Retro gamers can hardly failed to have noticed the recent surge in miniaturized versions of some of the favourite computers and consoles of the 80s and 90s. It was all kicked off with the Mini NES/SNES, followed by the C64 Mini, with the new mini Neo Geo and Playstation Classic making an appearance in time for Christmas 2018.
I can completely understand the appeal of these consoles but – with the exception of the C64 Mini – none of them have tempted me to part with my hard earned cash. This is odd, because surely I’m exactly the target demographic for these devices. So why is it the case? Well, there are a number of reasons.
First is the cost: Many of the consoles are pretty expensive, considering what you get. Typically ranging from £70-120, when looked at logically they just don’t make sense from a financial point of view. Whilst the price of retro consoles and games has risen considerably over the past few years, originals of most of the machines in question can still be picked up for a reasonable price, along with a number of decent games. The exception to this is, of course, the Neo Geo Mini – the full console and its games have always commanded a high price, so for many people the Mini version represents their only realistic chance of “owning” one.
For the rest, though, the point stands. Let’s take the Playstation Classic as an example. The original Playstation machine is neither hard to find nor expensive, whilst a quick trawl of any charity/second shop will net plenty of games that can be bought for a couple of quid. Think of how many of those you could buy with the £90 that the Playstation Mini will set you back and it makes you start to wonder whether the mini version is worth your attention.
At this stage, I should point out that this is not snobbery on my part around the whole “original hardware vs emulation” debate (I’ve written before about how I tend to take a pragmatic approach to retro gaming, balancing the desire to have original hardware with the realities of the constraints of space, money and technological reliability). However, the current reality is that (at the moment at least), it’s still cheaper to buy an original machine and save the rest of the money for buying loads of games to play on it. To illustrate this point perfectly, take a look at this Tweet (the message that inspired this blog post)
Which brings me onto my next point. With the exception of the C64 Mini, your choice of games on these shrunken consoles is limited. The NES Mini comes with 30 games, the SNES Mini has 21, whilst the Playstation Classic has just 20. It’s not a huge amount, is it, especially when you consider the vast library of games all these consoles enjoyed. And the chances are that within any selection of titles, there will be some great ones, some OK ones and some weak ones. Due to licensing and copyright issues, some of your favourite games (and some of the best games for the platform) just won’t get included. Tomb Raider was the game that persuaded people to buy the original Playstation yet (for perfectly understandable reasons), it is nowhere to be seen on the PS Classic.
There will also be some titles (regardless of quality) that you enjoy playing more than others. Let’s be honest, even on a generous estimate, the chances are that, after a few initial plays, at least 50% of the content will never be loaded again. I look at some of the titles on the NES Mini or the Neo Geo Mini and I just know that they are the sort of game I will never, ever play, which effectively renders them useless.
Which brings me onto my final point and the killer reason why these consoles just don’t appeal to me: expandability. With the exception of the C64 Mini (which already carries the largest number of built-in titles – 64), new games cannot be added. You are stuck with the selection of titles that the original manufacturer has identified and cannot add your own favourites. For me, this makes them really unappealing, particularly for those consoles which had such a massive catalogue of fantastic games that I either remember fondly and want to replay, or which I never got to experience first time around and would like to play now. I get that there are all the issues around the legality of ROMs and that companies (particularly the increasingly litigious Nintendo) want to protect their properties, but it does reduce my interest significantly. In fact, every time a new mini console is announced, you could pretty much plot my reaction on a graph and it would look remarkably similar every time – something like this, in fact:
As I mentioned previously, the only one of these consoles I have succumbed to is the C64 Mini. Partly that’s because I have an in-built bias towards Commodore products as the computers I grew up with. A bigger factor, though, was that the manufacturer’s promised that additional games could be added via a USB stick. OK, it took a while to get this functionality working properly and it’s still not perfect, but it gives the console a whole new lease of life once the appeal of the in-built games has faded.
I know that someone is bound to point out that most of the mini consoles can be hacked to allow new games to be added but, as someone with all the technical abilities of a dead slug, the prospect of doing this fills me with terror. I’d probably do it wrong and end up bricking my device so that I was just left with a fancy doorstop.
As I said at the start, I can see the appeal of these mini consoles and understand why they sell so well (which means, of course, that they will keep on coming). From a gamer’s point of view, they offer a chance to “re-own” hardware and games that you probably now regret getting rid of; from a manufacturer’s point of view, they offer a new income stream on old properties. However, until the ability to add new games is standard, out-of-the-box functionality, they just aren’t for me.