Well, that’s it. After over a year of speculation, frustration, and confusion, Nintendo has officially confirmed that the Virtual Console is dead, a thing of the past. After announcing the full details of what to expect from the Nintendo Switch Online service, including the gimmick with the downloadable NES games, the company went on to confirm it won’t be bringing back the Virtual Console brand after using it across three different platforms.
Obviously, the response to that has been all over the place across the Internet. People feel lied to, people feel angry, and people feel like Nintendo isn’t doing the usual Nintendo thing in making sure its classic catalog will be accessible on contemporary hardware. I’m weighing in on the matter because I feel like the situation is far from a disaster, and in fact there is light at the end of this tunnel. It’s not a unified, multi-company light, but we’ve already seen signs of what to expect in the future.
The truth of the matter is that there’s no way the Virtual Console was sustainable the way it was. Nintendo, being Nintendo, approached the idea in an odd way, all the way from the beginning. While the brand was always based on emulation, each game had to be wrapped in the same software, and they all had to operate within those constraints. Everything had to be uniform, and function properly, and use the systems Nintendo had in place. This would lead to weirdness later on with the 3DS, which really exposed the self-imposed limitations of the platform. This seemed to lead to a real lack of support, and a drought of releases from even Nintendo leading up to now.
Another factor is licensing. Nintendo’s initial Virtual Console on the Wii was super ambitious, bringing in games from all kinds of platforms and a variety of publishers. All kinds of games, even some imports never released before in North America appeared. And many games available on the Wii never carried over to the Wii U. That would mean a new set of licensing agreements, a new emulation standard to meet, and more money tied up in the Wii U, which was obviously not a big success. The Virtual Console was clearly a money sink, and while Nintendo did some interesting things with it (GBA and DS support!) you could see the cracks forming.
Also, between the Wii U and now, individual publishers began to find value in their own classics again. Capcom started working on lovingly-curated collections of its most beloved retro titles, and SEGA started to make some cash when it overhauled its games on Steam. Hamster began releasing its Arcade Archives series, and other individual games would find success on other platforms. You can see the ripple effect of that now, with the SEGA Ages brand coming back for individual releases on the Switch, and even Nintendo working with the Arcade Archives to re-release versions of games that haven’t seen the light of day in decades. Don’t forget Nintendo’s own mini consoles either.
The Virtual Console is dead, but Nintendo’s classic library is far from it. But old games are more valuable now, simply because they’re gradually being treated with more respect. And, the audience is willing to pay for them again, when they’re packaged appropriately. Nintendo’s online service may also yet expand to consoles beyond the NES, or if it does re-release older games, it may just do them as standalones, or bundles.
The Virtual Console was more of a limitation, despite the surface-level value of a unified platform. Now Nintendo and other publishers have more freedom to release their retro content in a multitude of forms, with less audience confusion, and more care taken for the individual releases. The news is disappointing now, but I feel like we’ll be forgetting about it for good reasons in the near future.