Portable Virtual Console - A Reality?

It’s safe to say that the Virtual Console has been a massive success for Nintendo. The company has confirmed that an astonishing number of gamers are delving into the past and gleefully downloading retro content to their Wii consoles. So long as Nintendo can keep a steady flow of quality titles then the future of the service is all but assured.

But what exactly is the future of the Virtual Console and retro gaming ‘on demand’ in general?

For a while now there’s been rampant speculation about the possibility of a similar service on the Nintendo DS. The portable machine is certainly more than capable of playing many current Virtual Console games (the shadowy homebrew scene proves that) and the inclusion of Wi-Fi would make downloading them relatively simple. Surely it is only a matter of time before Nintendo decide to activate such a service – either with the DS or its eventual successor, which surely cannot be far off now.

In the meantime, other companies have been fully exploiting the concept of portable retro gaming. The power of most mobile phones is sufficient enough to handle Megadrive and SNES games, but the average mobile phone interface isn’t exactly suited for intense gaming action. Nevertheless, we’ve seen many vintage classics find their way onto phones, such as Sonic, Street Fighter II and Double Dragon.

Thankfully, portable technology is so cheap these days that it’s perfectly possible to carry around miniaturized versions of hardware that 15 years ago would occupy the lion’s share of space beneath your TV. Cheap and cheerful company AtGames has recently released a portable Megadrive / Genesis which contains twenty classic titles, a decent backlit display and runs off AAA batteries. Amazingly, this contraption retails for under $40.

VCR's Dazza owns one of these impressive little devices and has kindly posted some video footage for your viewing pleasure:

A similar product exists that plays Sega Master System games, again for less than the price of a modern videogame.

But these examples are surely just the tip of the iceberg; if Sega really wanted to make some money out of this they could easily produce a portable machine that can connect to the internet and download Sega Megadrive / Genesis ROMs for a price comparable to Virtual Console games. Flash memory is so cheap these days that internal storage wouldn’t be an issue; 2GB of memory would be more than enough. You have to wonder why Sega hasn’t come up with this idea already, seeing as the company has gladly allowed another manufacturer to produce such a concept under licence. Perhaps this is just Sega testing the water?

Another avenue for portable retro gaming is GamePark’s famous GP2X console. It’s an open source machine which is intended for homebrew applications, but predictably over the past few years many bedroom coders have successfully ported over popular emulators to the machine.

I’ve got one of these things myself and the performance is quite literally breathtaking. Here’s some example footage of it in action:

Running on large capacity (but relatively cheap) SD cards, the GP2X can happily emulate the Megadrive / Genesis, SNES, Master System, Neo-Geo, MAME and even the trusty old PC – but there’s a catch. You have to download the ROMs to play these games as there is currently no official distribution channel (and even if there was it’s unlikely anyone would support it). Emulation is a notoriously grey area; the common perception is that if you own the original game you are permitted to own a ROM backup, but even this is refuted by many companies afraid of losing control over their valuable retro IP.

Given the power of modern handhelds and the relative simplicity of many of the retro titles that appear on the Virtual Console, it’s fair to say that a portable version of the service will appear at some point. It remains to be seen if Nintendo will extend the concept to the amazingly successful DS (to even the most untrained eye it would surely represent a licence to print money) or if any other company – be it Sega, Capcom or Konami – decide to enter the fray with their own dedicated portable hardware and respective download service, but you can be pretty sure that we’ll see retro gaming ‘on demand’ in the palm of our hands sooner rather than later.

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