Editorial: Nintendo's Virtual Console Revolution Must Wait as We Pay Once More for SNES Games

This cycle is surely ending...

In one sense Super NES games on the New Nintendo 3DS is rather exciting - it's the first (legitimate) time a lot of these games can be played on a portable device, after all. That's something to celebrate, but the reveal and pending line-up also comes with its own nagging issues and annoyances, some of which could easily be avoided and others that point to Nintendo's eagerness to scratch a few extra cents out of these SNES games.

I'm going to be brutally honest here, and this is very much a personal opinion (which I suspect is shared by some others) - Nintendo's ongoing Virtual Console policy is nonsense. It had a chance, with these SNES games, to try something new and to give 3DS owners a warm fuzzy feeling. Instead it feels a little like a nickel and dime exercise, and after buying these games twice already (with occasional exceptions like EarthBound which was only previously on Wii U) I'm not planning to do it again. Apart from in a few exceptional cases - because I'm a sucker.

First of all, I want to address the enormous (yet conversely portable) elephant in the room - SNES games being exclusive to the New 3DS and skipping the older hardware. It's a fascinating one, and someone with greater technical smarts than me needs to determine whether it is indeed a technical issue getting these games on the original systems or if - alternatively - this is a business move to encourage a few more hardware upgrades from eager fans. I've seen people arguing both sides (pointing out how the GBA Ambassador downloads had to be mimicked as DS games to 'work' as an example of how tricky emulation can be), and I'd love a definitive answer on it. Unfortunately it's a move that will disappoint some, and my gut instinct is that we're looking at a slightly cynical business move, a usp (unique selling point) for New 3DS. I hardly think it'll be enough on its own to sell many more New 3DS systems, either - it might encourage a small number to finally upgrade if they were already planning to, conceivably, but there's certainly been fallout from those with older models that want the updated Virtual Console.

Moving beyond that, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the pricing and 'promotion' (in Europe) accompanying the earliest batches of releases, which are either copies or close imitations of similar deals on early Wii / DS / GBA downloads on Wii U. We have the same general pricing as we have on Wii and Wii U, which is $7.99 / €7.99 / £7.19, and in PAL regions only you can get half off one game if you buy two each week, so get both for €11.98 (standard priced arrivals) if you move quickly. Nintendo of America isn't even bothering with that - just buy 'em three at a time, is the message on that side of the Atlantic. You want cross-buy? Are you crazy?

And you know what? It's bonkers. Nintendo is launching a fresh range of Virtual Console games (in terms of the host platform, not the actual games) with the same business model it established nearly a decade ago. 10 years is aeons in technology consumerism, yet Nintendo's sticking to its guns; considering how much it's evolved its eShop stores and practices elsewhere, this stubbornness with the Virtual Console is surprising. There's no reward or loyalty bonus here either - even on Wii U you could re-purchase the likes of Super Mario World for much less if you went through the annoying Wii system transfer process. Not ideal, but better than nothing. Yet nothing is what New 3DS gamers get. No loyalty thank you. We just have to buy these games again and be grateful for the opportunity. Thank you Nintendo, I'm happy to pay for the ROM again, why not?

I bought Super Mario World solely for the purpose of this article, plus it's an excuse to play it on the lovely smaller screen. It looks fine, albeit teeny on my small New 3DS screen, but it's predictably bare-bones as a purchase. The tell-tale sign is that it's just 70 'blocks' in size - the digital manual is basic (not the lovely scanned efforts we've seen with some Wii U VC purchases) - and it has the standard save state feature and the option to switch between a slightly fuzzy expanded image or the crisp pixel perfect original resolution. It feels like the same old jazz, ultimately, without any game-changing bells and whistles. At least it's the US version which, for a European retro gamer, is important.

I don't really feel good about my purchase, despite the game being one of the finest platformers ever to grace the industry. It reeks of a missed opportunity.

Just recently I wrote about the potential allure of a revitalised Virtual Console. I considered the scope for bundles, loyalty-based deals and discounts, perhaps even a subscription-style service. It's sad how outlandish these ideas seem when discussing the VC, as they're all based in the current reality of how entertainment companies incentivise and compete for customers. Nintendo has carried out various aspects of these ideas elsewhere in the eShop (apart from subscriptions, as such) it should be said, but once it's the Virtual Console in the picture ambition seems to disappear.

That article also spoke about the potential role of the My Nintendo account system in enabling Nintendo to contemplate cross-buy support (or at least automatically triggered discounts) by recognising what games you've already purchased. Yet the timing of these SNES arrivals - landing just before the My Nintendo programme is due to kick in - shows that there's little to no hope of any ambitious plans for Virtual Console in this hardware generation. It would have been exciting for the arrival of these VC games on New 3DS to coincide with a My Nintendo promotion, introducing new incentives and deals to entice players in and reward longstanding fans. Perhaps the infrastructure for such ideas isn't possible or cost-effective on New 3DS, or perhaps Nintendo's happy simply taking the money and running.

That final point is key. For all of my complaints above, for all of the - I think valid - observations on how out of touch the Virtual Console is from how download content is sold in the modern age, and for all the aspirations for a service that uses retro games as an asset to reward fans and promote brands, the simple fact is Nintendo can simply take the money with ease. We're getting the Virtual Console we deserve, as we keep going back and buying the same content over and over again.

Looking at the 'Recent Bestsellers' on my UK New 3DS eShop account at the time of writing, they are as follows.

  1. Pokémon Yellow Version
  2. Pokémon Red Version
  3. Pokémon Blue Version
  4. Super Mario World
  5. EarthBound
  6. Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon
  7. Bravely Second: End Layer
  8. Mega Man Legacy Collection
  9. Super Mario Bros. 3
  10. Pokémon Trading Card Game

The dominance of full-priced Virtual Console games speaks volumes for how many with a 3DS - in the UK, in this case - are spending their money. I recently wrote about the nature of nostalgia's value, with a hot deal like that of Mega Man Legacy Collection - which has 6 NES games and loads of lovely extras, a purchase I feel great about - against the demand for Pokémon generation 1 games meaning they arrive at a high price. While UK gamers can get both Super Mario World and EarthBound for £11.68 with the 50% off deal currently running in PAL territories, they're evidently largely happy to pay the Nintendo premium for retro games; the only comfort in that top 10 is that four of the games are on the Virtual Console (across Wii, Wii U and 3DS) for the first time. As long as that's the case, and if these trends are reflected in other territories, the broader Nintendo fanbase is harming its own chances of a meaningful modernisation of the Virtual Console. Nintendo is a business, and if it can make relatively easy money it will do so.

What we don't know for sure is how much the Virtual Console return is diminishing - on the Wii the concept was hugely popular (as shown by the sheer volume of third parties that jumped in) while the smaller Wii U user base will mean an inevitable drop on this generation. The 3DS has naturally benefited from new platforms, but we'd love to see how sales of SNES games end up comparing to the figures on Wii and then Wii U. That's the sort of data Nintendo never willingly shares, but if the overall trend is one of decline it may make the company reconsider its antiquated model.

We hope this is the last time the Virtual Console sticks to its current pricing model. Perhaps Nintendo will weigh up sales against the marketing and public relations value of its retro content and modernise its approach, making these downloads increasingly impulsive purchase prices for newcomers and bargain bonuses for long-term loyal fans that have bought them all before. Unfortunately, that day isn't here yet, and we have to contemplate whether to buy Super Mario World for a third time.

Many will though, because Nintendo knows we're suckers for nostalgia.