Since Nintendo debuted its Wii console back in 2006, we've taken as a given the assumption that the option to play vintage games would come baked into each new piece of hardware.
Wii launched with the original Virtual Console storefront in tow, and both 3DS and Wii U saw their respective Virtual Console services debut within a few months of each system's launch. Nintendo's most recent system — the NES Classic Edition — consisted of nothing but classic games. Therefore, it stands to reason that Switch will also offer some sort of retrogaming functionality as well.
We don't know much about the particulars of the system's vintage hooks, though, despite being a mere five weeks out from its launch. We know that Nintendo will be rolling some classic title access into its paid online service, but in a limited capacity: Each month, the Switch's premium service will allow players to enjoy a select NES or Super NES game, but each title will reportedly no longer be available for "free" premium service play once the month closes out. Compare that to PlayStation Plus free games, which remain in each member's library for as long as their subscription is paid up, and it seems like something of a bum deal.
We also know that Switch will not be backward-compatible with Wii, Wii U, or 3DS, which limits the likelihood that owners of those systems will be able to bring forward their existing Virtual Console purchases and benefit from price breaks the way Wii owners were allowed to do on Wii U. We also know that Nintendo is moving toward an account-focused sales model, which means any VC purchases will be registered to fans' accounts moving forward... but also very likely means that VC purchases will be limited to the account that purchased them on a given machine. Since Switch can support multiple user accounts per machine, this means you probably won't be able to play VC games (and other downloaded titles) unless you're logged in to the purchasing account.
It all sounds terribly less than ideal, right? But let's hold onto an ember of hope — since Nintendo hasn't yet announced its Switch VC plans, there'a always hope they could surprise us in a good way. Presented here in the spirit of impossible optimism, then, is our wish list for Switch Virtual Console.
The all you can eat approach
The ultimate dream, really, would be for Nintendo to comprehensively overhaul its approach to Virtual Console by abandoning its current slow trickle of individual releases in favor of a subscription-based service boasting hundreds (thousands!) of games drawn from 30-plus years of video game history. Nintendo seems to prefer rolling a single new VC release into its weekly release announcements (sometimes two if we've been very good boys and girls). This helps shore up those weekly release press releases on soft weeks, but it makes for a very slow and painful process when you consider the Virtual Console library on its own. And let's be honest: The first time Nintendo gave us Super Metroid or EarthBound after years of anticipation, it was great. The next time it had considerably less impact.
It's pretty safe to say that, at this point, Nintendo has wrung its drip-feed approach dry. And aside from a handful of high-profile titles, it's hard to imagine these games are going to sell well to people who have already bought them a la carte on another system, or two... or three. It's time to abandon that old model and move over to a massive streaming service — maybe a tiered service with different levels of features at different prices, e.g. online multiplayer for Gold subscribers, save states for Silver subscribers, etc. One where Nintendo rounds up licenses for a few hundred games across multiple platforms, gets a sizable library working up-front, then uses subscription profits to continue adding new games to the service.
We've been calling for this approach on Retronauts for years. We even came up with a name for it: NESflix. And it's not like this is a new idea for video games. I did some work for Turner's GameTap more than a decade ago. It can work!
Of course, this service would have its downsides. Sometimes games have been delisted from Virtual Console, generally due to license issues (e.g. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for NES); people who bought those games a la carte can still play them, but they'd become inaccessible if delisted from a streaming service. And Nintendo already intends to charge for its Switch network service, which would make "NESflix" an additional fee on top of that. The upsides, however, more than outweigh the shortcomings. This... is what we need.
We probably won't get it, though!
Peaceful transfer of content
So, at the very least, the absolute minimum Nintendo could do to avoid coming off as egregiously exploitative of its fans would be to allow existing Virtual Console customers to transfer the rights to their games over from Wii or Wii U. After all, Switch is being positioned as a Wii U replacement; it would only seem reasonable to expect we'd be able to transfer some licenses over, the way we could from Wii to Wii U and DSi to 3DS.
No, Switch won't be backward-compatible with Wii U software, but Virtual Console isn't "Wii U software." It's a catch-all term for software designed to reproduce vintage games from a wide variety of platforms. We'd even be OK with a system similar to the one Nintendo implemented for Wii to Wii U transfers, where we had to re-purchase games for a steeply discounted price. Assuming, that is, unlike what happened to NES games in the move from Wii to Wii U, these games don't take a hit to their emulation quality. Which brings us to our next demand...
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