Did Nintendo try to make the NES Classic as a nostalgic novelty? Was it some sort of drum-up-the-excitement tool before the Nintendo Switch? Was it something Nintendo just underprepared for, or was it a gadget that was intended for planned obsolescence all along?
I've had several conspiracy-theory discussions with colleagues and friends after Nintendo's shock announcement of the NES Classic's imminent discontinuation. To be clear: Nintendo of America's statement says shipments are ended for "this year," and the statement doesn't speak to global availability. But nevertheless, for the time being, this thing is now officially a limited edition collectible. Now that Nintendo has pulled the plug (for this year, at least), those gray-market prices on Amazon Marketplace and eBay have no place to go but up.
But here's the thing: I have no idea why the NES Classic is going away. And, so far, I don't think a good reason has presented itself.
The NES Classic isn't perfect. It only plays 30 really old (but good) games from the '80s, and honestly, NES games are good ... but not always as good as you may remember. Its controller cables were way too short. The buttons and design aren't living-room friendly: To pick a new game, you need to get up and hit reset on the tiny box. Or, of course, you could buy one of several excellent wireless controller options, but that costs extra.
But the NES Classic made a lot of people fall in love with the idea of going retro. My son, a serious Wii U fan, loves the NES Classic. I was lucky enough to buy one a couple of months ago at its normal price.
The experiment worked
Nintendo, a company that many have called irrelevant at various times over the last decade or so, suddenly vaulted into the spotlight. Between Pokemon Go, the NES Classic and the Nintendo Switch launch, Nintendo has become trendy. Popular, even.
The Nintendo Switch has sold over 900,000 systems since its launch over a month ago, and it's also sold out everywhere. It all feels like the early days of the Nintendo Wii. The NES Classic has sold 1.5 million units.
If the NES Classic was a loss-leader novelty experiment, a physical ad campaign, it succeeded. But I don't think that makes much sense. Yes, Nintendo sold far more NES Classics than it expected to. But at $60 a system for 30 older games, the NES Classic isn't cannibalizing anything as far I can see. The $2-a-game cost of NES Classic titles undercuts what Nintendo sold games for on the 3DS and Wii/Wii U Virtual Console, but the bundle deal on the NES Classic locks these titles in a vault. You can't take them with you to other Nintendo systems, or on a plane or train. That's where the Nintendo Switch still has a sales pitch.
A lot of people I know want to buy an NES Classic. They won't be able to. Nintendo's own website doesn't yet give any hint that the NES Classic is a limited-edition item ... or that sales are being halted. I can't think of a single product as short-lived as the NES Classic would be.
So really, why stop?
So, now what? Does Nintendo make a Game Boy Classic limited-edition novelty, or a Super NES Classic? Is the Switch and its not-yet-launched Virtual Console service the planned future for retro games? Does Nintendo even have a clear plan here?
The NES Classic, once discontinued, has the rare advantage of not being abandonware. There's no online component, no cloud-based authentication needed. Every bit of it will work with or without Nintendo's continued support.
Does this indicate a Nintendo that's after your limited-edition collect-them-all dollars? Is it pure marketing? Is it an error? Maybe we'll hear more soon -- at the next Nintendo Direct, or E3 in June.
Because right now, I really have no idea.