Our weekend with the SNES Classic Mini

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini released around the world over the weekend to rapturous applause from longtime SNES devotees, packing a ton of nostalgia into an extremely small package. I missed out on a first round pre-order on the device, and we were not able to obtain a unit for review from Nintendo ahead of launch. Thus, I was prepared to brave the crowds and throw elbows to get one on launch day.

After making a few phone calls to different stores in the days prior, and keeping eye on Press Start’s extremely helpful guides to which stores would be carrying the console on launch day, I rolled up to Highpoint Big W a few blocks from my apartment at 8am. There was already a small queue forming outside the store when I arrived, ready for the start of business at 8:30am. The store was obviously prepared for a crowd and had placed a “Queue here for Super Nintendo” sign near the doors. I took my place in the line behind a man in his early thirties (so about my age) pushing a pram with a child no older than 10 months inside. I asked him if he was getting the unit for himself or for his kid. He grinned impishly, explaining that playing the console himself was a happy side effect, but that he planned justify its purchase to his partner by arguing that it would help their child develop good hand-eye co-ordination.

Around fifteen minutes before the store opened, the line had lengthened to around 30 people, the vast majority squarely in my age bracket. Only three or four were obviously in their twenties. All of the people in line were visibly excited to pick up the machine. A Big W staff member from the store’s entertainment section appeared from a side to hand out pre-printed tickets that would guarantee a console to anyone who hadn’t preordered. Shortly after that, the doors opened and we were allowed inside. Everyone beelined for entertainment, queuing up again. The staff were as pumped for the machine as the punters, my cashier indicating his intention to go straight home and fire his own unit up as soon as his shift ended.

My console secured for the full fare of $120, I headed to my friend Jacob’s apartment a few streets away. Jacob is one of the biggest Super Nintendo fans I’ve ever known and I had purchased the machine as a birthday gift for him. His birthday, however, is on the 17th and we couldn’t reasonably be expected to wait that long to open it. I arrived at Jacob’s and presented him with the console. He had the box open the console connected to his TV within minutes. Also celebrating was my friend Ryan, a software engineer and indie game designer recently returned to Australia from a year spent working in Norway and couch surfing at Jacob’s while house-hunting. Ryan is a devout worshipper of SNES-era design and visuals.

The first part of what I’ll call “The SNES Mini Experience” for 16-bit era kids like us was opening the box and holding a fresh Super Nintendo control pad for the first time in over 20 years. The Mini’s controllers are rougher to the touch than you might remember, but the impact of the moment was, for Ryan in particular, like detecting a scent that is tied to a powerful memory. Ryan is not an especially sentimental guy, nor does he place much value on nostalgia. Nevertheless, you don’t see someone transported back to their childhood so completely every day.

After switching the console to CRT Mode to better emulate the look of the SNES as we all remembered it (and to allow Ryan, a pixel art purist, maximum enjoyment), the first game we jumped into was StarFox. This is a game that looks and plays rather differently to any other title in the system’s considerable library. While you might find the look overwhelming and hard to follow at first, the game actually becomes quite readable by the time the second level begins and you realise what you are playing is an especially low-poly version of what Lylat Wars/StarFox 64 would become, almost unchanged.

With StarFox completed, we unlocked the package’s vaunted “new” title, StarFox 2. A game that was never officially completed or released by Nintendo, and later abandoned when work began on StarFox 64, the unfinished version has been available on ROM sites and playable via an emulator for years. Here, Nintendo have released a polished and debugged version of that cancelled game. Had StarFox 2 been released during the SNES’ lifetime, it would have been remembered as flawed classic and likely overshadowed by the release of StarFox 64. Mechanics and gameplay elements that would indeed appear in StarFox 64 can be seen throughout the game’s campaign. It creates a campaign that forces you to battle Andross’ forces in real time and never really throws one of the series’ more well-known on-rails shooter levels at you. Everything, in StarFox parlance, is conducted in All-Range Mode. The thinking behind it, where the game can capitalise on it, is actually genius and I’m thrilled that such a great piece of design has finally seen the light of day.

From there, we moved straight onto Super Castlevania IV. Gluttons for punishment, we resolved to complete the game in as close to a single sitting as possible, hot-seating the controller whenever the Continue screen appeared. This was perhaps too ambitious of us. by the time we were reaching the later levels, Super Castlevania IV had abandoned any pretence that it was game to be played for enjoyment. It is now, as it was then, built to enrage the player, hiding unfair enemy spawns and traps just off screen so that you stumble into them and take unavoidable damage. Comparisons to the Dark Souls series are apt — clunky controls, not that pretty when you get right down to it but with some interesting monster designs, a sprawling map and an open contempt for the player that is core to its design. So, basically, perfect for passing the controller around, seeing how far you get and sinking beers whenever the controller isn’t in your hands.

Indeed, most of the titles included in the SNES Mini’s library are a reminder of just how difficult games were in the 16-bit era. Replayability and the player feeling like they’d gotten their money’s worth were two significant considerations for developers of the era, tasked with squeezing their games onto the confines of a cartridge. It is confronting to find your skills, now honed for modern releases that tend to hand hold and over-explain everything to the player, aren’t much of a match for the SNES in its prime. Things are made worse when you remember that you came from the SNES era and, for your younger self, these stiff challenges were par for the course.

Other titles, like Donkey Kong Country, are a reminder of the fact that the SNES had someone of the most incredible console exclusives of any platform available at the time. While only the original Donkey Kong Country is included on the machine, we’re sure modders will be adding its two (arguably more polished) sequels as soon as they possibly can. There’s a few glaring omissions, of course — no Super Mario All-Stars is bizarre especially considering the collection’s status as a legendary SNES pack-in, as is the lack of Chrono Trigger and Rock n’ Roll Racing. Again, we’re sure modders will be able to solve these problems with ease and it seems Nintendo is expecting them to do so.

We became so engrossed in Castlevania that we forgot about the AFL Grand Final and played well into the evening. The game, currently, remains unbeaten but we are very close to the end. It’s gruelling, we’ll get there, get off our backs. Sunday saw us switch to Donkey Kong Country, a game whose beautiful music and flowing level design were a soothing balm for our minds and thumbs flayed alive by Castlevania.

There aren’t many complaints with the system itself. The design recalls the soft-edged and inarguably prettier version of the console found throughout Japan, Europe and Australia. Americans will get one that resembles the angular, purple mess that was their version of the SNES. I will not apologise to any upset Americans for this assertion because I am unassailably correct. The console suffers in two significant areas, the first being the criminally short cables fixed to the controllers. I understand that the SNES was traditionally played cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV but that was because our TV’s were 30cm wide back then. You had to get up close in order to see anything. In 2017 however, our TV’s are huge and our couches are placed at a reasonable distance away from them. Give me a controller cable that can cover that distance, please.

The second issue was fairly regular slowdown during gameplay. It didn’t really seem to matter what the game was or what was happening on the screen at the time. Anything greater than three sprites or effects on the screen at once could lead to significant, gameplay-affecting slowdown. While this was common in the SNES era due to restrictive memory usage, it seems to happening an awful lot with the SNES Mini and it feels like it shouldn’t. It was never enough to derail our experience though, taking the slowdown on the chin as we always did when we were younger.

The SNES Mini is as close to replicating the experience of playing the system when you were younger as it is possible to get. The only thing missing is the ritual of pulling cartridges out, blowing into them and putting them back in. A fine desk piece when you aren’t using it and a veritable time machine when you are, this one’s worth the rather steep price of admission.