Nintendo Switch DEVSF4.jpg
Image: DevSF4

Over the past decade or so Nintendo has made significant strides in its online / download stores, with the eShop platform becoming vital for both 3DS and Wii U. Those stores both learnt lessons from their predecessors - on Wii and DSi - in terms of becoming more accessible and rewarding for Indies, while making better use of demos, DLC and promotions. There's room for improvement with the eShop on the Nintendo Switch, of course, but there's a solid foundation in place.

The Virtual Console, however, has been relatively static. In fact, its debut on Wii is still arguably the best example of the service; at the time it was a fresh and exciting concept, and third-parties in particular couldn't wait to get involved. In addition to the Wii VC supporting key retro home consoles from the big N, it hosted games from third-party systems of a surprising variety. For older gamers, or young players eager to experience classic gaming, it was a treat to explore old games from Nintendo systems and others that they likely never owned.

On 3DS we saw portable systems for the first time in a VC, with the Game Boy (and Color) along with the Game Gear, though after an initial burst these games somewhat drifted away. Familiar NES titles then made their way to the portable, while a highlight for New 3DS owners has been the availability of some SNES classics. The Game Boy Advance never arrived, despite ten games being given to '3DS Ambassadors' after the system's 2011 price-drop; it seems that the emulation to make that happen (seemingly booting the 3DS as a DS) wasn't practical for the eShop's paid products. The Wii U VC focused exclusively on Nintendo systems, repeating a number of familiar releases from the Wii store but adding Wii downloads, and intriguingly DS and GBA titles best enjoyed on the GamePad.

Those latter examples, in particular, highlight one way that the Switch can deliver the ultimate Virtual Console. As a portable console that's also perfect for home gaming via its technology and the dock, it can deliver pretty much any Nintendo system's games in some form. The exceptions are perhaps Wii U, 3DS and DS, due to their dual-screen requirements; workarounds are possible (like we've seen with DS on Wii U) but are often clumsy. The majority of the Nintendo Life community that voted in our recent polls pegged the GameCube as their most wanted platform on the Switch VC, reinforcing its status as a fan favourite and as the only console yet to grace the service in some form (along with the Virtual Boy); as most reading this will know, it looks like the GameCube will be coming to the Switch's download service.

An ethical grey area, but emulators have been popular in Nvidia Shield communities
Image: Nvidia Shield Zone

The door is open for both retro portables and home consoles on a Switch Virtual Console, and not just because of that core concept of the hardware. Also of interest is the use of a custom Nvidia Tegra chip to power the GPU; as owners of Shield devices know, the technology behind the Tegra range can power some pretty decent emulators. Apps have emulated all sorts of interesting things on Shield hardware (including MAME and so on); Nintendo will naturally apply strict controls with its Virtual Console, but the capabilities are there to emulate old systems of various kinds. The GameCube reports also provide a reminder of what the Tegra technology can achieve; when used well it can be powerful.

The potential for platforms is exciting - we'd love to see Arcade games return, following up the Wii VC support but with arcade games from the late '80s and into the '90s. But beyond games, whether Game Boy titles best enjoyed on the Switch console or GameCube releases to be savoured on the TV, Nintendo can go further and modernise how it sells and distributes these classic downloads.

In our poll on the topic of how a new Virtual Console could work, votes were relatively split. Virtual Console bundles were a popular option; in the past we've cited Capcom's budget retail release of Mega Man Legacy Collection as a way of adding value to classic games, with the six original NES entries in the series included along with some welcome extras; even without the charming additions such as challenges and the in-built music player, the idea of grouping classics together to offer better value is tempting. With so many iconic IPs getting frequent releases in each past generation, bundled downloads could give incentive to buyers not willing to spend $5 on a single NES game; a good price on all main Super Mario Bros. NES titles in one, for example, would be rather appealing.

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Another popular option is for My Nintendo to play an active role in offering unique downloads, discounts and deals. The loyalty programme has been underwhelming to date, but there'll be hope that it can truly kick into gear once the Nintendo Switch arrives. Also attracting a decent number of votes was the status quo, with a number of the community evidently happy enough with the current structure and pricing. It should be noted that reports of the Switch likely featuring 'upgrade' prices on downloads already owned may help with this. The execution of this was frustrating on Wii U (necessitating a system transfer from the Wii), but with Nintendo Network ID records and the newer Nintendo Account system Nintendo will hopefully be able to apply discounted upgrades automatically on Switch. Ideally if you've already bought Super Mario World on New 3DS or Wii U, for example, you'll automatically see a lower price on Switch.

Notably there was minimal love for two subscription options in the polls. One was a monthly fee that allowed the option to pick a few games at a time that are then owned, and the other was a PS+-style option where a number of downloads can be picked up as part of a subscription, but they're not 'owned'; for example when your subscription ends, so does your access to the relevant downloads. Resistance to subscriptions is perhaps understandable; Nintendo gamers in particular are used to basic online features being completely free, so the idea of content being behind monthly or annual payments would be unfamiliar on a big N system.

We're a little surprised at the number of votes the status quo received, perhaps reflecting the fact many reading these pages will hope to benefit from significant upgrade discounts. After all, many of us have bought plenty of retro games two or three times each, in some cases, so upgrading on the cheap could be a good solution. Whether that would make sense for Nintendo in terms of tempting newcomers to buy Virtual Console games is something else entirely. Ultimately the conventional approach to selling VC games does seem a good bet, especially if GameCube downloads arrive as the new $15-20 premium offerings to draw in a lot of sales.

In the end a majority of those who voted in our polls think the Virtual Console is at least 'quite important' to Switch. It'll be intriguing to see what moves Nintendo makes to freshen up the idea - the GameCube looks certain as an addition, the emulation possibilities are conceivably wide-reaching and exciting with Tegra technology, and we have the foundations of the eShop and My Nintendo which can shake up how retro games are sold.

With the Switch all set to offer quality gaming both at home and on the go, the opportunity is there for Nintendo to bring the Virtual Console back to the fore. The company has traded on nostalgia a lot in 2016, culminating in the NES Mini; it can utilise that brand power in significant ways in the next generation.