Following on from my earlier article concerning my thoughts about the SNES Mini hype train, here I discuss your options if you are unable to get hold of a SNES mini without selling your organs, or your body. Don’t worry, it’s easy as pie to enjoy the best games of the 16-bit golden age.
SNES emulation has been close to perfected for years. 20 years ago ZSNES and SNES9x were all but finished, and are available on a wide range of devices, including smartphones and tablets, PSP, PS Vita, 3DS and Wii. I personally use OpenEmu on my Mac, which includes amongst others emulators for SNES, NES, Gameboy, Gameboy Advance, most Sega systems, and PlayStation.
Coupled with a decent controller this provides a close to authentic experience. I use a Wii U Pokken Tournament controller, which has a SNES-like button layout and feel. It’s also very comfortable, well-made and inexpensive. I’d recommend avoiding the cheap USB SNES-styled controllers on eBay as they don’t respond as well as I’d like. These days you can even use a DualShock 4, Xbox One controller, Wii Remote and attached controllers on your PC – so even if you can’t get a SNES Mini, if you can get one of the controllers (yeah right) you’ll be able to use it with the Wii Remote for the closest thing to the original.
Emulators have the benefit of various filters, which can adjust the video output according to your taste – smoothing sprites, changing colours, or adding scanlines (which, contrary to popular belief, were not much of a thing on PAL TVs of old). Otherwise, you can output your games in crisp, HD loveliness, depending on your chosen emulation system.
An interesting development in SNES emulation is Higan, which started life as bSNES, but now includes emulation for other consoles. It aims to create 100% accurate emulation of the chips of the console, rather than taking shortcuts as other emulators do. Well worth a look if your PC is up to the task.
2. Raspberry Pi
Yeah, mention SNES Mini on Twitter and you’ll likely receive at least one response from one clever parrot along the lines of “Just build a Raspberry Pi”.
For a start, there is no just build a Raspberry Pi. It takes certain skills that you may not possess, or you simply may not want to. It’s like telling someone who is desperate for a poo, away from a comfortable place to take care of it, “just build a toilet”. Besides the building of the computer, you need some knowledge to install the software, and then you need a case. You can buy kits online to help you achieve the goal more easily, but it’s not just building the Raspberry Pi.
Still, should you build, or buy, just such a machine, you will find that you are able to emulate all the systems that a Windows or Mac PC can, on a system the size of your smartphone. Which is kind of neat. So, if you’re are so inclined, consider this a worthy option.
3. Clone Console with Original Cartridges
There are many clone consoles available that play original SNES cartridges. They can be hit and miss with the more complex cartridges that had additional hardware built in (such as Starwing/Starfox‘s Super FX Chip), but can make up for this by supporting multiple systems in one machine, such as Hyperkin’s Retron series of consoles. The Retrons use emulation anyway, downloading the ROM from your cartridge. This brings the benefit of emulators, such as video filters, to your games whilst using the cartridges.
There are also handheld versions available if that’s your thing (Supaboy), and of course there are dozens of clone consoles out there that are less “mainstream” than these options.
My personal opinion of these is that they have no place. If I want to use the cartridges, I’ll use a real SNES. If I want to emulate, I’ll do that. The middle ground is a strange place that I see no real point to.
4. Original Console and Cartridges
Of course, you can always play the games on a real SNES. I mean… obviously.
There are two problems with this option. One is the price – a SNES console is not cheap today, and is unlikely to be in particularly good condition. Many of them have yellowed with age (which can be rectified, if you really want to), and the controllers are likely to be wearing out. You may get lucky though, but I’m still looking for a worthy replacement to the one I sold in 1998. The second problem is the way these games work, or more importantly don’t work (so well) with modern HD televisions. The technology in the 1990s was quite different, with Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) TVs being the de facto thing on which we consumed our visual entertainment. These used RF inputs (coaxial), or SCART (in Europe) and S-Video (in USA), none of which are designed to provide the crisp, colourful picture we’re used to today. Until very recently, HD TVs were sold with these connections available, though increasingly the connectors will be unavailable.
There are means to convert these inputs to HDMI, though this ads (a lot of) cost to things, and so are not necessarily practical for the average user. They also add a brief moment of latency to the video which isn’t game-breaking for 1990s gaming, but may bug people who notice it.
Then there’s the cost of the games. Many of the more popular games are quite affordable still, though prices are rising as more
hipsters people join us in our hobby. Some other games, though, have ridiculous asking prices. Sometimes even games that aren’t rare can sell for hundreds of monetary unit, such is the world we live in.
Still, there’s a certain charm to having the original hardware, swapping cartridges to play your different games, and there’s also something to be said about a nice collection on your shelf, which you don’t get from emulators.
To make the experience perfect, consider investing in an older CRT TV. Perhaps someone you know has one in their loft for some reason that they won’t miss, or perhaps you’ll find one for cheap (or free) on local marketplaces.
5. Virtual Console
An interesting compromise is the Virtual Console service. Available on Wii, Wii U and 3DS, and soon coming to Switch, Nintendo’s Virtual Console provides an official emulation source. Limited to the games they decide to make available, and priced high in my opinion, it is, nonetheless, a route to enjoying some old classics from their vast library without legal concerns. A few of the games (Earthbound) are not easy to get otherwise, and you gain some benefits of PC emulation – games save their current state when you exit them, and you will be able to enjoy the higher resolution of your chosen system (HDMI included on Wii U and Switch, plus the ability to enjoy games off-screen while someone else watched TV).
There are faults with the Wii U rendering of some games, more noticeable on NES, where the palette is very dark and washed out. SNES games generally fair better though, and that’s what we’re talking about today. 3DS is my favourite option for SNES Virtual Console, emulating the games beautifully and with a worthwhile selection.
Conclusion – my choice
Absolutely my favourite option is emulation. Ignoring the politics of such things, it enables access to your games where you want, when you want. You can carry the entire SNES library (and many many more) on a Micro SD card. The image displayed is crisp and beautiful, maximising the wonder of what software developers achieved with such low power (compared to today).
As for where I prefer to play these emulators, I’m going to go with my Wii. My Mac does it better, in 2K resolution, but my Mac is on a desk in my office, whereas my Wii is connected to the TV in the living room. Cheap component cables allow it to output at 480p on my 42″ TV, which looks nice enough, and produces a somewhat softer image that is great for the older games.
Easily soft-modded these days, it can then run games for every single Nintendo console from NES to Wii, including the handhelds up to Gameboy Advance. The only system that struggles is N64, which runs with a very choppy framerate on the Wii. Go one step further, and do the same thing to your Wii U if you like, though it’s slightly more involved and I haven’t bothered.
A Wii can be purchased for half (or less) the cost of a SNES today. The Wii Remote controller works perfectly as a NES or Gameboy controller, and the Pro Controller plugs in an functions nicely for SNES and other games. A Wii U fight pad that plugs into the Wii Remote covers your Gamecube needs (apart from analogue shoulder buttons). A USB hard drive is inexpensive, and can hold all the games you need. Just make sure when shopping that you buy an early Wii – one with Gamecube controller and memory card ports. Later ones without can be used, but the early ones make it easier, and allow you to use proper Gamecube controllers.
The questionable legality affects many peoples’ decision on whether this is the route to take. That’s your responsibility. Stick to downloading ROMs for games you own physically and I see no reason for anyone to be upset. Gamecube and Wii games can be installed to the hard drive directly from the discs in your collection. I’ve spent thousands of monies on Nintendo products through the years. Several games have been purchased multiple times, therefore I don’t see any harm me having those games in a “grey” format.
So, what do you think? How do you enjoy your SNES (and other classic) games? What are your thoughts on emulation and the downloading of ROMs? Hit me with a comment below, or look me up on Twitter to chat!