When the Virtual Console was an innovative new platform on Wii, it excited gamers and followed some relatively simple rules. Any consoles that hooked up to TVs or even arcade cabinets in the past were fair game, as owners of the diminutive little system could enjoy access to a broad range of iconic classics. As the years passed the diversity of that platform became truly impressive, not only incorporating NES and Super NES, but adding the likes of Nintendo 64 and non-Ninty hardware; that latter category was hugely exciting, with Sega's Mega Drive / Genesis and the Neo Geo being stand-outs.
It was a heck of a platform and a wonderful opportunity for gamers of all types and ages. For those old enough to remember when these systems were battling it out in stores it was a chance to fill up a back-catalogue that simply wasn't possible at the time; gaming was an expensive hobby, so it was entirely possible that some of the import gems that arrived were out of reach back in the day, and it was a chance to catch up on systems that couldn't be afforded at the time. This humble writer was a Sega kid until the Nintendo 64; while having a Mega Drive, a decent PC and plenty of great games was fantastic — so many parents are more generous than their kids ever understand — that was the scope of the gaming horizon in the household, and owning the rival SNES in addition to a load of games was never possible. We suspect similar scenarios applied for a number of gamers of the period.
Once you add to that group younger gamers with a desire to learn more about the earlier days of gaming, and the Virtual Console provided extraordinary depth in its library and variety of systems. We'd bet that many — including this scribe — actually surpassed the value of the actual Wii with VC purchases: it was a legal way to enjoy the best that past generations could offer, with bells and whistles such as official manuals and full controller support.
Then the 3DS arrived, and Nintendo made the next natural progression with a portable Virtual Console. Early titles in the Game Boy library arrived as expected, and then we crept into Game Boy Color territory; additional weird-and-wonderful systems haven't really emerged, though Sega has pitched in with some Game Gear titles. With weeks, months and years passing the arrival of Game Boy Advance seemed inevitable. Wii went up to the N64, two generations prior, so likewise it was expected that the GBA would arrive on 3DS. Though Nintendo was refusing to comment on when / if it would happen — the normal practice for the company's perma-teasing approach — the arrival of 10 basic GBA ROMs on the systems of 3DS Ambassadors as part of the post-price-drop compensation suggested that work was underway.
This is where the peculiarity starts — as time passed, Nintendo distanced itself from the whole idea of GBA on 3DS, and then it was announced for the Wii U Virtual Console, with the line-up now kicking off this week. The reveal and marketing in recent months has been played with such a straight bat that it's tempting to shrug the shoulders and accept that's the way it is, but looking at those trends above highlights how odd this scenario is. So, let's consider why this has happened.
We doubt the issue is technical, as we've already had the aforementioned GBA games running on the 3DS — there are no Super FX chip-type issues here, which famously held iconic games back from the Wii. It's only logical, as Nintendo has been clever in maintaining architectural similarities between generations to support backward compatibility — the DS phat could play GBA carts, the 3DS can play DS games and so on. These facts alone point to this being a strategic business decision, as we doubt adding features like restore points has stopped the GBA arriving on the 3DS Virtual Console.
To consider this, then, we need to look at what's been happening on the Wii U's retro service, or more specifically what's not been happening. We've complained about this before, in that the Wii U's service has coasted through its first year-and-a-half with recycled NES and Super NES content that Wii owners have seen before. A notable exception is EarthBound, which caused temporary internet meltdown when announced, while European gamers are basking in the glory of 60Hz full speed US versions of some games. These are pleasing tweaks to the formula, undoubtedly, though it's surprising how slowly things are moving, and it seems that some third-parties happy to pitch in with their diverse games and systems in the Wii era are less inclined to do so now — perhaps the numbers and sales just don't add up.
With that in mind Nintendo is perhaps in a tricky spot to boost the service on its own, and is looking at ways to do that while producing something 'new'. In that respect it's perhaps to be commended that the Game Boy Advance and, eventually, DS are coming to a home console — it's different, and gives the Wii U Virtual Console something that its Wii and 3DS predecessors have lacked.
Then there's the GamePad. We asked you how much you use the GamePad for Virtual Console games, and the results aren't terribly surprising. In all three polls the two answers most in favour of using the controller for playing retro games enjoyed solid majorities. It's interesting that, when Wii U launched, we banned the 'T' word here on Nintendo Life when writing about the controller — it's not a tablet, we decided, it's a GamePad. It's rather like the slightly humorous state of affairs that says Yoshi isn't a dinosaur, he's a "Yoshi". We may think of him as a dino, and refer to him as such, but he's still a Yoshi when all is said and done.
Yet the GamePad's role with the Wii U, due to big games so often under-utilising its tool-set, is becoming increasingly tablet-like. You can mess around and browse the web and Miiverse, and playing a Virtual Console is like playing a proper version of those retro ROMs that some secretly enjoy on their Android and iOS slates and gizmos. As well as a decent-sized screen you have sticks and buttons to fulfil every need; it's an awesome gaming tablet. Ahem, GamePad.
Nintendo is clearly thinking this way to a degree, with portable games on the way and an upcoming update that'll activate a quick-start GamePad-only mode. If the controller's other unique features aren't grabbing the public, showing how that screen can free up the TV could be a key point of separation, unless you're a consumer that splashes out on a PS4 and PS Vita. The GamePad throws up no compatibility or button support issues, either, so it's useful as a neat portable within the home, taking your range of HD and retro games with you as long as you're within range. It's telling how Nintendo's Virtual Console trailers — including those for the Game Boy Advance — show the action on the controller, with a TV fading to obscurity in the background.
So why not have Game Boy Advance on both Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console platforms? Why not indeed, and we must consider that it may still technically happen. Yet as Nintendo strives to add more selling-points to Wii U it would be an act of sabotage to have dual releases at present. The promise of the GBA on the system may not shift millions of units, but it adds another neat twist to the Wii U's feature list, and also having that option on the 40 million+ 3DS systems in the wild would damage its relevance. For those that don't own a Game Boy Advance or don't fancy collecting the games and picking up a retro system on eBay, it's undoubtedly attractive, not to mention the convenience of firing up a shiny new-ish console and having the best of the system right there and ready to play. Even when blown up on the 6.2 inch GamePad screen, meanwhile, these titles will still likely look fairly attractive on the controller.
It's a selling-point, enough of one to generate buzz among fans on sites such as this, anyway, and directs attention to the Wii U. It also adds meat to an April with no big-name retail releases, but now has eight GBA games and a handful of promising eShop-only games on the way. That anticipation is focused squarely on the Wii U, while the 3DS Virtual Console drifts along with its own long-running, trend-busting releases — NES games on a handheld.
Nintendo is bypassing potential distinctions between its Virtual Consoles, with the sight of NES games on our handhelds and portable games on our home consoles. It's not quite cats and dogs playing poker, especially as Nintendo has done its share of porting home console games to portables in the past — hello, Super Mario Bros. Deluxe and Super Mario Advance 3: Yoshi's Island. In some ways it's a treat, an evolution of the intoxicating mix of system on the original Wii service.
Yet the 3DS missing out on Game Boy Advance games does seem like a pity. The GBA is arguably a better fit for the smaller screens of the latest portable, and its arrival on Wii U is exciting and also slightly saddening. Business needs and a desire to promote the Wii U and its GamePad have trumped the natural order, and non-ambassadors still won't be able to play Metroid Fusion on their 3DS while on the bus.
For now, anyway.