There’s little doubt Nintendo’s new mini-NES microconsole is going to sell well. Throwing 30 of the most beloved NES hits together in an adorable, HDMI-supporting reproduction of the original chunky gray-and-white system seemingly is, like so many things Nintendo does: a license to print money. And the same could be true for their old console rival Sega — if the company wants it.
Up until now, plug-and-play boxes (clone consoles that use emulation to run their games) have largely been mid-grade at best. Typically, they’re either relegated to gaming’s earliest years (with reproductions for systems like the Atari 2600 and Intellivision) or are cheap machines like the licensed Mega Drive from AtGames that’s been all over the internet of late.
That specific machine seems fine at a glance, though it does look like an illegal copy initially. AtGames’ box claims compatibility with physical Genesis cartridges in addition to what comes pre-loaded. All of that sounds great, and then you realize half its catalog is made up of bootlegs, the machine historically suffers from poor sound quality, and carts aren’t guaranteed to work. That’s just to name a few issues.
In theory, Nintendo’s relatively no-frills inclusion of HDMI on the mini-NES could go a long way toward legitimizing emu-boxes by simply giving it the same production value as it would a new console. By raising the bar, the company is paving the way for any other vintage hardware maker, most notably Sega, to start work on their own high-quality box filled with classic games.
It doesn’t matter that most of the Genesis’ hits are already available in one form or another in digital formats, Nintendo systems included. As with the mini-NES, it’s a matter of giving fans a physical object, and a tactile connection, to a nostalgic core. (Also, classic games running through HDMI produce the crispest picture outside of resorting to console modifications, as the mini-NES apparently shows).
Would a market for physical emu-boxes set the world on fire? Probably not; Nintendo at least has said the mini-NES will never connect to the internet or receive any additional games. It’s as closed a system as any authentic retro console is, and will be until the likely release of a version 2.0, SNES, or N64 successors happens — barring inexplicable consumer disinterest.
More importantly, there arguably isn’t an established market presence for emu-boxes – not one big enough to make a difference, anyway. With the mini-NES, a jump-start to that sector is perhaps at this point inevitable. So why wouldn’t Sega want to get their own cut?
Having the two ’90 console war kingmakers back in a friendly competition could certainly make a convincing case for more widespread adoption of emulation in general, as much commercially as for the sake of preservation. (The hope being the better these boxes do, the more classic games left by the wayside are revived).
Best case scenario,Sega takes the ball and runs with it, one-upping Nintendo with a mini-Genesis that, say, takes fake cartridges loaded with more games, or at the very least offers some additional system support in some other form. In any case, a healthy rivalry would probably be good news for fans.
Getting people interested would just mean advertising Sonic, Streets of Rage, and a handful of others to start off with, perhaps making a point to emphasize the best HD visuals and sound compacted into a well-made retro package. Who knows — an emu-box back and forth could one day even give us a mini-Dreamcast. Dare to dream, right?