The word retro has become a regular part of video gaming vernacular in recent years but it really wasn’t until Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition came on the scene November 11, 2016 that we witnessed a viable means for a modern video game hardware manufacturer to capitalize on the feeling of nostalgia driving the retro movement.
Those of us who have been active in the retro gaming environment have typically had two means of acquiring the tools necessary to get our old school fix; neither of which did much financially for the companies responsible for the games in question. Arguably the more popular of the two means, emulation has been around for many years. While typically more affordable and easier to come by, the emulation road is often laced with hardware-destroying viruses at best and is illegal with criminal consequences at worst.
The alternative, though perfectly legal, is usually much more difficult to acquire, is generally costly and time consuming and often encounters hardware incompatibility with modern displays: Original media collecting.
While it’s the latter of the two methods often considered the lifeblood of the retro video game community, the sad reality is that neither method compensates the manufacturer, publisher or programmer of the games being played. All those sweet carts and discs with inflated prices to target collectors on eBay have been bought and paid for many, many years ago.
The secondary market is, of course, a living breathing entity unto itself; a sort of miniature Dow Jones Industrial Average where only the private parties involved agree to the pricing set by supply and demand (sometimes real, often times perceived).
This all brings us back to my original paragraph. Nintendo, one of few OEMs still around from the days of when much of what we consider retro was new, operated on the hunch that despite the public’s ability to easily and cheaply emulate, that despite the public’s ability to pick up an NES and some used carts off eBay, that the power of nostalgia (wrapped in a neat little package) would justify creating the NES Classic Edition.
The gamble, as is always so clearly seen in hindsight, paid dividends. Nintendo produced and sold roughly 2.3 million NES Classic Editions from November 2016 through April 2017, with retailers unable to keep up with demand.
Now of course why Nintendo would foolishly discontinue the product when demand so thoroughly overwhelmed supply is truly anybody’s guess but these questionable business tactics aren’t the point of this column’s discussion and could likely fill several lengthy tomes by themselves.
The point here is that Nintendo validated the theory that a retro-based market is yet alive and well amidst this, the 4K Ultra High-Definition, virtual reality, haptic feedback, constantly connected video game generation. If Nintendo’s ability to move out 2.3 million Classics in five months doesn’t impress you, consider this – the original NES managed to sell only 50,000 consoles in that same time-frame back in 1985.
Ironically, the Classic Edition itself operates on a system of emulation. Legal, fully licensed of course but emulation nevertheless. This is a process that has shown promise in recent years as far back as when home consoles were able to patch into the internet. Nintendo itself has enjoyed success on their Wii Virtual Console, which emulated a staggering 397 titles ranging in system from console to home computing to arcade.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, between Virtual Consoles and the NES Classic Edition was that the former could never be fully attributed as a hardware seller so much as a side attraction in addition to the console’s disc-based primary library. The NES Classic (and subsequent Super NES Classic) came without the ability to add additional software titles. Hardware sales were based on the ability to play retro titles alone (30 on the NES and 21 on the SNES).
So Nintendo was the first to capitalize on this untapped market segment then? Not exactly. The truth of the matter is that retro games have been used to sell plug ‘n play controllers and stand alone retro systems for years. Perhaps the most popular of these coming in the form of the Sega Genesis Flashbacks; by which Sega licensed both software as well as hardware to ATGames; resulting in a console that not only contains an internal library of games but can also accept and play the original Sega Genesis cartridge media as well.
ATGames also holds the licenses to many other Flashback branded retro video game systems including Atari, Colecovision and Intellivision. These systems, however, are unable to run the original respective cartridges and simply emulate game ROMs from their internal memory.
All of this brings us back to Nintendo: Just like with the original NES rising like the proverbial Phoenix out of the ashes that was the Great Video Game Crash, Nintendo once again proves the timelessness of their early creations yet evokes a response within the world’s collective psyche’ powerful enough to get consumers to take action with their wallets.
The reality of retro video gaming is that it has endured long before the coining of its own name; before the receiving of its label within the hierarchy of video gamedom. For many of us, the desire to evolve with contemporary trends simply wasn’t powerful enough to lure us away from appeal of what we had already. In cliche’ terminology; no need to fix that which wasn’t broken. For others, retro games may well be something experienced for the very first time; an opportunity to experience video gaming from a simpler time technologically.
I appreciate Nintendo’s commitment to keeping their own retro efforts in the limelight because of these reasons. And while I was one of the fortunate ones who managed to secure an NES Classic Edition thanks to my brother-in-law’s work connection, I shudder to think of how many times Nintendo’s gotten me to purchase Super Mario 3 since 1989.