Talking Point: Is the Virtual Console On The Slide?

Since the birth of the Virtual Console a couple of years back we’ve been granted some truly amazing slices of retro-related brilliance. Zelda, Phantasy Star, Street Fighter, Alex Kidd, Mario, Castlevania, Sonic…all of these franchises (plus many others) have been reborn in a blaze of glory thanks to Nintendo’s download portal.

At the start of 2008 we asked a few probing questions about the state of the Virtual Console and came to the conclusion that despite some grumblings from the fan base, the service still had an awful lot to give.

Looking back on the year that has certainly been the case; we've been gifted with the likes of Shining Force II, Mario Golf, Super Mario RPG, Ys Book I & II, Star Parodier, Metal Slug, Lords of Thunder, StarTropics and Secret of Mana - a truly awesome selection of games, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. However, going into 2009 the picture is slightly less clear.

As we pointed out in 2008, the launch of WiiWare has resulted in a downturn in the volume of Virtual Console releases; Nintendo knows that Wii owners only have so many Wii Points to spend on downloadable content and has understandably attempted to create an even ‘split’ between the two services.

However, for those of you that have little to no interest in the products available on WiiWare (and with some justification - even the most staunch Ninty fan would have to admit that some of the games have been total shovelware), this shift has been hard to stomach. You could argue that retro-addicts have been unfairly deprived of vital AAA titles thanks to the emergence of WiiWare.

However, Nintendo’s DLC strategy aside, there are more worrying signs. A quick look at the Virtual Console Coming Soon list reveals a distinct lack of killer software; sure, we have the likes of MUSHA Aleste and Super Smash Bros, but how long will we have to wait for these games, given Nintendo’s rather haphazard release policy?

Add to this the rather worrying rumour that Hudson has scaled back its Virtual Console plans and the future of the service ends up looking even less rosy. Naturally we contacted Hudson for clarification on the gossip, and were told that the company is looking to focus on WiiWare rather than the Virtual Console. While the publisher clearly still has plans for the Japanese arm of the service, the lack of recent Hudson titles in the West speaks volumes; this change of plan means we may never see the excellent Castlevania: Rondo of Blood on the Wii.

This recent lull is made even harder to bear by the fact that Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade and Sony’s Playstation Network have been growing in size and stature over the past 12 months. 360 owners can now enjoy retro hits such as Rez, Metal Slug 3, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Ikaruga, Streets of Rage 2 (with online co-op), Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and many others. The recent rumour that Microsoft is keen to port Treasure’s sublime Radiant Silvergun would elevate Xbox Live Arcade to a whole new level of brilliance.

Sony’s Playstation Network has taken longer to become established but with a steady flow of decent PSOne titles (coupled with the likes of arcade-perfect conversions of games like Konami’s riotous GTi Club), the service is getting better all the time.

So where does that leave the Virtual Console?

While you cannot argue with the quality of some of Nintendo’s first party games, when placed alongside the likes of Ikaruga and Rez the output of the Virtual Console ends up looking almost too retro (if that’s possible). Clearly this is open to personal opinion – many fans of vintage gaming wouldn’t see a game like Rez as being ‘true retro’ - but we highly doubt that many Wii owners would be against the idea of seeing games from the back catalogue of machines like the Dreamcast, Playstation and Saturn making an appearance in the future. Whether or not this is possible given the crippling internal storage issue (another thing that Nintendo has yet to successfully address) is another matter entirely, but it’s clear that Nintendo needs to do something to keep up with the competition.

Of course, all this negativity could be for nothing – there’s still plenty of awesome Megadrive/Genesis, SNES, NES, Neo-Geo and N64 games out there that have yet to be ported to the service and Nintendo may well surprise us in 2009. We just hope that the Virtual Console doesn’t get pushed to the back of the company’s consciousness, and that other publishers don’t get cold feet in the same way that Hudson seemed to have done.

What are your thoughts on this subject? As always, feel free to let rip in the comments section, conveniently found below.

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