The Time-Travel Delights of the Super Nintendo Classic

The 27-year-old console has been revived, in miniaturized form, to great nostalgic success—and it offers a reminder of the building blocks of video-game storytelling.

A still from Super Mario World, one of the 21 games available on the SNES Classic

The SNES Classic was hallowed property from the second it was announced. It’s a plastic hard drive, the size of a slim paperback, with a plastic shell that makes it look like an shrunken Super Nintendo console. There’s a fake indentation in the top where a cartridge might go, but that’s just for show. Instead, 20 classic games of the 16-bit era (and one new title) are already loaded inside—a treasure trove of nostalgia for children of the ’90s and a charming wayback machine for modern gamers.

It’s never been hard to play Super Nintendo games. Used consoles and cartridges abound on eBay, and modern Nintendo consoles like the Wii have downloadable versions of games online. But the SNES Classic, like its forebear the NES Classic (which was released a little less than a year prior), seems to have some magical grip on players. When it was announced, pre-orders sold out within eight minutes; despite Nintendo’s promises to make more copies than the NES Classic (which still retails for more than double its list price on the secondhand market), the SNES Classic has still been nigh-impossible to find as it hit stores this week.

The appeal goes beyond players being able to return to the games of their youth. The console also offers the heady experience of just plugging in and playing, free of internet updates, digital-rights management, and all the other bells and whistles of contemporary gaming. The biggest nostalgia factor with the SNES Classic is that sense of the console being personal, an experience you could only share with friends if they came over to your house to play alongside you, with each game (including masterpieces like Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and EarthBound) a private story for you to plumb the hidden depths of.

Unlike contemporary “ports” of old Nintendo games, which have to map their controls onto a more modern console like the Wii or the 3DS, the SNES Classic is aiming to replicate the original Super Nintendo experience as much as possible—the only real difference is that it can plug into an HDMI port, making it more compatible with current-day televisions. The console comes bundled with two original wired controllers, and the games are the same as they were on the original release day. The console has a useful function allowing players to save their progress in the middle of levels, but apart from that it’s no different—and no less frustrating—than the console gaming of yesteryear.

As someone who grew up on the Super Nintendo but still plays plenty of contemporary titles, it was jarring to be reminded of how hostile video games used to be to new players. Even cheerful launch games like Super Mario World are trials by fire—there’s no concept of a “tutorial” level or a barrage of friendly pop-ups teaching you the controls. It brought back memories of killing my little avatar endlessly as I tried to learn the ins and outs of jumping on moving platforms, figuring out the varying uses of different-colored Koopa shells, and unlocking the secrets of each labyrinthine ghost house.

Other titles on the SNES Classic, like Contra III: The Alien Wars and Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, are absolutely humiliating experiences, the kind of relentless punishment that dares, rather than encourages, you to boot up the game again after a cavalcade of rapid deaths. Even though gaming was an established worldwide phenomenon by the time of the Super Nintendo’s release, it still had a slight air of secrecy—games were puzzle boxes to be solved, and creators were less desperate to instantly please new users in a saturated market. There’s a huge sense of achievement in grinding out just one level of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts simply because at no point does it try to hold your hand. If you survive, it feels like a miracle.

The Super Nintendo isn’t memorable simply because it’s hard. If anything, these games are a little easier and more accessible than the 8-bit NES titles that graced last year’s NES Classic. It’s also a touchstone for a moment when games began to get more thematic, and more concerned with atmosphere and storytelling. There’s iconic stuff like the opening of Zelda: A Link to the Past (where Link receives the hero’s call in the middle of a thunderstorm) or the quiet delights of EarthBound, a grounded sci-fi tale of adolescence set, audaciously, in a world not unlike our own.

There are quieter things too, in “simpler” games like Super Mario World, a platform adventure in which Nintendo’s enduring mascot goes on another mission to rescue the princess from the evil dinosaur Bowser. Booting up the SNES Classic reminded me of strange little details like the opening to Vanilla Dome 2, an underground level that begins with the hero falling into a lake, then crawling out to chance upon a fish enemy, flopping uselessly on land, portending tougher trials to follow. No longer were platform levels just assault courses for players to dash through as expertly as possible—they were also living, breathing environments, replete with haunting chiptune music and atmospheric details.

The wild success of the SNES Classic is the latest evidence of rampant affection for the 1990s—it’s the childhood of many a 20- or 30-something wrapped into a convenient little package. It’s also a testament to Nintendo’s canny Disney-esque strategy of releasing products as limited, must-have sales “events” to drive fevered demand. But more than anything, the SNES Classic is a reminder of a time when gaming was smaller, when every new level design could seem groundbreaking, where the very idea of go-kart racing or graphics comprised of polygons felt revolutionary and special.