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What Is The Mysterious Secret Behind The Classic NES?

NES Classic EditionThe demand for more Classic NES units is real, but as would-be owners of the little nostalgia boxes found late last week when Nintendo announced that it was discontinuing production of the already hard-to-find console, the reasons behind Nintendo's decisions remain a secret to everybody.  Why would the company kill off what was poised to be a runaway success had it only manufactured enough units to meet demand?  There as been lots of speculation in the media as to why Nintendo is moving away from the console; I've heard everything from "Nintendo wants to sell you a Switch instead" to "Nintendo is angry about how easy it is to hack the console and install hundreds of pirated games" to "Shigeru Miyamoto must personally bless each unit as it rolls off the assembly line and he just doesn't have the time for that", but perhaps there's a technical reason behind it all.  What, if any, is the mysterious secret of the Classic NES's technology and how does it impact production?  There's an interesting discussion happening at MetaFilter that focuses on the nature of the hardware inside the cute little console and why it may never have been intended to be an ongoing product.

I do these kinds of systems for a living and I'm boggled as well. It all smells of a quickie design - these parts are literally off a shelf in Shenzen. Do you really need four A7 cores plus a GPU plus a multitasking O/S to emulate a 6502 and a small amount of custom sprite + sound hardware? - JoeZydeco

"There had been some speculation on Reddit that it was a run of near-obsolete hardware proposed by one of their partners. Some teardown (I can't find a source now) found out that it was shipping with already EOL'ed components that weren't available for back-order from the fabs."

Definitely a strong theory - certainly there are lots of low to mid-range chipsets floating around these days that have more than enough horsepower to run old NES games.  This teardown says: Allwinner R16 (4x Cortex A7, Mali400MP2 GPU) Definitely a contender for getting cleared out.  And the board is like four chips and is the plainest looking thing I've ever seen.

It's possible that they got a bunch of CPUs at a good price but it wasn't ANY number of CPUs at that price.  Maybe Allwinner had some yield problems and all the chips in the Classic have a bad core in them which would make them hard to sell but Nintendo got them for a song and they're fine for emulators. - GuyZero

Thanks for finding that teardown, GuyZero. Knowing it's an Allwinner chip doesn't exactly confirm the theory that the CPU was a rare thing going completely obsolete. I mean, there are loads of A7/Mali parts that could have been substituted in place with a board respin. Unless that killed the profit margin on the product. - JoeZydeco

There's lots more at the discussion page.  It's an interesting idea that the Classic NES is running on substandard parts that Nintendo was able to gobble up cheaply for this little quick side project where any imperfections they may have does not matter, and if those cheap parts are now used up, naturally there won't be any more new units produced that can be sold for the attractive $60 price point.  It's certainly just as plausible as the other conspiracy theories floating around.  I never saw a Classic NES for sale in a store around my area, nor could I ever find one in stock online.  Short of amazing luck or the result of the blood oath, it looks like I'm going to miss out on owning one.  Join us on the next new episode of the Power Button podcast, Episode 235, for more on the end of the Classic NES and rare video games.