Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In this piece, Nintendo Life Editor Damien McFerran laments the fact that Nintendo still doesn't seem to know how to exploit its amazing retro library, despite blazing a trail with the Virtual Console over a decade ago...
Believe it or not, this is a tough soapbox for me to write. Keen followers of this site will know that over the years, I've been a big supporter of things such as flash carts and emulation-based devices, and have often ruffled a few feathers by giving these products coverage. Even so, I've balanced this love of salubrious hardware by making sure I continue to purchase legitimate consoles and software; I have a cupboard packed with everything from Japanese Super Famicom games to multiple Game Boy consoles and love nothing more than to see shelves filled with colourful boxes, and have voiced my concerns previously that a digital-only future is a scary one. I'm a 'physical' guy at heart.
Throughout the years, maintaining this balancing act has been easy enough, especially as a Nintendo fan. The arrival of the Virtual Console during the early part of the Wii era gave both myself and millions of others a legal means of reconnecting with hundreds of classic games without having to resort to sifting through questionable sites in search of ROM files. Nintendo really made an effort back then; as well as working with a wide range of publishers to bring NES, SNES, Mega Drive and PC Engine games to the system, it also gave companies like Konami a platform on which to release super-exclusive (and super-rare) titles such as Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, a PC Engine CD game that never saw the light of day in the west and costs a bomb in its original physical format.
Since those retro gaming salad days, Nintendo has been slightly less enthusiastic about the Virtual Console. During the Wii U and 3DS eras, it sluggishly released the very same games that we'd known and loved on the original Wii, but it was nowhere near as wide a selection. There seemed to be some kind of disconnect as companies which had thrown their full weight behind the Virtual Console on Wii decided either to not bother or to go their own way; Sega failed to bring any Mega Drive games to the Wii U, and on 3DS chose to create its own '3D Classics' series alongside a few Game Gear Virtual Console offerings.
Moving to the present, and the death of the Virtual Console appears to be all but complete. Nintendo has repeatedly said that Nintendo Switch Online will serve as a replacement for the retro gaming portal, and despite evidence that the Virtual Console still exists in some form, there seems to be little chance that it will return to its former glories even if it is resurrected; companies like Hamster, Flying Tiger and Sega have apparently become bored of waiting and have instead released retro games directly onto the eShop, without any all-encompassing 'Virtual Console' banner to sit them under.
Speaking of Nintendo Switch Online, it's hard to feel anything but crushing disappointment when faced with the prospect of three new NES games being added each month. As we've already discussed, the NES was a classic console and certainly deserves respect, but we've played these games so many times in the past its truly difficult to muster much excitement for them in 2018 – even if they do come with some excellent benefits such as save states and online play.
While Nintendo never said it outright, there were many who hoped that Nintendo Switch Online could become the 'Netflix of Gaming' – or the 'Netflix of Nintendo', at least. There's a good chance that over time, it may well achieve that potential – assuming that Nintendo intends to add SNES, Game Boy, N64, GameCube and more to the roster in a timely fashion. But this is Nintendo we're talking about here. Given that the company is sitting on an embarrassment of amazing content that Sony and Microsoft could only dream of, the decision to release games in fits and starts seems almost farcical; imagine if tomorrow, Disney launched its much-hyped Netflix rival but only included the black-and-white Mickey Mouse short films on day one? Would you sign up?
It might sound like a pipedream, but there was nothing stopping Nintendo kicking off the Nintendo Switch Online service with a massive roster of 8, 16 and even 64-bit classics from day one. Given that the average Android smartphone is now capable of accurately emulating everything up to the Wii era, I refuse to believe that it would take much in the way of effort for Nintendo to get a wide proportion of the first-party games that were available on the Wii Virtual Console up and running on the Switch, and add Wii and GameCube titles to that line-up, too. After all, there are already Wii games running on the Nvidia Shield system in China, which has the same basic internals as the Switch itself.
For third-party content, it would admittedly be a little more work and would require renewed agreements with licence holders and publishers, but these are businesses we're talking about, and businesses usually like to make money. The more attractive Nintendo Switch Online is as a service, the more subscribers it would get, and then Nintendo's bargaining posture with the publishers who make their games available on the service would increase; flat-fees could be paid for content, or Nintendo could assure each publisher a percent of the yearly sub fee based on how much their software is played. I don't pretend to be an expert in this kind of thing, but given that many of these games aren't generating any form of revenue for their owners, I'm sure deals could be struck; it works for Spotify and Apple Music, after all.
Imagine if you'd had all of this from day one on your Switch. All of Nintendo's classic retro titles there, just a click away. A true Netflix of Nintendo; a wealth of games all emulated perfectly, all accessible in a perfectly legal manner. Not only would that be a much more convincing proposition when it comes to tempting people to pay a yearly sub for what – at least at the time of writing – is a pretty bare-bones online experience, but it would tie them in for years; who would want to allow their sub to expire and lose access to decades of amazing games, all in portable form?
Again, I realise that what I'm proposing might sound – on paper, at least – like pure fantasy, but the fact that services such as Spotify, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video exist proves that isn't the case. Furthermore, these are all services that, despite producing their own content, rely heavily on content created by third-parties. Nintendo can, in the short term, at least, rely solely on its home-grown library to generate a sizeable subscriber base, because it has a game library spanning the past four decades to call upon right now. Nintendo fans buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games after all, so even if Nintendo was only capable of securing games it owned the rights to, it would still represent an amazing offer.
Instead, we're getting a slow, agonising drip-feed which seems to serve no real purpose. Three NES games a month. It's almost as if Nintendo is doing this to see how far it can push its fanbase, to see how much they'll put up with before the 'real deal' arrives. The end result, however, is something a little less appealing – it's pushing people towards ROMs and emulation, rather than away from it.
Nintendo, like any right-minded IP owner, hates piracy – hence its recent move to shut down notable ROM-sharing sites, a move which could, in the long run, have negative consequences for video game preservation. This desire to protect its property is commendable, but also short-sighted in the light of its current piecemeal efforts to share its back catalogue with its consumer base. It sounds almost stupidly simplistic, but if you make content readily available, then people won't resort to piracy. Shutting down ROM-sharing sites but then failing to offer any viable means of playing those games outside of sourcing the original hardware and software – both of which might be extortionately expensive options these days – shows that Nintendo doesn't really comprehend the nature of this side of its business.
Would recent developments in hacking Switch consoles to play retro games have gained quite as much attention and momentum if Nintendo had launched a proper successor to the Virtual Console as part of its Nintendo Switch Online service? It may not have wiped it out totally – hackers gonna hack, after all – but it might have dissuaded some 'casual' modders from tinkering with their consoles; what's the point in risking a bricked system if Nintendo already offers a legitimate alternative straight out of the box?
As for where I stand in this situation, I'm tremendously conflicted. Having playing Sonic and Thunder Force IV on my Switch lately – and having supported Hamster's Neo Geo releases since launch – I love the fact that my Switch is becoming a portable time capsule, offering me the best games from both the past and the present. As I mentioned before, I also love collecting old games and hardware, a fact that the ever-shrinking storage space in my house attests to. However, as the owner of an Android smartphone and 8BitDo Bluetooth controller, I'm never more than a few clicks away from a complete history of gaming. I can fire up any NES, SNES, Mega Drive, N64, Dreamcast, GBA, Nintendo DS or PlayStation game I like and play it with just as much ease as I would if it were on my Switch. That's what Nintendo is fighting against here; the sheer effortlessness with which modern portable technology can connect us with gaming's past, by legal means or (as is more often the case) otherwise.
You can't fight that by taking down ROM-sharing sites, because even at the time of writing, there are several that still operate and are still sharing Nintendo games. You fight it by out-classing the pirates; by making it easier to play these games officially than downloading them off the internet to your phone or flash cart. Until Nintendo realises this, then its fight against piracy is doomed to failure.
Do you agree with Damien's stance on this, or do you think Nintendo has the right idea when it comes to retro? Have you ever resorted to piracy to play games? Would you like to see the Virtual Console make a return? Vote the polls below, and share your thoughts with a comment.
Do you feel Nintendo's offerings in regards to retro gaming are satisfactory? (811 votes)
Please login to vote in this poll.
Have you ever downloaded ROMs and used emulation yourself? (786 votes)
Who's askin'? Are you the Feds?!
Please login to vote in this poll.
Would you like to see Nintendo create a 'Netflix of Games' or would you prefer a return to the Virtual Console approach? (815 votes)
Yes, I'd love a Netflix of Games
No, I want the Virtual Console back
I'd like to see a mixture of both approaches
I don't care either way
Please login to vote in this poll.