Editorial: No Virtual Console on Switch is Outrageous

Robert argues that Nintendo’s latest take on retro gaming is a step backwards.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 05/11/2018 10:30 1 Comment     ShareThis

I’m going to be very frank here: I’m outraged that Nintendo isn’t bringing Virtual Console to Switch. That might be a sentiment that some of you reading this share. Alternatively, however, there are also those of you who aren’t irritated in the slightest. After all, if the goal was for retro Nintendo games to come to the company’s latest console, then this is mission accomplished, right? In the simplest of terms, yes, fans have technically gotten what they’ve wanted. However, there’s a lot to unpack here that demonstrates how the Nintendo Entertainment System – Nintendo Switch Online is far from the coup that some people think it is.

For those not in the know, we broke down what to expect from the Nintendo Switch Online service the other day. You can read up on it here, but the part I’m most concerned about here is the Nintendo Entertainment System portion. Here’s Nintendo’s synopsis of what to expect from that part of its upcoming service:

Nintendo Entertainment System – Nintendo Switch Online: Subscribers will have access to NES – Nintendo Switch Online, a compilation of classic NES games. The collection will initially include 20 games, with more added on a regular basis. At launch, previously announced games Balloon FightDr. Mario and Super Mario Bros. 3 will be joined by Donkey KongIce ClimberThe Legend of ZeldaMario Bros.SoccerSuper Mario Bros. and Tennis. An additional 10 launch games will be announced in the future.

For the first time ever, players will be able to enjoy these classic NES games online. Depending on the game, players can engage in online competitive or co-op multiplayer, or take turns controlling the action. Friends can even watch each other play single-player games online, and “pass the controller” at any time. Every classic NES game will support voice chat via the Nintendo Switch Online smartphone app*. It will also be possible to play these games offline.

That’s the nuts and bolts of how NES on Switch will work. Now let’s look at cost. Nintendo Switch Online is priced at $19.99 for 12 months. Comparatively, PlayStation Network Plus and Xbox Live Gold each cost $59.99 annually. That $40 difference is nothing to sneeze at, and given that the plan grants users access to online play, a suite of NES games, and cloud saves, believe me when I say that I know this is a real steal. So, if things sound so swell, why am I griping, then? My issue is with the nature of this digital NES catalogue and what it means for retro gaming moving forward.

What Virtual Console represented was unfettered access to some of the greatest games ever made. At its best, the service provided a library of titles from across multiple platforms. In its heyday on Wii, Virtual Console was pumping out classics from systems like Sega Genesis, NeoGeo, and even old arcade games. In the years since, some of the luster has waned as Virtual Console has become much more Nintendo-centric, ditching third-party platforms (with the exception of Sega Game Gear on 3DS). Yet, despite this culling of the herd, Virtual Console has remained a solid option for retro enthusiasts as well as those wanting to experience the bygone days of the video game industry. I can concede that the service has never been perfect (which I’ll delve deeper into in a moment), but what made it superior to NES on Switch is the fact that every one of those games that fans purchased, they owned forever.

This new take on retro gaming from Nintendo has (seemingly) stripped gamers of the chance to outright own its classic software and is instead holding the catalogue hostage under an endless pay wall. Sure, $19.99 over a year is a veritable pittance, but think about it: you’ll be paying that $19.99 every single year from September of 2018 until whenever the service is eventually shuttered in the future. Once NES on Switch closes shop, what do you have for that $19.99 you paid religiously for years? Memories, it seems. Regardless of the fact that you very likely will want to keep playing those games well beyond the lifespan of Switch.

We live in a world where physical media is slowly giving way to an all-digital future. Part of this shift has given rise to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Apple Music, and more, services that are virtually ubiquitous amongst consumers of movies, music, television shows, and other content. While I don’t necessarily completely object to streaming, my primary problem with it is that the consumer ends up paying over and over for the same things that they’ll always want to watch or listen to for the rest of their lives. A good example of this is Seinfeld. The TV series came to iTunes a while back and when it did, some users chided Apple about it on social media asking why they should bother paying $99.99 for the show from them when it’s on Hulu for $11.99 a month.

To which I say, because if you’re never going to stop wanting to watch Seinfeld, you may as well pay the $99.99 for the full season versus throwing that twelve bucks a month at Hulu from now to eternity. Just a year alone makes the cost of Seinfeld from Hulu more than the one-time cost of the same show from Apple. Besides, that’s the cost for just one year; after two, three, or more, the cost skyrockets. Now, I’m aware that there’s a lot more to a Hulu subscription than just Seinfeld, but what’s more central to my point here is the idea that a one-time purchase for something that a consumer will always want is much more logical than essentially renting it over and over.

There’s also the question of control. If I buy a book, or a Blu-ray, it’s mine until I decide to sell it (or it breaks, gets lost, etc.).  My original copies of everything from Ocarina of Time to Metroid Prime are all in my collection to this day. That’s not how it works with services like NES on Switch. Those games aren’t mine, they’re ethereal pieces of software that I have to repeatedly pay to enjoy and whenever Nintendo suddenly decides to take one away, I’m out of luck. It’s not unprecedented that Nintendo takes games away, in case anyone has forgotten: the Donkey Kong Country trilogy went AWOL at one point, as did Yoshi’s Cookie, among others. So not only is this pay model a money sink, it’s also one that can change things on the user at the drop of a hat.

What’s more, Nintendo is continuing a strange and unwelcome trend of always moving backwards in some fashion with each console generation when it comes to its various online services. Is anyone really excited to start back at square one with the NES lineup? I’ll grant that the new functionality being touted (like online two-player) is a plus, but it’s 2018 and I’m being told for the fourth consecutive console generation to get hyped for Tennis. Tennis, people. Mario Tennis on Game Boy Color is a better option and that game is already almost twenty years old, itself! How many times is Nintendo going to keep trickling out these retro releases in the same order at the same placid pace? It’s a very, very tired pattern, but throw in the fact that now fans don’t even have the option for ownership of these titles and I find myself absolutely unimpressed.

Let’s look for the silver lining now. I mentioned above that fans seemingly won’t be able to buy these games, because there is a glimmer of hope in Nintendo’s press release: “It will also be possible to play these games offline.” The phrasing of this suggests to me that the focus of NES on Switch is to get players to latch onto the pay-till-you-die version, but that for those wanting to have unrestricted access to the games, they (hopefully) will be able to buy them. That said, it’s also entirely possible that this is simply wishful thinking. Regardless, it’s clear that Nintendo is wanting to monetize its classic games in a way that goes beyond a mere $7 to $10 purchase. It’s a tactic that Sony has been utilizing with its refusal to make PlayStation 3 games backwards compatible, instead offering up its PlayStation Now service and having users stream the titles.

As we continue to march into the future, old consoles are becoming harder and harder to utilize. Peripherals like the NES Zapper don’t even work on modern flat screens. A lot of newer TV sets don’t have RCA cable inputs, which effectively wipes out NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, and other classic consoles. There are alternatives, of course, like clone consoles that offer compatibility with today’s televisions. However, with the scarcity of some games and the obscurity of others (along with the hardware to play them on), being able to experience as well as preserve the history of the video game industry is becoming trickier by the day. Nintendo’s software catalogue is so legendary, it’s frightening to me to imagine that it might become restricted to petty subscription services. Here’s hoping that if NES on Switch truly is limiting its games to endless fees in order to be played, fans will react in kind and demand better of Nintendo.

One Response to “Editorial: No Virtual Console on Switch is Outrageous”

  • 745 points
    OG75 says...

    Agreed Mr. Marrujo. Agreed with every sentiment in this piece. Glad you mentioned the Donkey Kong Country series (and others) going AWOL at one point. That situation was a disconcerting eye-opener for me when it happened.

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