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Why The Demise Of The Virtual Console Is A Good Thing

So, Nintendo's Virtual Console is no more. I believe that's a good thing, as the name of the article and the little introduction I wrote a few minutes ago have already indicated. Some corners of the Internet must be up in arms about it, but there's really no need. Here are three reasons why.

Well, reasons two and three are pretty similar, to be honest, so they might count as just one. Here are two reasons why. They'll still be listed as three, mind. I am succumbing to confusion...

1) The Brand Has Been Tarnished

Back in 2006, when Nintendo were getting ready to release the then-future world-conquering Wii, details emerged about something called the 'Virtual Console'. It was to be a series of retro games that you could download and play on your new console. The "money for old rope" criticism was quickly dispatched when it became clear how extensive it was, up to and including games that hadn't been released outside Japan (or the US) before.

My old Wii had games from the NES, SNES, N64, Mega Drive, Neo Geo, Turbografx-16 and Commodore 64 (!) on it (I never picked up any Master System or Arcade games). 385 games graced the Wii VC in Europe, all perfectly preserved nuggets of retro action that you could play without worrying about creaking hardware, prohibitive costs or lack of availability. It was a great time to be a retro gamer.

 Whenever retro Nintendo games are discussed, this image must appear. It is the law/lore.

Whenever retro Nintendo games are discussed, this image must appear. It is the law/lore.

When the 3DS Virtual Console kicked into life, Game Boy and Game Boy Color oldies came back to life in much the same way. Although Game Gear games were added to the list, we were soon handed what felt like reheated NES and, eventually, SNES games on our handhelds. Something was off, compounded by the Wii U's bizarre VC effort. The same NES, SNES and N64 games were slowly made available, for the same price - with the occasional addition of titles like EarthBound - and fans became disgruntled. The unusual step of including Game Boy Advance and DS games on a clearly non-handheld console was met with confusion. Worse, all 31 of the DS games available for download were originally published by Nintendo. Other publishers had clearly lost their enthusiasm for the service.

The Virtual Console brand was not the trusted force it once was, and part of the blame for that must lie with Nintendo themselves. The 3DS features a strand of titles on its eShop called '3D Classics' retro games boosted with the addition of 3D, amongst other things. Nintendo released six of these... but SEGA have made twenty-nine so far. This leads into our second reason...

2) It Frees Developers To Do What They Want With Their Old Games

It's 2018. I know because I just checked my calendar. The original Super Mario Bros. will be thirty-three years old this year - it may no longer be impressive to millennials, with their avocado toast and their extraordinarily-high-work-ethic-that-still-doesn't-earn-them-that-much-money-because-of-political-reasons-that-this-sentence-of-dashes-(or-is-it-hyphens?)-is-ill-equipped-to-discuss. So, publishers that are a little longer in the tooth decided to tinker with their games. The results have been pretty good... and are still ongoing.

 What 'ACA' stands for exactly is hard to find on the Internet. I'd like to suggest we make it stand for 'Arcade Classic Arcade'.

What 'ACA' stands for exactly is hard to find on the Internet. I'd like to suggest we make it stand for 'Arcade Classic Arcade'.

The ACA series is the work of Hamster Corporation, based in Japan. They essentially massively spruce up arcade games, giving them save states, several different ways to view the games (including as if it were in an arcade cabinet) and complete control of lives, button layouts, and many more things besides. I have VS Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Switch and it's been a revelation, giving more life to a game I thought I knew like the back of my hand. SEGA's good work with the 3D Classics - which is actually down to the brilliant M2 development team (not the motorway, guys) - has clearly inspired some publishers.

Speaking of SEGA, they recently announced the AGES retro game series for the Nintendo Switch, a Virtual Console-like library of games from their classic systems. The lovely M2 are on board and around 15 titles will wise from their gwaves, with potentially more to come. Capcom are planning a number of collections of Mega Man and Street Fighter games in the coming months for Nintendo's hybrid of doom, with The Disney Afternoon Collection delighting PC, PS4 and XBone owners. Even Rare got in on the act with Rare Replay for the XBone, the joke being that there were more N64 games available to Microsoft fans than Nintendo ones on the then-current Wii U. Freed from the shackles of just-as-it-was [Don't start that again! - Ed] retro releases, publishers and developers can make their older titles more appealing.

 If this were on Facebook, the caption would read "How many triangles can you see? 95% get it wrong!"

If this were on Facebook, the caption would read "How many triangles can you see? 95% get it wrong!"

But what are Nintendo doing with theirs?

3) It Frees Nintendo To Do What They Want With Their Old Games

The most obvious result of at least mentally leaving the Virtual Console behind has been the NES Mini and SNES Mini. These tiny versions of the original machines come with thirty and twenty-one games respectively loaded onto them. You'll never be able to download any more, but you will be able to play the games exactly as they were at the time (except for save states so that you won't use up all your lives beating that ruddy boss or level). The SNES Mini even lets you rewind your play about 45 seconds and drop back in before you fell down that pit (imagine me shaking my fist at Donkey Kong Country/Super Castlevania IV at this point).

Both machines were so popular that they sold out almost instantly, to the extent that I believe physicists are going to use the exact time from 'Stock Available' to 'Sold Out' on Amazon as the new definition of the second. Incredibly, the same NES and SNES games we were being sold repeatedly via the Virtual Console were as appealing as kittens to humans in this form. We reckon you can bet a few small currency units that the Console Mini series isn't finished yet. Perhaps we'll see a Game Boy Mini that you can play as a handheld, but also plug into the TV - imagine that! What a console that would be!

 On the right, the American version of the SNES. The redesign team must have been Prince fans...

On the right, the American version of the SNES. The redesign team must have been Prince fans...

Nintendo still aren't sitting on their laurels with their classic game content, though - the Nintendo Switch Online service will give fans access to 20 NES games for $19.99/£17.99/€19.99 a year (other stuff too, of course, but we're not so interested in that for the purposes of this article). Fabulously, you'll be able to play these online - finally, we can play the original Dr. Mario with friends in other countries! It may not sound like much but the dream lives on - the original GameCube The Legend Of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures with three like-minded (or otherwise) individuals across the world.

Whatever happens, it's clear to me that the Virtual Console started something that other publishers have built on and improved, but it has served its purpose. There's never been a better time to be into retro gaming, and the future seems both brighter and dustier than ever.