I love owning physical copies of things, whether it’s video games, movies, or even music. I just enjoy building and admiring large collections of art. However, there’s a big difference between collecting video games and collecting other types of media: compatibility. Books will always be books, and decades-old movies continue to be instantly available in numerous formats. However, with video games, the end of one console generation instantly endangers the future playability of the games from that generation. Allow me to elaborate on this problem, explain how Nintendo’s Virtual Console overcame this problem, and demonstrate why it is so important that Nintendo bring the Virtual Console back!
Incompatibility and inconvenience
PlayStation 2 was a blessing when it offered backwards compatibility with PlayStation 1 titles, but for reasons of cost and hardware limitations, this could never become an industry norm. Instead, when a game releases for one generation of consoles, there is no guarantee that it will ever be playable in any form in a future generation.
We all cheered when Bayonetta 2 found a second life on the Switch after its subdued showing on the Wii U, but what about The Wonderful 101, for example? It could rerelease someday—but it also could not. That means, if you want to play the game, you need a functioning Wii U, and it better not ever break. You also need to find space to plug in the Wii U alongside all your other current consoles, which (to me) is actually the bigger headache. The truth is that, for gamers who don’t have a lot of space, it’s natural to shove old consoles into the closet or under a bed. That adds a dense layer of inconvenience to playing older-generation video games—even ones we already own and cherish!
Half the reason people clamor for ports of old games is just to have that level of convenience back. The other half is people want to play games that they missed the first time around, or that they never had the chance to play because they were too young upon the original release. The Virtual Console—angelic herald that it was—addressed both of these issues simultaneously.
Virtual Console, hallowed be its name
When the Virtual Console was first announced as an aspect of the Wii, it was a revelation: Nintendo was acknowledging that they had an incredible library of games across their consoles (and competitor consoles!), and for the first time, it would be easy to access a lot of the best ones.
Granted, there were a lot of caveats. New games never flowed to the console as fast as people wanted. Game Boy and GameCube games didn’t make the cut. Emulation of games was often less than perfect.
Still, on the whole, Virtual Console was a marvel. On one little device, we could play Super Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man 2, Super Castlevania IV, Final Fantasy III, Mega Man X, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Super Street Fighter II, Mario Kart 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Smash Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Phantasy Star IV, Streets of Rage 2, Beyond Oasis, and Fatal Fury—and we could do it legally!
Virtual Console is better than PC emulation
Emulating old console video games on a PC has always existed in a legal gray area. More specifically: It is illegal, but not so illegal that people feel too guilty to do it. In fact, even some game developers (most famously Capcom with Mega Man) shrug and wink when their oldest games are emulated from 8-bit and 16-bit consoles. But they’re the exception. The likes of Nintendo and Square Enix would let a bus go crashing off a bridge if it were full of people who tried to emulate their games.
So for people who (a) know emulation exists and (b) strongly desire to play obscure games of the past without expensive eBay expeditions, they are probably going to torrent the games from some shady website. This is disgusting to me, but not necessarily for the reason one might expect.
When people want to read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Grapes of Wrath, they don’t need to buy them used from eBay or download them from a virus-laden website. The same is true of people who want to listen to the Achtung Baby album or watch Rocky. In other words, books, music, and movies don’t inadvertently punish people for wanting to experience older art. Only video games do that, and it happens because the myriad publishers and developers aren’t willing to communicate to make older games widely available.
Except there was a time when they were willing to communicate—and it was called the Virtual Console. The Virtual Console made it possible to own (at least digitally) a lot of the greatest video games of all time up to that point, and for nominal prices. It also made it possible to own a whole lot of other novel, worthwhile little games too.
Of course, the Virtual Console housed only a small fraction of all the games ever released for its various supported systems. But it was a start! It was a start that the Wii U and the 3DS mishandled—and eventually killed.
Virtual Console is a necessary service for gamers
Nintendo seems all in on Switch Online, offering its mix of great and completely forgettable NES games. (I really agreed with Andrew’s article on the subject once I actually read it, so please look past his abrasive headline and check it out!) Frankly, this decision breaks my heart. A handful of “free,” gated NES games is no replacement for an awesome library of classics available for individual purchase on demand.
But this decision is more than a disappointment: It’s a disservice to the gaming community as a whole. Gamers—especially young gamers without much money—deserve to know what it is they’re missing! They deserve to have access to video game history, to be able to connect the dots across eras and see how the 8-bit era begat the 16-bit era, how the 16-bit era begat the 32/64-bit era, and so forth. Children should never be discouraged from learning and developing a richer, more intimate connection with art.
Right now, Steam is the torchbearer for this philosophy, whether intentionally or only incidentally. But the plain truth is that there are many games—Nintendo games—that will never come to Steam. The same is true of many Sony and Microsoft titles. Thus, I propose that all the major manufacturers embrace the Virtual Console philosophy, even if that means having separate Sony and Microsoft-branded Virtual Consoles.
The goal is to make every game available for every gamer for a reasonable price, and to have them attached to a player profile that is transferable over time to new game machines by the manufacturer. Alternatively, a Netflix or Spotify-style subscription that gives access to the totality of games for a reasonable monthly fee would be fine too. A selection of either/or would be best.
Things like the Super NES Classic, while novel and oozing nostalgia, are ultimately a stopgap at best and a cash grab at worst. Nintendo can and should do better than this. They need to bring back the Virtual Console because gamers deserve to have it, and because it will be responsible for creating a more informed and inspired community of gamers.