We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of the Virtual Console. For a little over a decade, it was Nintendo’s premier method of preserving video game history. It provided gamers the ability to travel back and play Nintendo’s past consoles, whether for the first time as a new gamer, or again as someone who went through the original experience. However, as of today, March 27, 2023, Nintendo is closing the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U eShops, shutting down the Virtual Console service forever. Hold your handkerchiefs ready as we look back and share our experiences with it.
Wii Could Finally Play
In November 2006, Nintendo released the first of its Virtual Console library as part of the Wii’s launch. This handful of games would gradually expand into hundreds of titles available to buy and download directly to your Wii. It was a revolution. Up until that point, retro games had been locked to a niche audience that either retained the original hardware or who had gone through the trouble of emulating on a PC. The mainstream gaming audience could finally access that history and learn from the past.
The library was seriously impressive. You had the NES, SNES, and N64 all there. And thanks to its backwards compatibility for the GameCube, the Wii offered games from all of Nintendo’s past home consoles up to that point. But that wasn’t the end of it — Sega Genesis, NEO-GEO, Turbografx-16, and Arcade games were present as well. Plenty of classic 3rd Party games like Chrono Trigger and Castlevania found themselves on the service. They even brought over a Japan-exclusive N64 game (and an underrated gem) Sin & Punishment. The Virtual Console’s library wasn’t comprehensive, but it was about as robust as you could ask for in the late 2000s.
The Wii’s Virtual Console was how I finally experienced many N64 games that I’d never owned as a kid like Pokemon Snap and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards. It also helped me discover classics such as Super Metroid, and it was a vital step in me becoming the Metroid fan that I am today.
This is the #1 reason why game preservation is good business. It’s not just about the sales — by having easy access to past games, you allow gamers to become fans of series they didn’t hear about before. It adds prestige to your history. Nintendo certainly enjoyed a lot of attention in the 1980s and early 1990s, but in the early 2000s the company was struggling to retain its cultural significance. However, the Wii’s successful new games, alongside its Virtual Console library, saved the company from falling into obscurity. While the Wii’s motion controls pioneered a new way to play games, its Virtual Console cemented its pristine legacy as another pillar of the company’s identity. Before the Wii, old video games were considered useless and outdated; they were abandoned in thrift store bins. After the Wii, old video games were recognized for their significance; they were delicately placed on a red pillow.
That being said, the Wii’s Virtual Console had plenty of flaws. For starters, the emulation was bare-bones. Sure, it worked, but there were no options or modern features. If you closed the game by returning to the Wii menu, it would pause the game, but there was no way to manually create or re-load a save state. No screen filters, overlays, rewind, or fast-forward options were available, either. Second, the Wii’s storage was quite small. You could only store eight or nine N64 games before you’d reach the limit (I didn’t know about SD Cards back then). It seems counter-intuitive to offer so many games to play only to prevent people from actually keeping them all on your system at the same time. Finally, while some licensed games like Goldeneye 007 were understandably missing, other Nintendo-developed classics never arrived. Star Fox (1993) and EarthBound were fan-favorites on the SNES, but both were MIA on the Wii. It would’ve also been a golden opportunity for Nintendo to finally release Japan-exclusive games in other regions, yet they never materialized.
But it was a first step. Surely with the next generation of systems, the Virtual Console would fix all of these problems, yeah?
Never Gonna Give U Up
To give Nintendo credit, they did make many improvements to the Virtual Console service when it arrived for the 3DS and Wii U in the early 2010s. You could finally create and re-load a save state. You only got one, but it made playing old games much easier. The 3DS allowed you to swap between Game Boy displays, and you could even trigger an overlay that used the 3D effect. The Wii U allowed you to re-map buttons, which helped bridge the gap between the N64’s controller and modern controllers. More consoles got added as well. The 3DS got titles from the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and even Sega Game Gear systems. The Wii U received Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS games. Finally, some missing Nintendo games did finally appear, such as EarthBound and the Japan-exclusive game The Mysterious Murasame Castle.
I played the heck out of my 3DS Virtual Console. There were so many Game Boy games that I never knew about as a kid, but I relished playing them as an adult. I got acquainted with the well-known classics such as Metroid II, Kirby’s Dream Land, and Super Mario Land 2, but I also discovered hidden gems like Mole Mania and Shantae. I loved having a portable retro library that was on the same hardware as my brand-new 3DS games. It was (and still is) highly convenient.
However, while Nintendo made many steps forward with the 3DS and Wii U, they also made just as many steps backward. With these new systems, Nintendo started the Virtual Console over from scratch, meaning you had to wait once again for the small drip-feed of games. Furthermore, several consoles and games that were present on the Wii never moved forward to the 3DS and Wii U. Despite new consoles arriving, the overall library shrunk. On top of that, you could only transfer the games you bought on Wii to the Wii U, and even then, you had to pay a fee. Want to play Super Metroid on the 3DS? You gotta buy it all over again (which I did). Considering how Steam lets you move your entire library over every time you buy a new PC, free of charge, the Virtual Console felt outdated and anti-consumer.
When the Nintendo Switch was released in 2017, it appeared to be the ultimate answer to the Virtual Console. Surely Nintendo has learned from their mistakes and could finally create a service that could satisfy everyone’s concerns.
Don’t Forget to Subscribe
Instead, we got Nintendo Switch Online (NSO), Nintendo’s replacement for the Virtual Console. Let’s start with what it does well, because we should give the credit where it’s due:
- Improved emulation. You can now create 4 different save states, rewind the game to correct a mistake, and use basic visual filters. The Game Boy games in particular feel like a perfect recreation of how they looked on actual hardware.
- Everything is kept together on a handful of convenient apps, and you can easily swap between games.
- Some Japan-exclusive games such as Panel de Pon are finally available (though they are few and far-between) as well as the cancelled SNES game Star Fox 2.
- Some people may prefer keeping everything together on a subscription without having to worry about buying and downloading individual games.
For me, however, NSO remains an overall disappointment. I mentioned it briefly during my post on the Switch’s 6th Anniversary, but these are my reasons in greater detail:
- Nintendo once again started all over from scratch. It took six years for the library to reach the same degree of the Wii.
- Once again Nintendo did not allow players to transfer previous purchases of the same game.
- Once again certain titles have gone missing (The Mysterious Murasame Castle and Super Mario RPG, among others), and the library has overall shrunk.
- NSO had a lot of missed opportunities. This was a perfect time for Nintendo to bring over other Japan-exclusive games such as Marvelous: Mōhitotsu no Takarajima, the first game ever directed by Eiji Aonuma (the producer of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), but that has not happened. Similarly, I once imagined that we could actually get the Satellaview games brought over, but that likely won’t happen now.
- The button remapping from the Wii U is strangely nowhere to be found. It’s not a big deal for NES or Game Boy, but if you’re playing an N64 game with weird controls, you’ll have to change the controller layout for your entire Switch system, then change it back when you’re done playing.
- With NSO, I feel trapped in a sunk-cost fallacy. I can’t cancel my subscription or else the games will get taken away. As a consumer, I feel more secure buying a game on the Virtual Console. I know that I can return to it any time I want. If NSO simply had the option of keeping a selection of your favorite games for a small fee, it would be greatly appreciated. In fact, if they did offer that, I’d be 100% ready to move on from the Virtual Console.
- While Nintendo has made strides in its emulation, fan emulators on PC are still leagues ahead of them. For example, I can patch my copy of Star Fox (1993) to fix its infamously slow frame rate. As the years go on, it gets harder and harder not to compare a multimillion dollar company to the work of its fans. On paper, NSO should be the best retro game service to date, and yet it just feels… lacking.
I didn’t start out as a retro game enthusiast. When a new console came out, I used to disregard the old ones as outdated and unimportant, with very few exceptions to that rule. However, Nintendo’s Virtual Console showed me the value in returning to old games, including games that were before my time like the NES. It showed me the importance of game preservation, and ignited my passion for gaming history.
I can appreciate Nintendo’s current efforts, but these past few years of using NSO haven’t put my mind at ease knowing that it’s the future. If anything, playing NSO has made me appreciate the Virtual Console all the more, despite it having less features. The Virtual Console wasn’t perfect, but it was a good start. I will continue to enjoy its games for as long as I have my Wii and 3DS.
This marks the conclusion for our memorial service. If any of you have any remarks you’d like to share about our beloved Virtual Console, feel free to do so now.
Rest In Pixels, Virtual Console.
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