Technologically, the world is busier and noisier than it's ever been before. So many gadgets and screens demand our time and loyalty, from smart TVs with hundreds of channels and streaming apps, to smartphones and tablets and, of course, game systems. Those with a decent amount of spare cash that are anxious to keep up with trends are even browsing the web and playing games on their watches.
It's a rather different world to that of 2006, when the Wii arrived and dominated the gaming scene alongside the increasingly ever-present DS. It may not seem long ago, but this was before the iPhone, before the time when tablets were even conceived as a mainstream device, and when HD TVs were still a bit of an expensive luxury. In that time, and with the Wii Shop being Nintendo's first steps in download marketplaces, the Virtual Console structure was absolutely right.
Unless you were a collector or a PC owner with a bit of nous and an inclination to - naughtily - download ROMS, the Virtual Console was an eye-widening and exciting development. As a kid that had grown up on Sega and PC gaming until the N64 it was also a revelation for this writer - hundreds of pounds were eventually spent on a download collection of classics, both mainstream and more obscure. The pricing was reasonable in the context of those times, Nintendo had every right to apply sensible value to this retro content, and it was an integral part of the Wii experience.
Yet now, in 2015, not a great deal has changed about the Virtual Console. The problem? The world of digital entertainment and access has evolved almost beyond comprehension. We have a ridiculous range of entertainment options, some of them that have sunk to the bottom of the pricing pool and want to keep going. There are more distractions, less time, and a lot of low-cost forms of entertainment fighting for our attention.
None of this is Nintendo's fault, and as we've argued before there are merits and points to admire in the company's gradual evolution. While it experiments in free-to-play, DLC and pricing promotions, there's still an overall ethos of promoting quality and fair pricing. Yet when it comes to its Virtual Console efforts and how it utilises its retro heritage, perhaps there's an argument for Nintendo being a little more bold in its approach - to shake up how it promotes and shares that legacy.
That may not be a universally popular argument - we recently ran a series of polls that didn't bring firm consensus. When it came down to the libraries and platforms on the current options - Wii U and 3DS - many voted for middling categories that were either relative pleased or slightly disappointed, in each case acknowledging that the current options are reasonable. The current offerings certainly aren't disliked in any big way, but don't seem to be truly excelling, either.
The questions that interested us the most for this article related to pricing and potential new ideas. A majority of you felt that the pricing was either a "bit off" or "all wrong". Yet that tied into our following question on which idea for a future change of the Virtual Console was most appealing. Nearly half the votes want more of the same but at lower prices, essentially, reflecting the fact that there can be weariness in paying $10 for an N64 download, as an example.
Yet it's in fresh ideas where we think consideration should be given. As we've implied above, a Virtual Console model that was ideal in 2006 is somewhat old-fashioned now, and there's scope for Nintendo to do more than simply drop prices. With the company trying to force itself into the public conscience more through upcoming smart device apps in partnership with DeNA, and its undoubted continuing efforts with its own hardware, looking at ideas from elsewhere could allow that rich history to have a greater influence on the mainstream.
There's little argument that, among dedicated Nintendo fans, the current structure is just fine, albeit with quibbles over price. A glance at the all-time best-sellers across both eShop stores shows that, with classics topping the charts or dominating the top 20 - in many cases there have been promotions and deals at different points, yes, but there's an inescapable reality that, as Nintendo gamers, we want more of the best retro titles.
Considering that success in the eShop charts, then, it's perhaps odd that we're suggesting a change. Yet the argument is that, with each passing year, the lustre fades on each successive release. It's a slight oddity that there's hype around N64 games on Wii U, for example, when there are plenty of them in the Wii Mode; it's more understandable in PAL regions, perhaps, as the Wii served up inferior 50HZ versions of games in those regions. Overall, though, we'll surely see the appeal of the current model and trickle of releases dwindle with each passing year. Established fans will already have bought many classics multiple times and, for the reasons highlighted above, less dedicated consumers may baulk at the pricing.
There are sources of inspiration elsewhere for the ideas we suggested in the polls. First off we have bundles, an area still relatively untapped in the dedicated console space. Yet in the world of PC gaming through Steam, and through independent business like the Humble Bundle, it's relatively common. Just this past weekend a top-seller on Steam has been a huge bundle of Star Wars games (due to May 4th, geddit?), and publishers often throw together a mix of old and new games together. They're instant backlog builders, but when tapping into nostalgia or curiosity it can be enticing to see familiar classics with names that are promising but unfamiliar experiences.
This could help with Virtual Console games in the future. Sure, Super Mario World and Earthbound will always sell, but when dealing with individual budgets and eShop funds there are excellent but lesser names that surely pass a lot of players by. Aggressive bundling based on themes or publishers can get more games onto more systems. Profits may be minimal, but we're talking about discontinued retro games here; building brand familiarity, driving traffic to the eShop, keeping players busy on their Nintendo consoles - those are the benefits.
Our other suggestion, which we've floated before for the eShop as a whole, is a subscription model. In the current generation PlayStation Plus has actually become an Xbox Gold - it's required for online play with the PS4 - but nevertheless drives huge interest every month. In exchange for a sensible annual fee there are free games every month, and it's a formula that works.
Nintendo could take alternative approaches, of course. A monthly subscription where you have greater choice over your new content for the month is one possibility. Affordability would be the key, however, once again accepting that it's less about the size of profits from these retro downloads, and more about the broader picture.
Nintendo's dabbled in aspects of this before, and there's scope for the Virtual Console - and eShop in general - to be part of the incentive in whatever service replaces Club Nintendo. That's an additional factor that can be expanded, as the monthly Club Nintendo rewards in North America - downloads in exchange for coins - always prompted huge interest. If Nintendo can combine a fresh approach - either subscription-based, bundles, or both - with ideas it's already mastered, it can do more with its retro content.
At present the Virtual Console is, in this writer's opinion at least, in danger of becoming a fan-service alone, and one with diminishing returns in every generation. Those with a passion for the big N flowing through their veins evidently still splash out on these experiences, but we doubt the appeal gets beyond that core - credit is due for releases like NES Remix, however, in shaking up how we enjoy older games.
Yet as we've seen in viral media, right down to boxing promotional skits recently, the power of Nintendo's past is undeniable. The company needs to turn that pop culture influence into actual interest in its current offerings, though, and in a modern world that perhaps necessitates a change in direction.
Whether in the coming months, or as far off as the 'NX' generation, we feel it's time for Nintendo's Virtual Console goals to shift. Take the focus away from extracting every dollar possible out of loyal fans, and target widespread appeal to grab the attention of millions more. Nostalgia can be a powerful marketing tool for the present, and Nintendo has all of the ingredients to succeed.