This Week in Games - The Modest Life of Virtual Console

by Dustin Bailey,
Good god, E3 starts next week. Though I'm fortunate enough to not be going to LA, there's still a hint of dread mixed in with all the excitement for what's coming. It's a flood a-coming, one which comes in the aftermath of the latest Nintendo platform and in anticipation of the next step from Microsoft. Are third-parties going to show confidence in the Switch? Will the recent success of high-profile Japanese games lead to a greater focus on them in the West? Is VR dead? Do any of Sony's first-party games actually exist? Will Kenny Omega manage to capture the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from Kazuchika Okada at Dominion this Sunday? Truly, we live in exciting times.

Remembering the Modest Life of Nintendo's Virtual Console

Nintendo announced a bit more detail on the Switch's paid online plans this week. A free version of the lobby and voice chat app will launch this summer, with both it and online multiplayer moving behind the paywall in 2018. That'll be $4 a month, $8 quarterly, or $20 annually, which is significantly cheaper than either PS+ or XBox Live Gold. Jokes abound about Nintendo's rotten history with the online services it's now asking players to pay separately for—and the company has certainly earned those jabs. But with the apparent quality of online-focused games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Arms, and Splatoon 2, which together are making the Switch more than a Zelda machine, Nintendo's starting to redefine that argument.

But that's the dull part of the story, as plans seem to have changed regarding the successor to the Virtual Console. Instead of a single game that would disappear from your system at the end of the month, it'll be a “compilation of classic titles.” It took some prodding for the company to actually explain that in clear terms, but essentially it's a Netflix (or Xbox Game Pass) style system where you'll have access to a library of classics for as long as you're a subscriber. The initial lineup is NES-only, including Super Mario Bros. 3, Dr. Mario, and the criminally overlooked Balloon Fight, each of which will be updated for online play. They say Super NES stuff is “under consideration,” which I take to mean “we haven't decided whether to make another mini-fad with a SNES Mini or use that interest to help push our main platform.”

Even with a limited start, it's finally what people have been asking for ever since the Virtual Console launched along with the Wii way back in 2006. The VC always seemed to represent Nintendo at its most monkey paw, delivering retro gaming wishes only with the most horrible of caveats and compromises, delivering some of Nintendo's most Nintendo-like solutions.

Nintendo had already experimented with the idea of reselling classic games, but the format was never quite right. The Classic NES Series saw retail GBA editions of individual NES games, and even today the sheer audacity of asking $20 for the privilege to play Ice Climber seems ridiculous. Instead, that old library was best used for things like putting the original Metroid in as an unlockable for Zero Mission, or to include a smattering of the NES's simplistic launch lineup as a series of collectable minigames in Animal Crossing. With hindsight, it seems that digital distribution was the obvious path for these old games to live on, but that wasn't necessarily so obvious at the time. The concept was still in its infancy. Steam was expanding, but still often seen as that annoying roadblock you had to get through in order to play Half-Life 2. XBox Live still hosted only a smattering of arcade ports and tiny originals, with months to go before the release of substantial classics like Symphony of the Night and HD Remix and over a year before original games like Braid and Castle Crashers would help people actually believe in the idea of downloadable games. Many people are still reticent to invest in digital libraries today, and that was doubly true in 2006.

All that, plus retro gaming hadn't become geek chic and the collector's market hadn't seen its modern explosion. Though the cartridge sections at North American retailers like EB and Gamestop were shrinking to the point of nothingness by the launch of the Wii, it wasn't far removed from the time you could easily pick up an NES game at a local mall for a couple of bucks. And emulation for those systems had already been nearly perfected, leaving those unconcerned with the legality of downloading ROMs with easy, free access to every single Nintendo game ever manufactured.

Against the backdrop of incredibly cheap used carts and the haven of free piracy, Nintendo's pricing for the Wii Virtual Console seemed absurd. $5 for an NES game? $8 for something on the SNES? $10 for N64? It didn't help that the launch lineup was rocky, especially in the West. The NES lineup was Zelda plus a smattering of the platform's most simplistic action and puzzle games. SNES only had SimCity and F-Zero—classics, but low in that ranking for the platform. Super Mario 64 was the only N64 selection, though in fairness you could argue it's one of few N64 games you would ever need. Meanwhile, the Japanese version of the platform launched with Super Mario Bros., Super Mario World, Street Fighter II, Castlevania IV, and A Link to the Past. All those games would end up in the West in the weeks and months to come, but the initial lack of parity kept dogging the platform throughout the end of the Wii's life, leaving fans looking askance at the Japanese VC library and wondering “when?”

That's not to say that those early days were entirely without merit. From the start the VC helped to introduce the TurboGrafx-16 library to a new set of fans, bringing back the likes of Bomberman '93 and Military Madness for a far wider audience. (Not to mention the final surreal step in reconciling Sega games on Nintendo platforms with the Genesis.) Within the first year, Nintendo of America also opened up the service to import games, bringing the cult classic Treasure colab Sin & Punishment out and offering the first official unaltered release of the original Super Mario Bros. 2. Eventually, the platforms expanded to include NeoGeo and other arcade machines, along with the Master System and—for a time—even a few games for the Commodore 64.

In hindsight, the Wii Virtual Console was decidedly “okay,” though with licensing issues having forced many of those game to be delisted perhaps the fears around digital distribution ended up being more real than we often recognize. The library eventually became a substantial one, but it was an agonizingly slow drip of games over the course of years. Plus, for most players—setting legality aside—the service never offered a compelling argument against just freely downloading those games online, especially once Wii mods became trivial and homebrew emulators ended up on tons of those consoles.

Things didn't get much better on subsequent platforms, either. The 3DS Virtual Console featured only Game Boy and Game Boy Color titles at the start, and even the apologetic promise offered by the Ambassador program and its ten GBA titles never evolved into anything more. Even when NES games started to be listed, there was no way to import games purchased on the Wii, forcing you to rebuy anything you wanted to play on the go. That problem would be slightly lessened on Wii U, which would “allow” you to rebuy previously purchased games at a steep discount. Paying a third time for Donkey Kong Jr. still stings, but at least it's only a dollar this go.

At least the Wii U had Earthbound. Spurred by a legion of devoted fans and a relatively low production run, the SNES cartridge was already a pricey piece to get ahold of legally, and the Wii U finally provided it after years of speculation that music licensing had kept Nintendo from rereleasing it. Turns out, Nintendo just didn't want us to have nice things—or at least insisted that we wait years for them. Earthbound Beginnings followed a few years later. That one's notable not because of its quality (it's pretty dull in comparison to its successor), but because it was the release of an official English translation that was completed more than twenty years before but never made it to market. (Don't you dare ask about Mother 3, though.)

Between the Switch's subscription service and the possibility of NES Mini follow-ups, it looks like the original format of the Virtual Console is dead, and that might just be for the best. It was an okay way to get legal access to old games, and I'm neither charitable nor cynical enough to offer it more or less than that. It was a collection of our collective memories repackaged and redistributed in way that was a constant source of vague disappointment, and there's perhaps no more accurate a feeling to be leveraged in revisiting our own nostalgia.

NEWS

POKEMON STARS WAS NOT ANNOUNCED ON THE POKEMON DIRECT

The Switch has become quite popular. More popular than the Wii U was, certainly, and it's already surpassed the 3DS's early days in terms of positive buzz. People want their games on the Switch—particularly those published by Nintendo. A long-standing rumor held that a third edition of Pokémon Sun and Moon called Pokémon Stars would be coming to the Switch, simultaneously serving as the usual third special edition version of the existing pair. That did not happen.

Instead, a recent Pokémon-themed Nintendo direct took around eight minutes to introduce Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, a pair of semi sequels, similar to Black 2 and White 2, bound exclusively for the 3DS, which is definitely not the Switch. Instead, the Switch is getting Pokkén Tournament DX, an updated version of the Bamco-developed fighter featuring four characters recently added to the arcade edition and one brand-new Pokébrawler.

Getting the games which had minimal chance for success on Wii U onto the already more popular Switch is definitely a good move, but gosh darn it would be great to have a proper Pokémon on the new system. I'm still hoping E3 will bring that announcement.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT DISSIDIA

In a series full of incongruously dumb titles, Dissidia Final Fantasy stands out. It has the corporate genteel manner of a prescription drug, one which is FDA-forced to spend 15 seconds of every 30 second commercial listing out the side effects—”please contact your doctor if you begin to notice signs of excessive zippers.” This is to say nothing of the quality of the fighting game. It's pretty good! And there's more on the way.

Taking a break from selling additional bikinis and exploding kimonos for Dead or Alive 5 (another game I tease with love), Team Ninja is bringing Dissidia Final Fantasy NT to the PlayStation 4 early next year. This version is based on the arcade game released in 2015, which in turn drew from but rebooted the existing PSP games developed internally at Square. Never believe for a moment that a Final Fantasy-derivative can have a straightforward lineage.

The roster will be 20-plus, including hot young FFXV star Noctis, and the game will focus around three-vs-three brawls. It's too early to say much more than that, but I can tell you one thing based on the trailer—that interface is the most over-crowded UI nightmare I've seen outside of a Trackmania server.

MEGA MAN LEGACY COLLECTION 2 IS STILL A COLLECTION, BUT WITH LESS LEGACY

There are approximately two universal classics in the Mega Man franchise, and both of them were in the previous Mega Man Legacy Collection. The remainder of the series is a bit short on the “legacy” front—though the sheer rabidness of the Legends fanbase has pushed that subseries there. Even the widely-liked 16 and 32-bit platformers that would come don't have quite the same regard as those early NES titles.

But CAPCOM is counting on that legacy being a bit stronger than I'm giving it credit for with Mega Man Legacy Collection 2, which will collect the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth entries in the original series in one package. That is indeed a SNES game, PS1 game, and two modern games made to look like NES titles, making this one of the strangest collections of retro titles I've ever seen. The previous Legacy Collection was great in part because of its incredible selection of historic material on those old games, and while there's sure to be worthwhile stuff on 7 and 8, how much historical value is there in repackaging the throwback 9 and 10?

This one isn't being developed by Digital Eclipse, and that's the biggest bummer of the story. Digital Eclipse is partly port-house and partly game preservationist studio, doing real work to help ensure that old games keep living on. They did the original MMLC and the Disney Afternoon Collection, both of which were excellent from a rerelease and preservation standpoint. I really hope CAPCOM doing this one internally isn't indicative of future plans.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

Rather than trying to fill space with the apparent release of Cars 3: Driven to Win, I'm just going to admit that nothing of note is coming out this week. Everybody's got their focus squarely on E3, leaving you free to ingest hours and hours of press conference footage—or, alternatively, to catch up on Persona.


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