Last year, Nintendo launched its great monument to bait-and-switch, the NES Classic Edition. The cutting-edge 30-year-old console packed a reasonable number of classic NES games into a diminutive form factor; then Nintendo slapped an attractive $ 60 price on the whole shebang. And then, in the face of completely predictable high demand, Nintendo decided to build six of them a week. After a few months, the company decided it had enough money and killed the NES Classic, despite selling more of them in a few months than it had sold Wii U’s in the entire calendar year.
But Nintendo seems to have genuinely been blind to the bad press its inventory malpractice and demand mismanagement would generate. Coverage of the SNES Classic has been peppered with discussions of the likelihood that no one will be able to buy one, particularly after the first pre-orders sold out in a matter of minutes. The company has now announced that it will both produce the SNES Classic in vastly higher volumes than it ever did the NES Classic, and that it will bring the NES Classic back to store shelves in 2018. Nintendo’s PR blast states:
Next summer, Nintendo will also bring back the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition system with new shipments. More information about the timing of the return of NES Classic Edition will be announced in the future.
If Nintendo is smart, they’ll go a step further. Of the 30 games on the NES Classic Edition, only some are the top-ranked, must-have hits from that era. For every Punch Out, Super Mario Brothers 3, Final Fantasy, or Metroid, there’s a Donkey Kong Jr, Pac-Man, or Mario Bros. These games aren’t bad, as such, but they’re older ports of arcade titles or games that didn’t really establish themselves as iconic versions of a classic franchise. But more to the point, there’s actually no reason to strip titles off the original list of 30.
Nintendo could boost its NES Classic several ways. First, it could offer themed variants, showcasing collections of specific genres or games. Alternately, it could expand its bundled list of games — given that the typical NES game was smaller than 1MB, there’s no reason not to ship more titles — or build a more-expensive version of the platform with access to an online store. The original NES may be an ancient bit of kit today, but the SoC inside the first iteration of the NES Classic was an Allwinner R16, with a quad-core Cortex-A7 and a Mali400MP2 GPU. That’s not much, as far as hardware is concerned, but it’d be enough to drive a simple UI with basic Wi-Fi functionality. Again, it’s not like you need much to download game images that only amount to a few hundred KB each.
I don’t think Nintendo will go this route, simply because it gets complicated as new SKUs stack up. Do you build a title library for each console and limit each of them to games from its own era, or do you make them backwards-compatible (meaning the Classic SNES could pull from the NES and SNES eras, a hypothetical N64 could pull from N64 + SNES + NES, and so on)? Remember that from an emulation perspective, this is a solved problem — you don’t need that much more horsepower to emulate the N64 than you do to emulate the NES, at least not compared with the SoCs already on the market today.
It’s hard to predict how Nintendo will choose to maximize this revenue stream, because we don’t have a great understanding of the costs involved, or any information on how the profits from micro-consoles compare with the profits from the Virtual Console. But I suspect the company will take more cracks at this space, if only because it seems to have finally woken up to the idea that customers want to throw money at it. Either that, or Nintendo realized it needed to have something on store shelves for the holidays, and that continuing Switch production woes could limit how readily consumers can find its latest console. It may have taken nearly a year, but better late than never. Still, I’m dubious. Wait and see how SNES Classic availability shapes up this fall and make your decisions based on that.