As fun as Nintendo’s new mini-NES may be, its insides have the potential to be more important than just fan service. Though not officially confirmed, the console’s games are most likely running through emulation, which uses software to replicate programs made for a particular piece of hardware.
Emulation is also arguably the key, if not the only, viable solution to preserving old video games for future generations. But whether this tiny $60 console, preloaded with 30 classics from Punch-Out! to Metroid, helps with gaming’s record-keeping is up for debate.
Frank Cifaldi, head of digital restoration at Digital Eclipse, which oversaw The Mega Man Legacy Collection, says that while he wasn’t surprised over the mini-NES, it’s certainly not a negative – at least, not for its creators.
“I see it as a good thing for Nintendo I don’t think this really changes the landscape or the acceptance of emulation,” he said.
While Cifaldi, who left a career in journalism to pursue industry projects in game preservation, cites the number of times Nintendo has already put out classic NES, SNES, and handheld titles on multiple systems in the past. Yet the bigger problem that the mini-NES can’t fix on its own is that the rest of the NES back catalog beyond its most popular games aren’t available in any updated form; a huge chunk of gaming’s history is simply missing.
“The biggest barrier is just clearing up the rights,” he says. “These are products that were never meant to be republished. If you’re a publisher in the ‘90s and you publish a game for the Sega Genesis, it’s extremely unlikely that you worked something into the contract for digital distribution rights.”
However, retro consoles bundled with games like the mini-NES could theoretically open the doors for a wider consumer presence.
“I do think that there is definitely a market for cheap consumer products that emulate video games,” Cifaldi says. “There’s absolutely a future where a company manufactures a product with digital delivery and basically has a cheap, retro emulator box that can do all kinds of consoles.
Cifaldi is quick to point out that a number of emulator boxes for older consoles like this already exist — Atari, ColecoVision, Sega Genesis, and others. And yet, like the mini-NES, these mostly focus on first-party or otherwise popular titles. It’s a problem found whenever vintage games are offered on other platforms, whether as standalone emulation consoles or digital distribution services like Nintendo’s Virtual Console, Sony’s PlayStation Network, and Microsoft’s online marketplace.
“For old video games where the sales potential is kind of low, especially if you’re only on one system, it’s usually not worth the trouble,” Cifaldi says. “So no ones doing it.”
Jason Scott, who serves as the primary historian of emulated software for Internet Archive, says something like the mini-NES is really just the tip of the iceberg in software preservation, and not something necessarily to be concerned about in the greater scope of things.
“I’m much less worried about the world forgetting about Nintendo products,” says Scott, who oversees getting the site’s library of emulated software to run on browsers. “I’m much more worried about, you know, I’ve got an APK-1000, nobody knows what that is. Or the [Entex] Adventure Vision, which produced four cartridges, and then died.”
Though Scott agrees it should be fun to watch people take the mini-NES apart to see how it runs, the box is basically just a product whose appeal is nostalgia for series that already have widespread support.
“It’s neat they’re bringing it back up,” he says. “But [the console] is like, 101. It is, yep, you can play Mario again. Anything beyond that is like, hey, what else is out there?”
It’s been a problem society has grappled with arguably since software — games and otherwise – started to become a presence.
“On the whole, the world didn’t recognize software as a cultural force that needed to be preserved,” Scott says. “At best, they just perceived it as a cultural force that was aggressively attacking us.”
Now, it’s all preservationists can do to fill in as many gaps as possible. But it’s also up to the companies that made the programs.
“We may see more and more of companies getting better about going, eh, we’ve ought to give all this [discarded stuff] to a museum,” he says. “Personally, I like to go where there’s no light — and there’s a lot of light on games. The fact that people are decrying the loss of games tells you that. Nobody is decrying the loss of elevator driving software, for example.”
Whether related directly to games or not, Scott says no one should feel that what they have isn’t relevant.
“There are so many other companies — not necessarily bigger or more important — that will leave us impoverished when all record of them disappears,” he says. I never want somebody who’s in a position to access materials going, well, were not Nintendo, so nobody’s going to care.”
Still, Cifaldi says, even something that mini-NES, which theoretically preserves these games in the public consciousness, is better than just discarding gaming’s roots.
“These games [on the mini-NES] should be very easily available everywhere, the more platforms the better,” he said. “I would like some of this content to not be locked to Nintendo platforms — but you know, it’s great to keep these things alive.”
As to the future of emulation, Cifaldi feels that greater distribution freedom goes hand in hand with a more complete history.
“I see a future where emulated games are as common as digitally distributed movies or music. And it’s pretty easy to do from a software perspective — we can emulate these old games on anything that we have.”
And, much like renting digital films, Cifaldi sees the answer in utilizing as many different services as possible.
“The solution is just building an infrastructure where we deploy games into everything. It’s very difficult. But it’s a solvable problem.”