March of the Minis

Reissued ‘classic mini’ consoles offer gamers an authentic retro experience.

Retro gaming has become big business over the last ten years, and companies like Nintendo, Sony and Atari are keen to cash in on your nostalgia.

When the PS3 and Xbox 360 launched in 2006/7 – and console gamers got their first taste of HD gaming – not many people had use for last gen devices gathering dust under their HDMI compatible TVs.

I was one of them. I still kick myself when I think of the consoles I literally discarded at that time. My PS1 and PS2 ended up at the local amenity site, along with scores of games and peripherals.

But gaming is comparable to any other medium. Just like film, TV and music, consumers can often become disillusioned with the bells and whistles of the latest releases and yearn for something with a little more substance or character. 

It’s well known that most people regard the music they listened to in their formative years as the best music ever produced. It doesn’t matter who or what it was, if you listened to it between the ages of 15 and 20, the chances are you still enjoy it today.

It works the same with gaming. A lot of older gamers will hark back to what they consider to be the golden age of the NES or the C64 or the Atari 2600. They will remember the games they played and the experiences they had with fondness.

And so they will find themselves on eBay or Craigslist, browsing for the console or home computer of their childhood, hoping to recapture some of the magic of their youth.

And then they will realise quite quickly that this experience comes at a premium. Original hardware, from any generation, is now vastly overpriced. It’s a seller’s market. If they want an original C64 or NES in decent condition they need to be prepared to pay prices comparable to the original MSRP.

Then they will need to trawl for their favourite titles, which can be frustrating and depressing in equal measure. Once they’ve sourced the games, they’ll then need to invest a decent CRT television (Sony Trinitrons, widely considered the best for retro gaming, regularly sell for three figures – and that’s excluding delivery) – this is also assuming they even have room for such a space hungry setup. 

Then there’s the very real danger of buyer’s remorse to consider. Many remember childhood titles through rose tinted glasses. When we actually play them again and discover how poorly made and brutal some of them were, we suddenly realise that nostalgia can be a lying bitch.

So invariably, most gamers will be forced to resort to the legal grey area of emulation, whether on their PC or android device, or even on a dedicated system like a Raspberry Pi running custom software. The main problem with this solution, however, is that it lacks the overall feel and aesthetics of the original hardware and the experience can often be diminished as a result.

But in the last few years, the appearance of reissued ‘classic’ consoles has solved this problem. Gamers now have the opportunity to play their favourite titles on authorised, sanctioned hardware with the consent of the people who made the original technology.

The NES classic was the system that kickstarted this new market back in 2016. There had been others before it: the ZX Spectrum Vega and a mini version of the Sega Mega Drive that could actually play original cartridges, but it was the NES that captured people’s imagination – an authentic looking device with a built in library of games, that had original Nintendo controllers and a HDMI output for playing on a modern TV (complete with artificial scanlines to emulate older CRT technology).

It launched with massive hype in the November and sold out instantly. Nintendo produced 2.3 million units but it still wasn’t enough to keep up with demand. In the April they announced that they were discontinuing the product and within hours consoles were being resold on eBay for five times their original price. 

Thankfully Nintendo corrected the imbalance with another run earlier this year and put the scalpers out of business – now you can get a NES Classic for as little as £45.

One of the big reasons for the success of the console lay with the community – a small group gamers released the Hakchi firmware update, which allowed people to install their own games onto the system.

They have also released the same software for the SNES and are actively working on a C64 version of Hakchi at the time of writing. 

So in the past few years we’ve had releases of the ZX Spectrum, the C64, the NES and SNES, and we’re not seeing any signs of this fad slowing down as more and more companies jump on the bandwagon.

This December, Sony plans to release the Playstation Classic for £89.99 – I’ve already got my pre-order in place as it looks like this is going to be one of the most popular Christmas gifts of 2018.

I’m just hoping it won’t take the Hakchi team too long to crack the kernel and let us upload our own ISOs – I’m looking forward to reliving Christmas Day 1996 this year and playing through the original Tomb Raider, with maybe some Metal Gear Solid and Colony Wars for good measure.

There’s also been a highly successful Kickstarter of the Atari VCS – a 2600 reproduction console which can also play modern games. The project raised over $3million in crowd funding on Indiegogo earlier this year.

I’m still quite skeptical of this initiative, however, as there hasn’t been any real info released on how they are planning to make the emulation work. The company hasn’t shown any actual hardware, only some screen shots and concept art of what they are hoping to achieve. The price point ($329) seems quite high for what is effectively an Android box running custom firmware.

There’s also the nightmare issue of licencing – Atari is a dead company, so trying to secure rights for some of the classic 2600 games may be a legal minefield.

Nevertheless, the march of the minis continues. I’m surprised we haven’t heard anything from Nintendo at this point – I was half expecting them to try and steal Sony’s thunder with a release of their own this holiday period. It seems odds-on that they will be at work on an N64 or Gameboy Classic Mini. 

But what about you? Do you own any of these minis? Do you plan on picking up the Playstation Classic? What would be your dream mini reissue? let us know in the comments below.

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