Last year, Nintendo surprised the world when -- after abstaining from the category for years -- it unexpectedly released a plug-n-play version of its first runaway hit console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. Taking a cue from other retro plug-n-play consoles, the NES Classic mini came with a 30 classic games from its heyday.
Unlike many other plug-n-play consoles, though, Nintendo wrapped them in a well-considered user interface and included an HDMI connection to optimize output for high-definition televisions.
The company certainly made waves with the product, but forfeited what could have been a tsunami as console availability -- a chronic issue for the videogame giant -- was abysmal, leading to widespread profiteering by eBay opportunists. Nintendo issued several mea culpas about how it had underestimated demand and said that it was cranking up production, but ultimately caused even more of a frenzy when it announced it would discontinue the NES mini.
The whole episode stood out as one of the most tortured product availability cycles this side of Kickstarter. As I wrote regarding the NES Classic mini, the product may have been a distraction at a time when Nintendo was trying to build momentum for the as-yet unreleased Switch, which had far higher profit potential via software sales. Others, such as longtime retro videogame writer Benj Edwards, have written that the SNES Classic mini might have been a publicity stunt, something to prop up Nintendo's earnings when it was between the fading Wii U and Switch availability.
And yet, to nobody's surprise and even with the Switch doing well despite that product's own shortages, Nintendo followed up the NES mini with a sequel, the SNES mini. It lacked the connectivity I expected but nonetheless commanded a higher price as I predicted, justified by including a second controller. Coming off the NES mini drought, Nintendo promised it would make more SNES Classic minis and it seems to have followed through based on anecdotal evidence.
However, even this product has still been selling out so quickly that stock alerts to grab one have been valid for a few minutes at best. And while eBay prices aren't nearly as exorbitant as they were for the NES Classic mini at peak eBay pricing that could exceed 7x retail price, a typical SNES Classic mini console on eBay will cost at least twice its retail price.The next chapter in the saga will likely be Nintendo again announcing a discontinuation, leaving its fans to wonder if the company will pull off the same bizarre retro console cycle with its next chronological hit, the Nintendo 64, which was its last popular console prior to the Wii.
Why Nintendo has insisted on teasing many of its fans and rewarding scalpers remains a head scratcher, one that the company has done little to elucidate in its conflicting words and actions. It has noted that the product was never intended to be on the market for the long term but announced it will bring back the NES Classic in 2018.
In any case, Nintendo's failure to meet demand for its retro mini-consoles has been a boon for others in the plug-n-play market. At Games, which has produced annual generations of Atari and, more recently, Sega Genesis mini consoles under the Flashback brand, has upped its game this year. It's offering versions of its retro consoles that include HDMI connections and have addressed longstanding criticism about their audio fidelity to the original games. It's also offering a version of its Atari catalog with that console's much-beloved full Activision catalog.
But, of course, the Atari 2600 nostalgia market is a generation removed from the Nintendo one. And while the Genesis and Super Nintendo were contemporary competitors, for some there is no substitute for a world filled with Nintendo's storied characters like Mario, Yoshi, Samus, and Link.
As with the first NES Classic mini shortage, the SNES Classic mini shortage has opened the door to scams and knockoffs. But it has also shone a spotlight on long-proven marketplace alternatives such as those from Retro-Bit. Available in a silver/black or red/black color scheme, the device offers well-regarded compatibility with Genesis, Super Nintendo and NES games. The catch has been that you've had to bring your own cartridges.
While it may be difficult to track down those original plastic-clad ROM rectangles, those who held on to their original games can make the case for hoarding by enjoying the switching of games the way it was back in the day. Retro-bit is now offering pre-orders of a new retro console with 90 pre-loaded games from some classic arcade game publishers.
And for those looking for something closer to what these consoles cost adjusted for today's dollars, luxe retro game maker Analogue has created its own Super Nintendo-compatible console that sells for $189. That represents a significantly more affordable price tag than its first crack at nostalgia, that listed for nearly $450. But while these consoles may be available without any bundled games, they are at least available.