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Pop CultureNovember 2, 2017

The SNES Mini and the power of gaming nostalgia


Duncan Greive plays the SNES Mini and recalls a time in his life when it was the one thing he wanted to be happy.

When I was a child, all I wanted was Super NES. I grew up in London in the ‘80s and my mum was deeply fearful of all things that weren’t English – particularly American things, even if they were Japanese. Also I think video games just looked freaky if you grew up with regular toys, so she didn’t really trust them around your kids. Something like that.

My friends had an NES or a Master System II, but the closest I got was this Atari years after its peak, handed down due to its obsolescence. It was so old that it had fake wood panelling on it, which was chic on early ‘80s Buicks but did not exactly connote hi-tech at any point. It had games like Pong and Space Invaders, and a rotating dial controller which was sneaky great.

We moved to New Zealand in 1990, the year the SNES came out in Japan, two years before it appeared here. I was 12 years old and deeply homesick and that Atari hadn’t survived the move. The SNES hit us tweens like a train. Before then it had been like Frogger at home and some Amiga 500 at my one friend’s house. It’s impossible to overstate how much cooler the SNES was than Frogger.

Street Fighter II, which was 40c at the takeaways and the biggest thing in my peer group’s lives, was now free. I mean there was probably no bigger cultural event in my life to that point than that. There may not have been since. The game meant so much that friends bought an arcade machine for their shitty leaky Grafton kitchen ten years later and it felt like the most baller thing that anyone I know had ever done.

Not long after Mario Kart was released, still my favourite game ever. It was simple enough to get vaguely competent at early, but escalated enough in intensity to be still challenging. Cute but with the opportunity to use a red tortoise shell to absolutely destroy someone’s happiness. Just a perfect game.

I never got a SNES.

They were expensive, and while my mum got more chill about screens she probably knew that I didn’t need another excuse to stay inside and not talk to anyone. Eventually we got a 286 and I played Legend of Zelda on that, which soaked up some of the time, and by the time the N64 came out I was basically past gaming. Years later I would get Xbox 360 and a Wii and Wii U as Christmas or birthday presents, and have big plans to immerse myself but not really do a lot with them. It was a specific moment in my life which appeared to have passed.

Then I saw the SNES Mini (technically known as the ‘Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System’ – but who can be bothered writing that), and it all came flooding back. The loneliness and the longing and just being totally dazzled by the possibilities of that grey plastic box. I wanted it as a portal back to that moment, when the world was small and you could just want one specific material thing and know it would make you content forever.

I got one for my most recent birthday, because my wife is indulgent of me and my impulses and deeply personal nostalgia. I played it for a few hours, and these are my thoughts.

It is legit tiny, not much bigger than a wallet. Unfortunately this also extends to cords which means you have to be incredibly close to whatever you’re playing it on, and live with them hanging in the air.

I plugged it in and the pixels and colours took me away. It has 22 games, including Streetfighter II: Turbo and Mario Kart. I played Mario Kart first, which was kinda jarring, after playing it on the Wii U a bunch a year or two ago. In my head they were identical in both difficulty and aesthetics. But, while similar, the 1993-era game was basic as hell. More jagged visually and jerky in terms of game play. My middle daughter Robyn, who is eight, can win up to decent level on the Wii U. On the SNES though, she is just awful.

The fundamental thrill has not changed, though. It’s still racing those weird gremlins around a track and trying to fuck them up with projectiles and banana skins. It still has amazing Disasteradio-esque music. I still loved it.

Next came Street Fighter II: Turbo. I played as M. Bison, still kinda thrilling via him being just an opponent almost every other time I’ve played. When I was a kid I was shockingly bad at SFII. I remember finding the concept of nailing the sonic boom motion – an incredibly basic sequence – just impossible. I was known as ‘Dunco’ in school, and not for nothing.

Now, I was absolutely fine to do it. I let my three year old beat me – she was a surprisingly effective button-bashing Chun-Li.

The following Sunday I played for a couple of hours with Robyn. We toured a bunch of different games with names like Mega Man X (good), Super Mario Bros (great!), Star Fox (bad, I think), Earthbound (weird) etc. Some clearly conveyed a long duration to get even competent enough to ascertain whether they’d be fun. Those I avoided. Some were clearly trailblazing and of great historical significance, but time-sinks. Those I avoided too. Side-scrolling platformers and button-bashing fighting games, I absolutely feasted on. (One game I missed a lot: Final Fight 2.) It made me yearn for the time to just sit with it slobbishly for hours, lurching through these bright worlds without an invisible ticking clock rattling down in my head. I want that day, while also knowing deep down that it never will come.

But it will for Robyn. She plays Minecraft and Pokémon Go a lot. Now though, often as not I’ll find her deep into Super Mario World. Which isn’t exactly what they mean when they talk about trying to make a better world for your children than the one you experienced. But it’s close enough for me.

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