Smith: How a retro game console helped me bond with my wife

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Nintendo put a price on my childhood last week, and I gladly paid it.

Who wouldn’t pony up $80 for a 200-hour nostalgia trip? The Super NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) Classic hit store shelves Sept. 29, pre-loaded with 20 classic, early 90s Super Nintendo games and the never released “Star Fox 2.”

I was lucky enough to grab one the morning it came out, but a lot of my fellow gamers weren’t so fortunate. Pre-orders for the system sold out months before the console’s release, and store shelves were barren by the end of launch day.

After a weekend of vigorous play testing (including an all-night marathon that lasted until 10 a.m.), I’m happy to report the system is worth more than $80. Unfortunately, if you want one before Christmas, you’ll likely have to pay an online hardware scalper at least twice the asking price.

The Hardware

I knew the Super NES classic would be tiny, but seeing it in person was eerily surreal. It looks exactly like the original, but is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. The two controllers that come with it, however, are an exact replicas of the originals, only sturdier and lighter.

Too bad the controller cables are so damn short.

Measuring about 5-foot long, the cables are two feet longer than those of the NES Classic, but not nearly long enough to reach from my entertainment center to my recliner. The HDMI cable that comes with the system is also way too short, so I had to improvise.

And by improvise, I mean draping cords across the width of my living room, creating an unsightly mess of taught tripping hazards. I keep an extra-long HDMI cable hooked to my TV at all times, leaving the loose end available for when I want to hook my laptop to my TV. It works just as well with the Super NES Classic, giving me the room to put the system on my ottoman and place it in the middle of the room.

It still wasn’t enough. The system has a handy but poorly explained rewind function that lets you retry difficult sections of a game, but to use it, you have to go the system’s home screen and make a save file. Instead of putting a “Home” button on the controller (a standard feature introduced by the Xbox 360 back in 2005), you have to use the reset button on the console. That means it has to be sitting right next to you, forcing me to drag my ottoman all the way to my recliner.

What the hell was Nintendo thinking?

It’s a small but notable caveat for a stellar little machine that displays every game in beautiful 720p resolution. These games didn’t look this crisp when they first released. Not on my childhood TV, anyway.

The Games

Much of the media hype has been focused on the system’s extra game — “Star Fox 2.” The spaceship shoot-em-up was notoriously axed right before its planned 1996 release, and its assets and concepts were ported over to the then-upcoming “Star Fox 64″ for the Nintendo 64 console.

Ironically, it isn’t that great—compared to the original. The graphics are a bit better, but the open world exploration system is a mess, and most of the battles are presented from a boring first-person cockpit view. The best parts of the game, such as your spacecraft transforming into a walking tank, are implemented much better in “Star Fox 64.”

You still should give it a try, though. I know some gamers who adore “Star Fox 2” (it’s definitely experimental), and it provides fascinating insight into Nintendo’s quality control. “Star Fox 2″ doesn’t live up to the quality of the rest of the titles on the system, and it looks to me as if Nintendo ate a financial bullet to protect their reputation.

I was a pre-teen back then, and didn’t give much thought to critical analysis. I liked what I liked, and constantly scoured gaming magazines for even more games I would like.

Now that I’m looking at these games through the eyes of a critic, I’m even more impressed. They’ve aged, sure, but in the same way classic films such as “Citizen Kane” and “Casablanca” have. Those beautiful black-and-white visuals still pop 80 years later, just like the striking, two-dimensional pixel art of these Super Nintendo games. The games’ simplistic story-telling is still charming, much like the broad over-acting in “Citizen Kane.”

I wish I had the room to review each game individually. “Super Metroid,” “Final Fantasy III” and “Super Mario World” are three of the greatest games ever made. But I’m just cherry picking from a library of true classics. Aside from “Star Fox 2″ (counted as a “bonus game”), there are no misfires.

The Joy of Couch Co-op

Couch co-op (games you can play on a couch with a friend) have made a big comeback lately, and it’s easy to see why. The 80s and 90s were the golden era of couch co-op, and many of these games, such as “Contra III: The Alien Wars,” “Donkey Kong Country” and “Secret of Mana,” are still better than a lot of modern co-op titles.

My wife and I spent the majority of our weekend trying them all out, and we didn’t want to stop. For her, it’s a fun way to spend time with me. For me, it’s a chance to natter on about my childhood memories associated with each game. That inevitably leads to even more tales from my youth.

God love her, she’s actually interested in the minutia of my memories. If I told my childhood self I would land a wife who enjoys playing video games with me, I surely would have swooned from happiness.