Soapbox: The Wii U Virtual Console Needs to Freshen Up

Tom Whitehead's frustrated at the untapped potential of the Virtual Console

OK, I'll join the club and say it. The Wii U and, to a degree, the 3DS Virtual Console are becoming rather frustrating, stale affairs. There's something odd that, years after working through the NES library on the Wii, we're now doing it all over again, despite the fact the Wii Shop is right there on our shiny Wii U. We're not necessarily talking about 8-bit classics, either — very soon I'll write a review of Urban Champion on the Wii U eShop. That's a game that won't go away, now enjoying its third re-release if you count the 3D Classics version. Good grief.

And this is an off-the-cuff Soapbox, which I guess is the point of this style of article and ideal for a gamer that's just spent a part of his Saturday playing Urban Champion. Urban. Champion. I love Nintendo and admire so much about the company, but this release frustrates me. The question is simple — why were resources dedicated to preparing Urban Champion for the Wii U store? Even if it took one staff member a short amount of time, it was still a waste.

I will make some key points in defence of Nintendo and the Virtual Console, at this stage. We shouldn't pretend, though it's easier to do so, that releasing a retro game on the Virtual Console is as simple as hitting a button and uploading a ROM. Nintendo holds its service to higher standards, which in the case of the Wii U and 3DS means adding save state and restore features, as well as digital manuals. There are processes to follow and resources to be applied, so we can't have a constant flow of all the best games that we want.

And of course, we've not just had NES games, even if it feels like that in recent times. On the 3DS we've had some fantastic Game Boy and Game Boy Color games, while the SEGA Game Gear has made the odd cameo here and there. There have been treats on the Wii U too, with some Super NES gold-standard releases and, lest we forget, the much-anticipated EarthBound. The manner of that release — it was dropped onto the store as a surprise after a Nintendo Direct — may have split opinion, and I agree a sustained marketing campaign could have been effective, but Nintendo's shock and awe tactic was also thrilling. Social networks and this site exploded with excitement once it dawned on us that the revered RPG was finally being reborn. That was the very definition of what the Virtual Console should achieve, and as I write this it's the third highest all-time seller on the Wii U eShop in the UK.

We shouldn't forget, too, that the Wii and — to an extent — the 3DS have achieved that buzz fairly regularly. When the Wii Virtual Console emerged we not only had a chance to own legitimate and licensed downloads of classic NES, SNES and Nintendo 64 games for practically the first time, but also SEGA titles and releases from systems many of us never dreamt of owning, such as the Neo Geo. There were plenty of duds, just as there are in modern game lineups, but there were classics spilling out regularly enough that the rejects didn't matter. The early days of the 3DS VC had some thrills, too, and on a personal level I never owned any Game Boy systems (all spare money went on our Mega Drive and PC games), so was all over options such as Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX.

The 3DS VC has, I think, had a little slump, but that's more a personal perspective that I think can be disputed fairly easily — NES games are available on a portable for the first time. What I think is largely beyond dispute is that the Wii U VC needs to improve. We've had EarthBound, fantastic. We had some awesome bargains in the Famicom Anniversary promotion, which was pleasing to see. But there are three notable issues that have plagued the retro platform since it got underway in April; repetition, lack of diversity, and purchasing options.

Let's tackle the first two as one combined issue. The releases so far would have created a buzz with the Wii Virtual Console, and they did, but that's the problem. Take EarthBound out of the equation and we've seen it all before, and some of the games re-released are mediocre at best. The lack of diversity is simply down to us being re-served the NES and Super NES, and nothing else as yet. Granted, the Wii's VC needed time to diversify, but do we have to do the same dance all over again on fresh hardware? What's not clear is whether this is a strategic decision by Nintendo or whether third-parties that brought such vibrancy to the Wii are less inclined to do so on the Wii U's service. Whichever it is we have a problem, as we're being drip-fed the same games and occasional clangers.

The elephant in the room is the GameCube, meanwhile, as messaging before the Wii U launched suggested there was desire within Nintendo to bring some of the system's games to the console. The silence has been deafening, however, and it's not clear exactly what's happening — are there emulation issues, or concerns over the lack of analogue triggers on the Wii U's control options? We've had The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD and unsurprising suggestions that more HD remakes may appear in the future, so do those combinations essentially scupper the hope of having GameCube games on the Wii U eShop? The Wii supported GameCube discs and went up to the Nintendo 64 on the VC; if the Wii U plays Wii games but doesn't get as far as the GameCube in its VC, it'd be a pity.

So a generation could be lost, from that perspective. We have the promise of Game Boy Advance games coming to the Wii U Virtual Console, which could be a pleasing extra — naturally the 3DS seems the more natural home, as it was for Ambassadors that received 10 free GBA games; perhaps the GBA is the easy option as opposed to grappling with the GameCube. But forgetting new platforms, we could at least do with more diversity in our repetition, as a bare minimum. If we're going to loop around and duplicate the Wii VC while waiting for new content, it'd be pleasing to at least have some N64, Neo Geo and Arcade titles thrown in. As mentioned above, it's perhaps more difficult now to mobilise third-parties to re-release retro games.

And then we have the third point from above, purchasing options. I haven't bought games like Super Mario World on the Wii U because I don't want to pay full price again. I don't think I'm being cheap — but feel free to accuse me of that if you so desire — but simply want to access the promotional price to "upgrade" my version. I support the idea of an upgrade price — Nintendo's entitled to charge for a service — but not the way it's currently setup. I have a Wii with hundreds of pounds worth of downloads, and I don't want to shift the whole lot in the transfer process and have the inevitable messing about re-downloading games that don't successfully transition across — I like having my Wii with content, and shouldn't have to nuke it and wipe it clean just to get a cheaper copy of a SNES classic; I'm rather attached to it, frankly. The issue is simply the process, which insists that all content is transferred at once; that's frustrating.

There's an argument that we shouldn't even have to buy games more than once, but simply redownload and transfer from one to another. The lack of a coherent account system stops that from happening, as we can't simply login, download SMW on our Wii U and see it automatically disabled on the Wii, and vice-versa. That's the reality of what we have right now, but I hold out hope that Nintendo will join practically every other major device tech company and resolve this in the future. It wouldn't surprise me if a number of the recent Virtual Console releases have been struggling, nevertheless, as those of us with limited disposable income don't necessarily want to pay for the same content multiple times; as I said above, though, I'd pay an upgrade price if the process was more accommodating.

With the Wii U nearly a year old and the Virtual Console over six months into its life, highlights on the service have been modest. In recent weeks we've seen titles like Urban Champion, City Connection, and Baseball, among others. Hopefully it'll be weeks and months before exciting and improved offerings arrive, as opposed to years; with such a rich library to share, the Virtual Console should pick up momentum sooner rather than later.