The NES mini was a huge success, but very much a first effort from Nintendo ripe for improvement. Fine for more casual gamers, the experience for enthusiasts was let down by flaws including subpar video scaling, ultra-short controller cords, audio lag and a range of minor emulation issues. The good news is that Nintendo has improved the quality of its emulation, successfully simulated a range of custom, cart-specific hardware in the process and done it all using the same cheap mobile chipset as its predecessor. It's an ambitious effort for sure, but to what extent does it accurately match original hardware?
The Super NES is Nintendo's second major home console and even today, boasts one of the best gaming line-ups to ever grace a piece of gaming hardware. Not only that, but it also features a fascinating hardware spec. With support for an expanded color palette, an advanced sample-based sound chip and rich tile manipulation features, the SNES offers capabilities that no other competing system could match - even if its core CPU was undoubtedly under-powered.
Then there is the design of the console itself. The original Super Famicom is a beautiful piece of kit and this design is shared with the European model. The North American unit, however, features a different chassis that many would argue is less attractive. We still have some nostalgia for the old purple beast but it's difficult to deny the beauty of the European and Japanese models. Like the NES mini before it, the miniaturised Super NES follows the same distribution model with designs corresponding to that of the original units in each territory. We're reviewing a European model here, which for our money offers the best combination for Western gamers - the Super Famicom casing, paired with 60Hz US versions of the games on offer. No PAL borders, no speed reductions: thankfully Nintendo has spared us from the 50Hz 90s nightmare.
In addition to the beautiful mini casing, the SNES mini includes two controllers this time around and both controllers feature slightly longer cables - an improvement over its predecessor in both cases, for sure. Like last year's model, the controllers perfectly replicate the look and feel of the original pads. The beautiful candy colored buttons really stand out and the d-pad feels spot on. Of course, like the original, the European and Japanese models lack the concave X and Y buttons of the American pad but the colour choices more than make up for it.
- Buy the Nintendo Classic Super NES mini from Amazon with free shipping.
Stripping back the casing, the SNES mini is based on the same Allwinner R16 system on chip featured in the NES mini, the HDMI output offering a matching 720p signal. The base resolution for most games is equivalent to the NES at just 256x224. It's a logical choice since 224 lines scales to 720 lines with small borders around the image, but what it does mean is that your flatpanel may need to scale the image up to its native 1080p or 4K resolution, which may incur extra lag. Run side-by-side with an original system hooked up to a CRT and it's remarkable how much crisper the original system feels in the hand: modern displays simply aren't as responsive as classic display technology.
In terms of how that emulated output is displayed, the SNES mini retains a very similar UI to its predecessor, meaning there are three different output options: a pixel perfect mode, a 4:3 aspect ratio mode and a CRT Filter. In addition, a selection of border art is added to the mix, framing the action left and right. Many of these borders don't look bad and they're a welcome addition. The display modes modes also highlight one of the major improvements over the NES mini - improved scaling.
In particular, the 4:3 option avoids the scaling artefacts that plagued the NES mini. This stems from the horizontal resolution - on a CRT, which does not rely on a fixed pixel grid, the 8:7 aspect ratio is smoothly stretched to fill a 4:3 display resulting in non-square pixels. On a digital fixed pixel display, however, this can introduce artefacts while scrolling, creating visible shimmering which was an issue on the NES mini. For the Super NES mini, however, the team has implemented a very subtle interpolation feature which still preserves its sharp pixels but minimises the issue with left-right lateral movement.
The pixel perfect mode uses square pixels resulting in an 8:7 aspect ratio. This isn't how games were meant to be played but there are arguments in favour of it on certain titles - the morph ball in Super Metroid appears completely round in 8:7 but it is more of an oval in 4:3. The benefit here is that no interpolation at all is necessary.
Lastly there is the CRT filter, which is a missed opportunity. The NES mini did a reasonable job with it, presenting an image that looks similar to a CRT using composite video. However, for the SNES mini, the composite video artefacts are gone, which is a good thing, but in its place is a blurry, filtered image with faint scanlines. Again, stacked up side-by-side against an actual CRT, the difference is vast: a good CRT offers razor-sharp scanlines with a subtle pixel falloff around edges due to the phosphor nature of the display. In comparison, the SNES mini option just looks blurry, lacking the clarity and precision of a decent CRT display.
Also puzzling is the inclusion of what looks much like analogue noise in the video signal, most noticeable in solid colour - a bizarre anomaly bearing in mind the purely digital nature of the internals. What's even more surprising is that the actual analogue output from an original Super NES does not have this issue at all. Overall, the SNES mini's video output is improved thanks to enhanced 4:3 scaling, but the video noise and poorly implemented CRT filter keep the system from achieving perfection.
Beyond that, it's mostly good news. In terms of the authenticity of the emulation, Nintendo has done a good job here. The visuals are extremely accurate to real hardware in most cases and superior to the Super NES emulation used for Virtual Console releases. Many of the included games contain special chips which places further demand on the emulation software. Kirby Super Star and Mario RPG use the Super Accelerator 1 or SA-1 chip, Mario Kart uses the DSP-1 and several included games make use of the Super FX chip. This is an important breakthrough since Nintendo has avoided emulating the Super FX chip on its Virtual Console service. With the Super NES mini, however, Nintendo has included three games utilising this technology. The original Star Fox makes use of the original Super FX chip while Yoshi's Island and Star Fox 2 employ the Super FX GSU-2.
Emulation seems excellent overall, but there are some curiosities - just like the NES mini, strobing effects in some titles are minimised, and there are some genuine surprises too, like higher resolution mode 7 effects, when blown-up tiles are viewed at close range. Audio emulation is solid and an improvement over the NES mini, but still not quite right overall. We noticed occasional missing sounds and subtle differences in music playback - on the right speakers, you can hear a small difference.
There's also a slight delay in audio playback - it's not something you'd likely notice in practice but, based on close analysis of the waveform, it seems that the SNES mini delays sound playback by roughly three frames compared to original hardware. A 50ms lag isn't a disaster and it's still an improvement over the NES mini which had the same issue - but we're curious as to why it's there at all.
While the SNES mini is built on the same OS and core software as its predecessor, the developers have also pushed the boat out a little with new functionality. Like the NES mini, save states are available but there's another nifty feature included - a rewind function. Simply pop down to the save selection screen then hit the rewind button. From there you can use the R and L buttons to move between the last minute or so of gameplay. If you made an error and want to recover, it's possible. It's a nice little feature for sure, especially bearing in mind the often unforgiving gameplay of the 2D console era.
Overall, the SNES mini isn't perfect, but there is the sense that Nintendo has taken on board criticism from its prior product and attempted to address key issues - and we would hope to see this drive for increased accuracy carry on through to the Switch's upcoming Virtual Console. And certainly in terms of the software selection, Nintendo has really delivered the goods here, offering a range of games that really showcased the technical capabilities of the console throughout its lifespan.
First of all, let's stress again that we're getting full-speed 60Hz games here as opposed to the frequently embarrassing PAL versions. A byproduct of this is that European adaptations of key titles are dumped in favour of the NTSC 'originals' - so SNES mini gamers get Konami's excellent Contra 3, as opposed to its robotic European equivalent, Super Probotector. Similarly, Star Fox is Star Fox, not the EU derivative Starwing. The use of US code also means that 60fps racing games retain full-fat frame-rate on the SNES mini - F-Zero looks and plays exactly as it should, as does Super Mario Kart.
The inclusion of the Super FX-powered Yoshi's Island also demonstrates sublime usage of the accelerator hardware. Scaling and rotation are used regularly here, 3D objects are integrated into the world seamlessly, enemies feature huge numbers of animations frames and the parallax backgrounds are incredibly rich and detailed. In many ways, it feels like a game designed for the PlayStation or Saturn, going well beyond the SNES's 16-bit roots.
That very same Super FX 2 chip serves as the basis for another major release in this package - Star Fox 2. This is a very important release. It's well known that Star Fox 2 was cancelled just prior to its ship date likely in response to the more powerful 3D consoles at the time and the upcoming N64. Star Fox 2 is one of the most ambitious games created for the 16-bit machine, offering more complex 3D environments than anything the original Star Fox could offer. In a way, the game is a bit of a rogue-lite in that you face impending death and are forced to deal with whatever comes your way in order to reach the end.
You'll intercept enemies via an overhead map, fly inside large carriers to destroy them from within and take to the surface of different planets to liberate them from Andross control. It's here where things become really impressive - once planetside, you can toggle between an Arwing and a bi-pedal mech of sorts. These maps allow players to freely run around the environments shooting enemies, hitting switches and attacking buildings. The game makes use of limited textures this time around and, although they are low-res and distorted, it's impressive to see them at all. The more you play, the more you appreciate the ambition here - it's like a prototype N64 title, marred mostly by its very low frame-rate. It's a very choppy game not unlike other Super FX 3D titles: not unplayable but certainly borderline at times. Curiously, to play Star Fox 2, the SNES mini requires you to play a level of the original game first - perhaps to 'acclimatise' you to the kind of 3D gamers experienced back in the day.
Star Fox and its newly released successor do take some getting used to in the era of full 3D gaming, but what's beautiful about the SNES mini is the extent to which so many of the games still hold up today. Essentially, this miniature console is an emulator housed in a beautiful little shell, designed to offer a cute, but highly authentic retro experience. What separates this from the competition is its execution. It's not perfect, but compared to what companies like ATgames are providing or even the clone systems from Hyperkin, it's difficult to argue with the results. Ultimately, original hardware paired with a CRT just looks nicer and feels better, but if you're looking for something more portable and friendly for your modern display, the SNES mini is a good, cheap choice that comes highly recommended.
Digital Foundry specialises in technical analysis of gaming hardware and software, using state-of-the-art capture systems and bespoke software to show you how well games and hardware run, visualising precisely what they're capable of. In order to show you what 4K gaming actually looks like we needed to build our own platform to supply high quality 4K video for offline viewing. So we did.
Our videos are multi-gigabyte files and we've chosen a high quality provider to ensure fast downloads. However, that bandwidth isn't free and so we charge a small monthly subscription fee of £4.50. We think it's a small price to pay for unlimited access to top-tier quality encodes of our content. Thank you.Support Digital Foundry