The Ethics and Logic Behind NES Classic Mini’s Emulation

The NES Classic Mini’s emulation looks perfect…but why?

nes classic mini


When the NES Classic Mini was announced this past July, many were elated they could relive the 80’s with over 30 built-in games, including the likes of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Mega Man 2. And yet, a number of fans couldn’t help but wonder: how exactly would these classics be presented? Would the NES Classic Mini possess an all-new form of emulation, or would it maintain the horrid quality present on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service for Wii and Wii U?

A recent head-to-head comparison via GameXplain shows there is nothing to fear: the games present in NES Classic Mini will not only be presented just as you remember them, but with various filters and settings for all your nostalgic needs. Said filters include a CRT filter that features scanlines, a 4:34 setting that mimics displays of old televisions, and a Perfect Pixel mode that displays games as they were meant to be presented. (And for PAL players, don’t worry: you can switch between 50HZ and 60HZ sound frequencies for every game.)

Having dealt with Virtual Console’s ups and downs for the past decade, it’s immensely refreshing to see Nintendo taking every step to deliver a customized experience for everyone. It may not include every NES game, but no longer are the dark filters and blurry anti-aliasing plaguing NES/SNES/N64 games present to diminish the quality of our favorite retro games. And don’t forget: it’s all in HD!

For those unfamiliar with the filter, while it’s most common in NES games (which are also subject to an ugly blur courtesy of anti-aliasing), it affected several SNES and N64 titles to varying degrees. Many will tell you it first appeared on Wii U, but Wii fell victim to it as well; in fact, the above trailer for Kirby Super Star is a trailer for the Wii Virtual Console release. Comparing it to this gameplay footage from the SNES original cartridge, it’s instantly apparent how what was once a bright, colorful game becomes rather muted in its lighting. (It should also be noted this version was present in the otherwise lovely Kirby’s Dream Collection).

So why was this filter present at all? An official statement by Nintendo has never been released, but it’s an easy guess: epilepsy. Let us not forget that epilepsy concerns have been hand-in-hand with games for quite some time, and Nintendo has hardly been exempt from them as seen in this 1991 lawsuit or a 2004 accusation that they intentionally downplayed seizure risks.

While Nintendo’s taken efforts to include seizure warnings and the like since 1991, retro games are abundant with flashy light patterns and the like that aren’t compatible with today’s epilepsy-pattern prevention practices and analyzers. This is why, for example, you don’t see the filter in newer games that borrow NES graphics, such as Super Mario Maker, NES Remix or the 3D Classics rereleases.

Epilepsy is a serious condition, and I can understand why Nintendo would go to such measures; in some cases, perhaps it’s actually deserved (remember how obnoxious Torchlight Trouble’s flashing lights were in Donkey Kong Country?). All the warnings and disclaimers in the world still won’t stop lawsuits and bad press from happening, so what better solution than a blanket-measure filter to prevent such controversy?

nes classic mini

As a Nintendo historian and nostalgia enthusiast, however, it’s difficult to digest. The filters dilute these classics to the point where they can detract from the games’ original purpose. Just look at the Solar level in Star Fox 64: in the original, the opening sequence of bright-red lava serpents sends chills when one launches right at the screen; in comparison, the Virtual Console version is absolutely pathetic, as the colors are far too muted to make any sort of impact.

And if they’re going to such lengths, why not have better consistency in that regard? Game Boy games have the same filter on 3DS, yet NES ones look as bright and colorful as ever on there. This isn’t even considering how other industry leaders handle legacy releases: Microsoft and Sony do not apply any similar filters, as seen in Rare ReplayMega Man Legacy Collection and the latter’s PSOne Classics. Is it simply a case of Nintendo playing it too safe?

Much like their stance on Virtual Console, Nintendo remains silent on why there’s no filters for NES Classic Mini. If we’re going by the logic presented in this article, that it’s a guaranteed hot product renders it a strange choice; after all, wouldn’t the goal of avoiding any seizures be especially important when Nintendo’s retro classics are set to become the holiday spotlight? The general public probably wouldn’t notice and/or care about any filters, anyway, but here we are.

Is it selfish of me to dismiss seizure concerns for the sake of my favorite hobby? Perhaps, but Microsoft and Sony don’t seem to care, and now Nintendo is suddenly dedicated to providing the best possible presentation for NES games. It’s possible it’s all for the sake of polishing one product to its fullest, and yet I can’t help but wonder if this is a sign for how the upcoming NX will handle classic releases.

nes classic mini

The hard truth is that the game consoles, cartridges and discs you’ve grown up with will, at some point, wear out and break down. Many of my N64 and SNES cartridges have already fallen victim to dust contamination and graphical glitches that no amount of rubbing alcohol or dismantling can fix, and hunting down replacements can be either too expensive or, worse, yield the same results. That the only other legal option is to download objectively-inferior versions of games I love is more than a little disappointing, and I firmly believe it’s a disservice to consumers, no matter how noble the intentions.

In the end, it should be the players’ choice how they enjoy their games, even at their own risk. Why Nintendo chose to go back on their supposed emulation policy remains unknown, but all the customizable features and toggles offered by the NES Classic Mini shows they are respecting their audience. In that regard, I personally can’t be happy enough.

Anthony Pelone
Eating, breathing and living video games on a daily basis, Anthony is particularly fond of the Nintendo variety, but is by no means a console warrior. Somewhere in the midst of his obsession with cat pictures, he finds the time to pen about his favorite hobby. Having previously written for over three sites, Anthony remains dedicated to spreading the gospel of EarthBound.

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