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Nintendo NES Classic Edition review: A box of nostalgia

Nintendo NES Classic Edition
Nintendo’s NES Classic Edition is a pint-sized version of the original console.

It hasn’t been an easy couple of years for Nintendo. One moment, they’re raking in the dough as the world gleefully swings controllers at virtual tennis balls with the Wii; the next, they’re making excuses for a pseudo-tablet connected to a console with the Wii U.

But gamers stick with the company — obsess over it, even — because Nintendo is part of our DNA. And most of its classics date back to its very first home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES.

Playing those classic games is easier said than done these days. You can try hooking up an old NES, but you’ll need a fair bit of luck that everything is working as it should. Sure, you can download emulated games for various systems, but that gets pricey, and just doesn’t feel right.

The NES Classic Edition, however, does. Available for $60, the Classic Edition is a pint-sized, plug-and-play replica of the old-school NES that delivers 30 picture-perfect NES games. Revolutionary? No. Totally awesome? Yes, sir.

Of course, the NES Classic Edition isn’t an exact clone of its ancestor. Nintendo added a few modern-day tweaks to the tiny system, including an HDMI out that lets you quickly connect the Classic Edition to your TV via HDMI cable. That’s a big step up from the crummy component cables packed with similar plug-and-play units.

A USB connector and AC adapter power the NES Classic Edition, though you can plug it into any powered USB port, such as the one on a laptop, console, or newish TV. Two controller ports on the front let you connect a slightly smaller, wired version of the original NES gamepad (only one comes with the system). But these ports are proprietary, so don’t think about using your old NES controllers.

For that matter, don’t think about adding new games or digging through your garage for your old carts. That’s because the cartridge cover is sealed shut since the game themselves are stored on the system’s internal memory. To get them working, you simply press the power button and boom, 30 NES games appear on screen, waiting for you to play.

NES Classic Edition games.
The NES Classic Edition comes with 30 games.

Other companies have released these sorts of plug-and-play systems before, but they’re typically low-quality devices. I bought one of those janky Atari plug-and-play units on impulse while waiting in the checkout line at a Bed, Bath and Beyond, and it’s terrible. Most plug-and-play systems are a frustrating waste of money slapped together by third-party manufacturers who don’t care much for good emulation or sturdy hardware.

The Classic Edition, however, is a high-quality Nintendo jam through and through, and it shows. The game lineup is tremendous: the first two “Legend of Zeldas,” “Punch Out!!,” all three NES “Super Mario Bros.,” two “Castlevanias,” “Mega Man 2,” “Metroid,” “Kid Icarus”, even overlooked gems like “Gradius” and “StarTropics” are here. It’s a smart library that delivers enough epic NES games that you’ll easily forgive the fact that “River City Ransom” and “Metal Gear” were somehow overlooked.

Best of all, the games run flawlessly. Three screen options are available: an old-school CRT emulation, standard 4:3, and a “pixel perfect” mode that puts big chunky black bars on the sides of the screen in order to turn each pixel into a perfect square. While I appreciate the scan-lined CRT option, it’s intentionally pretty ugly. The other two are much more user-friendly.

Nintendo drives home the nostalgia factor by including digital versions of the original game manuals, maps and all. I have vivid memories of ogling the “Legend of Zelda” map in junior high and doing it again sent me right back. The ability to save any game at any point using four different save slots is also great. Considering how hard some of these games are — I’m staring at you, “Ghosts’N Goblins,” you naked jerk — it’s a real treat.

But where the software experience is largely terrific, the NES Classic Edition is constrained by a few baffling hardware decisions. For instance, saving your game requires backing out to the Home screen, but you can’t do that with your gamepad. You’ll need to press the little ‘Reset’ button the unit itself, which is incredibly unintuitive. And while that might sound like a pain since you’ll have to get off your the couch to do it, you probably won’t be sitting on your sofa to begin with thanks to the Classic Edition’s exceptionally short cords.

NES Classic Edition controller.
Even the NES Classic Edition’s controller is tiny.

The included HDMI and power cables, for example, are far from lengthy, which wouldn’t be a huge problem were the gamepad cord longer than just 2.5 feet. That’s several feet shorter than the original NES controller’s cord. Put this all together and you wind up with a system that requires you to sit or stand annoyingly close to your TV. That was fine back in the day when we played games on sepia-toned 27-inch CRT screens, but sitting on the carpet three feet from a 50-inch HDTV kind of sucks.

Presumably to keep costs down, the Classic Edition doesn’t include internal Bluetooth support and Nintendo doesn’t sell their own wireless gamepad; the only way to untether is to buy a third-party wireless gamepad made specifically for the Classic Edition (Nyko sells one for $20). You can alternately drop some coin to extend the cord length (again, Nyko to the rescue) or grab a longer HDMI cable, but now we’re talking about wires draped across your living room like we’re back in the 1980’s.

The thing is, the Classic Edition is so good and the emulation so impressive that you’ll probably make do. The hardware is adorable, the game library is great and little touches like game-agnostic suspend points and digital manuals bring the experience up to date. If you can overlook the tiny cables, your inner child (and maybe your real ones) will be thrilled to play with this sort of power.

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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.