Nintendo Switch Online
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, Thomas discusses the unnecessary 'choice' by Nintendo between Virtual Console and Nintendo Switch Online subscription apps.

Out of the various questions, debates and issues that came to the surface following the announcement that the Wii U and 3DS eShop stores will close down in 2023, one that caught my eye was the topic of Virtual Console platforms that'll be lost. Though I included a jokey option in our Poll article at the time poking fun at some of the collective outrage, implying that many of us were upset despite having not used either store (or made a purchase) for quite some time, there were valid points around content that will disappear. My first instinct was to think about system exclusives (particularly excellent Indie titles) that will be gone, but seeing references to the VC offerings definitely led to more pause for thought.

While ceding expertise, data and resources to Nintendo, its approach to accessibility and monetisation around its retro content still baffles me. Below is an answer that was actually removed from the official Q & A, addressing the fact that a lot of retro downloads will no longer be available to purchase legally from the company.

Across our Nintendo Switch Online membership plans, over 130 classic games are currently available in growing libraries for various legacy systems. The games are often enhanced with new features such as online play.

We think this is an effective way to make classic content easily available to a broad range of players. Within these libraries, new and longtime players can not only find games they remember or have heard about, but other fun games they might not have thought to seek out otherwise.

We currently have no plans to offer classic content in other ways.

This could change of course, but let's take it at face value and assume that, in the near-to-mid term at least, Nintendo will continue with its current approach of occasional one-off eShop releases of retro games - like the bizarre limited-time release of Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light - with others appearing as part of Nintendo Switch Online subscriptions. As most reading these pages will know it's a very slow drip-feed of releases on specific platforms, with the Expansion Pack currently a big focus for Nintendo following confirmation it'll also include the upcoming Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Booster Course Pass. Between both NSO options we have game batches (of varying sizes) for NES, SNES, Nintendo 64 and SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive.

The logic of pushing for growth in subscriber numbers is undeniable. As Kate Gray highlights in this article on the topic, businesses value the reliability and consistency of income from having popular subscription services. The base NSO package is required for cloud saves and online play, dragging in some Switch owners with little-to-no interest in the NES and SNES libraries. The Expansion Pack, meanwhile, is arguably worth it for the Animal Crossing: New Horizons - Happy Home Paradise and upcoming MK8 Deluxe DLC alone, whether or not you want N64 or SEGA genesis titles. On the flipside some subscribers will be signing up primarily for the retro games, so the strategy is easy to see.

3DS EShop
Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

While that's valid, though, that old social media meme 'why not both?' springs to mind. Why not have subscription options and a Virtual Console eShop? With NSO being multi-faceted in its offering, it seems unlikely that everyone would drop that subscription in a heartbeat in order to buy Super Mario Bros. for $5.

Thinking back to the Wii / 3DS / Wii U eras of the Virtual Console, there was certainly an element of VC fatigue after a while among dedicated fans. Perhaps the sales data was low by the time we got to the 3DS and Wii U iterations, though retro Pokémon games have dominated the 3DS eShop charts for a long time. There were also complaints over the years about emulation - in Europe we endured 50Hz refresh in the Wii years, and every VC platform addition would trigger debates about resolution, filters and so on.

I can't help but feel like a fully loaded Virtual Console eShop (without the drip-feed releases of previous iterations) would be a hit.

They were vocal arguments between a minority, I'd say, and the reality is that for me and others the Virtual Console was a wonderful entry point into gaming history. Despite being old enough to have theoretically owned a NES, Game Boy and SNES, my first Nintendo system was the N64. When I got the Wii I spent plenty of money on classics that I'd never played, valuing the chance to catch up. Then the 3DS Virtual Console came along and I bought a bunch of Game Boy and Game Boy Color titles. Even on Wii U I was right there for a handful of key Game Boy Advance titles. My first thought whenever the availability of redownloads is threatened - which hasn't happened yet - is to get on the case and download my collections on each system.

In terms of the model, while subscription platforms like Netflix are solely about streaming, other major services in entertainment allow you to subscribe and buy. Microsoft's Game Pass doesn't stop you from being a subscriber and purchasing downloads of games that are also on the service. On PlayStation a lot of content on PlayStation Now is also available to buy. On TV, platforms like Amazon Prime and various services allow you to both stream and buy the same content, often with the streaming and purchase-only stores existing side-by-side.

The other side of the argument could be that Nintendo doesn't have the resources or inclination to update and produce the necessary game page texts and other aspects we're used to on NSO, like the control screens and so on. It's not just a matter of dropping a few hundred ROMs onto a store and watching the sales roll in, there'll be a lot of background work to produce the 'products', and it likely wouldn't be a simple case of reusing the store assets from previous Virtual Console platforms. It would be a relatively significant project, and perhaps Nintendo has research and data to suggest that the effort wouldn't pay off.

We've had to rely on releases like Castlevania Advance Collection to experience platforms like GBA on Switch
Image: Konami

That said, I can't help but feel like a fully loaded Virtual Console eShop (without the drip-feed releases of previous iterations) would be a hit, especially at this stage in the Switch lifecycle when it has a large and engaged user base. Add in systems that Switch owners haven't experienced — like Game Boy, Game Boy Advance — and surely there'd be renewed interest. As it is we rely on compilations from third parties like Konami and Capcom for some of these experiences.

I understand why Nintendo has tried an alternative to Virtual Console with Switch Online. What I don't understand is why VC was completely dropped - for a company with such history and unrivalled powers of nostalgia, it's oddly shy about sharing that retro content with as many people as possible.

Let us know what you think about this, as always, in the comments!