The Nintendo Switch has finally launched, but we still don't know how Nintendo is going to approach Virtual Console, its classic game download service, on its new go-anywhere game console. If you're wondering why some of us seem to be so anxious over this, it's because the question carries higher stakes for certain people.
Like me. Hello, I'm Chris, and I'm a Virtual Console whale. I knew I'd hit rock bottom when I spent… well, funny story. When speaking with Nintendo's president Reggie Fils-Aime earlier this year about this topic, I ballparked that I'd spent about $1,000 buying old games on Nintendo's Wii and Wii U consoles. Afterwards, I decided to add it all up: every $5-12 game, plus every dollar or two spent upgrading these games from Wii to Wii U.
My grand total? $1,002. That's since the Wii launched in 2006, so when you spread it out like that, it's pretty easy to spend $100 a year downloading some of the best games ever put to silicon. And I don't regret it! Well: I don't regret it yet. But Nintendo's next moves could cause me to.
"We recognize that some of our most passionate fans have spent quite a bit [and] are rightly concerned about moving to Nintendo Switch without backward compatibility. My comment is: Stay tuned, we understand the concern, more information to come," he responded, and added that Nintendo would "define all of those various details" prior to Switch's launch.
But rather than lay out its solution, Nintendo kicked the can down the road, issuing a terse statement in February reading "Virtual Console games will not be available on Nintendo Switch at launch."
Leaving all concerns about how Nintendo will implement Virtual Console aside for a moment, the natural reaction to that statement is, "Well, why the hell not?" Once we're all done with Zelda, the Switch's lineup of games with actual release dates looks pretty bleak, so why not fill in that dead time with a library of Nintendo hits, playable any way you want?
The answer may be that Nintendo has greater ambitions for Virtual Console this time around than just slapping a Super Mario Bros. ROM into an emulator shell and being done with it. It has said that when it launches the Switch's online gaming service in the fall, those of us with a subscription will be able to play one NES or SNES game each month, to which Nintendo will add online play.
If Nintendo is looking to make netplay a feature of classic gaming on Switch, then we're looking at a heavier development lift than previous iterations, which would help to explain the delay (even if it also supports the widely-held notion that we're all just beta-testing Switch for now). And given the general lack of quality control that typified Virtual Console on Wii U – fuzzy graphics, weird color balancing – it's heartening to think that this time, Nintendo might be committed to getting it right.
But at what cost? Imagine if Apple made you buy all your music again every time you bought a new iPhone. That's an approximation of what it's like owning a substantial library of digital Nintendo games. We suffered through the nickel-and-diming upgrade fees for Wii U, not to mention the fact that many of the best games (hi, Square Enix) never got upgraded.
Will we get nickel-and-dimed again? Worse: Will we get dollared? It's not out of the question that Nintendo might just charge everybody full price all over again for the hits. I'm certainly not saying that I wouldn't buy any Virtual Console titles if that turned out to be the case (remember, I began by admitting I had a problem), but I'd be a lot more wary. If Square Enix rejoined the party and released Final Fantasy VI on Switch, and it looked beautiful on my big-screen as well as the tablet, I might triple-dip. But I wouldn't be loading up my Switch with iffier titles that I "might get around to someday." Not anymore.
There is a silver lining to the cloud that currently hangs over Virtual Console's future though: Switch is region-free. That means that I could take my Japanese Nintendo account (from the Japanese 3DS that I had to buy to play Japanese 3DS games) and access it from my American Switch, logging in to Japan's eShop and buying some import games. The possibility of being able to play some untranslated classics could make Switch an even better retro machine than previously indicated.
Another indication that things might get better is the NES Classic, which puts the lie to two of the Unbreakable Unwritten Laws of Virtual Console, namely that games 1) must be sold at a premium price and 2) must be released in a water-torture drip-feed cadence. 30 games all at once for two bucks each? Sold, and hopefully the Switch learns from that lesson.
So with all that in mind, here are the Best, Good, and Worst scenarios that might play out once Nintendo finally gets around to putting its back catalog on Switch.
Nintendo offers upgrade discounts to those who've already blown a grand on these games. We get Netplay and other major improvements, and variable pricing: Super Mario Bros. 3 can still sell for $5, but hot garbage like Ice Climber costs 99 cents. Serious commitment to at least catch up, then start exceeding, Wii U's meager library within the first year. And just for good measure, they start translating Japan-only games into English, starting with Earthbound's sequel Mother 3.
No discounts for whales, but lowered prices overall, with discounted bundles, flash sales, and other enticing value propositions – just like other digital game stores. Netplay, other improvements. Large library.
No discounts, high prices, drip-feed release schedule, hit-driven lineup based around a few major games but no cool weird ones. Major third-party publishers go unrepresented again.
Nintendo always seems taken by surprise at the existence of people who buy a lot of its products. It happened with Wii, when we quickly filled up that console's internal storage with Virtual Console games and had no way to expand it. It happened with its Amiibo figures, when it imagined it could release a single tiny shipment of characters like Villager and then discontinue them, not realizing that anyone would want to collect them all. For those of us who've amassed large libraries of digital games on Wii U (or more modest ones on 3DS), we're looking for some level of consideration if and when Nintendo releases those exact same titles on Switch. Will Nintendo see our ROM collections the same way iTunes sees our MP3s? Will our digital library go obsolete? And whatever Nintendo does with Virtual Console on Switch, will it do it in a way that doesn't alienate those who've already bought in big time? Just more of those as-yet-unanswered questions, of which Switch has a fair few.