The SNES Mini Fills a Nostalgia Gap

OK, wow.

When the Super Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Edition (a mouthful known as the SNES Mini overseas) launched on the last day of September this year, its tiny unassuming shell represented more of a curiosity for me than anything else. Or so I thought. After all, I had owned an NES mini for a brief moment last year, almost purely because it was extremely rare and enveloped in Nintendo hype. I did not, however, play it for very long. The SNES counterpart’s announcement provided a more appealing range of prospective games, to be sure, but even as I placed my preorder there was that nagging voice in the back of my head – “There are so many other new games out. You will barely touch this thing.”

Since its release a week ago, almost every second of my limited home gaming time has been done on the candy-coloured Super Nintendo controller.

My history with the SNES and its games has been more scrapbook than portfolio. I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that I’m old enough to have grown up with the SNES, but due to spending the first decade of my life in South Africa (living, it must be said, a very fortunate childhood), my introduction to home console games came with the Nintendo 64 in 1999, a year after moving to Australia. When I started this blog almost six years ago the entirety of my Super Nintendo gaming history could be summed up with three portable conversions – the Game Boy Color version of Donkey Kong Country, the Game Boy Advance treatment of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and fleetingly the GBA port of Yoshi’s Island. Countless nostalgia-tinted SNES tales told by friends over the years painted the picture in my mind’s eye of a true gaming juggernaut, as did similar recounts from gaming personalities all over the internet, but the means and motivation to play Super Nintendo games just didn’t exist for me until the release of the Wii U Virtual Console in 2013.

I can almost pinpoint the exact week my perspective changed, because as luck would have it I posted something on this very site about my first-up thoughts on Super Mario World and Super Metroid upon the launch of the Virtual Console service. Later that year I put several hours into the first-ever official release of Earthbound in Australia – thanks to that same Virtual Console – and over the ensuing years purchased a copy of Chrono Trigger on DS, flirted with a buggy ROM of the GBA version of Final Fantasy VI, discovered the joy of five-player local Super Bomberman shenanigans, played the DS remake of Kirby Super Star and, just last year, delved into Mega Man X. Each new-old experience increased my opinion of the SNES’ remarkable library and so even though I never actually held one of the console’s official controllers until last year’s EB Expo (yes, for real), I was unknowingly priming myself to be utterly ambushed by a product like the SNES Classic Edition.

This is not a review of the SNES Classic, but rather an expression of wonder. Wonder at the enduring appeal of the 21 excellent games in the included collection. Wonder at the understated, almost counter-intuitive brilliance of its controller. Wonder at the ability of these things to affect me in my well-travelled gaming state. Wonder, above all, at the emotions I’ve felt as I’ve witnessed each title screen and in-game menu in turn, tapping into a well of naturally-occurring empathy I so sorely lack in my daily life as I inhabit the dual mental states of imposter and welcomed guest. This was not my childhood, but it just feels so good to finally understand all those stories I’ve heard my friends tell, to spend an hour or two each night in their shoes. The perspective I’ve gained on the rich history of several storied Nintendo franchises is just a bonus.

The first game I booted up was Donkey Kong Country, which seemed fitting for me as the first SNES touchstone I owned. The Game Boy Color version does not, of course, hold a single glob of candlewax to the SNES original in terms of presentation. I’d heard my fair share of praise directed at Country‘s ambitious graphical style, but seeing it in action – even without the kind of CRT display for which it was designed – is something else. The now-famous technique that developer Rare used to trick consumers back in 1994 – taking rapid screenshots of 3D-rendered models and using those as animation frames / background elements – has a quaint look to it nowadays that is unlike anything else I’ve played, but given that it moves and feels exactly like I remember it feeling on the Game Boy, the extra fidelity is surreal to see the least. And the music! My word, the music. David Wise is a genius. I’ve heard the likes of Aquatic Ambience plenty of times out of context, but despite my day one SNES Classic goal of playing at least a minute of every included game, I kept pushing ahead ‘one more level’ for far longer than I planned just to hear what the next piece sounded like.

Speaking of music coming from the SNES, I would be remiss not to bring up Final Fantasy VI, here called Final Fantasy III in line with its initial Western release. At the time of wring I’ve put about an hour and a half into the revered RPG classic, and despite a lesser-regarded localisation when compared to its GBA remake (from where my limited FFVI experience springs), its musical offering is much crunchier. Right away I picked out what felt like an extra three layers of audio complexity in the main battle theme over the GBA version, which lends another level of appreciation to an already stellar game if you ask me. This may finally be the version of VI that I finish. But who knows?

A game with far less noticeable differences from its own GBA incarnation is A Link to the Past, one of the earliest Zelda games I ever finished. The beautifully simple art moves around just as smoothly on the big screen as it does on the handheld, yet the experience of playing through the familiar (and excellent) opening once again gave me a sensation rather at odds with the factual similarities between the versions. It just felt a little ‘fuller’, and it didn’t take me long to realise the three main reasons why – The music is ever-so-slightly richer in tone, the screen shows about 40% more of the world than the portable version does (I had always assumed the GBA’s widescreen format would show more, but clearly it was just letter-boxed), and playing with the SNES controller’s extra buttons / extraordinarily D-pad is a definite improvement.

Seriously though, that D-pad is fantastic. I cannot understate how little I appreciated directional buttons on a controller before spending time with the SNES classic this past week. The amount of give that it has is near-perfect, as is its size and the way it rolls around under the thumb. Playing Street Fighter II Turbo with my brother for a half hour on a whim one night was far less intimidating than it might have been as a result. I have a newfound appreciation for E.Honda now. What a guy.

Sadly the D-pad’s design strengths do not quite make up for the insane ambition evident in Star Fox and Star Fox 2 (The latter being the headliner of the whole collection due to its previously unreleased nature). The in-built restore point functionality of the SNES Classic hardware has come in handy far more times during my Star Fox playtime than in any other included title, mostly because the low frame rate, rudimentary polygons and scaling pixels make it rather difficult to judge incoming danger and you more-or-less have to move across the strike zone of said danger in order to hit it with your lasers. That said, I have been persevering, and have made it a few stages into the game’s rather short campaign. The idea is I’ll give the sequel a go when I’ve finished the original, but again, I’m not sure that will happen in the crazy release climate at the moment. I am mighty impressed by the opening segments of Starfox 2, however, as the amount of ideas it throws out are ridiculously bold and experimental for the time the game was meant to launch. GameXplain has a fascinating discussion video up on the very topic that I recommend if you’re interested.

It’s worth mentioning that the SNES Classic offered me my first-ever race in the original Super Mario Kart, but at this point I’ve driven just about every single track in that game in some form or other via a later Mario Kart game, so the only novelty for me came from the way it controls and animates, as well as its immediately accessible 2-player compatibility. I was surprised to learn that even its relatively basic code controls better than Mario Kart: Super Circuit on the Game Boy Advance, so that’s something.

It must be said that not every game on the SNES Classic is exactly my cup of tea, and at the moment I can offer little new to say about certain others that do happen to be in my wheelhouse. Contra III: The Alien Wars and Super Ghouls & Ghosts don’t appear to stray very far from their corresponding games on the NES Classic and they are hard as nails to boot. Super Castlevania IV seems more interesting, and its music is great right from the get-go, but heavy gothic aesthetics don’t usually do it for me. F-Zero is nice as an historical visual showcase but doesn’t hold much appeal for me. Yoshi’s Island is as charming as ever and holds up amazingly well from a visual standpoint but I’ve just always found the Baby Mario mechanic so annoying. I’ve already talked about my first experiences with Super Mario World and Super Metroid, as mentioned earlier. My experiences with Earthbound, Kirby Super Star and Mega Man X are too recent to warrant devoting too many more hours to their SNES Classic versions, and I’m saving Super Mario RPG as the final game I really get stuck into when I move past everything else. That leaves just three games: Super Punch-Out, Kirby’s Dream Course and Secret of Mana.

Super Punch-Out is a reminder of just how much fun Nintendo can be when they take a stab at an established genre. Boxing games aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, mind you, but Nintendo’s simultaneous embrace of the sport’s hyper-machismo and potential for larger-than-life characters is magnetic. The detail in the character models and animations is top-notch and the game’s surprisingly methodical match flow reminds me an awful lot of the Big N’s recent over-the-shoulder fighting game, ARMS. That makes sense, of course, but its still cool to see the lineage there. On that note, making the connection in my head between Super Punch-Out‘s multi-arrowhead super meter and the very similar one that accompanies Little Mac throughout the latest Smash Bros game was a moment that perfectly sums up why I appreciate the SNES Classic so much.

Kirby’s Dream Course is both comfortably familiar and straight-up crazy, but mostly it’s just shockingly enjoyable to play. In fact It’s probably no exaggeration to call it the biggest surprise of the whole SNES Classic package. Maybe it’s the fact that quirky golf games are a tad in vogue at the time of writing – thanks to Everybody’s Golf on PS4 and Golf Story on Switch – but Dream Course‘s short levels, simple objectives and classic Kirby charm form a gameplay cocktail that’s difficult to resist. Each level takes the form of a tactical puzzle not unlike a hole of real golf, but with the ability to copy and use various enemy abilities to alter the trajectory of Kirby’s flight path with each stroke. Bumping into every enemy on the course until the final one transforms into a miniature pit is the name of the game, which as you can imagine leads to some devious puzzle situations. Kirby’s Dream Course is a joyous left-field ambush that I can confidently say is already among my favourite Kirby games.

Ending on Secret of Mana feels apt, because at the time of writing it’s the SNES Classic game to which I have devoted the most amount of playtime. The strongest argument I used against myself when deciding if the mini console was worth a purchase was the strong suite of JRPGs it offered that I have little to no experience playing. Secret of Mana‘s promise of two player co-op made an even stronger case, as there just aren’t enough co-op RPGs out there even in the modern day. Alas, though I had read on forums and such that you could unlock a second character (and thus the two player mode) in around 10 minutes, it took two hours and several loaded restore points for me to get there. Of course I found out all too late that I just needed to speak to a character that I had completely disregarded to expedite the process, but I should have expected as much from an old-school JRPG. And I love it.

Even apart from this unfortunate misunderstanding, Secret of Mana is much more difficult than I ever expected it could be. The game’s combat relies on a system where waiting for attacks to charge is usually the most efficient way of dealing damage, so you spend a great deal of time attempting to dodge enemy attacks that typically offer very little in the way of telegraphing. In scenarios where multiple enemies appear on screen, beasties usually have no qualms whaling on your downtrodden body after one of their colleagues has already damaged/poisoned/stunned you. Luckily the frustration this brings is mitigated by the game’s rewarding weapon mechanics, super-bright art direction and catchy soundtrack, which may lack the nuance of several other SNES game music offerings but makes up for it with vibrant energy and heavy percussion that gets my head bobbing.

I feel beyond fortunate to have spent this past week taking in what amounts to a missed gaming generation as far as my life is concerned. The SNES Classic Edition (which is turning out to be much easier to obtain than last year’s NES counterpart, thankfully) is a lovely little box of nostalgia-driven goodness that arguably holds up as a collection much more readily than the NES Classic does, and while I doubt I’ll pay it as much attention in future weeks as I did during this one (How can I when so many tantalising games insist on coming out?), I’m confident I will return to it again and again over the coming months to spend many more hours with that wonderful controller. And who knows? I might actually finish a classic game or two. I might finally be able to contribute something to those stories my friends have been telling me for decades.

Well played, Nintendo.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by RidinginmyNintendo64 on October 24, 2017 at 4:24 pm

    Good Read, glad you were able to grab one. I love the super Famicon look too, wish we would have had an option to choice that look here in the States.

    Reply

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