Retro Round Up is a regular feature that takes a look at what’s new in the world of old games. Since the Wii U’s Virtual Console service launched this week, I thought it’d be pertinent to take a look back at how the original Wii’s Virtual Console performed, as well as discuss my hopes and reservations about Nintendo’s retro-download service.
When the Wii was originally announced, the Virtual Console seemed like the ultimate form of backwards compatibility — not only would you be able to play your old Gamecube games on it, but you’d also be able to download and play classic NES, SNES, N64, Master System, Mega Drive, Neo Geo, and PC Engine games on it as well. Just the idea of being able to play Chrono Trigger, Sonic 2, Ocarina of Time, and Castlevania X: Rondo of Blood on one console was enough to convince a lot of retro-gamers to buy a Wii.
Unfortunately, while the Wii Virtual Console did get all of those games eventually, it sure took its sweet time to build up a decent selection of games. Nintendo’s never been good at securing a consistent, constant stream of new releases, and the Virtual Console suffered from the same long droughts that afflicted original Wii software: months at a time would go by without a new game going up on the service, and the games that did get released often weren’t worth the $5 or so to download. PROTIP: Nobody outside of South America wants to play the Master System version of Sonic. Nobody.
While it certainly did take awhile for the Wii Virtual Console library to fill out, it’s hard to not be happy with the selection of titles available on the service now. For the most part, Nintendo has done a pretty good job of making sure most of the “big” titles for each system are available for download: most of the “main” series Mario titles are on there, as are most of the Zelda’s and Sonic’s. The games that you think of first when you think of these classic systems — like Chrono Trigger, the classic Final Fantasies, Castlevania, Mega Man, Phantasy Star — are generally all there. There’s even a few high profile imports available on the US version of the shop, including the previously Japan-exclusive Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine and the original Sin and Punishment for N64.
Of course, there’s still gaps in the Virtual Console’s selection: Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island is still strangely absent from the service, despite being of the SNES’s most celebrated titles. There’s a variety of reasons why games don’t show up on retro download services like Virtual Console: either they used special hardware that’s hard to emulate, or there might be messy legal issues preventing a game’s re-release. But if Nintendo ever wants to the Virtual Console to be the definitive retro-gaming service, they’re going to have to put more effort into working these problems out. When I hear a song I like, no matter what artist made it or how old it is, I’m confident that I’ll be able to find and buy it on iTunes or Amazon; the Virtual Console library needs to be just as big and all-encompassing. Of course, there’ll always be a handful of titles missing from the service, but if Apple can get most of the (infamously hard to work with) music industry to support iTunes, then Nintendo should be actively encouraging the major publishers to put their entire classic catalog onto the VC.
Both the Wii U and the 3DS are more powerful than the original Wii, so it’d be nice if Nintendo expanded the Virtual Console selection beyond the systems currently available on the service. Since the Wii U isn’t backwards compatible with Gamecube discs, Nintendo would be dumb to not offer downloadable ports of classic GC titles; prices for GC games like Pikmin 2 and the original Luigi’s Mansion have been climbing steadily on the secondary market for the last few years, so there’s obviously a big demand for these games.
It’d be great if the 3DS Virtual Console was expanded beyond Gameboy and Gear Gear games as well. SNK seems eager to port over their entire library of classic Neo Geo games over to every system they can, so it’s surprising that we haven’t seen Neo Geo Pocket Color emulation on the 3DS yet; games like Cardfighters Clash and the NGPC version of Metal Slug are still remain very playable and very fun to this day. Or how about Virtual Boy? The 3DS has a 3D screen, so it’d be the ideal system to port old VB games to. Now, since the VB is Nintendo’s biggest flop, they seem eager to forget it ever existed, but there were a handful of VB games that are worth going back to: the Virtual Boy Wario World is considered one of the best games in that series, for instance.
Sega Saturn support for the Wii U would be nice too; Saturn emulation on the PC is still a messy, buggy affair, and the best Saturn games are notoriously expensive and hard to find. Nintendo and Sega could really cash in if they put a working Saturn emulator on the Virtual Console: I don’t want to pay $250+ to play Panzer Dragoon Saga, but I’d gladly pay $20 (maybe even more) to download the game onto my Wii U.
Speaking of price: Virtual Console games are too expensive. I love old games and I don’t mind paying for them, but the VC’s prices just aren’t competitive with the retro re-releases available on other plaforms. Why would I pay $8 for a Genesis/Mega Drive game, when I can get 40 of them on the Ultimate Genesis Collection on PS3 and 360 for $20? Why does it cost me more to buy a SNES game on the Virtual Console then it does to buy some PS1 games off of PSN? Of course, some games are worth the premium pricing — nobody’s complaining about being able to get Final Fantasy III (6) for $8 — but at the same time, Nintendo needs to adjust their pricing if they want to remain competitive.
Compounding the Virtual Console’s ridiculous pricing is the lack of a dedicated account system on Nintendo’s e-shops: rather than having my purchases tied to a username like on PSN or XBL (or pretty much any other online service,) Nintendo bizarrely locks your purchases to specific consoles. There’s obvious disadvantages to this system: if your Wii U or 3DS gets lost or stolen, you have to call Nintendo tech support and have them transfer your purchases over to a new, replacement system (and that’s only if you can remember the serial numbers to your original systems.) But the bigger problem is the lack of connectivity between the Wii U and 3DS e-shops: if I buy Super Mario Bros. on the 3DS, I should be able to also download it on my Wii U at no extra charge, and vice-versa. Sony lets me transfer PS1 games from my PS3 to my PSP (as well as some limited Vita support,) and if I buy an app on my iPhone I can also use it on my iPad, so Nintendo should likewise let me transfer Virtual Console games from the 3DS to the Wii U. The Virtual Console selection should be identical across both platforms so regardless of what VC game I want to play, I’ll be able to play it at home or on my portable.
Nintendo recently announced that Earthbound was finally coming to the Virtual Console after years of fans begging for the title. Nintendo has never given a concrete reason why it took so long to get the game out, though fans have speculated that some messy legal issues might have been the reason for the game’s delayed release (some of the game’s music samples melodies from other songs.) Regardless of its tardiness, the release of Earthbound is a good sign: besides being a great game, it signals that Nintendo is willing to put the time and effort in to work out any legal issues preventing a game’s release. The original Wii Virtual Console focused on getting the “big” titles out there, but the release of Earthbound shows that Nintendo is willing to put out niche games as well.
The Wii U Virtual Console launched with a pretty paltry selection of titles, but I’m still hopeful the Virtual Console will grow into the service that it needs to be — a retro-gaming equivalent of iTunes, where any old game, regardless of platform, that’s still worth replaying is readily available. The Wii U is in a pretty bad situation right now, and Nintendo can’t spend years building up the VC library like they did with the original Wii: it’s time Nintendo (and third party publishers as well,) stopped treating retro downloads like an afterthought and finally give us the all-encompassing Virtual Console that we were originally promised when the first Wii came out seven years ago.