Everything old is new again this week in the world of video games, and Nintendo is once again in the spotlight.
The Japanese games company has leaped back into the headlines with the overnight craze of Pokemon Go, an augmented reality-powered app for smartphones, and the announcement of the NES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), pre-loaded with 30 games.
The NES Classic, in particular, has achieved a level of buzz in lapsed gamers comparable to when the console first hit store shelves in 1985 and made Nintendo a household name in the first place.
“I think [Nintendo] has finally realized that nostalgia is their greatest strength,” says Daniel Rosen, a games and esports writer at TheScore.ca.
“For years, Nintendo has been trying to recreate the insane success of the NES, when video games weren’t ‘video games,’ they were ‘playing Nintendo.'”
The breakout successes of Pokemon Go and the NES Classic’s announcement suggest the company is looking to harness that raw nostalgia in a simpler format.
NES Classic is for casual or lapsed gamers
Retro gaming isn’t new, of course. You’ll find old refurbished machines from the NES to the Sega Genesis and even an Atari 2600 or two for sale at A&C Games, a retro games shop in Toronto.
Tech-savvy gamers uninterested in hunting down vintage cartridges have made a hobby out of downloading digital copies (called ROMs) of retro games and building their own devices to play them on a television or computer, though it falls under a legal grey area.
Even Nintendo sells much of its back catalogue as digital downloads for its Virtual Console service – provided you already have a 3DS handheld or Wii U console to download them on.
For Travis Sachdeva, a sales associate at A&C Games, the difference between these options and the upcoming NES Classic is accessibility and ease of use.
“A lot of people are getting back into retro stuff again, and finding some of these games can be very difficult,” he told CBC News.
Used copies of some of the most sought-after games that will be on the NES Classic, such as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Final Fantasy, can sell for $30 to $40 depending on their condition, while the NES itself goes for $130.
“To be able to buy a console that has 30 of those big titles already on it is going to be a lot easier for people who don’t want to get super hardcore into dropping a bunch of bills on getting all of these games and consoles again,” says Sachdeva.
The same principle applies to Pokemon Go: anyone with a modern smartphone can download it for free. They don’t have to own a Nintendo 3DS (which sells from $110 to $240), and they don’t have to buy the latest traditional Pokemon game for $50.
Will old-school nostalgia lead to future success?
The lingering question for Nintendo is whether it can sustain the interest in the long term – and whether it’ll convince newcomers to buy other Nintendo products.
There’s no telling whether the interest in these products will spur interest in its more traditional products – two new Pokemon games are scheduled to hit the 3DS this fall, while Nintendo’s new console, code-named the NX, is due next spring, spearheaded by the upcoming game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
But Rosen argues that isn’t the point.
“I don’t think that if you download Pokemon Go you’ll necessarily want to buy the next Pokemon game. And I don’t think that if you buy the NES Classic, that you’ll necessarily want to buy the NX. I think they’re very different markets,” he told CBC News.
“I think you are looking at Nintendo realizing that they can do better if they divide and conquer. You can hit the market that wants to download Pokemon for free, and that wants 30 NES games for 80 bucks, and you can hit the market that wants a 60-hour open world Zelda game.”