Happy post-Thanksgiving, all!

With a stomach full of food and a controller full of games, I thought it would be as good of a time as any to touch upon one of my favorite (if woefully underrepresented) aspects of the last few Nintendo consoles: The Virtual Console.

When the Wii debuted in the Winter of 2006, people flocked to the novelty of motion control as represented by Wii Sports. Being a more traditional gamer, I was interested in the Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Smash Bros. fare, but the real draw for me was that this was the first Nintendo system that would really explore online. Sure, the Gamecube flirted with the notion, but for Nintendo, entering the online age was like 1995 all over again.

The concept of online play was fine, but the concept of a Virtual Console was appealing. And it started out with strong representation:

NES
Super NES
Nintendo 64
Sega Genesis
Turbografx-16

The latter choices were unprecedented: Genesis and T-16 games on a Nintendo console? I absolutely took the bait. I understand the purpose of emulation to preserve games that fall into obscurity and public domain and may never be seen again outside of preservationists, but I wanted to “vote with my wallet”, and show companies that the classics still had their place in modern gaming.

And it was good… for a while.

To be fair, the North American Virtual Console had a pretty reasonable showing until about 2009. There were a lot of classics added for all systems, and the addition of Sega Master System, Neo Geo, Turbografx-CD, Commodore 64, and Arcade titles. Even without licensed titles such as Super Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (both were represented), there were still thousands of potential games to choose from.

As 2009 crept into 2010, however, there were already glaring problems with the service, and the last three years with the Wii’s Virtual Console only highlighted those cracks:

* Japan was getting twice as many games as North America – It wasn’t just the addition of the MSX system or games that never saw the light of day in the States, the comparison between Japan’s (659) and North America’s (398) service. Many of the titles Japan received had been released in other regions during the early days, but now never made it anywhere else. Whatever their reason, Japan never stopped cranking out the titles.

* Poor representation – Nintendo’s Virtual Console ultimately ended up with 10 supported systems…. About 5 of those actually saw support. Potential hundreds of title options such as Arcade barely put anything out (Not even from Nintendo themselves – No “authentic” Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., or Mario Bros.), Commodore 64’s brand relaunch died as quickly as it came, and Sega Master System and Nintendo 64 barely had anything to show (N64’s loss of Rare showed how deeply their lack of support impacted the system’s legacy). Surprisingly, Neo Geo really stepped up and offered a lot of titles for the system. Nintendo excelled at launching new platforms for the Virtual Console, and pulling the plug on them via minimal support just as fast. This did release a “Import” sub-section, and that was given as much “enthusiasm” as most of their systems.

* Poor support – It would be easy to dismiss a lack of licensed properties as losing another substantial volume of titles, but Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Lucasarts’ Super Star Wars and Indiana Jones titles showed that such titles were possible, publisher willing. While a lot of classics did make their way to the system, a lot of companies (Midway, EA, Disney Interactive) simply never bothered to show support. Even dedicated companies such as Konami and Capcom, which did show a lot of support, made curious choices as to what they did and didn’t bring to the NA service.

* Poor Distribution of titles – As stated above, the Virtual Console service started very strong with an average of 3-4 titles a week to one title a week, to being lucky to get one title a month. This trend happened well before the console’s natural life cycle ended. By 2010, titles on the Virtual Console became a rarity, and the then fun of checking every Monday for new surprises devolved into all-around apathy for everyone involved.

* Wrong Audience – Perhaps Nintendo of America felt that North America just wasn’t interested in any types of gaming experiences outside of Wii Sports and Wii Fit, and certainly not for “old games”. To an extent, I can’t argue this. From Smash Bros. Brawl‘s release to E3 2010, the Wii market focused heavily on casuals or fading third-party companies that were putting out those “one last push” gaming titles that the Wii’s newfound audience never ended up supporting. I think there is some responsibility on the “Nintendo fans” side as well for not being the “right” audience for the Virtual Console. Simply put: If it’s not Nintendo designed and published, then it’s some sort of “abomination” that never should have been allowed on the system. Sure, that sounds like exaggeration and hyperbole, but enough years on forum threads have highlighted a vocal audience that view formerly rival systems (and surprisingly long-time Nintendo third-party supporters) as some sort of “betrayal” to the Nintendo philosophy that somehow managed to trick their way onto the system where they never should have been allowed in the first place. Considering that Nintendo publishes all the Virtual Console content themselves, and made press releases for these system’s debuts, I think their inclusion didn’t come as a shock to the higher ups at Nintendo. Regardless of seeming snark, many Nintendo “purists” flat-out refuse to support any third-party titles, a problem that still plagues Nintendo support today.

* “Epic” announcements – This started simple enough: Every 100th released title was some “big” Nintendo game that hadn’t been released yet. Usually a Mario or Zelda title, the hype for these games were played up to maximum effect. Of course, there were reasons to be excited for many of these beloved titles, but this also meant substantial delays for games that were essentially 20+ years old. Again, the “Japan” thing: A game would be released in that region, while NoA forced fans to keep riding the “hype train” for another year or two. Apparently, the mere prospect EarthBound was so “epic” that there was no train in existence that could hold it, so it was never released.

In 2011, the 3DS debuted, and again offered a new Virtual Console service based on NES, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Gear titles. Much like the Wii’s Virtual Console, the 3Ds shared many of the same issues: More Japan support, systems such as Game Boy Color and Game Gear were barely supported, and when 3DS sales were at their worst, Nintendo released an “Ambassador Program” that gave out 10 early NES games, and 10 Game Boy Advance games for free. This was all well and good, but again, there problems:

No cross-buy support – Many of the NES titles released were already on the Wii Virtual Console. While Nintendo was still trying to wrap it’s head around the “online” concept at the time, it’s understandable that concepts such as “cross buy” would be foreign to them (to be fair, Nintendo has finally seemed to master online in the last year). Regardless, it meant that if you wanted to play NES classics and weren’t an Ambassador for a few of those titles, you had to buy them all over again.

Logical system support – If the 3DS could support the NES, it would make sense to support the Super Nintendo. But that never happened. Being a portable, it would make even more sense to have Game Boy Advance support, and especially DS support…. Those latter two systems went to the Wii U. If you weren’t an “Ambassador”, there was no other way to enjoy any support for GBA games.

3D Classics – Nintendo launch as small wave of Virtual Console titles, now supported in 3D (and somehow made Urban Champion visually appealing). That support was dropped that after six titles. Strangely, Sega has stepped up and has released a fantastic line-up of Genesis and Arcade titles, showing how fantastic “classics” could look by making use of one of the system’s primary strengths.

“Epic” games… again – Super Mario Bros. 3 was played up and delayed for months, and released like it was the “second coming” once it did. The title remains a gaming masterpiece, but simply doing a regular release for the title at this point will not diminish its worth. The original Pokemon titles are presently getting a similar treatment.

Dropped support… again – Outside of the upcoming Pokemon and any of Sega’s releases, all Virtual Console support has seemingly gone cold for the 3DS. Again, so much lost potential for at least four systems.

And then we get to the Wii U. Nintendo wisely brought a data transfer service to move the original Wii’s “brain” to the new system, so the previous games are not hard-locked to the original Wii, but to play them, one has to click the Wii emulator within the system, which brings other issues.

Again, the same issues plague the regional differences: Twice as many games as North America, and now the North American Wii U only has Nintendo console support. Japan still has MSX and PC Engine (Turbografx-16) support. Sega seems to have dropped full support post-3DS, as has Neo Geo. North American Wii U owners no longer have any third-party consoles.

Currently, the supported systems are:

NES
Super NES
Nintendo 64
Game Boy Advance
Nintendo DS
Wii

Same level of support – Of the six systems, only three (Nes, Super NES, Game Boy Advance) really get any featured titles. The other systems just basically sit there.

Tinier library – Again, Nintendo wrapping their head around the whole “online” concept may be the culprit here, but the offerings are in smaller volume. The NES and Super NES libraries essentially have to “start over”, so a lot of titles that were released (or are still available within the original Wii) are being pumped out yet again. There are new titles, but games are still not being released as the original robust 3-4 titles a week schedule. We may never see the full and original Wii line-up for the Nintendo-based systems.

Buy it all over again – Again, it’s nice to have all the original Wii Virtual Console games (“lost” systems and games included), but when the games do re-release from the original Wii, you have to pay a minimal fee to play them via the Wii U interface. There’s a benefit of options like Miiverse support, but NES games are now incredibly dark on whatever emulator they chose to use.

Needs a unified account/system – Whatever the new Nintendo console will be, I hope they take the “Steam” approach, and unify Wii, DSi, Wii U, and 3DS systems into one place. 3DS allows for instant play of DSi titles. The Wii U does recognize that the Wii titles exist via transfer and discounted prices. I am personally hoping that whatever Nintendo does next, they put all of those games in one place, one list.

Still “Epic” releases – Only the Wii U is apparently powerful enough to carry the Super NES title known as Earthbound. I’m sure we will see similar treatment when Super Mario RPG comes out.

It’s been nine years so far of the Virtual Console concept. On one hand, there have been a lot of fantastic titles released during that time, either reuniting gamers with old favorites, or giving a second chance to play games missed back from the old days. I’ve also had the fun of introducing my nephew to a few titles that were “before his time”. Nintendo’s good at nostalgia and history… but are terrible at distributing it. At least Nintendo of America is.

As we go onto whatever the next Nintendo system, I hope they continue to keep in mind the power of nostalgia. Sony and Microsoft have recently implemented backwards compatibility and their own “Virtual Console” support (though Microsoft’s Game Room is a painful reminder of how not to drop support). A unified account and legacy list would go a long way in ensuring goodwill for digital purchases, stop introducing consoles to only let them just sit there and languish. Also, a more robust selection of title releases during those “dry” periods would help to get their library back up to date. If they “start over” a third time on re-releasing games, that’s not going to go over well. Whatever they do, I hope they bring over the original Wii’s digital titles to the next system, improve support, continue support, and just build a solid library of good games. No hype. No craziness. Just great games.

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