overload. Posters here claim that the hardware confirmation from Nintendo has leaked, that they have the official trailers, screen caps, gameplay footage and on and on. Of course truthfully Nintendo has released absolutely nothing about their next Classic Edition effort; or for that matter that there will even be another. It stands to reason that they will: They have been selling out on entire production runs of these retro game machines the world over and stirring up a ridiculously inflated secondary market (scalpers) in the process. Demand has outpaced supply not once but twice in recent years. They would be foolish indeed to leave the segment untapped after two successful entries.
But whether or not the N64 is to be the next target on their list isn’t so cut and dry. Perhaps it is so at a passing glance; after all, the progression of home hardware from Nintendo went NES, SNES, N64 right? Not so fast! Discounting all of the mobile efforts by the big N (which includes several Gameboy iterations), the next semi home console after the SNES would be the Virtual Boy. You do remember the Virtual Boy, don’t you? A bizarre bipod-like contraption that had its player gaze into a pair of stereoscopic goggles while holding an M-shaped controller?
The year was 1995 and while the rest of the world was amped on Sony’s Playstation and Sega’s Saturn, Nintendo was still a solid year away from releasing what would become the N64. To tide its consumer base over, the Virtual Boy hit shelves with claims of an interactive 3D gaming experience like no other before it. Well, they did manage to provide an experience all its own but perhaps due to factors Nintendo would rather not talk about.
The whole project had its plug pulled in less than a year and closed up shop with a library of merely 22 games. In addition to displaying only in monochrome (red and black, no less), complaints began pouring in from users of headaches, eyestrain, motion sickness and so on. All told, Nintendo would manage to move only 800,000 systems worldwide and never even bothered releasing the failed experiment to Europe.
Now if you’re thinking why in the world would Nintendo bother releasing so failed a piece of hardware as a modern plug and play retro unit, you’d have a good point. But do keep in mind that a majority of the complaints surrounding the system stemmed from two key factors: 1) The dual LED display that was viewed as if through binoculars made people sick. 2) The red and black color scheme was horrendous in a time-frame when full color 3D graphics were making their way to consoles. Both of these concerns could be remedied simply and cheaply in made-for-TV emulation. And since under a million units ever saw the light of day in the entire world, Nintendo is essentially sitting on 22 very rare games that few have ever experienced (and there were a few good ones in there like Wario Land).
Of course the biggest downside to all of this is that the Virtual Boy was essentially a 1-player only machine and a good part of the appeal of the retro plug & play experience is grabbing a friend for some couch co-op. There had been plans to release a link accessory that would allow for chaining various Virtual Boys together for simultaneous game play but the system’s lifespan had ended so rapidly, it was never released (and thus no games developed to make use of the technology).
Now if Nintendo decided to start bringing out their true mobile games to TV hardware (and don’t think there wouldn’t be a market for such things, the Super Gameboy attachment which allowed Gameboy games to be played through the SNES on a TV proved highly successful), the options would become nearly limitless. The original Gameboy (including the Color) sold 118.69-million units worldwide and amassed a library of 1,049 games in the process.
The Gameboy Advance sold close to 90-million units and had a library of 1,519 games. The DS boasts 154.02-million units sold worldwide and a library of over 1,837 games. The 3DS is coming in around 80-million sold and boasts a still-growing library.
The numbers quickly becoming too staggering to even contemplate. All told, between the three iterations, we’re looking at well over 5,000 games. Fortunately Nintendo has shown very little interest in crossing their mobile customer base with their home console one; well that is until the Switch came along. But that’s clearly a subject for a more contemporary-minded journalist to tackle.
So back to the N64 Classic Edition. Could it work? Theoretically. At least from a hardware perspective. From an economic one, things begin to get fuzzy. The type of emulation required to accurately run the larger file N64 titles is more complicated and difficult to get right. We know Nintendo’s got the chops as proven by their Virtual Console versions of most N64 games but making that software stable enough to fuel a (likely weaker) stand-alone box is something they have yet to exhibit.
Next up is the issue of controllers. Unlike the NES and SNES pads, the N64 introduced both more technically advanced controllers (which included an analog stick) as well as hardware (and many games) that supported 4-player simultaneous gameplay. In terms of increased manufacturing cost alone, it’s likely Nintendo would have to go back to including just a single pack-in controller. And hopefully much better availability of additional controllers.
The last, and certainly biggest, obstacle standing in Nintendo’s way in making a N64 Classic Edition is the simple fact that they would be competing with themselves. How so? Many of their popular N64 titles are still able to command a pretty decent price in the Virtual Console as well as warrant ports to their portable systems. In other words, the N64 library may not be quite old enough to warrant packing up and selling off in an emulation package.
Sony has been slow to get on the plug & play retro console bandwagon for the simple fact that their earliest system lands squarely within the hardware generation containing the N64. Too new, as it were, to begin banking on nostalgia to push units. In Sony’s case specifically, they emphasized backward compatibility with each new hardware release to keep fans of the generations prior playing on their hardware; a trend Nintendo has yet to adopt.
In any event, while the concept of an N64 Classic Edition Mini is certainly an exciting one, and while it makes perhaps the most sense out of Nintendo’s progression of hardware options, it is not without some hefty drawbacks that may keep it on hiatus for several years to come.
I personally would rather Nintendo cater to the hungry retro marketplace they’ve roused by making NES and SNES Classic Editions more readily available. If not simply by re-releasing the two systems that sold out in record fashion, then perhaps by creating various editions of the hardware with different games pre-installed on them. Doing this would make the hardware even more appealing to collectors and completists and as an additional bonus, puts more of the system’s library back into circulation. The license holders of the individual titles would surely love such an opportunity to cash in on properties they’ve long assumed buried and forgotten as well. Nintendo, the consumer and the software companies themselves would all benefit from this approach. That’s what’s known in the industry as a win/win/win.