As a new year comes in, remnants of an era long past have finally been whisked away. The Wii Shop Channel shut its doors on Jan. 30, a whopping 12 years after first coming online. As a result of its closure, quite a number of digital-only games are now lost to time (at least from a legal perspective). Seeing it all go offline seemingly so effortlessly reminded me of just how fragile this new age of digital gaming is—yet the industry continues to march ahead with embracing it.
The Wii Shop Channel was important for Nintendo since it marked the company’s first true attempt at trying its hand at an online marketplace. Like the Wii console itself, the Shop Channel was incredibly simple and archaic when compared to the PS3’s PlayStation Store and the 360’s Xbox Live Marketplace, which had fully digital versions of all their retail games.
The Wii Shop Channel had a file size limitation of only 45MB, so the digital-only WiiWare games were usually very simplistic. Though, there were a few stand-out hits like World of Goo, FAST Racing League, Art of Balance, and Excitebike, which were just as polished as quality retail games. However, also just like the Wii’s retail library, the selection of truly top-tier WiiWare games is quite lacking in the grand scheme of things. That’s why I’d be lying if I said it’s truly sad for me to see the store close down. Though, I do still have fond memories of booting it up and hearing that iconic music. The Wii was my very first console, so the Wii Shop Channel also happened to be my introduction to the world of digital games. Prior to this, I played only on PC, and that was at a time when CD-ROMs and DVDs were still prevalent. So, as simplistic as the Wii Shop Channel was, it still managed to charm my little 11-year-old mind.
Letting go isn’t easy
Of course, the Wii Shop Channel’s truly biggest asset was the Virtual Console, which still remains as Nintendo’s largest collection of retro games to date. I never really got into the VC, but I can see why retro fans in particular are mourning the loss of the Wii VC. True, a lot of the games that were available here are also officially available elsewhere, but it’s no surprise that they’re most prevalent in the ROM/emulation communities. Nintendo has not been shy about voicing its disdain for this sector of gaming, even going to the point of taking ROM sites to court—a move which had huge ramifications that spread throughout the rest of the community. But, it’s situations like the closure of the Wii Shop Channel that drive some gamers to turn to emulation and piracy in the first place.
As I alluded to earlier, most WiiWare games are now gone forever from a legal perspective. They will still live on in emulation communities like the retro games, but of course, Nintendo will never approve of this. Yet, the company hasn’t taken any real action to preserve these games from a legal standpoint. This mentality isn’t exclusive to Nintendo; it seems to be the mindset of most publishers in general.
To an extent, most games seem to be seen as merely being disposable by the companies in charge. While some games from the early ages have been preserved, there are so many that go extinct from a legal perspective, particularly digital-only games. Unlike physical games that can remain in circulation as long as functioning copies exist, digital titles only exist as data on servers. When these servers go offline, or a game is delisted, all of that data is lost forever, merely only continuing to exist on the hardware of customers that previously purchased the game. However, eventually, that hardware will either fail or perhaps be misplaced. Since the game data (especially on consoles) is usually encrypted, it’s not an easy process to back up. And even in cases where this is achieved, redistribution is still illegal without the permission of the original creators. Indeed, game preservation is risky business simply because so many publishers aren’t willing to do it themselves.
Is the future even future-proof?
There are TV channels that only air shows and movies produced decades ago—as in, when black-and-white was all that was available. I know this because both my father and grandmother watch these programs regularly. While I don’t care for them, I’m fascinated that these pieces have been preserved for such a long time. Games have existed for far less time (just a little over three decades), yet here we are talking about the lack of proper preservation.
Now, truth be told, not every WiiWare game is completely gone. A good number like Art of Balance, Bit.Trip, and FAST have either been ported to other platforms or have received sequels. So, their legacy at least will live on. But this usually isn’t the case for situations like this.
Digital gaming is the future; there’s no doubt about that. While I do enjoy the convenience that it has brought, I would feel a lot better knowing that I’ll actually be able to play my current collection 10 or 20 years from now when the games of today are looked back upon in the same nostalgic light as titles from the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s currently are. My Switch library is 99% digital, and my PC library is completely digital. The Switch eShop will eventually close down one day, and while Steam likely has a long life ahead of it, anything is possible. So, I’m a bit nervous that the future of my existing library will ultimately lead to many of my games also being lost to time.