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In November 2016, Nintendo debuted the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Classic Mini. There’s already a hardware shortage, but reportedly the holidays will bring new stock. Both the NES Classic and the upcoming Nintendo Switch have garnered loads of excitement among gamers.
While the NES Classic (or NES mini) is certainly a neat device, there are other options. It’s not the only gadget capable of satisfying that retro gaming fix. From ready-made consoles to do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions, Nintendo has a decent bit of competition. Check out the top 5 NES Classic alternatives.
Nintendo Entertainment Center Classic Mini Overview
The NES Classic Mini resembles its predecessor, but with a smaller footprint. But size isn’t the only difference. Additionally, the NES Classic eschews cartridges in favor of flash memory. However, storage is built-in and soldered to the motherboard. Still, there’s hope for modders: CNXSoft notes potential UART or FEL interfaces which open up the hacking possibilities. Atari’s like-minded Atari Flashback 2 console included solder points on the motherboard. DIYers could, therefore, add a cartridge port.
According to PC Mag, the NES Mini is actually a quad-core Linux computer. Its catalog of 30 built-in games varies by region, but there are 22 universal titles. Highlights include Donkey Kong, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros., and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
NES Classic Mini Alternatives
Unfortunately, supply shortages might prevent you from getting an NES Classic. Some might prefer a more DIY-solution. For whatever reason, you may want to opt for a different console than the NES Classic Mini. Thankfully, alternatives abound.
NVIDIA’s SHIELD is simply a stellar console. The Android-based media player comes in two varieties: a set top box and a tablet. The SHIELD TV boasts 4k HDR streaming support (the tablet only supports 1080p). As the SHIELD is Android powered, it has access to the Google Play store and accordingly a bevy of emulator apps. So there’s the potential for not just playing NES games, but a host of titles from other consoles as well. App store access means the SHIELD is a suitable home theater PC (HTPC) replacement too.
However, unlike with the NES Classic, you’ll have to supply your own ROMs (please only use ROMS of games you legally own). Plus, you lose the nostalgia factor. The SHIELD starts at $330 (via Amazon) and the SHIELD tablet starts around $200. Yet there’s a ton of functionality. You can play PC games on your TV with NVIDIA GameStream, and even run a Plex Server off of a SHIELD console. While the Plex Server is totally feasible, there are some limitations.
Ultimately, the SHIELD set-top box and tablet are great options that are much more powerful than the NES Classic, but also pricier.
- PC game streaming.
- Powerful hardware.
- HTPC functionality.
- Lots of emulators.
- ROMs not included.
Mad Catz M.O.J.O.
Like the SHIELD, the Mad Catz M.O.J.O. is an Android micro-console. Sporting 16 GB of built-in storage plus microSD expansion, the M.O.J.O. is also an all around solid entertainment hub. With access to the Google Play store as well as TegraZone storefront, it packs a huge gaming punch. Although the initial launch model seemed unpolished, a later firmware update completely refreshed the M.O.J.O. At first, the M.O.J.O. was extremely limited in its Google Play support due to lack of touchscreen. However, a firmware upgrade alleviated this flagrant issue, transforming it into an amazing device.
Unfortunately, apps like Facebook require root access. Chances are you’ve got some device (computer/phone/tablet) with which to log into Facebook. Moreover, if you must access Facebook with the M.O.J.O., you can use a web browser, like Chrome. As with the SHIELD, Mad Catz’s gaming-oriented set top box doubles as an HTPC. Installing apps like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go makes the M.O.J.O. a capable game console and media hub. An advantage over the NES Classic is that, like the SHIELD, retro gaming potential is amped up with access to emulators from a bevy of consoles.
Powered by a 1.8 GHz T40S quad-core Tegra 4 processor, 16 GB of storage, and 2 GB of RAM, the Mad Catz M.O.J.O. a beefy yet tiny console.
- HTPC functionality.
- Easy to root.
- Reasonably priced.
- Lots of emulators.
- Not as powerful as NVIDIA SHIELD.
- ROMs not included.
Price: Around $99 via Amazon [No longer available].
While the NES Classic Mini runs games off of flash memory, there’s another viable solution for playing Nintendo Entertainment System games: cartridges. Sure, you can buy an original console. Or you can buy the next best thing. Companies like Hyperkin offer systems with multi-platform support. The RetroN 5 notably plays games from the Sega Genesis/Megadrive, Nintendo Gameboy, Gameboy Color, and Gameboy Advance, Famicom and Super Famicom, Super Nintendo, NES, and Master System. Master System compatibility does require the Power Base Converter.
Features include an HDMI output that upconverts to 720p, save and load slots, built-in cheats, and Bluetooth wireless controllers. Plus, there are original controller ports for so you can plug in your own controllers. The RetroN 5 is both PAL and NTSC compliant. PC Mag awarded the RetroN 5 a superb 4.5 out of 5, noting that Hyperkin’s latest console is the best available retro gaming system on the market. With HD upconversion, support for actual cartridges, and aspects such as the ability to save screenshots, it’s a great pick.
On the downside, reviews pointed to minor issues. Because a lot of the games are older, it’s difficult to diagnose whether it’s a console or cartridge issue. Aside from the RetroN 5, Hyperkin also offers older models. There’s a host of NES clones including the Generation NEX. Moreover, other platforms like the Atari and Genesis have their own clones, some of which even support cartridges.
- High Definition upconversion.
- Appeal to purists.
- Cross-platform compatibility.
- Original controller support.
- Not as convenient as ROM-based emulation.
- Occasional compatibility issues, possibly due to old or damaged cartridges.
Price: Varies by console RetroN 5 via Amazon [No longer available].
If you’re looking for an inexpensive and extremely open gaming fix, the Raspberry Pi is a strong contender. You can likely run ROMs on your own computer using emulators, but having a dedicated device frees up your PC. The Raspberry Pi can run the likes of RetroPie or RecalBox and play a ton of ROMs.
RecalBox and RetroPie are Linux-based operating systems that load the EmulationStation frontend. After installing one of these on your microSD card, simply load your desired ROMs and start playing. On top of that, it’s an all-in-one solution. While you might need to install additional emulators, you don’t need to scour an app store for apps. Additionally, with the Raspberry Pi 3 starting at $35, it’s a very reasonably priced solution. Here’s a stellar guide for retro gaming on the Pi.
Unfortunately, the Raspberry Pi alternative comes with drawbacks. The base price of $35 just gets you the motherboard. Accessories like a power supply and case are optional. And like the aforementioned ROM-based micro-consoles, you’ll have to supply your own ROMs. You can get a complete starter kit for around $50, and I highly recommend this option. The power supply is guaranteed to work, and offers phenomenal value.
A few other considerations: there’s no support. Since this is a DIY project, you are on your own for troubleshooting. While you can run games on a Raspberry Pi 2 (that’s what I’m using), I strongly suggest the Pi 3. If you’re wondering about upgrading to the Raspberry Pi 3, it’s pretty simple. The latest Raspberry Pi iteration brings major performance upgrades and inclusions like built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
- Lots of flexibility.
- Incredibly open ecosystem.
- Really inexpensive.
- Wide array of console compatibility.
- Awesome custom cases.
- No support.
- ROMs not included.
- More work required.
Price: Starts at around $35 (motherboard only).
Nintendo Wii or Wii U
When it first launched, the main draw of the Wii was its Virtual Console. Over 90 Nintendo Entertainment System titles are available for the Wii and Wii U. Other platforms in the Virtual Console include the Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Master System, Genesis, TurboGrafx-16 (including the CD), and Neo Geo.
A major reason to go with a Nintendo Wii or Wii U: it’s a legitimate source of games. Downloading or ripping your own ROMs can be a challenge and does not guarantee compatibility. Even cartridge-based clones like those offered by Hyperkin don’t always work as expected.
Limited libraries make the Wii/Wii U route not as ideal as other NES Classic alternatives. There may be more available games than come pre-packaged on the NES Mini, but you have to pay for the console and the games. If you plan to play a lot of Wii or Wii U games, or even GameCube titles as is the case with a Wii, this is a great route. The Wii can run emulators, but you’ll need to hack it to run homebrew solutions.
- Legitimate source of digital NES games.
- Access to Wii, Wii U, GameCube titles.
- Some entertainment capabilities.
- Limited library.
- Not as entertainment-centric as other options.
If you’re in the market for an NES Classic, the Mini is far from your only choice. There’s a solid range of devices, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Since a lot of these alternatives including the Mad Catz M.O.J.O., NVIDIA SHIELD, and Raspberry Pi require providing your own ROMs, it’s worth noting the Retro Freak. While it doesn’t support NES games, it does rip cartridges from the likes of the SNES, Mega Drive, Gameboy, and more.
Your turn: What NES Classic Mini alternative are you using?
Image Credit: Bookend via Pixabay