It's fair to say that the Virtual Console was quite a significant part of Nintendo's plans back when the Wii launched; it was certainly significant in the development of the site you're reading now, which some of you may remember as Virtual Console Reviews prior to the triumphant merger with Nintendo Life in 2009. For a company that is so often lambasted for being hopelessly behind the curve, it was a startlingly forward-thinking concept; a service which allowed you to download classic titles from a wide range of vintage systems at a low price, all in one place.
Thanks to the Virtual Console, gamers got to experience the likes of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, MUSHA Aleste and Earthbound – games that cost extortionate amounts of money in physical form today – at a reasonable cost, thereby exposing them to an entirely new generation of players. While there were annoyances to speak of – the most grievous of which were the 50hz speed issue in Europe and the agonising drip-feed of titles, the latter of which was infuriatingly reset once the service hit the Wii U and 3DS – the Virtual Console must surely rank as one of Nintendo's most notable success stories in the digital era. So why then has the company seemingly turned its back on the idea with the Switch?
Just to be clear, we don't actually know what Nintendo's plans are for retro games on its latest system; the much-hyped online subscription service is yet to launch, and Nintendo has previously mentioned "classic" games being part of this package – and even then, it's hinted that retro games won't be 'for sale' as such, but rather included as free downloads in your subscription. Nintendo's vagueness on this point means that when the paid-for service eventually arrives, it could well be accompanied by a Virtual Console of some description – however, it's looking increasingly likely that if that does happen, it will be almost unrecognisable to what has gone before.
Look at the landscape of the Switch eShop now; not only have we had a flood of Neo Geo games since launch – titles which have traditionally been released as part of the Virtual Console service – but last week saw Sega announce its AGES range, which will include Master System, Mega Drive, Dreamcast, Saturn and coin-op titles from its illustrious history. In addition to this, we've seen retro releases from Zerodiv and Flying Tiger – such as Gunbird and Bad Dudes – which would, during the Wii era, have been prime candidates for release under the Virtual Console banner. What gives?
If companies like Sega are willing to bring classic games to market under their own steam rather than as part of the Virtual Console service, it would suggest that whatever Nintendo has planned will be very, very different from what we've become accustomed to on the Wii, Wii U and 3DS; Sega – and other companies like it – has presumably been briefed by Nintendo regarding its plans and has therefore decided to bring its vintage games to the Switch eShop as stand-alone downloads rather than as part of a system-wide classic games service. While this might seem odd, we perhaps need to remind ourselves that the Virtual Console, despite its name, was effectively just a sub-branding of the eShop on the Wii, Wii U and 3DS anyway; perhaps Nintendo is doing away with this branding and instead adopting a more open approach for retro on the eShop – very much like Sony and Microsoft do with their respective stores.
Should this be the case, then the death of the Virtual Console name shouldn't mean an end of quality retro gaming on Switch; quite the opposite, in fact. It means that companies will be free to release titles (as they have been doing thus far) with the same regularity as standard eShop releases. We can't say for sure, but we suspect that Nintendo has strictly controlled the rate of Virtual Console titles in the past, being careful to ensure that a neat balance was achieved between purebred eShop downloads and recooked retro titles. By ditching the Virtual Console sub-brand, the gates are open for publishers to release as many retro games as they wish – so it could actually be a good thing for players.
The catch is that with the Virtual Console, Nintendo (or, to be more specific, M2) handled the emulation side of things to ensure that quality was maintained. Games would be packaged up with top-notch emulators which were largely standardised across platforms, using the same basic interface and blessed with embellishments like save state support. By working outside of this framework, publishers lose the valuable experience of M2 (although, in Sega's case, it has commissioned the Japanese company to handle its AGES ports) as well as a built-in UI which is instantly familiar with players. The upshot is that companies can do unique things with their games; Hamster includes various screen mode options and high-score settings with its Neo Geo games, and M2 is apparently working on adding unique enhancements to each Sega AGES title, just as it did with the superb 3D Classics range on the 3DS. This means that we could see less retro games being released as the amount of effort required could potentially be more – assuming that is that publishers actually want to go the extra mile and aren't content to simply dump emulator-plus-ROM releases onto the eShop.
So, to say that the Virtual Console service is dead perhaps isn't actually as dramatic as it sounds; it was only a name, a banner under which publishers could flock in order to gain some valuable revenue from their older releases. However, we perhaps shouldn't underestimate the amount of preliminary work Nintendo – along with M2 – undertook in order to ensure that all of the supported consoles were properly emulated; if Nintendo does decide to "kill" the Virtual Console – or at least restrict access to third-parties – then it could result in a flood of poorly-ported titles, or a lack of content altogether.
We'll no doubt have a better idea of what Nintendo has planned later this year, but it could well be a future which doesn't include the words "Virtual Console" at all. Let us know your hopes by posting a comment below.