The SNES Classic: A Midlife Crisis in a Box

Games Features SNES Classic
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The SNES Classic: A Midlife Crisis in a Box

You can’t separate Nintendo from nostalgia. It’s become the company’s calling card, a constant that courses through every new game and system that it makes. It’s why the Super Nintendo Classic Edition sold out everywhere before it was ever released, just like last year’s impossible-to-find NES Classic. Nintendo clearly has no problem capitalizing on that nostalgia, but to the company’s credit it doesn’t let the past dominate its future; its three most recent consoles have all been built on idiosyncratic ideas, and two of the three have been massively successful. And even its purely nostalgic plays, like the SNES Classic, are buoyed by one simple fact: Nintendo games are generally pretty great.

The SNES Classic’s 21-title library features some of the best designed videogames ever made, playable in HD on a modern TV set. In the 1980s Nintendo introduced or enhanced many of the core gaming concepts that would carry the industry through the end of the 20th century. In the 1990s the company expanded and refined those ideas on the SNES, finding so much new potential in its classics that simply wasn’t possible on older technology. Games like Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past aren’t just “bigger” and “better” than their forebears; they so thoroughly realize what those games were aiming for that they make the older ones feel like mere proofs of concept. Even the games here that weren’t designed by Nintendo, including Final Fantasy III (aka Final Fantasy VI) and Contra III, are simply smarter and better designed than their earlier installments. The early 1990s didn’t just benefit from more powerful technology, but from a class of professional, experienced game designers working at the top of their abilities.

Like the games themselves, the SNES Classic improves on what made the NES Classic great, while preserving what made it valuable. The NES Classic might have tapped into a richer vein of nostalgia, offering a larger and more diverse pool of games, but the SNES Classic presents a better package of gaming experiences going by the standards of both yesterday and today. Something like Super Castlevania IV might still look unplayably archaic to anybody who wasn’t around in the early ‘90s, but in both aesthetic and action it’s more accessible than the 8-bit Castlevanias on the NES Classic. The same can be said about both almost every series that is represented on both devices and the random one-offs that fill out the rosters. (The one major exception is Super Mario World. It can’t compare to Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES, which is the purest distillation of the Super Mario concept and maybe the greatest videogame ever made.)

The SNES Classic captures not just the sterling craftsmanship that these designers had forged by this point in gaming history, but a burst of creativity from Nintendo that almost rivaled their mid-’80s explosion. The best games on the SNES might be refinements of Metroid and Zelda and Square’s Final Fantasy, but it was also the first system that games like Super Mario Kart, Star Fox, F-Zero and Pilotwings appeared on. (Mysteriously, Pilotwings is not included on the SNES Classic.) Mario’s expansion into the world of role-playing games kicked off with Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, a precursor to the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. Donkey Kong went from classic arcade heavy to a legitimate franchise-carrying hero with Donkey Kong Country, which continues to generate new sequels over 20 years later. Nintendo has introduced iconic new games on almost every system it’s ever released, but the Super Nintendo represents, at worst, its second most-fertile period, and the SNES Classic collects the major hitters into a single box.

And yes, it also includes Earthbound. The word “idiosyncratic” doesn’t even begin to describe Shigesato Itoi’s cult RPG, which juggles lightness and darkness in its bizarre satire of American culture. Both playful and poignant, this unusual game was so unsuccessful in America that even the nostalgia-loving Nintendo didn’t rerelease it over here for almost 20 years. The SNES Classic is only the third time it’s been legally reissued in the States, and if you’ve never played it before it might be worth the price of admission alone.

RPG fans in general will relish the SNES Classic. Beyond Earthbound, it features what is often considered the best Final Fantasy game, that first Mario RPG, and Square’s beloved Secret of Mana. If the time-to-money ratio is a factor in your purchasing decisions, the hours these four games alone will eat up will set those concerns to bed.

Curiously, the SNES Classic features one game that’s never been released before. Star Fox 2 was fully completed and scheduled for release in 1995 before being cancelled due to the impending release of the Nintendo 64. Some of its ideas were recycled for Star Fox 64, but otherwise this is a fully-formed would-be SNES classic never before seen by the world. Star Fox 2 continues the theme of SNES games exploring in detail the kernel of an older game’s original idea, but this time with a game that itself was first released for the SNES. Like Star Fox, it’s far from first-rate Nintendo, but it’s a notable improvement on the original’s barebones attempt at Space Harrier-style 3D shooting. There’s more strategy required, as you have to contend with a galaxy map and fending off attacks from enemies while also pursuing your next mission. It’s an ambitious game that might’ve already looked old in 1995 but would have received a warm welcome from fans of the original, while also potentially winning over those who weren’t into the first one. It’s an interesting footnote stashed away within the SNES Classic’s library, but not really a major selling point.

Star Fox 2 represents a different kind of nostalgia than the rest of the SNES Classic. It’s a true unknown, a game nobody outside of Nintendo has really played until now, and yet simply because of its age and retro appearance it will still pluck some of the same nostalgic strings that Super Mario World and Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting play masterfully. It’s a sensation that anybody who hasn’t really played these games before, but is familiar with Nintendo’s characters and history, will feel. It’s a nostalgia not just for these specific games, but for this era of game development, and for this particular moment in history, the first half of the 1990s. With Mortal Kombat already a hit in arcades, Doom only a couple of years away, and Sony prepping the release of the PlayStation, the dawn of the Super Nintendo can be seen as the twilight of videogaming’s childhood. Soon the industry that Nintendo rebuilt in 1985 would enter its angsty teen years, supplementing the candy-colored fantasies of Nintendo for blood-stained excursions in ultraviolence. Violence abounds throughout the SNES Classic, but there’s an innocence to most of these games that still persists within Nintendo to this day. It can be found in a game you’ve played hundreds of times before, like Super Mario Kart or A Link to the Past, or in something that’s brand new to you, like Star Fox 2. In the end the nostalgia Nintendo is selling us isn’t just about the games that we played in our youth, but the people that we were then, and the comfort and freedom we once felt and will probably long for throughout the rest of our lives. Nintendo just happens to be so good at making games that you don’t even need to share those feelings to find tremendous value in this tiny box.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.