The success of Nintendo’s NES Classic has led to no shortage of hangers-on and also-rans trying to capture the same magic for alternative platforms, typically with poor results. Unlike the NES and SNES Classic, both of which were fairly well-received as far as their own hardware and game loadouts (availability was a different matter), the alternate platforms have generally been skips or misses. Even Sony’s PlayStation Classic has been reviewed as a completely bare-bones experience with a game loadout that generally failed to excite. Now a new company has announced that it will bring the ‘PC Classic’ to market via a crowdfunding campaign set to kick off in the next days or months.
According to Unit-e, the company behind the product, they want to deliver “an adorable DOS game console for your TV” with many of the titles “that defined the PC gaming experience of the ’80s and ’90s.” The video below shows off the hardware, such as it is — two USB ports in the front, a third USB port in the back, and both composite video and HDMI output. Games, we are told, will be preconfigured for joystick support (by which the company appears to mean ‘gamepad’ support). Keyboard and mouse support will be included out of the box.
Games shown in the video include Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle, Jill of the Jungle, Doom (shareware), and Quake II (also shareware). None are currently licensed according to the demo video. None are announced as intended shipping titles. The final console is expected to sell for $99 and Unit-e claims it will feature at least 30 games, with plans to sell other games separately.
In Which I Have Problems
Objectively, it’s not possible to render a verdict on an unreleased product. Maybe this platform will feature an amazing set of titles and offer the same kind of pick-up-and-go gaming that fans of the NES and SNES Classic enjoy. But as someone who played every game shown in the video when it was new, including the first Commander Keen episode (Invasion of the Vortigaunts, 1990), I’m profoundly dubious about this one.
First, it’s not at all clear it’s necessary. I’m not going to claim that PC game emulation is perfect, but every single one of the titles in question shown thus far is easily available, either via direct download or website emulation already. Is there room to improve on the performance or features of classic emulators? Maybe. The video promises neither. Is an ARM box running a Linux distro going to present a better platform for emulating classic games compared with x86 and Windows? I’m not going to call that impossible, but it seems unlikely without careful, custom work on a game-by-game basis. What’s more likely is that this solution will rely on preexisting work done by the open source community. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t really justify the existence of the product, either. The company knows this is all do-able by anyone, which is why it includes the following in its FAQ:
Let’s reword this for accuracy.
Can’t I just use the internet / Internet Archive / Steam / GoG to play a whole lot of these already?
Why, yes. Yes you can.
Second, there’s the fact that this platform will ship with a controller, not a keyboard and mouse. Keyboard and mouse support will be supported, but not assumed. That’s a huge limiting factor when it comes to exactly which games are ever going to ship for this platform. The site refers to supporting games from the 80s and 90s, but most PC games from this era, especially the 80s, didn’t require or even assume a joystick was present. There were good reasons why. If you loved gaming in the early 1990s and had anything but an absolutely cutting-edge machine (and sometimes, even if you did) you probably remember the joy of crawling inside your AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files in an attempt to optimize them in order to load a sound driver, mouse driver, and CD-ROM driver simultaneously. Yes, there were great games with joystick support — both X-Wing and Wing Commander come to mind. Doesn’t change the fact that the overwhelming majority of PC games of the era were not designed with joysticks in mind and did not depend on them. If you limit yourself to games with strong joystick/gamepad support, you’re going to be cutting out a lot of titles.
Third, while the PC Classic tries to hearken back to the same level of nostalgia as an NES, most PCs — by which I mean a box running MS-DOS — didn’t hook to your TV. They hooked to a monitor. Chances are if you own a monitor, you probably already have a computer hooked up to it. Chances also are that if you have a monitor with a computer hooked up to it, that computer has access to the internet, where you can download classic PC games or play them in-browser. The logic of plugging a computer into my TV so I can enjoy the same games I play on my… computer fundamentally escapes me. So, not incidentally, does the logic of playing Jill of the Jungle on a 42-inch television.
The last point I’ll make is the most personal. When I think about classic computing — about my experience with the family 80286/10 and the 16MHz 80386SX that followed it — I do tend to think of gaming first and foremost. But that’s not all my PC was. I typed papers in WordPerfect 5.0. I learned the basics of programming in GWBasic. I learned about IRQs and DMAs from my first efforts to install an original SoundBlaster and I poked around in applications like Dosshell, QEMM386, Stacker, and Norton Utilities (back when Peter Norton owned it) to learn about file management, memory management, hard drive compression, and the various troubleshooting aspects of PCs. Yes, there was a time when Norton Utilities was actually useful for troubleshooting PCs.
My PC wasn’t a box that ran a preloaded set of games. It wasn’t particularly cutting-edge or legendary for most of its lifespan, but what it did have was flexibility that no console could match. I can understand how someone would want to plug an NES or PlayStation into a TV to relive glory gaming moments because I enjoyed some of those moments at friend’s houses, even if I didn’t have an NES myself. I’m blanking on the idea of hooking up a ‘Classic PC’ in the same fashion precisely because it fails to describe either the way I related to computing at the time or the way I gamed. Good floppy drive audio reproduction or the distinctive sound of an MFM HDD drive seek might help a bit, but only superficially.
Maybe the game library will be awesome. Maybe the emulation will notably improve on what’s already commercially available or simply free online. Maybe we’ll see robust controller and keyboard+mouse support. But as it stands right now, this feels like a nostalgia product designed by people who didn’t actually game this way in the first place, hoping to cash in on a demographic they don’t really know how to appeal to.
Now Read: The PlayStation Classic Lacks a Number of Games We Were Hoping for, The C64 Mini Arrives in Stores This Fall, Might Be Best to Leave It There, and Sega’s New ‘Sega Forever’ Emulation is a Train Wreck