SNES Classic

Don’t Be Spoony About the SNES Classic: Nintendo’s Pulling out a Marketing Classic

The Super NES Classic is out today, and if you didn’t already know this, then it’s too late: you’re not getting one. As with the NES Classic that launched last year, Nintendo is making this a limited promotional release. Pre-orders opened weeks ago at 4 A.M. without prior notice, and still filled up in minutes.

Why? Why won’t they shut up and take our money? Here are two reasons.

First, because consoles aren’t really the point for Nintendo. Contrary to Microsoft and Sony, who are first and foremost console manufacturers making and selling Xboxes and PlayStations, Nintendo is a game developer, who is first and foremost making and selling Marios, Zeldas, and their other intellectual properties. It’s just that they need game consoles to control the market and sell their games profitably. That’s why many of their commercial moves appear puzzling: they’re not playing by the rest of the industry’s rules, but rather doing it their own way, like Apple for computers. These NES Classics and SNES Classics, then, are primarily a hype generator to stimulate demand for the back catalog of Nintendo games – a back catalog that has been exploited, and will continue to be, on the Virtual Console services for the portable (3DS family) and home (Wii/WiiU/Switch) consoles. So the consoles are merely a transactional gateway and a transitional item for the actual goal: selling games. That’s where the money is.

The second reason is supply control. Nintendo is a “fabless” company, one that uses a fabrication-less model, which means external partner firms must supply the components to build Nintendo’s machines. They often have their own agendas, schedules and constraints to concurrently satisfy multiple clients, so Nintendo simply can’t get enough manufacturing to respond to the demand. But it’s also part of Nintendo’s strategy to ensure a tight control on supply and to always underdeliver on orders, so that they avoid any risk of product overflow and dumping by retailers who end up with overstock. This is not news; in my book, I explained how the Super Famicom – the original Japanese Super NES of 1990 – was released in a tumult. Only 300,000 consoles were shipped to stores, fulfilling merely 20% of pre-orders. People took their Wednesday off to line up and get a console, only to return home empty-handed and furious. How History repeats itself!

Nintendo is a business built on ruthless efficiency; their business model and their marketing is their Super Power. We are infatuated with their machines, to the point that we sing odes and write dithyrambic pieces all over the internet on how great and awesome their consoles are; we are Spoony Bards, foolishly enamored with the hardware. And the Super NES was not an especially great console, from a technological standpoint: it was a conservative machine meant to behave just like the Famicom (the original Japanese NES), only throwing glitter and glitz over the games in the form of nice graphics. Like precious Silverware, it was all for show, decorum, and for wealthy people to enjoy. The SNES was a machine for the elite game developers of the day, who would endlessly work to bring absolute polish to the games we had been having on the NES before. The same old food, served in a shiny packaging. And those who couldn’t afford to polish that silver? They’d be left out in the street to fend for themselves.

So what’s going on with the SNES Classic and NES Classic? Nintendo’s pulling out solid tactical sales decisions to promote their long-term business agenda. You might be unhappy you’re not getting that SNES Classic, and they don’t really care. Or more exactly, they don’t care enough to budge from their trajectory, because that’s what’s good for their business, and they know better. What you’re seeing is the cold and calculating business mogul that other video game developers, publishers, and retailers have known for years, behind the round and happy face of Mario and pals.

So if you wanted a SNES Classic and you’re left out in the street instead, then at least know that you’re not alone in this. And, in the words of the hallowed SNES classic Secret of Mana: “Time flows like a river…and History repeats.” That’ll be worth keeping in mind when Nintendo announces the inevitable N64 Classic as well.

Dominic Arsenault is associate professor in the Department of art history and film studies at the Université de Montréal. His research and teaching cover interactive screenwriting, video game genre theory, and graphics, innovation and aesthetics in the video game industry and history. He is the author of Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware: The Super Nintendo Entertainment System, published by the MIT Press in 2017.