Talking Point: The Importance of the Virtual Console

Old games seem to sell

The start of a new console generation is always problematic for fans of older titles, as with each passing system backward compatibility becomes an increasing issue, and older titles risk being lost to the ages due to damage. Nintendo’s recent policy has been one of allowing backward compatibility for the previous generation only, so Wii U owners can go back to Wii games but not GameCube; as we saw with the DS and subsequent DSi iteration, however, this compatibility isn’t a lifetime guarantee.

The solution to this problem was presented by Satoru Iwata at E3 2005; a cornerstone of the then codenamed Revolution’s initial reveal — the Virtual Console was said to offer a complete 20 year library of Nintendo software, and when the renamed Wii launched the following year, it did so with a selection of classic Nintendo titles ready to buy. Over the past six years we’ve seen the Wii’s Virtual Console library grow, giving its owners a valuable and permanent collection of retro games, while also providing a rare opportunity to purchase games previously unreleased in West; the Hanabi Festivals brought titles such as Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars to Europe for the first time.

Despite the marketability of rare titles being widely available, the Virtual Console has never really been at the forefront of Nintendo’s advertising. Be it the somewhat severe pricing on decade old games or the hit and miss release schedule, the admittedly large range of games has never really found its own place in Nintendo’s plan, seemingly resigned to being just another feature. But recently Nintendo has made strides to change all that, and in the coming generation we could see the Virtual Console being one of the major selling points for both the Wii U and 3DS.

It won’t, arguably, be the erratic releases of Nintendo’s typical library that will make or break the Virtual Console in the next generation. With titles such as Super Mario World and Super Metroid needing only minor Wii U functionality upgrades, it falls upon the remaining few titles to really push the boundaries of what the Virtual Console can offer; thankfully, Nintendo still has a vast catalogue to turn to.

The 3DS has already made significant strides in broadening the Virtual Console library, with the introduction of Game Boy and Game Boy Color games (along with third-party handhelds) being a welcome addition, along with portable NES games for the first time since the Game Boy Advance days. The service began with quite a fanfare, with games such as Super Mario Land and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX hitting the service in its early days, but much like the Wii, the release pacing and volume has since tailed off. The service now becomes all about quality over quantity, and in April’s Nintendo Direct Satoru Iwata revealed the next big title for the service, and an indicator of just why the Virtual Console remains an important outlet for Nintendo.

The release of the Capcom-developed The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons is big news for fans. Not only is this a rare opportunity to delve back into two of the franchise’s more unique titles, it also provides a service that few of the original owners managed. Uniquely, the Oracle games featured a hidden third ending – by connecting the two games together using a password system, gamers could experience the true ending to the mini-series, and without going into spoilers, it’s an ending that is worth seeing. This re-release makes it easier than ever to see this ending, and will allow many Zelda fans an opportunity to experience it for the first time, and at far less cost than buying two full priced games when originally released. It’s a chance to play through something that was a distant dream to many - precisely what the Virtual Console should be doing.

And speaking of distant dreams, they don’t get much more distant than another Virtual Console announcement from April’s Nintendo Direct. Released as Mother 2 in Japan, EarthBound in the US and never released in Europe, the adventure of Ness and his friends has gained nothing short of a cult following worldwide, due in part to its high collector’s value and the continued appearance of the franchise in Super Smash Bros. It’s been a long wait for this almost legendary title to be available worldwide, but in 2013 its hiatus will finally end, a full 19 years after its initial release.

Somewhat ironically, when the Virtual Console was announced in 2005, Iwata suggested three games that could be available on the new service – Excitebike, Punch-Out!! and EarthBound, the latter of which got a rather excited response from some audience members. And despite it taking eight long years to appear, EarthBound is precisely the sort of game the Virtual Console should be offering. Like Super Mario RPG, it offers gamers a chance to play a game that was never released in their territory, or play a game that is in such high demand that it’s almost impossible to buy.

The announcement and subsequent release of EarthBound could have an even stronger effect though. The demand and love for this series is so high it’s possible that, for those just about on the fence, it could be tempting to find a good Wii U deal to play an official version with the Virtual Console goodies included. If marketed well, EarthBound could prove to be one of Nintendo’s biggest download hits of 2013, a true testament to the potential of the Virtual Console.

But of course, games don’t sell by themselves, and it’s up to Nintendo to ensure that the eShop remains a positive environment to buy games. Since its inception on the Wii Shop Channel, the pricing of Virtual Console titles has been a hot topic amongst Nintendo fans, and there is certainly a case to be made for the games being cheaper than they are; it is after all, hard to argue with the fact that after making the necessary porting arrangements, it costs Nintendo relatively little to distribute these games digitally.

The pricing issue makes the current Famicom 30th Anniversary sale an interesting experiment. To celebrate 30 years since the Famicom’s debut in Japan, Nintendo is currently offering Wii U owners a selection of classic titles for the bargain price of just €0.30/£0.30/$0.30, and if Miiverse chatter is anything to go by, the sale is proving to be a rousing success. However, once this sale is over the games will be going back to full price, and for those such as the simplistic Balloon Fight, it’s a steep increase. Which begs the question, how many units of Balloon Fight would Nintendo have sold at full price, in comparison to the sale offering? After all, it’s arguably better to sell a hundred thousand copies – or more — of a game at 30p than a handful at more than ten times the price.

While we’re not suggesting that Nintendo should drop all its eShop titles down to a lower price than a bar of chocolate, it would certainly make sense going forward to continue these sales periodically. Digital distributors such as Valve’s Steam famously discount games intermittently, and as any good business person will tell you, get people buying one thing in your store and they will more often than not return. Positive pricing not only brings in sales of discounted items, but it also breeds a more digitally-minded consumer, something that Nintendo’s eShop offerings are geared towards. After all, putting a Virtual Console title than costs almost nothing to produce at a lower price doesn’t actually cost Nintendo anything.

While the Virtual Console only has a handful of titles at the moment, its Miiverse communities are regularly appearing on the WaraWara Plaza.

With more sales come more gamers experiencing classic titles, and that’s another area Nintendo is ready to capitalise on. While some of us perhaps didn’t quite grasp the full potential of Miiverse early on, since Wii U’s launch it has been almost universally praised by critics and fans alike. Offering a direct community in which to discuss games not only gives fans somewhere to gather, but it also offers Nintendo and the community a way to gauge interest in a game. While the Virtual Console only has a handful of titles at the moment, its Miiverse communities are regularly appearing on the WaraWara Plaza, such is the popularity of these titles. And if a game continues to appear on your home screen, it is only natural that you’ll click on it, go to the eShop and consider buying it – purchases driving further purchases.

It would appear then that Nintendo has everything it needs to make the Virtual Console one of the Wii U’s core selling points in the near future, but perhaps there is more improvement needed. As we alluded to earlier, the 3DS, and earlier the Wii, have suffered with an erratic release schedule, and coupled with a lack of promotion, means that many fans have no idea what is available on the system. Of course, Miiverse and the eShop have alleviated some of that pain, but we’d like to see a more coherent strategy from Nintendo on Wii U – a set calendar would be a sensible arrangement, perhaps releasing new titles once a month, offering a steady stream of sales and upgraded titles in between.

And what of the future for the service? Eventually the quantity and quality of releases will begin to dip, so perhaps it’s time to introduce a new generation to the Virtual Console. 3DS, being an updated DS, is already well positioned to play DS games, but with the push to digital software becoming a larger part of Nintendo’s arsenal, maybe it’s time for DS games to be available in the eShop? This could be particularly valuable for titles that can be considered rare or niche. And of course we couldn’t pass an entire Virtual Console article by without giving mention to GameCube games on Wii U, something that many fans are keen to see implemented with the loss of GameCube functionality this generation.

Overall then, the Virtual Console could very well be a useful weapon in the coming years. While the teams toil away behind the scenes on games we can only dream of, the Virtual Console can continue to grow and provide us with compelling and memorable experiences from our past. While the roster of games may be tiresome to some, the service can also offer us titles we never expected to play such as EarthBound, or allow us to experience the full game we never could afford such as with the Oracle games. With correct management of pricing and well timed sales, it’s entirely possible that Nintendo’s eShop could become one of the great digital marketplaces.

What would you like to see on the Virtual Console in the coming years? And if you don’t have a Wii U yet, has EarthBound changed your mind? Let us know in the comments below.

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