The Virtual Console is a great idea that started out so well. It offers fantastic games that can be downloaded right to your console! Some of the best games ever made can be preserved and enjoyed by everyone. I’ve played some excellent games I would have never had the chance to try if not for the Virtual Console.
However, the service does have its missteps. How can Nintendo learn from mistakes made with Virtual Console for the past ten years, and make it better on Switch? Wait a second. First of all, let me explain some of the things that are “wrong” with Virtual Console.
As the years of the Wii lifespan dragged on, Nintendo slowed the retro releases to a trickle. Virtual Console became a footnote that was barely given any attention. Many third party licensers who seemed initially enthusiastic to put out releases on VC seemed to abandon the service. Even four years into the launch of Wii U, its library still pales in comparison to Wii. No cross-buy purchases are allowed, even though Nintendo absolutely has the capability to do so. Game prices have remained rigid and flat across platforms for a decade. There is a huge disparity among the availability of games in different regions. The emulation for certain platforms is a little lacking in optimization and features when compared to unofficial emulators on PC.
I understand that many of these problems are due to licensing and legal issues. Some of the issues come from Nintendo’s historical incompetence in online account management. Many more of them seem to result from Nintendo’s unwillingness to put more time and energy into the Virtual Console service for various reasons.
Back to the main question: How can Virtual Console be better on Switch? I have some suggestions that may or may not be too far out of the realm of possibility. Nintendo may end up announcing things that totally nullify or make these suggestions impossible, too.
I’m a huge retro gaming fan with a lot to say about the topic, so get ready to take a dive in.
(A huge side note here. The release of the NES Classic in late 2016 was a whole new way to approach the retro market for Nintendo. If this approach proves to be more profitable for Nintendo, we might see the company decide to change its entire strategy to focus just on the physical plug-and-play consoles for some platforms. Let’s assume for the purposes of my discussion that Nintendo chooses to keep Virtual Console in its current form for Switch.)
1. Switch Should to be the Destination for All Virtual Console Games
For the past few years there has been the problem where Virtual Console has been fragmented across Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Gear games are only on 3DS. N64, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS games are only on Wii U. NES and SNES games can be found on both platforms, but to complicate this you can only get SNES on the New 3DS. Any games you happen to own on one machine are not available on the other one… So that means if you own Super Mario Bros. on Wii U, you have to pay another $5 to get it on 3DS. This is the case even though your NNID is connected to both devices on the eShop. What’s even more baffling is that several other titles offer cross-buy already.
Switch can get rid of this problem entirely by becoming the one place where all of your Virtual Console games go. This is only natural because Nintendo will be blurring the lines between home console and handheld with this new hardware. Switch is the perfect device to become a VC powerhouse. It’s portable and has a screen that’s suitable for old 2D and new 3D graphics alike. It has detachable controllers that could be swapped out for all kinds of neat retro throwback peripherals. Signs point to the Switch being very easy to develop and port to, which makes it a good fit for emulators. And, if the touch screen is there, it opens up a new realm of possibility.
Assuming Switch has a touch screen, it could potentially play host to Virtual Console games from all the following platforms: NES, SNES, N64, GameCube, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, and any other non-Nintendo platforms that want to join such as Sega Genesis and Neo Geo. If the Joy Cons have motion control (or the Switch can pair with Wii Remotes) the possibility for ports of Wii games opens up. If Nintendo was so inclined, 3DS games could even come to Switch at some point.
Switch needs to become the ultimate Virtual Console machine, because it can. If you no longer have two devices to worry about, the hurdle is eliminated entirely. The only hurdle to get through would be bringing VC games up from 3DS and Wii U, which I really hope is addressed without having to pay some kind of fee after waiting. Once we can stop worrying about where the games are, we can focus on how we consume them.
2. Nintendo Should Put More Resources into Virtual Console Marketing
It’s very hard to say how successful the Virtual Console has been for Nintendo, because we don’t have any sales numbers. So, a lot of this is speculation on my part. However, some signs point to the platform not being super profitable. Some third parties who were on board with Wii at first aren’t around on Wii U. Nowadays we only really see releases from Nintendo, Capcom, and Konami. Games are taking forever to make the jump from Wii. Many owners of Nintendo systems might not even be aware that VC even exists! Would you even know it was a thing if you didn’t see it on the eShop?
One could assume from these factors that Nintendo is not putting development and marketing resources into Virtual Console because it’s not worth it. Reselling old games just doesn’t give a great return on investment like a brand new game. This is totally fair if true, but I think if Nintendo put just a little more behind it, we could see VC doing a lot better. There is a retro enthusiast market that values old games and high quality emulation. There is also a huge market that can be tapped into with nostalgia.
Virtual Console marketing needs to be stepped up big time. Put a picture of Super Mario World on the Switch box next to Breath of the Wild. Make the console come pre-installed with games, or a game sampler pack similar to those found in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Have new releases include download codes for older titles in the series to increase franchise awareness. This outreach can be done inside Nintendo’s ecosystem (ads in the eShop, etc.) and outside of it (mention the VC on Switch TV ads).
Retro re-releases do not need to be a “release, then forget” affair. Nintendo should continuously promote the service as a whole and prove that these classic games have a long tail. Whatever it takes for consumers to understand that when you buy a Switch, you aren’t just getting new Nintendo games–you’re getting all of them that have ever been made. And to market games, you first need to be able to offer them for download in the first place.
3. Nintendo Should Put More Resources into Virtual Console Development and Curation
This is where things get tricky. It ties into the business side of things, and much of it is wishful thinking.
If Nintendo put more resources into emulation, such as the group NERD (Nintendo European Research & Development, who handled the NES Classic and some Virtual Console releases), we could see huge improvements in emulation quality and release scheduling. We would not be waiting years to be able to download games that we had on the last iteration of VC.
But the key problem with making Virtual Console relevant is not just the games we have already played. Once a game is out on the service, it stays there. And after a certain time, there just won’t be any more games to put out. But if Nintendo is dedicated to porting games consistently, and seeking out new opportunities, the service will benefit greatly.
When EarthBound and EarthBound Beginnings came to VC, it was a big deal. Nintendo should also focus not only on re-releasing the games everyone loves, but also highlighting lost games and foreign releases. Localizing old games is no easy task and takes time, effort, and money– but I would be absolutely thrilled to see games like Marvelous or For Frog the Bell Tolls translated and released on Virtual Console outside Japan. This has already happened with a few titles, but there could always be more.
This next one is a real pipe dream. Nintendo has the potential to start acting as a real curator for classic games. There are so many games that have slipped through the cracks that deserve another chance. Many companies who released games on NES and SNES don’t exist anymore, making their game holdings a quagmire of red tape. Many companies have moved on and probably don’t care to acknowledge the past. Whatever the case is, Nintendo could form a sort of “Virtual Console task force” whose purpose is to court copyright holders and persuade them to release games on the service. I am sure Rockstar North has not been thinking about re-releasing the N64 game Body Harvest, but my VC Task Force would convince them to do so.
(Note: I do not want to presume for a moment that I understand or know all of the work it takes to bring a classic game to Virtual Console. I appreciate all the work Nintendo and other publishers have done to bring us any VC games at all. Everything is easier said than done. In my unrealistic dream world, Nintendo would allocate significantly more resources. I understand why that isn’t the case in reality.)
4. The Virtual Console Pricing Model Needs to Evolve
Everything I’ve said so far is contingent on game sales. And price is a huge factor in how badly people want these games. As it stands, the Virtual Console has a decent business model, but it’s not great. Many of the games sell for far less than the physical cartridge, which is awesome. $10 for Super Mario 64 is an amazing deal. Not all the games are deals, though.
Nailing down the value of a video game, particularly a digital download with no scarcity, is tricky. Even still, the flat rate by platform pricing does Nintendo a disservice. Super Mario Bros. 3 is absolutely worth $5. But is Urban Champion? Is Tennis? Nintendo has actually devalued NES games by offering 30 of them for $60 in the NES Classic. With Virtual Console pricing, those games would cost $150. Something doesn’t add up here.
Even more revolutionary would be to turn the Virtual Console pricing model on its head entirely. Subscription based business models have been taking over how people consume media—just look at Netflix for TV and film, and Spotify for music. Nintendo could find success with a subscription model, particularly one for classic video games. Here are a couple suggestions if Nintendo decides to go the subscription route. (I do not think Nintendo should drop the current model; rather, you should be able to purchase and own any game you love. A subscription option would be there for people who want to pay less and be able to play more games that they wouldn’t necessarily pay full price for.)
The Spotify model: Offer all Virtual Console games for a flat monthly or yearly subscription fee. To play a game, you download it to your Switch. It will be available for you to play anytime, offline or online, as long as you are subscribed. Games will need to connect to the internet to validate your subscription once every 30 days or they will stop working. This is similar to how Spotify allows users to download music for offline listening.
The PlayStation Plus model: Offer a premium subscription service that offers discounts and special deals. Being a “Nintendo Plus” subscriber gives you something like 25-30% off all Virtual Console game purchases. In addition, each month there will be a curated list of VC games to play for free. These could follow a certain theme (Mario month, Metroid month, puzzle month, etc.) or be used to promote new games. These free games will function similarly to games in the above Spotify model.
The “Plus” model would allow Nintendo to dip their toes into the idea without fully committing. But I think the “Spotify” model would offer the best value to consumers. I really, really hope Nintendo considers using some kind of service like this on Switch.
If you can’t tell, I am very passionate about retro gaming. Old video games are historically, artistically, and technologically significant. As a video game industry leader, Nintendo has the power to push new ideas about how we can enjoy classic games. It can leverage gaming history in ways no other company can.
With any luck, we can see the Virtual Console not only continue, but get even better on Nintendo Switch. Should we expect this? Maybe not. Of course, if Nintendo chooses to fully go the way of the plug-and-play devices like NES Classic, all of this speculating will have been for naught. We will just have to wait and see what happens!
What’s your take? Any points you particularly agree or disagree with me on? Do you have any personal disappointments or praises to discuss about Virtual Console?