We’d Be Better Off if Nintendo Just Retired Virtual Console (No, Really)

A lot of people don’t understand all the excitement over the NES Classic (aka NES Mini). Those people just look at it as spending $60 to play a bunch of games they already own, maybe even multiple versions of. But there is one thing about the console that those people don’t seem to realize: It’s the first time Nintendo has ever collected that many games in a single package. The closest things that have passed for “retro compilations” from Nintendo are Super Mario All-Stars, those GameCube Zelda bonus discs, and NES Remix (at least if you live in Japan, where the full versions of the games were included). Just about every other major game company has some sort of compilation of their classic games available, sometimes even many of them–Sega, Midway, Atari, Capcom, Namco, Konami, Taito, SNK, Data East, EA, Rare, and more have all released physical collections packed with games from their expansive libraries, usually at a lower price point than typical retail games. In fact, Nintendo is one of the lone holdouts to this trend, at least of the major game companies that have been around since the 80s (and hasn’t had their IP scattered across a dozen different companies). The Plug and Play console market had also existed for quite awhile without an entry from Nintendo, even as the Atari Flashback was on its seventh iteration and Sega even had ones that accept actual Genesis cartridges.

So why is Nintendo finally joining the new world of old game collections? I think it’s because the peak years of Virtual Console are behind them. Back before Nintendo had an outlet to sell us their old games individually for 5+ bucks a pop, they weren’t quite as stingy with their classic games. In fact, in the GameCube generation they started to get downright generous with them, filling discs with prized Zelda games and giving them away as free bonus gifts, and throwing a bunch of fully-playable NES games into Animal Crossing just as in-game unlockables. It was also during this era that they didn’t seem to release anything for the GBA without tossing a free copy of original Mario Bros. onto the cartridge just because.

All of that came to an abrupt end when Nintendo finally entered the age of digital storefronts and realized that people would go crazy for the chance to pay five dollars just to have Super Mario Bros. on their Wii. Their classic games were suddenly a commodity again, and they were happy to sell them to us one at a time rather than just give them to us. Despite a lot of people giving the Wii’s Virtual Console flak for significantly slowing down in terms of output in later years, the service went on to have a very respectable collection of classic games, arguably as good in terms of retro games as any single digital storefront, console or otherwise. During this time, Sony followed suit by starting a “PSone Classics” line on PSN, allowing its customers to purchase individual PS1 games to download and play on their PlayStation 3 and PSP systems. And Microsoft, though not in the console game long enough to have much of a “legacy” yet, nonetheless joined the fray with its “Xbox Originals” line of downloadable Xbox games to play on the Xbox 360 just so it could get have some skin in that burgeoning game.

As it turned out, that generation of consoles was both the beginning and the end of digital retro game fever. The Wii U was very slow to build the library of its version of Virtual Console, and even though it expanded beyond Wii’s in terms of hardware–bringing Game Boy Advance and DS games onto the service–it has severely paled in comparison to Wii’s in terms of sheer volume of games, still failing to bring over a number of all-time great Nintendo titles. The PlayStation 4 isn’t backwards compatible with the PS1 and PS2 games available for PS3, and has only trickled out a few remastered PS2 games while still not bothering to bring over any of the extensive PSone Classics or PS2 Classics lines available for PS3. The “Xbox Originals” line stopped at only about a dozen games, and although Xbox One has ended up handling Xbox 360 compatibility very well, it, too, has largely left “retro” releases behind.

No matter how many excuses each of the big three might give us as to why there isn’t the same focus on beefing up their retro collections on their respective online storefronts, the underlying reason is clear: People weren’t buying anymore. If they were, would Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft really have stopped even trying? So the relatively short-lived glory days of having expansive collections of retro games at the click of a “Buy” button is behind us. That’s the bad news. So what’s the good news?

Look at what has happened since the digital retro era has died down. After trying to sell us classic Rare games on X360 for $10-$15 each, Microsoft published Rare Replay for the Xbox One which gathers 30 games for only $30–some of which were going for almost half that individually just a few year ago. If Microsoft thought that there was a market to sell us those games individually, they certainly would have–they didn’t just put them in a budget-priced compilation because they love us. Sega has started gathering its 3D Classics games that it put on the 3DS eshop individually in compilations for that system–again, for way less than it would cost to buy them individually. Two new Atari collections just hit XB1 and PS4 after such collections seemed to take a break during peak digital retro era. The Mega Man Legacy Collection collected the first six titles in that series after years of them being available individually. The list goes on and on. Retro compilations seem to be back in a big way now that over-paying for individual retro games seems to be losing its luster.

So what does this mean for Nintendo? Well, even though it isn’t just a game you can stick into your Wii U, the fact that the NES Classic exists at all is proof that Nintendo is also realizing that its decades-old games aren’t quite “worth” what they were just a few years ago. People bought a bunch of old games for their Wii, and paid a pretty penny for them because it was still a novelty back then. Some of those people bought some of those games again for 3DS so they could play them on the go, and then some bought them on Wii U again to play them on the tablet and be able to see them through HDMI output. Is Nintendo really going to get away with trying to do that for a fourth time? Does anybody really want to watch yet another Virtual Console slowly build its library from scratch? Waiting for the good stuff to come while we watch them trot our Urban Champion yet again–seriously Nintendo, stop trying to make Urban Champion happen–and then buying yet another digital version of a game we already own seven different versions of? I know I don’t.

The problem is, I also still love retro games, and so do most of you (especially if you read this blog), and I know we aren’t ready to just give them up completely and still want to bring them over in some fashion to our new systems. The solution? Nintendo retro game compilations. If the NES Classic never existed, but Nintendo announced those same 30 games as a compilation disc for Switch, wouldn’t that have been exciting? And even though the NES Classic has sold a ton so far, just dropping those games on a disc is far less overhead–and a bigger profit margin–on a little plastic disc than on a dedicated console they have to design, build, and manufacture. Considering that Capcom, Konami, and others were willing to pitch in games for the NES Classic, it only further proves my point that other companies see the end of the line for individual retro game sales and are fine with just letting Nintendo do the work of putting their games onto a collection.

It would even help sell companies on giving us riskier games–Nintendo might not be convinced that it would be worth it to localize Mother 3 and put it on Virtual Console for 10 bucks, but an “Earthbound Collection” with all three games that they could probably get away with charging 50 bucks for on a disc? That probably makes it more attractive to them. Just getting rid of Virtual Console–and similar services–altogether would also get rid of all the hurt feelings that stem from things like “old 3DS” owners feeling betrayed because only the New 3DS has SNES games. I’m sick of trying to figure out which systems I need to have and keep hooked up in order to play which specific groups of retro games, aren’t you? Compilations alleviate all of that.

A future where we could finally see true compilations of Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Mega Man, Castlevania, et al might not be as far-fetched–or as far away–as we previously thought. We just need companies to give up on the idea of trying to sell us overpriced games from 30 years ago and get back to being more generous with their legacy games…like they had just started to be before the internet came along and messed it all up. The internet has a habit of doing that where video games are involved, doesn’t it?