Nintendo Classic Mini: NES review

A nostalgia-fuelled trip back to the '80s

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Our Verdict

The Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System is a console that prizes retro authenticity over modern convenience. While the overall result is that it positively oozes charm, it does mean it has a couple of inconvenient elements, such as having to press a physical button every time you want to exit a game. The controller's cord is also inexcusably short.

For

  • Fabulous design
  • Authentic retro-gaming experience
  • Subtle modern touches

Against

  • Extremely short controller cables
  • No expandable games library
  • No power-adaptor in box (in the UK)

Nostalgia’s a funny thing. You spend your days with the vividest memory of an experience, be it a film, piece of music, or a game, but more often than not when you sit down to try it once more you find it’s just not the same. 

Scenes that you remember being well-scripted and acted are unbelievably cheesy when you refer to them, and graphics that blew your mind as a child look positively underwhelming now. 

The Nintendo Entertainment System (or the NES) was originally a system released in 1983, and now Nintendo is bringing it back, along with 30 of its best games, as the Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System. 

You might expect the system to suffer from these nostalgia-related issues, and it does; but what’s more surprising is how well many of the games hold up. These aren’t the same as games from the days of early 3D graphics, when developers were still struggling to make use of the third-dimension, these are games from 2D-gaming’s prime; NES developers knew what they were doing, and their efforts hold up surprisingly well over 30 years later.

It's not a completely flawless nostalgia trip, clearly, but aside from some minor hardware difficulties the £49/$59/AU$99 Nintendo Classic Mini succeeds at almost everything it attempts. 

Design

  • Great retro design
  • Authentic feeling controller
  • Controller cable is far too short

If you’re familiar with the design of the original Nintendo Entertainment System then you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the Nintendo Classic Edition looks. 

Naturally a couple of changes have been made since the original console was released in 1983. 

The Nintendo Classic Mini doesn’t have a cartridge slot for example (all the games run off internal memory), and the console uses the much more modern HDMI connector to get data onto a television’s screen, rather than the original’s ancient aerial connection. 

The biggest change however, is its size and weight. Even we were surprised at how small the box was when we first saw it, and once we’d gotten the console out it seemed smaller still. 

The console itself is 126 x 99 x 43mm ( W x D x H). For reference it’s about as wide as an iPhone SE is long and should fit in the palm of your hand, which is to say that it’s a dinky console indeed. It’s also surprisingly light, but thanks to some non-slip rubber feet you’ll find it sits snugly wherever you put it. 

Thankfully, while the console has been slimmed down, the controller remains full-size, and is functionally exactly the same as the NES original. You’ve got the same layout of ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons on the right, a D-pad on the left, and ‘Start’ and ‘Select’ buttons in the center. 

You get just one controller in the box, with the option of buying another separately. The Nintendo Classic Mini is certainly fun as a single-player system, but you’ll get much more out of it if you invest in a second controller. 

However, if you don’t want to buy a second NES controller, then you can actually plug in any old Wii Classic controllers you have lying around and they should work just fine. 

The controller is equipped with an extremely short cable, and this is the single biggest issue with the whole console. At just over 30” (around 75cm), it’s just one third of the length of the original console’s controllers, meaning you’re going to have to sit uncomfortably close to your television. Many of us might have done this two-plus decades ago, but it's understandably less fun doing so now.

If you want to sit on your sofa, rather than cross-legged on the floor, you’re essentially going to have to place the console on the floor or coffee table in front of your TV. It’s not the end of the world, but it means that you’re much less likely to leave your Mini plugged in if means you have to leave an HDMI and USB cable trailing across your living room. 

Aside from the console and a single controller, in the box you also get an HDMI cable and a micro USB cable, although you don’t get a USB power adaptor if you're in the UK. 

We’re not going to claim that a 5V/1A wall outlet to USB adaptor is a hard item to find, and you probably have more than one sitting around in your home already, but we’d have preferred it for Nintendo to have included one in the box. 

Performance

  • Good, if not exhaustive, selection of games
  • Well designed front-end
  • Game performance is flawless
  • Essential button is on console rather than controller

Once you boot up the Classic Mini you’re greeted with a list of 30 NES games to choose from. 

A full list of all the games is below. 

  • Balloon Fight
  • Bubble Bobble
  • Castlevania
  • Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
  • Donkey Kong
  • Donkey Kong Jr.
  • Double Dragon II: The Revenge
  • Dr. Mario
  • Excitebike
  • Final Fantasy
  • Galaga
  • Ghosts'n Goblins
  • Gradius
  • Ice Climber
  • Kid Icarus
  • Kirby's Adventure
  • Mario Bros.
  • Mega Man 2
  • Metroid
  • Ninja Gaiden
  • Pac-Man
  • Punch-Out! Featuring Mr. Dream
  • StarTropics
  • Super C
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 2
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Tecmo Bowl
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

It’s a pretty extensive list that omits relatively few of the NES’s classics. We would have love to have seen Metal Gear make an appearance, and Bionic Commando and Contra would have also been worthy of inclusion. Then there’s Castlevania 3, arguably the best of the NES Castlevanias, that has somehow been omitted despite the inclusion of the first two entries. 

Ultimately, though, the games included are each classics in their own rights, from the humble beginnings of several franchises, like Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda, that have gone on to dominate the gaming landscape in the decades since their original appearance, to games like Ice Climber, which never went on to spawn franchises of their own. 

We would have loved to have seen the door left open to bring more games to the console in the future through downloads, or perhaps expandable storage, but unfortunately the offline-only, SD card-less nature of the console means that this won’t ever happen. 

The front-end of the system, which you use to select games to play, is really nicely designed. It strikes a lovely balance between old and new: it's functional enough that you can easily see which games are single or multi-player for instance, without including any UI elements that feel excessively modern. 

There’s a menu option that lets you fine-tune how retro you want them to feel. At one extreme is the ‘Pixel Perfect’ mode, which gives you a perfectly sharp collection of pixels, then there’s ‘4:3’ mode which smooths out some of the harsher edges. Finally ‘CRT filter’ artificially adds scanlines to each of your games to make it feel like you’re playing them on a much older television. 

We opted to leave our console in the default ‘4:3’ mode. It’s not a very well-named mode (since every setting kept the picture in a 4:3 resolution), but it provided a nice balance between the harshness of the pixel perfect mode and the muddiness of the CRT filter. 

The console has a modern save-state function to help you get through its old games without completely tearing your hair out. At any time while playing a game you can press the ‘Reset’ button on the console which will exit you out to the main menu, and give you the ability to save your current progress by pressing ‘Down’ on the D-pad. 

There are four save slots available for each game, and this functionality means that you don’t have to wait for the game to let you save if you want to exit now and be able to save your progress. 

However, if you do want to use the original game’s save points then you’re still able to, but you should note that you can’t mix and match the different save schemes. If you exit the game by using a save state, then you’ll need to enter the game the same way, and likewise if you use the game’s internal saving structure then you can’t start the game from a save state. 

The only issue we have with this system is the location of the ‘Reset’ button, which is pretty central to the process. Since it’s located on the console itself, you’ll need to keep the console within arm’s reach if you don’t want to constantly be getting up to press the button. 

We admire Nintendo’s dedication to keeping the controller as authentic as possible, but it would have been really nice to have included some form of shortcut on the controller itself to allow you to exit from a game. 

Minor niggles aside, the whole interface of the console is extremely simple and well-designed, and it makes it easy to get down to the business of actually playing some games, which is a far cry from the world of modern gaming with its constant waves of patches that need to be downloaded before a game can be played. 

Playing each of the games feels about as authentic as it’s possible to get. The emulation offered by this machine is flawless, and playing it on a controller that’s so similar to the original is an amazing feeling. 

At first you won’t get very far in the games you try. In the years since the NES, games have gotten almost criminally easy by comparison, and you’ll face a pretty steep learning curve getting used to the unflinching punishment handed out by these 2D greats. 

We liked

The Nintendo Classic Mini is a beautifully designed machine, packed full of most of the console’s greatest games. Aside from a couple of omissions, all of the greats are here, from Super Mario Bros 3, to Puzzle Bobble and The Legend of Zelda. 

The controller feels great in the hand, and it’s about as similar as it’s possible to get to the classic NES joypad. 

The save state functionality is an extremely helpful addition, especially for games which don’t let you save your progress as easily. It’s just a shame using it forces you to press a button on the console itself, rather than a controller. 

We disliked

The controller’s cable is too short, and while it’s totally possible to place the console on a coffee table, this should've been optional rather than necessary for couch gaming. Pro tip: Be prepared to buy an extension cable. 

Not being able to expand upon the console’s 30 games is unfortunate, since there are a couple of classic NES games missing from its list.

There should have been a power adaptor included in the UK box.

Final verdict

Above all else, the Nintendo Classic Mini is an authentic retro gaming experience. There’s no internet connectivity here, no online leaderboards, no downloadable extras, and no patches. 

It’s a warts-and-all experience, and it means that if you want to relive the glories of 80s gaming, then this is a great way to do it, albeit with the minor addition of the ability to save your games whenever you want. 

It feels like such a minor complaint, but the short controller cable is a massive problem, and it's all that prevents this console from almost perfectly delivering on what it sets out to accomplish.

There is an argument to say that this is a piece of hardware that’s designed to be shown off on a coffee table. After all, if you just wanted to play these games, then the Wii and Wii U’s virtual consoles have existed for years to do just that. 

But having to trail HDMI and power cables across your room isn’t a great look, and it’s something that you shouldn’t have to do with a piece of hardware like this, so buyer beware. 

All said, the Nintendo Classic Mini is a fantastic, authentic trip down memory lane – though, one that might've been better with longer controller cables and less eye-searing pain from sitting too close to the TV.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Porter is Techradar's UK Home Technology Writer covering everything from TVs to Hi-Fi, gaming and home automation. He's also super into keyboards, and I think we can all agree that the obsession has gone a little too far at this point.