Wii U Wario
Image: Nintendo Life

Nintendo recently revealed its schedule for shuttering its digital storefronts for both the 3DS family of systems and the Wii U. From March 2023 you'll be unable to make new purchases of digital software of any kind on the 3DS and Wii U eShops, which includes digital versions of physical releases, digital-only download games and all forms of DLC. You will be able to redownload purchases made prior to that date (much as you can still download previously-purchased original Wii titles on that console) "for the foreseeable future", but obviously that functionality will eventually be removed.

'Such is the way of things', you might think — 'it was never going to last forever'. And while most of us can sit and rationalise that, yes, of course digital services have a finite lifespan, and no, obviously we didn't expect to be able to redownload our copy of Crimson Shroud when we're in our 90s, seeing the digital store closures come so comparatively swiftly after these eShops first appeared is a bitter pill to swallow if you're at all concerned about video game preservation.

Nintendo looks at the first 2 years as the indicator of when to start packing it in with a console

The fact is, though, that Nintendo — and all companies operating similar stores selling digital wares — plan controlled closures of this kind many years ahead.

"Nintendo knows it has to support a product for a minimum of 10 years or they risk some class action," a former Nintendo of America employee told us. The source, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that Nintendo has been eyeing this shutdown for a long time now, and that 10-year cut off comes in November 2022, a decade on from the Wii U's launch. "Internally, NCL [Nintendo Co. Ltd, the main Japanese company of which NOA is a subsidiary] has been waiting for that day since 2014 based on sales... Nintendo looks at the first 2 years as the indicator of when to start packing it in with a console."

A failure on Nintendo's part to demonstrate succinctly the benefits and value of the GamePad controller's asymmetrical gameplay — or to successfully differentiate the console from its predecessor in the eyes of the wider public who had been a key part of Wii's popularity — resulted in lacklustre sales from the beginning. By 2014 it was clear that the concept simply hadn't struck a chord with a mainstream audience and, according to our source, the company was quick to pivot and change tack internally.

"While NX was being worked on, you saw a test with amiibo and a bunch of weird apps that interacted with those on Wii U. All just busy work to fill the sales void until NX [Switch's code name] would arrive. Same thing with the mini consoles… panic products aimed at filling the NX gap for Christmas."

While NX was being worked on, you saw a test with amiibo and a bunch of weird apps that interacted with those on Wii U. All just busy work to fill the sales void... Same thing with the mini consoles

The relative commercial failure of the Wii U (13.56 million units isn't nothing, but from its console lineup only the Virtual Boy sold fewer units) caused headaches across the company and supply issues cropped up earlier in the console's lifecycle, notably when it came to repair parts.

"We started talking Wii U repair and replacement numbers about a year prior to the Switch launch," our source details. "NOA was nearly out of optical drives for the repair/replace program… and I mean like 2016 you could eyeball how many were left. NCL had a good supply, so they moved that inventory to NOA so we could handle repairs at least until the Switch launched. So the EOL [End-Of-Life] program at least for the console began before NX launch."

This shutdown plan came only a couple of years after a 'Wii U upgrade program' was rolled out internally, which encouraged Wii owners to upgrade to the new console with a discount while NOA recycled the older console.

"In 2013, we were still dealing with Wii repairs and Nintendo ate like 7-10 bucks per repair. There was an employee meeting the Spring of 2014 and they were looking for ideas from within for either savings or sales ideas... That was about the time I started to hear internal jokes about 'what do we upgrade them to when these Wii U’s get sent in for repair'."

New 3DS Themes
Image: Nintendo Life

Asked about the full End-of-Life process and how long the ability to redownload previous purchases may stay in place for 3DS and Wii U, our source is less than optimistic about that timescale compared to Nintendo's official line of "the foreseeable future"; they predict a total shutdown of services within just a couple of years. "They will give notice in 2023 that the server will be shut down after a time." After this time, the suggestion is that online play, redownloads of purchased content, and everything else will disappear entirely. "People will 100% lose their games if something happens to their Wii U or the drive they have their games on."

People will 100% lose their games if something happens to their Wii U or the drive they have their games on

The Wii hasn't been Nintendo's current console for a decade, so it would be less surprising were Nintendo to shut down servers for that system's redownloads soon. Wii U, however, was Nintendo's primary home platform until Switch's launch nearly five years ago in March 2017, so the idea that access to redownload your digital library and play online could be removed as early as 2023/24 is sobering indeed.

We reached out to Nintendo for comment regarding our source's claims and the company's post-March 2023 plans for the networks. We were directed to the company's Wii U & Nintendo 3DS eShop Discontinuation support page, which — as we mentioned previously — states that online play, software updates and the ability to redownload previously purchased content will remain after late March 2023 "for the foreseeable future":

For the foreseeable future, it will still be possible to redownload games and DLC, receive software updates and enjoy online play on Wii U and the Nintendo 3DS family of systems.

With specific reference to online play, the page also says that "There are no plans to make any further changes at this time".

"The discussions I heard were to retire the NNID bolt on system and use the Nintendo Account system only," says our former NOA source. In fact, it seems that the Nintendo Network ID system which was scrapped for Switch in favour of the new Nintendo Account system (but "intentionally bolted on to the current system so they could at least merge wallets/payments and get people into the Switch ecosystem earlier") may be another cause for the company's alacrity in sunsetting the last generation console's storefronts and networks.

"They may change their mind about how and if they will allow your purchased titles to be accessed, but that system was such a mess to tie to Nintendo Accounts they may choose a service solution with some kind of “make the customer happy” credit for Switch."

Wii U EShop
Image: Nintendo Life

When you look at the comparatively long life of the Wii Shop — which can still be accessed in 2022 to redownload purchased titles — we assumed this was simply down to the massive install base for the original Wii, which our source confirmed. "Wii Shop was a pretty contained store environment and yes, the install base is still huge."

Of course, those Wii purchases won't be available to redownload forever, and it's not unrealistic to imagine Nintendo roll up the full closure of all its older networks — Wii, Wii U and 3DS — with one fell swoop. The company knows as well as anyone how that news will go down with hardcore fans; from a PR perspective, better to get it all out of the way at once than present multiple targets for negative press and general gamer discontent.

Ah, who cares, you may cry — who's playing 3DS or Wii U online now anyway? Well, perhaps more people than you think. Erstwhile Nintendo Life video producer Jon Cartwright investigated online activity for both systems — Wii U in December 2020, 3DS in January 2021 — and found a surprisingly active player base for a number of online games. Granted, these tests were conducted while much of the world was staying home more than they otherwise might for pandemic-related reasons, but there is evidently still player demand, however small, for these services staying active as long as possible.

it's not unrealistic to imagine Nintendo roll up the full closure of all its older networks — Wii, Wii U and 3DS — with one fell swoop. The company knows as well as anyone how that news will go down with hardcore fans

Ultimately, anyone who stops and considers the financial realities of maintaining servers and devoting resources to networks built for past consoles — services that are actively used only by a tiny fraction of players — will see the writing on the wall here. It's little comfort for enthusiasts like us, or preservationists, or young players in 5 or 10 years' time that may want to explore these systems' libraries only to find them inaccessible.

Many of the bigger 3DS and Wii U eShop games got physical releases, but not all — not by a long shot. The price of a secondhand 3DS has shot up in recent years, with prices on auction sites reaching eye-watering levels, which is somewhat surprising for a system with lifetime sales of nearly 76 million units. If you want a nice clean one, though, you can expect to pay hundreds. Conversely, there are fewer than 14 million Wii Us in the wild, and a much smaller number with copies of Affordable Space Adventures on them. Subtract from that figure the hard drive corruptions, failures and data loss those systems will inevitably experience in the future and... well, you can see why people are so passionate about this topic.

Our advice? We definitely recommend backing up your hard drives if you've got them, and getting your personal 3DS/Wii U affairs in order while you can. It's easy to get up in arms and melodramatic — and we're keen to encourage level heads and calm conversation — but the clock is absolutely ticking.