Virtual Console is no more, but that doesn’t mean that Switch won’t become the best place to play classic games. It’ll just be done in a different way than what Nintendo’s tried in the past. And that’s a good thing, because Virtual Console kinda sucked.
Now, by “Virtual Console kinda sucked” I do not mean “Nintendo’s old games are bad,” or even that Virtual Console’s game selection was bad, or anything like that. In case you are wholly unfamiliar with my work, I love old games and think that as many of them as possible should be kept in print on modern-day hardware. I just think that Virtual Console, the feature, was an inefficient way of implementing this idea, and that there is a better way. Virtual Console died so that retro gaming on Switch could live.
Virtual Console has long been the branding under which Nintendo has released classic NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, and other games as downloadable titles for modern hardware, both from itself and from third-party software makers. From the day that Nintendo started selling Virtual Console games on Wii in 2006, all the way to just a few months ago when the last few games dribbled out for Wii U and 3DS, I spent over a thousand dollars on Virtual Console games. I have to admit that it would be pleasing to my wallet if there were an upgrade path that simply let me migrate those games over to the Switch. But having an upgrade path like that would mean leaving Virtual Console as it is—which is to say, fundamentally broken.
The laws of Virtual Console were laid down way back in 2006, which is forever ago in video game industry time. I don’t have access to the original chiseled stone tablet in Nintendo’s office, but I imagine it reads something like this:
I. Thou shalt not use any emulator but Nintendo’s.
II. Games for a single console shalt all be priced the same (unless we raise it).
III. Nintendo shalt be the final arbiter of what consoles and games are allowed.
IIII. Thou shalt not put games on sale (very often).
V. Games shalt be released in drip-feed fashion.
If saying goodbye to Virtual Console means saying goodbye to all that, well—good riddance.
The flat pricing made no sense then and it makes no sense now. Fondly-remembered classic Super Mario Bros. 3 is worth much more money than the hopelessly dated Urban Champion, and they should not have each cost $5. Nintendo’s general reluctance to discount its software meant that many games would never reach impulse-buy levels, and that if a third party wanted to release any of its lesser-known games on Switch, it was pretty much stuck with a price point that was probably going to be too high to attract a mass audience.
And the emulators themselves, while usually excellent in terms of replicating the classic gameplay, were not exactly what you’d call “fully-featured.” The original Wii versions didn’t even have such basic features as button remapping or save states (you could suspend your game in progress but couldn’t arbitrarily load and save them). Later consoles’ versions of Virtual Console had some feature upgrades, but in general offered a tiny fraction of the things you could do with other commercial and non-commercial emulators.
In short, the only thing that was any good about Virtual Console was the games themselves. Not the pricing, not the slow-as-molasses release schedule, and not the emulation wrapper. The Switch can do better than Virtual Console. A lot better.
There’s a reason why everybody wants Nintendo’s classic games on Switch. It’s perfect for them. You can play them on TV, you can play them on the go. You can play with a single Joy-Con, you can play in handheld mode, you can play with a pro controller. You can even flip your Switch vertically to play games like Ikaruga and Punch-Out in their original orientation. Nintendo has said that “nostalgia” is a primary driver of game purchases on Switch’s eShop.
While it’s annoying that you can’t yet play Super Mario World or Ocarina of Time or any of Nintendo’s other classics on Switch, other publishers aren’t dragging their feet so much. Just to name a few big ones: The publisher Hamster has been cranking out Switch releases of arcade games, including Nintendo’s own arcade games like Vs. Super Mario Bros. Sega has announced a line of classics called Sega Ages. Capcom is bringing its Mega Man and Street Fighter collections to Switch. SNK recently announced that it’s getting into the action with a compilation of many of its classics, too. (Here I should point out that the latter two are being worked on by friends of mine including Frank Cifaldi, who was on a recent episode of Kotaku’s Complete In Box.)
What’s important to note here is that each publisher, rather than be bound to the one-size-fits-all Virtual Console, is trying totally different things. Hamster is hewing closest to the old Virtual Console model, with games sold one by one on the eShop for premium prices. SNK is bundling a bunch of unrelated games together and adding features like rewind. Capcom is doing smaller bundles, separated by series. Not only does this mean that publishers can try whatever methods they think are best, it means that the resulting competition of ideas can show what works and what doesn’t.
And then there’s Nintendo, offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of 8-bit NES games if you subscribe to its $20-a-year online service for Switch. No, it’s not as broad an offering as some may have hoped, but as far as the NES library goes, I’d much rather have this service than have to pay $5 each for the 20 games that will launch with the service in September.
And importantly, the existence of this service doesn’t preclude Nintendo from selling these games, either, no more so than the existence of Netflix negates the idea of Blu-ray. Nintendo even already has the perfect model for how it could double-dip on these games and make everyone happy: Kirby’s Dream Collection, which it released in 2012 for Wii. This collection brought together the first six Kirby platformers (from four different consoles) with bonus content and a deluxe package with a soundtrack CD and art book, for $40.
I see no reason why Nintendo should not embrace this on Switch in addition to the Netflix-style library. (Well, except for the fact that Nintendo often refuses to do the things that it obviously should.) Even being a grand in the hole on Virtual Console purchases, I’d be first in line to buy a Mario or Zelda collection that spanned the ages and featured bonus content. Or Metroid. Or (sigh) EarthBound.
Add that to the currently-existing business of standalone retro mini-consoles, and Nintendo would have all its bases covered: Want to own games forever? Buy a collection. Want to dabble in everything, but not own anything? Subscribe to the service. Don’t want a Switch? Buy the mini-console.
What we don’t need is for classic games on Switch to be tied to the outmoded and inefficient concept of Virtual Console. We shouldn’t mistake “Virtual Console” as being synonymous with “old Nintendo games on Switch.” There is a path forward that is better. Hopefully Nintendo continues along it expediently. Because, seriously, I want to play Super Nintendo games on the Switch already.