Nintendo Classic Editions vs. RetroPie

The NES and SNES Classic Edition consoles have been bona fide hits for Nintendo. They have constantly been selling out, and command high scalper prices during production lulls. Now that stock has finally reached an equilibrium with demand, we are at the point where just about anyone who wants one of the classic consoles can easily go out and buy one at msrp. Several factors contribute to them being as popular as they are: nostalgia, ease of use, price point, design appeal, and so on. If you follow any retro gaming groups on social media, you probably have seen many discussions regarding these consoles. Invariably, someone brings up RetroPie as a superior alternative. I'd like to dissect the various arguments.

There are lots of different cases available for the Raspberry Pi computer
The NES Classic is a single board linux computer, and has hdmi video out put at 720p.
The Raspberry Pi, also a single board linux computer, has a superior processor, onboard Wifi and Bluetooth, four usb ports, ethernet, hdmi (1080p), 3.5mm audio out, and more. The Pi is intended as a multi-use Swiss army knife of small computers. From a technical standpoint there is no comparison. This may or may not matter to the user, if all you are doing is playing 8 or 16 bit games. The 1080p video output of the Pi tops the 720p output of the NES Classic, but again, we're talking about a resolution that is originally 240p, so the difference is not really going to be noticed. It could be argued that the 720p is a perfect 3x integer of 240p, and so no interpolation (which may cause visual artifacts) is necessary.

There are a lot of user made images and themes for RetroPie

The Pi has multiple options for operating systems that provide emulation front-ends: Emulation Station with RetroPie, Attract Mode, and Recalbox. They each have their nuances, and while the end result is the same (playing retro video games), the operation and navigation is where the differences lie. Personally I find attract mode too flashy, almost dizzying. It also requires more tweaking than Emulation Station, and easier to mess things up. Recalbox is a simpler setup, with fewer options than the others. Emulation station is a happy medium between them. The Front ends can be customized to show opening animations, game box art, video previews, game descriptions, ratings, and a plethora of related information. Games can be assembled in collections by system, genres, publishers, and favorites. Gameplay can be customized using the Retroarch menu, allowing for tweaks to visual and audio output, game cheats, save states, screenshots, and more.
Virtually any usb controller can be used, it just has to be configured once. Bluetooth controllers are supported as well, and the company 8Bitdo makes several high-quality options. Even Wiimotes, PS3, PS4, and XBox controllers can be used. Configuring Bluetooth controllers is a little wonky, but once they are set up they are good to go. Obviously these are all third party controllers, and for those who grew up playing on the original controllers, most of these just don't feel as good.

The NES Classic has its lone default operating system, which is the epitome of clean and simple. There is no learning curve, installation process, rom loading (unless you hack it), or any other setup process - simplicity through and through at the cost of virtually no customizability. Again, the NES Classic was never marketed as a tinker computer so the comparison is not on the level.

The NES Classic user interface is simple and intuitive, if not rudimentary

The NES Classic only comes with a relatively small number of games when compared to the potential of RetroPie, but there's a reason behind that: Copyright. Nintendo has a mix of its own IPs and licensed games on its Classic consoles, everything is on the up and up, and everyone who should get paid is getting paid. RetroPie itself does not come with any games, it is on the user to load software. Since video game roms have been freely available on the internet since the late 1990's, people have gotten used to downloading entire libraries of games for retro consoles. A quick search on eBay or Etsy will yield completely loaded SD Raspberry Pi systems at marked up prices. As of this writing, there is a sudden change in the rom landscape as Nintendo is suing some of the major websites known for distribution of roms. This may have the effect of squashing open rom sharing across the internet altogether, making it more difficult to obtain roms. This is an entirely separate topic altogether.
When adding games to the NES Classic, making folders is recommended

Intended Audience
While both pull at the heart strings of nostalgia, the intended audience of these two devices can be  pretty different. The NES classic requires no technical know-how, and appeals to a wide audience. The Raspberry Pi is a tinker computer, intended to promote coding and programming skills. In order to get RetroPie loaded and operational is not for the faint of heart; even with loads of tutorials and walkthroughs available online, it is can be an exercise in frustration, and a teacher of patience. Not many will go through the trials and tribulations required to setup their own RetroPie image, which is why the selling of such is so prominent. Those who stick with it are rewarded with a trove of systems and thousands of games at their virtual fingertips. I have always felt that having entire libraries of games was a little grotesque, especially when I have no intention of playing many of them. I like to pare the lists down to what I have in physical form (or what I can't afford, in the case of Little Samson). It makes scrolling through games lists manageable, and more efficient.

Like the Wii, the NES Classic is something that your grandparents can setup and play, a casual system with universal appeal and approachability. Many people that I know that have tip-toed into the world of RetroPie have needed assistance here and there, as random bumps and hiccups are the order of the day. There have been developments in the world of RetroPie to make it more user friendly and accessible, such as cases with shut-down scripts (since the Raspberry Pi is a computer, it has to be turned off from the menu or command line; a shut down script runs the command from the physical action of turning off the power on the Pi case - something you would not normally do to a computer). Even still, it is a jungle that most will not want to navigate.

The NES Classic with one controller is priced at $60 (SNES Classic w/two controllers - $80). A Raspberry Pi 3B+ computer board alone costs $40, and comes with nothing else. You will need a power supply ($10), hdmi cord ($5), controller ($15), and micro SD card ($15 for 32 GB) at the very least. If you don't want the board open and exposed, you should get a case (like the popular NESPi case - $25). All of the prices of these components vary, but on average it adds up to about $120 after taxes and shipping. That's double the cost, but it potentially will be able to do a lot more than Nintendo's offerings.

As many features as RetroPie has, There is one feature that the NES Classic has that stands out, and makes me come back time and time again: visual save states. Sure RetroPie has save states, but there's no visual indication that they are there. You might have played a game half way through, and saved your progress, intending to come back later. A few weeks later you may not remember that you did so, as there is no way of knowing unless you try loading save states blindly, and so you start from scratch. On the NES Classic, save states create a screen shot of where you are, accessible under the game in the menu. This to me is huge, almost game-changing. Being able to look at a picture of where you left off immediately reminds you of your progress, and you are more likely to continue on from that point. Most games from the NES era were too difficult to finish in one sitting, so annoying passwords were used, or you simply left the game paused, for hours or days. This lets you look at the save state images, and select which one to start. As an adult with a full time job and family with kids, this is a life saver. I feel like I can go back and finally finish many games that I never had the chance to, simply because I can save incremental progress at will with ease. I remember losing hours of  progress in Metroid because I couldn't tell what some of the password letters were. This mitigates that issue.
The screen shots of the save states are AWESOME!!!

Also consider that the NES Classic is first-party hardware, designed and manufactured by Nintendo. The build quality is top notch, as are the controllers. The software is fully licensed, and for some people that is a big deal. Everything about it is legit and above board. Once you hold one in your hand, you know it will last. I can't say the same about many of the Raspberry Pi peripherals and cases out there. USB controller quality never really seems to measure up to OEM Nintendo controllers. From a quality standpoint, Nintendo sets the bar.

The Classics series controllers are almost indistinguishable from the originals - can you tell which is which?

So on the surface it seems that these two products have similar audiences, but in reality they lean in different directions. Debating which one is "better" is subjective and depends on the user. Super hardcore retro gamers are not going to use either on this as their main setup, as they most likely have a fine-tuned retro gaming rig. RetroPie is geared towards people who prefer the perks of emulation (entire game libraries), or at least dabble in it. The NES Classic is for casual/non gamers, who want to enjoy some nostalgia here and there but on the whole are not invested enough in retro gaming to go any further. While I generally reside in the first two categories, the visual save states on the NES classic and the first party controllers make the NES Classics a surprising favorite, especially since I have added the games in my library to it. So what do you think? Which do you prefer? Why?

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