What we’ve more or less known for well over a year has finally been confirmed: Virtual Console is dead.
A couple of days ago, Nintendo let us know a little bit more about their upcoming “Nintendo Switch Online” service, further detailing pricing plans and features. While that’s all interesting stuff to get into, perhaps one of the bigger highlights of this reveal has been the elaboration on Nintendo’s previously announced plan for classic games.
An assortment of 20 NES games (with more to be added as time goes on) will be made available to subscribers, but not just standard ports as per usual. Instead, these ports will include online play, contextually depending on the game. The initial batch of games includes Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 1 and 3, Balloon Fight, The Legend of Zelda and more.
The how of the games’ availability isn’t known, whether these will just be standard digital downloads from the eShop or, and I really hope not, streaming. What also isn’t known is if this library of games will rotate in a Netflix-like manner, as vaguely hinted at by Nintendo in the past. Again, I really hope not.
What also remains to be seen is the extent to which these games are being altered to include online play, and how it’ll work on the user’s end. Is it going to be something like how you can play ROM files online with emulators, or more properly built out features? Also, while it’s fairly obvious how something like Super Mario Bros 3 could be handled, what does multiplayer functionality mean for The Legend of Zelda?
Are you going to be able to buy these games without a Nintendo Switch Online account to play offline? Are these releases essentially “always online”? Dunno.
At this point, all we have are a lot of questions, guesses and assumptions. While staying realistic, here’s why I think this happened, and what this means for the future of classics on Nintendo Switch
Why Virtual Console Probably Died
Since the aforementioned reveal, Nintendo has very clearly re-affirmed that the nearly 12-year-old Virtual Console banner and its branding, first introduced on the Wii, have been killed off going into the future. Meaning we’re probably not going to have a dedicated directory of straight-up ports of classic games at the eShop.
Instead, Nintendo is far more interested in re-inventing these titles with “new” features. The cynical, conspiracy theorist part of me wants to believe that this is a way for Nintendo to come up with an excuse for why we simply can’t transfer our previous Virtual Console purchases from Wii U and 3DS over to the Switch, but that might be a reach.
Firstly, Nintendo has never come up with a good excuse for why you couldn’t already do that on past consoles. And secondly, this effort is centered around supplementing Nintendo Switch Online. Enticing people with the ability to play these old games in a new way contradicts with the philosophy behind Virtual Console.
Another major reason I’d imagine is a lack of revenue from Virtual Console. Sure, everyone loves the idea of playing older titles on new consoles, but we don’t exactly know how much of this translated into purchases. Perhaps it’s simply not worth it for Nintendo to quality test and manage something like the Virtual Console anymore.
Additionally, as we all know by now, Nintendo is usually not interested in doing the obvious thing. They’d rather take the reigns and do something different, spitting in the face of expectations. This is good but at times pretty bad, but it ultimately makes Nintendo, well, Nintendo.
Taking cues from the world of ROM hacking and modding, with releases like Super Mario Maker and especially NES Remix, Nintendo has shown a great interest in re-purposing and bringing new life into their older titles. Online NES games fall into that category, and while we don’t know about the extent to which these games will be changed, it’s definitely far more ambitious and innovative than simply putting an emulator on the Switch.
Will it work out? I have my doubts, as well as fears that an emphasis on online will omit games not worth it for Nintendo to “mod”, meaning those classics will never see the light of day on the Switch. But, we’ll have to wait and see.
Nintendo promises more games to come beyond the initial 20. Hopefully, this means we’ll see games from consoles beyond just the NES. But what about IPs that don’t belong to Nintendo?
HAMSTER’s “Arcade Archives” ports (which include titles from Nintendo) are increasingly available as stand-alone titles on the Switch eShop. Collections of old games like the ones from Namco (which I reviewed), SEGA and Capcom (i.e. Street Fighter 30th Anniversary, Mega Man X Collections 1+2 etc) are already available or coming out very soon. This is how I imagine the future of classic games on Switch is going to look like, and that’s not all too bad. More than usual, more care is put into these ports than Nintendo has ever put into the quality of Virtual Console emulation. A lot of these releases include “remixed” challenges and whatnot, as a plus.
It might seem like a step back in some ways, having to buy a whole collection when you might just want one game, but it’s also a step forward as far as getting more fully-realized packages goes.
Overall, I’m hesitant but hopeful that it’ll all work out, but this is Nintendo. You never know. I’d say that more than any other console before it, the Switch is the perfect format to play retro games, which is why so many people want this done right. At this point we can only wait and see.