SNES Classic Edition review: Worth it for the games alone

Nintendo still hasn't nailed the hardware though.

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    The success of last year's NES Classic Edition clearly took Nintendo by surprise. The company was completely incapable of meeting demand, leaving many people unable to buy what became the must-have gift of the holiday season. Now Nintendo has given its SNES the Classic Edition treatment and promises it's going to build way more than it did last year.

    Having grown up with the SNES (OK, we had a Sega Genesis and my best friend had SNES), it's easy to assume that everyone knows what it is and why people are so excited that it's back. After dominating the 8-bit era with the NES, Nintendo came late to the party with its sequel. The SNES launched in '90 in Japan, '91 in the US and '92 in the UK. The Genesis had a two-year head start in almost every country, but Nintendo's second-generation home console was worth the wait.

    The SNES arrived with Super Mario World and F-Zero, among other titles. The former is regarded as one of the greatest games of all time while the latter had faux-3D graphics with fluidity and speed unseen on a console before. For the next five years or so, some special games graced the system: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario Kart, Metroid, Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Star Fox. I could go on, but essentially, short of Sonic and a few other Sega exclusives, Nintendo destroyed the competition in terms of quality, with dozens of games that have stood the test of time.

    That puts the SNES Classic in different territory than its predecessor, which, nostalgia aside, featured many games that, for obvious reasons, aren't up to modern standards. While I utterly adore Metroid, trying to introduce someone to the original today is tough. But nearly all the games Nintendo has included in its latest console are as enjoyable today as they were when they were first released.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • The miniaturized retro hardware looks and feels authentic
    • Comes with a collection of high-quality games spanning genres
    • Two controllers included
    • SNES pads feel as good as you remember
    Cons
    • Controller cords are a little short, and you have to get up to switch games
    • Only outputs at 720p
    • The ports are hidden behind a flap that looks ugly in use

    Summary

    At $80 with two controllers bundled, it's difficult not to recommend the SNES Classic Edition. Even if you don't have nostalgia for Nintendo's '90s console, it's worth considering.Nintendo hasn't perfected its "Classic Edition" trick yet, and several of the NES Classic's defects show up here. Even so, some of the best games of all time graced the SNES, and a lot of them are here, in a neat and tidy package.

    The experience

    The SNES Classic, in the US at least, comes with two controllers, a micro-USB power adapter and 21 games. I tested the UK version, which means it's visually different (obviously I think it's prettier, but all of my US colleagues disagree). Europeans just get a micro-USB cable, sans adapter, but all the games are the same. Pretty much any USB adapter will do the trick, for what it's worth, and I just powered it from a spare USB port on my TV.

    I love the original design of the SNES, but I'm not as enamored with the miniaturization. I'll accept that this is a detail most people won't care about, but I dislike the fact that the "controller ports" on the front are just for show. To plug in a pad, you have to pull down a flap to reveal the actual ports beneath. With the controllers connected, it looks a little goofy. If you're the type who unplugs everything after use, then it's probably not a big deal, but I'm not that sort of person at all.

    Other than that, there's little to complain about. It's a tiny Super Nintendo, and it looks pretty when the pads aren't plugged in. My colleague Sean Buckley (who has been playing with the US version for our video review) tells me that the dimensions of his console "are perfect, the colors are spot on, and the power and reset buttons not only work but also feel nearly identical to the respective click and springy tactility of the originals." Here in Europe, our power button doesn't spring, but it does make a satisfying "click" when you slide it upward.

    If you were to take a random sampling of NES Classic reviews, you'd find two issues repeated everywhere. The first was the length of the controller cables; the second, the reset button on the console itself. Only one of those has been fixed.

    The controller is a faithful reproduction of the original. It was the best controller around at the time, and there's nothing I'd rather play these games on. While the NES Classic controller had a tiny 20-inch cable, the SNES Classic's has 43 inches to play with. It's just long enough for my apartment but still probably not up to scratch for the average American living room. Still, it's a huge improvement.

    Sadly, the complaints about the reset button have been ignored. If you want to go back to the menu to change a setting or swap games, you have to get up and press the reset button. Every. Time. Of course, this exactly mimics the original experience, but this was clearly something people didn't like about the NES Classic and it's strange that Nintendo didn't do anything to address it. How simple would it be to make, say, a three-second hold of the start and select buttons return you to the main menu?

    Honestly, though, I'm only annoyed for the people I know will hate this. As a kid, almost all the games I played at home were in front of a tiny TV in my brothers' room. Then, as my eldest brother went to college and the other got a better console, I got to play games in front of a tiny TV in my room. Perhaps out of instinct, I installed the SNES Classic in my bedroom on a "tiny" 28-inch TV. It wasn't until I was perched on the end of my bed, two feet away from the screen and an hour into Final Fantasy III, that I realized I'd unknowingly copied my mom's ban on gaming in the living room.

    I ended up moving the console to the living room the next weekend for a multiplayer session, but I put it straight back when that was wrapped. At least to me, playing this on my bed, when I know I should be doing homework (or writing this review), just feels right.

    Navigating the SNES Classic is similar to its predecessor, which is to say, reset button aside, it's a pleasure. Games are organized in a simple horizontal line of tiles that can be arranged alphabetically, by release date or by publisher. Like with the NES Classic, you get four "save" slots per game, but now you can also rewind up to 40 seconds from your save point. This sounded useful: Older games can be unforgiving, and being able to quickly save and retry after dying is neat. In reality, though, it's cumbersome, and I barely used it outside of testing that it worked.

    Having to press the reset button, navigate to the correct game and save file, and then rewind means rather than being an instant restart, you're talking a good 30 seconds or so. Given that it's an add-in feature and basically cheating, it's not that important, but it does feel like it could've been implemented better.

    One unexpected benefit of the rewind system is that your save files essentially become screen savers. If you're at the home screen doing nothing, the system will cycle through your saves, showing you 40-second gameplay snippets right where you left off. It's a neat feature, and on more than one occasion I was enticed to jump back into a game because I saw where I'd left off. Also, the menu music on this thing is amazing.

    'Earthbound' played on the Wii U Virtual Console (left) and the SNES Classic Edition (right)

    Another hot NES Classic topic, at least among the enthusiast crowd, was the quality of emulation. The SNES Classic outputs at 720p rather than 1080p, with a choice of display modes. "Pixel perfect" displays just the pixels that the SNES would draw while 4:3 stretches them to what they would've looked like on a TV at the time (arguably, the way they were intended to be seen). The final option adds a CRT filter to the 4:3 mode -- it's cute but not convincing. None of these modes will fill your modern 16:9 TV, so you can either have black space on either side of your game or fill them with one of several frames.

    The NES Classic was a little worse than playing the original carts through expensive upscaling hardware but way better than the various Virtual Console releases we'd seen on Nintendo's modern consoles. The same is roughly true here. While we haven't had time to pore over every original and Virtual Console release, Sean did some side-by-side comparisons and generally found that the emulation was more accurate than the Virtual Console versions.

    The games

    Such was the impact of the SNES that it's easy to assume that everyone knows what these games are, and whether they'll enjoy them. For those who don't, here's a rough categorization of what Nintendo is offering.

    Platformers

    Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country and Yoshi's Island are three fantastic, and quite different, platformers. Super Mario World is perhaps the pinnacle of 2D Mario games while Yoshi's Island, by having you control Yoshi rather than Mario, mixes up the gameplay nicely.

    Donkey Kong Country is probably better known for its then-stunning pre-rendered 3D graphics than its gameplay, but it definitely still holds up.

    Racing games

    Super Mario Kart and F-Zero have the most difficult job of all the games on the SNES Classic. Both are faux-3D racing games, being re-released in an era full of highly polished, actual-3D racers that they can be directly compared to. But both are genuinely fun.

    Super Mario Kart is way less forgiving than all the Kart games that succeeded it, but with a second player it's a lot of fun. F-Zero X was one of my favorite racing games growing up, and the SNES original is very much an inferior game, but "not being a game that came out on a different console" isn't a fair complaint -- it's still challenging, and the soundtrack is great.

    RPGs

    EarthBound, Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy III are three different takes on the traditional RPG. In EarthBound, you play as an ordinary kid (at least, he starts out ordinary) in an ordinary world. It's a game that lots of people love, but perhaps because it never came to Europe originally, I have no affection for it.

    Super Mario RPG is ... a Mario RPG. It has a delightful story and a turn-based battle system with some fun timing-based elements. Final Fantasy III (which was actually Final Fantasy VI) was my first game in the series, and in my opinion it's the best. It has my favorite story, my favorite characters and my favorite soundtrack. If I hadn't replayed last year, I'm not sure I would've been able to give any other game my attention.

    Action RPGs

    The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Secret of Mana are both superb action RPGs with real-time combat. A Link to the Past is always up there in "best games of all time" lists. It's engrossing and feels like it was made yesterday.

    Although it's less well-known, Secret of Mana is worth your time. It combines a fairly complex weapon and magic levelling system with accessible and fun real-time combat, and a pretty great fantasy story.

    Metroid

    Super Metroid is so good that together with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, it spawned its own genre. The term Metroidvania originated because "action-adventure video game with an emphasis on exploring more parts of an open-ended world by gaining skills" is something no one wants to say. Super Metroid is truly special. I was hoping to try and speedrun it (it's a popular game among speedrunners), using the new rewind feature to hone my skills, but as I mentioned, the rewind feature isn't exactly accessible.

    Kirby

    The Kirby series has always embraced weird, so it gets its own section. Kirby's Dream Course is a quirky golf game that I enjoyed playing for 15 minutes but will honestly probably never play again. I imagine if I owned it 20 years ago I'd love it. Kirby Super Star is mostly a platformer but also sort of a mini-game collection. Everyone I've spoken to who had played it before tells me it's amazing, so I'm going to persist, but it hasn't clicked yet.

    Arcade

    These games, while not all specifically released in arcades, all have their roots there. Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting is a great Street Fighter port; Super Punch-Out is the best Nintendo boxing game around; Contra III is a run-and-gun shoot-em-up that would be perfect if it wasn't for the weird faux-3D bits, but even with them, it's still probably the best Contra game there is. Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts is an extremely difficult arcade platformer and another game that I apparently no longer have the skill to play.

    Action platformers

    God, I hate putting games into genres. Super Castlevania IV, unlike the aforementioned Symphony of the Night, centers on linear stages. It's a good Castlevania game, which means you spend lots of time wandering around accidentally getting hit by things, swearing at how bad you are and whipping things. I think it's the second-best game in the series; Sean prefers the original NES game. Either way, it's good.

    Mega Man X is a solid Mega Man game. If you like Mega Man, you'll love it, although I think most will agree it's not the best in the series. I'm pretty sure I used to be great at this game. I'm really bad now.

    Star Fox

    I just don't get Star Fox. I never played the original at the time, I didn't like the N64 incarnation and I put down the Wii U game after about 30 minutes. Millions of people love it though. It's a faux-3D rail shooter, and it's impressive that it ever ran on the SNES. (It's one of a handful of games that needed more power than the SNES had, so it had an additional processor baked into the cartridge.) I find the low frame rate distracting almost to the point of nausea and the gameplay dull, but please, know that I'm in the minority here.

    With that in mind, I'm not in a place to talk about Star Fox 2, the previously unreleased sequel that's getting its debut on the SNES Classic. Cue Sean:

    "Star Fox 2 takes everything that works about the original game and makes it bigger. Instead of choosing a path on a linear map of levels, players can freely explore an entire sector of space, taking on missions and enemies as they roam around the map. Space battles are no longer on-rails anymore either but open 360-degree experiences.

    "In fact, the core gameplay of Star Fox 2 almost feels more like Wing Commander and other 1990s Space Sims than its actual predecessor. Even better, the game mixes up the space-shooter formula by allowing the player's ship to transform into a walking mech -- adding a light platforming and puzzle element to the game as well as offering a completely different action gameplay style. There's way too much going on with this game to get into here -- but for longtime fans of the Star Fox series, this lost sequel is a real treat."

    (For what it's worth, I don't feel nauseous playing Star Fox 2.)

    If it's not clear from the above, there are a lot of extremely good games included with the SNES Classic. I don't love all of them, but there's not a single game on there that someone won't love. While the NES Classic had more games (30 in total), there was some obvious filler. This time, the 21 games on offer are all high quality, and for $80, you're getting fantastic value. I found myself spending most of my time with Secret of Mana and Super Punch-Out, mostly because I've played a lot of the other games on here too recently, and, as we've established, I'm not a Star Fox fan. If you're coming to this collection fresh or after an extended absence, you're going to have a blast.

    But it's impossible to please everyone. Lots of people have lots of opinions on which games are and aren't "essential." I understand that Nintendo probably carefully balanced the library based on what it thought would be the most popular titles and also tried to include something for everyone. It's pointless to complain.

    Now, time to complain about the games I wish were included. You'd be hard-pressed to find a "best SNES games" list without Chrono Trigger on it, but it's not included. NBA Jam would've made more sense as a sports title than Kirby's Dream Course, and Aladdin, although not a classic, was played by basically everyone and would've earned some serious nostalgia points. Then there are the missing Final Fantasy and Donkey Kong Country games -- sure, if you were to make me pick one game from those series, I'd pick the ones Nintendo did, but Final Fantasy II (known as Final Fantasy IV elsewhere) and Donkey Kong Country 2 would add some extra value.

    Wrap-up

    I've been trying to think of the SNES Classic with eyes unclouded by nostalgia. It's tough to objectively look at games that played a huge part in my childhood, but I'm certain that even if you never played the SNES, there's a lot of fun to be had here.

    Tying the reset button to the console is still an idea best left in the past. The emulation isn't as good as playing the original thing with dedicated upscaling hardware. And the rewind feature, perhaps the big addition over last year's console, is poorly implemented. But despite its flaws, the SNES Classic is a competent machine with some great games. I'm not going to grab one for myself, but I will pick one up for my 10-year-old. Hopefully I can pry him away from Minecraft long enough so we can play some of the games I enjoyed when I was his age.

    If Nintendo were to offer even 10 of these games in an $80 bundle for the Switch, I'd recommend you pick them up. Sure, the micro-console format here is less convenient than that, but you're still getting great games and a cute piece of memorabilia as well. If you're familiar with the console and the games on offer here, then this review is kind of pointless. Nostalgia sells, and if you want the SNES Classic, you're going to buy one, regardless of what anyone says.

    Sean Buckley contributed to this review.

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