When Nintendo released a $60 miniaturized version of its beloved Nintendo Entertainment System in November, people went bananas. The console sold out everywhere and quickly became the must-have holiday gift for millions of people around the world.
The NES Classic Edition continues to be an elusive beast nearly half a year later. And as of Thursday afternoon, it’s a collector’s item — Nintendo officially discontinued the NES.
Here’s the wording straight from the horse’s mouth, provided to IGN by Nintendo:
“Throughout April, [Nintendo of America] territories will receive the last shipments of Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition systems for this year. We encourage anyone interested in obtaining this system to check with retail outlets regarding availability. We understand that it has been difficult for many consumers to find a system, and for that, we apologize. We have paid close attention to consumer feedback, and we greatly appreciate the incredible level of consumer interest and support for this product.”
So! Why in the world would Nintendo discontinue one of its most popular products in years? There are a few reasons, and you’re probably not going to like any of them.
1. The NES Classic Edition was never intended to be a product — rather, a commercial.
Nintendo has been in the dumps for the past few years:
• Its latest console, the Wii U, had been a flop.
• Its portable console, the 3DS, was fading.
• With few exceptions — “Super Mario Maker,” for instance — Nintendo’s stable of hit franchises was stagnating.
In so many words, Nintendo, a company that once dominated the video game market internationally, was fading from relevance and losing to its competition. The NES Classic Edition was an amazing way to at once remind people of their love for Nintendo and break back into mainstream attention.
It’s a box that looks identical to a miniaturized NES console — Nintendo’s most iconic game console — and comes with all your favorite classics (“Super Mario Bros.,” “The Legend of Zelda,” etc.). More important, it’s just $60. It’s the perfect combination of nostalgia and low cost.
If you get one before production ends this month, you’re thinking about Nintendo (and maybe buying that new Nintendo Switch console that you keep hearing good things about?). If you can’t find one, you’re still thinking about Nintendo (and maybe buying that new Nintendo Switch console that you keep hearing good things about?).
Either way, Nintendo managed to put its brand back in the spotlight. That was the point.
2. Nintendo has a history of creating collector’s items. As of now, the NES Classic Edition is a collector’s item.
Nintendo has some of the most serious, dedicated fans of any company in entertainment — rivaling the likes of Marvel and Disney. These are the kind of fans who get tattooed, who name their pets and children after Nintendo game characters, who begrudgingly buy their fifth or sixth copy of “Super Mario World” on yet another new piece of Nintendo hardware.
I should know. I’m one of these people.
And the NES Classic Edition, while a commercial for Nintendo itself, is a gushing love letter aimed at Nintendo’s most serious fans. It’s no surprise it’s available only for a limited time — if everyone could get it, it wouldn’t be a collector’s item.
This is, of course, driving up resale costs and frustrating the hell out of people who can’t find the system. But that’s how artificial supply constraint works.
3. Nintendo has a new console to sell that costs much more than $60 — that’s a much bigger risk — that it wants you to pay attention to: the Nintendo Switch.
If people are busy buying the NES Classic Edition, they’re unlikely to rush out to buy another new Nintendo game console anytime soon. At least that’s what Nintendo is betting on, and it likely has data to back up the assertion.
It’s no mistake that the Switch launched five months after the NES Classic Edition, in early March. If the Switch and the NES Classic Edition had both launched last holiday season, the hype for the mini NES Classic Edition would’ve surely overshadowed that for the Switch.
That’s an especially important point: The Switch is Nintendo’s future. It’s the console that Nintendo is betting the next five to 10 years on.
The NES Classic Edition is a short-term profit with no extendability — you can’t buy games for it, nor can you download them. It’s a one-and-done revenue generator for Nintendo. The Switch is an ongoing revenue generator for Nintendo. That’s a tremendously important difference.
4. Nintendo is extremely protective of its classic games.
Nintendo isn’t big on selling its classic franchises for $2 apiece, and that’s exactly what it’s doing with the NES Classic Edition. In reality, it’s selling those games for less than $2 apiece because of the cost of the hardware itself.
You may have noticed that Nintendo’s library of classics isn’t available on your iPhone or Android phone. While there are many reasons for that, prime among them is Nintendo’s belief that mobile storefronts tend to commoditize games. And Nintendo has no interest in commoditizing its classic games in the same way that Disney has no interest in commoditizing its classic movies. The way Disney controls its films is through its “vault” system, selectively releasing movies for a limited time.
Nintendo isn’t quite so controlling with its classic-games library, but the company is notorious for charging players over and over for the same game on multiple platforms. That’s normal when you’re talking about movies — buying the Blu-ray copy of something you once owned on VHS, for instance — but less normal when you’re talking about games like “Super Mario Bros.” You’re essentially buying the same game repeatedly. I’ve probably paid for the original “Super Mario Bros.” 10 or 15 times in my life, even though I own the original NES cartridge.
5. Nintendo wants to sell you classic games on the Switch.
Along those lines, Nintendo is planning to sell those classic games on the Nintendo Switch — but not yet.
Just as Nintendo has done with the Nintendo Wii, 3DS, and Wii U, the Switch is going to get the Virtual Console service. What’s the Virtual Console service? It’s a digital storefront for selling classic Nintendo games — the same kind of games you might find on the NES Classic Edition, for instance.
Get it? Nintendo is going to sell classic games through a digital storefront on the Nintendo Switch, and selling a $60 console with 30 of Nintendo’s most classic games is a great way to dissuade people from buying those.
(Of note: The Virtual Console isn’t available on the Nintendo Switch just yet. Nintendo says it’s coming later in the year.)