Lamenting the Death of Virtual Console
Nintendo recently outlined the preliminary details for its fledgling foray into premium online services. Charging for access to the online portion of games while also providing a few monthly digital goodies have become huge cash-cows for Sony and Microsoft, so Nintendo is trying to hop on that gravy train. As someone who primarily plays single-player RPGs, the addition of cloud saves and some multiplayer NES games is of little note to me. However, the news was accompanied by a statement that confirms what has become clear over the past year: the Virtual Console — an amazing collection of gaming history available on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS — is essentially dead.
This doesn’t come as a huge shock, Hamster has been porting Neo Geo classics under the Arcade Archives brand to the Switch since its beginning and the recent announcement of Sega Ages — a program of porting Genesis classics to the Switch — seemed to hint that a Virtual Console wasn’t in the cards. Nonetheless, I’m depressed at the implications that the lack of a straightforward emulator has for smaller retro titles on the Switch. No doubt, Nintendo will always provide ways for people to purchase the various incarnations of Zelda and Mario just like Sega will for Sonic. My concern is with the titles that aren’t from major franchises. One of the great things about Virtual Console is how easy it was to pick up and play games (legally) without paying exorbitant prices on the secondary market.
Perhaps the existence of those Neo-Geo classics and Sega Ages argue against the end of Virtual Console as being a catastrophe. While doom-sayers have interpreted the end of Virtual Console as Nintendo cutting support for retro titles on the platform, that seems like an incredible overstatement. The online service itself is going to include NES games and seems poised to incorporate other Nintendo platforms going forward. Further, the proliferation of mini-retro consoles thanks to the success of the NES Classic Edition means that emulated versions of games will still find a way to the public.
However, Virtual Console’s infrastructure and spotlight made it easier for publishers to release niche games and for players to find them. Going forward, it seems like retro games won’t just be emulated, but upgraded with internet co-op play. Maybe that sounds great to some people, providing a new reason to purchase Super Mario Brothers for the umpteenth time, but I fear that Nintendo is heading down the same path that Sony has taken in recent years with terrible results.
Sony used to be the gold standard for backward compatibility. This veneer started to crack with the release of the PlayStation 3, where exorbitant costs forced Sony to cut backward compatibility from all but the earliest machines. However, original PlayStation games continued to work and the digital back catalog exploded with PlayStation games on the PSN working on PS3, PSP, and Vita. Games could be purchased once, played on anything, and even save files could be moved between the systems — albeit with a bit of a laborious system. Later in the PS3’s life, Sony developed an emulation wrapper allowing PlayStation 2 games to be released digitally on the PS3. While this feature was never widely adopted, Atlus, NIS America, and even Konomi used it to release a host of great PS2 RPGs that had become rare over the years. This was how I got introduced to Suikoden, the Digital Devil Saga games, as well as Persona 3 FES allowing me to finally get to see The Answer.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that this was going to be such a short-lived golden age for retro games. When the PlayStation 4 came out, once again there was no backward compatibility. Considering the complexity of the cell processor at the core of the PS3, the lack of support for that wasn’t a huge surprise, but over four years later Sony still hasn’t bothered to add PS1 support to the PS4. Sony instead has taken a two-pronged approach to backward compatibility: HD remasters and streaming. The PS2 on PS4 program, launched at the end of 2015, was supposed to help rectify the PS4’s deficiencies, but it seemed to be a doomed program from the start. This was no simple emulation of PS2 games; instead, it requires publishers to incorporate Trophies, Remote Play, and Share Play as well as emulating in widescreen at HD resolutions. The few dozen games that resulted from this program look great, but it seems like a lot of work for titles that are supposed to sell for $15. Sony tried to create a niche that didn’t exist; the public seems unwilling to spend that much for slightly upgraded PS2 games and, even if there is a market for them, it makes more sense for a publisher to call the upgraded game an HD remaster and slap it in a box for $30 or more. Sony seems to be letting the program die on the vine with only eleven releases in the past year — and four of those being Jack and Daxter titles.
The other solution Sony has offered is PlayStation Now, a streaming service for primarily PS3 and PS4 games that Sony charges $20 per month. This service has two problems: it offers nothing to people who want to explore the back catalog of older games and it requires a good internet connection since the games must be streamed. With little support for the PS2 and none for the original PlayStation it just doesn’t fulfill my desire to play some of the games I missed the first time around.
Sony’s declining support for older games has coincided with Microsoft rediscovering its catalog of older games on the Xbox One. Microsoft has been adding Xbox 360 as well as original Xbox games to the platform. It’s almost as if you can tell who is in last place in the console space by gauging the company’s enthusiasm for older titles. But considering the trajectories of its respective consoles, it seems more likely that Nintendo is following the Sony path rather than the Microsoft one.
So that’s my concern with Nintendo’s decision; I don’t think that it is going to completely ignore its massive back catalog of games. However, if Nintendo is ditching the emulator model and adding features to the games, that will have an effect on smaller titles that can’t support that additional investment. I can’t imagine that most Virtual Console or other retro releases are very profitable for the publishers, so any additional cost or impediment to a release limits the types of games that can be profitably revived. There will be Mario and Zelda games aplenty, but will we get something niche like ActRaiser? Probably not. I really hope that I’m wrong and that the Switch sells so well that small publishers like NIS America and Natsume can profitably release lots of classic titles. After seeing what Sony has done the past few years, I’m feeling pessimistic about the future of emulated digital titles. Considering how perfect the Switch would be for playing those titles, whether on a TV or portably, it will be such a waste if there isn’t a way to emulate retro games.