This Christmas is going to be a busy time for retro gamers.
For the first time since it ceased production in 1995, Nintendo is going to be releasing a version of its original home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES Classic is smaller than the original chunky brick of a console that debuted in 1983, and comes with thirty games bundled in, plus HDMI support for those who like to glory in each individual pixel on a blocky retro display.
Not to be outdone, Sega has announced plans to revitalize its miniature Genesis console. The new device, which is being launched to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, is based on an earlier rerelease, but boasts a full collection of Sonic titles, as well as more roleplaying games than previous iterations of the hardware.
All of this means that, for the first time in years, this December will see Sega and Nintendo competing for dominance of the same console market demographic. Both of their machines are ostensibly very similar, and both are targeted towards twenty-something and thirty-something nostalgic gamers.
For one final festive season, the Console War of the nineteen nineties is back.
What’s particularly fun about this home console tribute act, is how quickly each company has slipped back into their respective roles, with Nintendo relying primarily on its library of games, and Sega pushing to do ‘what Nintendon’t’, to borrow an old marketing phrase.
Nintendo’s new NES, while featuring certain exciting new technological improvements (such as HD display and a controller which is compatible with the Wii and Wii U consoles), is actually fairly lacking when it comes to the features that its primary audience expects from a retro console.
The NES Classic lacks the ability to plug physical cartridges into the device to play games that aren’t in-built, and gamers can’t use original NES controllers with the machine. Both of these features come as standard in existing ‘new’ retro consoles such as the RetroN range of third party hardware, and the fact that NES Classic owners will have to buy a second controller separately isn’t going to help the console to sell to those who want to play together with friends.
In a humorous disappointing question and answer session with Polygon, Nintendo of America have explained that the NES Classic basically lacks almost every feature that eager gamers had been hoping it would include, making it little more than a fancy emulator for a prescribed list of Nintendo’s bestsellers.
Meanwhile, Sega is up to its old tricks, trying its best to one-up Nintendo in every way. The Sega Mega Drive Classic comes with eighty built in games (fifty more than the NES Classic), and also features a cartridge slot so that additional physical games can be played on the device. It comes as standard with two controllers, which almost feels like a deliberate move to make the console more appealing than the NES Classic, as both will retail for the same price.
Yet Sega’s emulation of its nineties role is perfect, including one of its major follies: its obsession with releasing endless iterations of similar hardware. There have been plenty of ‘new’ Genesis emulators on the market over the past twenty years, and plenty of the gamers who will be most likely to want the device already own one.
To make things worse, Sega are even releasing a second Genesis compilation device at the same time, the second one being a handheld version of almost exactly the same hardware (it’s also almost entirely pointless for anyone who owns a phone that’s capable of emulation, or a Raspberry Pi).
And so we end up right back in the same Console War that existed in the nineties, with Nintendo staunchly defending its console that doesn’t quite do everything its audience wants, while Sega attempts to steal market share from the NES with free games and endless unnecessary hardware updates. The only thing that’s missing is an attempt at lock-on connectivity and a mad dash towards CD-ROM games.
Last time the NES went up against the Genesis, the fight didn’t last long – the technical superiority of Sega’s home console pushed Nintendo to create the Super Nintendo, which still struggled to pull ahead of the Genesis for much of its early lifespan (before ultimately outselling the Sega console by a large margin).
This time, though, the idea of an official Genesis emulator is already so commonplace that it doesn’t stand a chance at making a splash. Nintendo’s famously aggressive protection of its back catalog of games makes the NES Classic a special event, while releasing a slightly improved version of existing hardware is just another day at the office for Sega.
For that reason, this time around, Nintendo’s likely to win the Console War redux without much of an actual fight. Even though the console lacks the capability to play cartridges or accept classic NES controllers, it’s hard to argue with a nostalgia piece that comes preloaded with so many of Nintendo’s most famous games.
The good news is, come January, the Sega Mega Drive Classic will be dirt cheap in bargain bins across the country.