Here’s a first for you on this humble site, a hardware review. We’re looking at the Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System, released by Nintendo last November. If you were already interested in it, you’ve probably read many opinions already. Completely failing to seize a rare chance for topical commentary, we’re a few months behind all the other reviewers.

The delay was mostly down to difficulty getting my hands on one, since the Classic has been near-permanently out of stock at all the retailers. Apparently Nintendo woefully underestimated the demand it would generate. The only option has been to turn third party sellers on Amazon and Ebay, who are charging over twice the recommended retail price of £50. No way in hell I’m giving money to those scalpers.

Fortunately my wife had alerts set up on Stock Informer – last week it sent an alarm blaring across our home letting us know Amazon had some classics. With catlike reflexes she pounced and purchased one. Good thing too because 15 minutes later it was out of stock again.

First up a quick reminder of what we’re looking at. The Classic Mini is a little console that comes with thirty NES games installed. It’s shaped just the original NES, but smaller, actually not far off the size a cartrdige. The controller is an exact replica of that square-cornered original. The old reset button now operates the menu screen. There’s a save-state function that basically means you can save your game anywhere, so its useful to those of us who are actually shit at these old games.

Only one controller is included, and official ones are also still hard to find at the £10 they’re meant to sell for. The cable for the controller is weirdly short at about 75cm, which is inadequate for living room couch gaming. Fortunately you can get both extension leads and controllers from 3rd parties, easily enough. A power supply isn’t included, Nintendo will sell you one but most powered usb hubs or phone chargers should do; it only wants one amp.

You get three options for graphics – starting with “pixel perfect” which is a direct replica of the output of an original NES, in 4:3 ratio. Then there’s a widescreen option if you prefer a a stretched picture to black bars either side. Finally “crt mode” replicates the scanlines and blurriness of running on an old-school TV. Some folks might find that adds to the nostalgia, but I’ve gotten used to the way old console games look on my PC monitor, when using emulators, so I stuck with Pixel Perfect.

The selection of games includes most of the big-name first party releases that you’d think of. You’re expecting all three super Marios, both Zeldas, and Metroid, right? They’re all present and correct. Plus some older and more obscure titles. We also get some big third party hits like Megaman 2, Final Fantasy and Ninja Gaiden.

The range covers the whole of the NES’ lifespan, and provides an interesting reminder of how games evolved within those 8-bit days. In particular, it’s a study in the development of platform games. Originals from 83, 84 (in Japan) like Donkey King are all about repetitive actions, on samey-looking single-screen levels on black backrounds. As much of a fan as old games as I am, I have to admit some of those earliest games are too primitive to hold my interest for long. Mario’s first “super” outing then was notable for backdrops and levels that scroll, albeit left-to-right only. So you’re moving through a world rather than jumping around a bare room.

By the late 80s we have games like megaman 2 and mario 3. The artwork was bolder and more colourful, with many different level themes.. They were more expansive, more complex, with stacks of different powerups. Mario 3 in particular has something like 90 unique levels, spread across nine worlds, not to mention all those minigames. As a last chapter there’s Kirby’s Big Adventure from 1993, a brave final effort with clever level design, inventive character abilities, and graphics that must have pushed the Nes’ aged chips to their limits.

The bad news: those 30 games are all you’re getting, as officially speaking there’s no way to add more. No online store, no slot for memory cards. I’ve heard about hacks that involve adding ROM files via the power lead, but I’ve no idea how fiddly the process is, or if you risk bricking the Classic. I don’t plan on trying it.

We might wistfully consider all the NES games this will never (officially) play – after all there were five other Megaman games released on NES. We’ve got the first two castlevanias here but not number three, and there’s no Ninja Turtles or Duck tales. Still, I think this will entertained for a while. I’m looking forward to giving the original Metroid a proper effort. Also Zelda 2, even if I recall it being pretty tough.

Last time I wrote about the classic, I considered its merits compared to all the other ways you can play Nes games nowadays. I should revisit my thoughts, now I actually have one sat on my desk.

As some technically-inclined retro-gamers will wearily explain, you can make a far more capable retro-gaming device using a Raspberry Pi. That’s the tiny and versatile linux PC that sells for £10 to £30, depending on the specific model. If you install an emulation package on it, such as RetroPie, you can run games for just about every old console and home computer you could think of. Megadrive, NES and Atari ST games all coming out of a unified front-end on one little box. Sounds marvellous.

To do that though you’ve got to install software onto the Pi. Then sort out a bunch of configuration details, to get screen resolution right and set up contollers etc. Then deal with something that inevitably went wrong – last time I tried it took an hour just to coax sound out of it. If you’re really unluck you’ll be dropping down to the command line. Then you have to find and copy your own roms over.

Okay okay, I’m labouring the point here, and Linux fans are probably rolling their eyes. Setting up Retropie is not rocket science. In fact I plan on doing so myself sometime. It is, however, more tinkering than some people want or have time for. The appeal of the Classic is, I can plug it into a TV, switch on, and immediately enjoy some Super Mario with a minimum of fuss. That’s going to appeal to the average nostalgic thirtysomething, with demands on their time and little interest in building computers, more than the Pi.

If you don’t want to build a Pi, and don’t feel the need for your retro-machine to be a tiny box, you could also just run emulators on a laptop connected to a TV. With the Classic Mini though I have an official Nintendo device, and I like that feeling of authenticity. It also means I’m playing legal copies of all these games, and after so many years of freeloading roms that seems appropriate. Not everyone may care about such things of course.

If authenticity is the key factor, some people would prefer to get an actual NES. Certainly can’t get any closer to the 80s than that. Getting together a collection of games even close to what’s on the Classic Mini is going to set you back a hell of a lot more than £50, though. Also, that means no save states, something I’ve grown very attached to.

With the NES Mini, Nintendo are offering us a charming and convenient way to revisit their classics, for a reasonable price (assuming you can find one at RRP). I was ambivalent before, but am now glad I have one. I switch it on for a few hours play on my saturday afternoon, a Nintendo logo pops up and happy chiptunes come out, then I enjoy a session of some classic games. It brings some rays of 8-bit sunshine into our day.

My reasons for favouring it might not be totally rational but if you want unbiased facts, that’s what wikipedia is for. One day I’ll have a Pi set up and will write about it here. I’d also love to own some original 8 and 16 bit consoles, if we ever have room. For now, though, the Classic is a great way to replay some old favourites like Zelda, and I’ve also discovered a few games I missed the first time around. So I’d recommended it to anyone who feels nostalgic about the NES.

Mind you, it’s still hard to find. At the time of writing Stockinformer hasn’t reported any opportunities since 2nd March. Not being able to get a new toy is rather a first world problem, I suppose, but still the situation is frustrating. Hopefully in time Nintendo will make a serious effort to address the supply problems.

Tune in next time when I discuss some of the individual games themselves. Don’t worry, we are still primarily a PC gaming site.