It's with some curiosity that we observe the continuing clamour and passion for the Virtual Console, a service that generates as much buzz as it often does criticism. The appetite among keen Nintendo fans for retro downloads seems to remain strong, especially when rare or previously untapped games return. 2016, so far, has been all about the first generation of Pokémon, with the arrival of Red, Blue and Yellow not only exciting fans but also dictating early marketing for the franchises' anniversary. It's not often we have multiple hardware bundles for Virtual Console games, yet here we are.
The demand for retro downloads has certainly had some highs in this generation - the release of EarthBound and later EarthBound Beginnings - which is actually NES title Mother - was greeted with a lot of excitement, while the early days of the 3DS Virtual Console in 2011 and 2012 were high profile courtesy of various Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Gear releases. The Wii U has trod a particularly quirky path, with Game Boy Advance and DS releases arriving that are clearly designed to be enjoyed on the GamePad. Sure, you can play these games on the TV, but the smaller screen of the controller is far kinder to past generation portable resolutions.
For all of the positives and moments of excitement, though, the Virtual Console has - in other ways - faded from prominence and been a source of criticism in this generation. One part of this is the smaller available library, even with some new platforms included. The Wii Virtual Console, when it launched, was a revelation and a fertile land for publishers keen to profit on old games - a diverse range of third-party titles and platforms like Commodore 64 and retro Arcade games arrived as various companies took a punt on what was, at the time, a fresh idea. In reality the Wii Shop market was never likely to be big enough to deliver profits to all involved, however, and in this generation relatively few third-parties have contributed many games - SEGA, Capcom and Konami are a few among a small band.
The weight for supporting the Virtual Console has fallen largely on Nintendo, then, and its own standards in presentation - and the realities of obtaining ratings etc - have led to a trickle of releases. Rarely a week goes by where comments in our Nintendo Download articles don't reference the demise of the Virtual Console, especially on 3DS where releases are becoming increasingly rare.
Yet the Virtual Console isn't dead, not in the long term - what it needs is a reboot and a new approach. Nintendo has naturally evolved it to introduce more platforms - as mentioned above - and offers discounts for those that have transferred repeated games from their Wii to Wii U, but those are small steps to what can come in the future. The existing Virtual Console model, with an overhaul, can continue as a brand.
What's absolutely clear, based on the past couple of years, is that games arriving in download form for the first time can be a success. The 3DS eShop all-time bestsellers charts point to the popularity of various Game Boy titles - and even a few NES releases - while on the equivalent Wii U results there's EarthBound, a range of games previously released on the original VC and a few key Wii titles. These Wii downloads are an interesting case-in-point, as the highest selling of these in the UK is Metroid Prime Trilogy - not only is it fantastic value with three outstanding games, but at launch it was half price. We recall seeing it storm to number one on the eShop at launch, unsurprisingly.
Admittedly saying great games at cheap prices sell lots of copies isn't exactly a revelation, but does show the degree of critical mass that can be achieved if you subsidise or heavily discount products. It's basic commerce, and helps explain why companies like Google and Amazon - for example - have happily flogged gadgets at a loss, just in order to get their tablets and the related online marketplaces (Google Play and Amazon's app store) into people's hands. Rather than make a profit on everything, you select products for which you're happy to make a loss or, perhaps in the case of Virtual Console games, make less of a profit on each download.
Up to now, barring the occasional promotion, Nintendo has stuck to a relatively rigid formula and pricing structure. That's arguably been justifiable in this generation, but Nintendo has an opportunity in the next generation to use the Virtual Console to really drive consumers to the eShop and enable them to experience more content. We've seen elements of this with some games promoting their retro equivalents, the success of NES Remix and the weirdness of amiibo Tap, but there are less gimmicky and simpler ways to get these downloads on more systems in the NX generation; even on Wii U and 3DS, but a change in direction for those systems seems very unlikely at this stage.
One idea we'll revisit from many moons ago is bundles. We're not sure Nintendo will be generous enough that all of our content from Wii U and 3DS will be cross-play on new hardware for free - though naturally we'd love that - but the era of paying 5 bucks for a NES game should end. Instead of selling the first three Super Mario Bros. titles separately, throw them together for $5, or sell them individually for $2. Incentivise bundles while bringing prices down to reflect the real world away from enthusiasts - like some of us - who'll pay over-the-odds. If Nintendo doesn't give itself too much work to do in formatting these releases for its next hardware it should pass that saving on. As mentioned above, accept little to no profit per sale in order to simply drive consumers to the system and its eShop.
Tentpole releases, ie those that have never been released for download before - ahem, GameCube? - can be an exception and command typical current day prices, of course. Our point is that Nintendo's interest in strengthening its brand and credentials wouldn't be harmed by making Virtual Console games readily available for less. Young audiences can see what all the fuss is about, and why the 30th Anniversary of The Legend of Zelda is a big deal, as one example.
Beyond bundles that combine franchises and famous titles together in competitively priced packs, there can be policies and promotions to give these titles away. We've seen some of this from Nintendo already in different regions, so this is hardly an outrageous suggestion. A big Mario game is out? Release it with a code that can be redeemed on a chosen retro Mario game from a small list of choices. Likewise with Metroid, Zelda and various other franchises.
Then we have the My Nintendo loyalty program, which is due to launch in March. Part of its plans are to offer downloadable content as rewards for games played or activities completed, while discount coupons and Birthday discounts were also cited last October. Like much of what we've suggested above, Virtual Console content could be ideally suited to promotions through this service. Part of the monthly allure of Club Nintendo in North America was in its regular rewards, which often consisted of downloads; it seems natural that this could be the case in the new program too.
One practice we think is unlikely - so naturally Nintendo will counter that and announce it forthwith - is a subscription service, which many (including us) have suggested in the past. While we like the idea of a virtual Loot Crate of sorts for old games, our suspicion is that Nintendo will still want to either make money from VC downloads or, at the very least, incentivise them by bundling them together and/or with other games. We shall see, but we think a Virtual Console equivalent to PlayStation Plus is a long shot.
While we always acknowledge that Nintendo goes to more effort with Virtual Console games than simply dumping ROMs on the eShop, a new generation does give the company a chance to shake up its approach. Rather than another area from which to target profits, the use of bundles, promotions and loyalty-based giveaways can add a little extra spice to the service. Yes, there'll likely be scope to sell new downloads at a premium rate - as we're seeing with Pokémon gen one on 3DS - but older, repeated content can serve a different purpose. Readily available classic games can introduce new players to Nintendo's legacy, or reward loyal fans and thank them for their commitment to the company's systems.
After two generations and three systems following a conventional model it's time to shake things up, and make the old new once again.