Why Virtual Console matters (to me)

It's been formally announced that the Nintendo Switch is going to launch without Virtual Console support. This is disappointing news, but hardly shocking, given everything else Nintendo has done these last 10 years. However it has also led to lots of people in forums and comments sections scoffing at the Virtual Console altogether and saying things like "it doesn't matter" and "who cares?"

Well it does matter. And I care. It may not matter to you for whatever reason, and that's fine, but it matters to a lot of people, and it should matter to everyone who loves gaming as a medium.

I am an older gamer. I'm 35 and have been playing video games since I was a very young child, when my best friend from pre-school got an import NES from Japan and a copy of Tiger Heli, and I was instantly hooked. I grew up with Nintendo (and old MS-DOS and Windows PC games) and I have a love and fascination for games of that era, even (especially) ones I never got to play at the time.

Lots of people love the media of their youth, and music, movies, books and TV from the 80s are generally easily available in various formats. Want to see The Goonies today? It's available for download, available on DVD, and, of course, there's a Blu-ray. These versions are cheap and ubiquitous. The same is true of music from the era. Are you a Cyndi Lauper fan? It's easier than ever to access her catalog. Maybe you were more into Run-DMC. Their catalog is equally available. It may be tricky to rock a rhyme, but it's easy to find a cheap copy of King of Rock, or stream it for free. Books and TV can be a little more hit and miss, but the big marquee titles are mostly out there, available. Cheers is on Netflix. Even Mr. Belvedere is on DVD.

Games are much complicated. Some are easy to find but some are near impossible. The tough to find ones can cost hundreds of dollars. Meanwhile while there were only 4 relevant formats for audio (record, cassette tape, CD, digital) and video (VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, Digital) there have been almost 20 relevant game machines since that time, and that's not even counting handhelds. When you consider what a pain it is to hook up archaic game systems to modern TVs you have a hobby that's much more difficult to delve into the history of. Goldeneye the movie is available in lots of formats, but Goldeneye the videogame has never been reprinted and is in eternal licensing limbo. The Panzer Dragoon series was a hit but has basically never been reprinted in any format except a port of the first game as an extra on Panzer Dragoon Orta, and the master code of Burning Rangers seems to have been incinerated because that game has not been heard from since its initial (very low) print run.

The Virtual Console was supposed to fix some of this. When it launched on the Wii it featured not only Nintendo games but other systems as well. It took awhile to gather steam, but once it did pick up, oh boy, it put many of those classic games that could only be found on ebay or through piracy onto an easy(ish) to use electronic store where they could be downloaded and enjoyed. I gorged myself when I got a Wii in 2008. I finally got a chance to play a significant amount of Punchout!! I beat Super Mario World for the first time since I got my SNES, I played a bunch of classic TurboGrafx-16 games I'd only ever heard of, and messed around with a host of other titles from Mega Turrican to Sin & Punishment. Some of these games were great, some were mediocre, but being able to access them all in an easy, legal, reasonably well-emulated (though not perfect) format was basically heaven for someone like me. It was, at least in promise, a console version of gog.com, a place to explore the console side of gaming history as thoroughly as gog lets you explore the computer game side.

I bought way more Virtual Console games than actual Wii games, and in terms of play time there is absolutely no competition. The Wii was a Virtual Console machine that could play Boom Blox and Mario Galaxy too, as far as I was concerned. And it wasn't just the games that were on Virtual Console that made me happy. It was the fact that I thought future games would also be made accessible in the same way. Eventually, long after the PS3 and Xbox 360 were consigned to the dustbins of history, their catalogs would be digitally available for game historians and enthusiasts to enjoy, while other systems would also be uploaded over time to create a wonderful digital bazaar of titles classic and obscure, the way that Amazon on-Demand video has the majority of important movies from the last 60 years available at a click of a button.

This didn't happen, obviously. Not only did Nintendo stop releasing significant numbers of new virtual console games, and adding systems, but when the Wii U launched, instead of porting over the library they already had (though you could move over your games from your Wii through a convoluted procedure that left you unable to play them on the Wii OR the Wii U Gamepad) they started over again from scratch. And the Wii U Virtual Console library never reached nearly the size of the Wii's, while having a lot of overlap.

When the Switch was announced I was cautiously optimistic. It was the perfect machine for Virtual Console games, since it is both portable and a home console, and while its battery can't play a demanding game like Breath of the Wild for more than a couple hours it would probably fair much better meeting the lower demands of an emulated classic like a Link to the Past. It was also (obviously) going to use an account system linked to games, meaning that Nintendo would finally have to abandon its stupid system of locking games to a console and let us port our digital collections from system to system in the future. It sounded great. And then when Nintendo announced that its online service was going to offer subscription access to older games it sounded like they were taking the feature seriously. I mean renting a SNES game for a month is kind of crazy, but it requires that the system HAVE a bunch of SNES games for you to rent.

Now the Switch is launching without the Virtual Console (as the Wii U did) and they aren't even telling us their plans. When those plans are revealed they will likely be based around starting from scratch and not letting you bring your purchases over from previous consoles. People, tired of being asked to buy the same games over again every generation, will likely not buy much and Virtual Console will fade even further into disuse, fueling the cycle of its own destruction. Hell, Nintendo itself admitted that NES games are only worth $2 apiece at this point, and that's AFTER the cost of hardware for the NES classic edition, but does anyone believe that the NES ROMS on the Switch Virtual Console will cost less than $5? They'll probably be $8, because that's just how Nintendo rolls. They've made Virtual Console so consumer unfriendly that rather than the universal marketplace for old games that I (optimistically) imagined, it's just a place for people who really don't like pirating to buy a few games at inflated prices, grumble about them, and move on.

More than just meaning that we'll never get legal access to a lot of great old games that Nintendo, for whatever reason, doesn't want to put out on its systems, it also devalues preservation among game companies, which is already a problem. Games having a longer tail isn't just good for the companies, it's good for gamers, because it means those companies will take their classic IP more seriously and treat it better, and we won't see so many amazing games locked away behind obsolete hardware or low initial print runs.

That dream is all but dead.

I know the arguments against the necessity of the virtual console. Piracy is an option for some, but for someone like me who has plenty of money and doesn't like breaking the law, it's not an attractive one. I don't want to steal these games. I want to compensate their rights holders and encourage the industry. Some people turn to buying old systems and games off Ebay and the like. That's fine, but I have neither the time to hunt everything down nor the space to store everything. Advocates for "physical collections only!" have obviously never lived in a place with limited space. A lot of my old games are in storage. Some have been stolen. I don't want to build a physical collection that includes 20 different old consoles. And I don't want to pay hundreds of dollars for old games.

The Virtual Console was the perfect compromise. At least in theory. Instead its just a memory I have of playing a bunch of awesome old games on my Wii. Which is now in storage. And incompatible with my new TV.

As for the Nintendo Switch itself...it's another neat piece of Nintendo hardware with too many stupid gimmicks and no software library at launch. The Virtual Console could have helped with that by providing an instant library of great games to play on the go and general enjoyment beyond just Zelda BOTW and...Super overpriced Bomberman.... but that's less important than the overall failed promise of what was a great idea.

If you don't care about the Virtual Console that's fine. You may treat games as disposable or you may be like Jeff and have every game in the world kept in plastic tubs in a garage. But everyone should at least be able to see why the Virtual Console was such a good idea and how Nintendo's botching of it is so frustrating to those of us who DO care about old games and want an easy, convenient, affordable, legal, way to explore older libraries of games.

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