At the height of Disney's VHS supremacy, there was a common expression used even by Disney itself known as the "vault." The Disney vault was a figurative safe, keeping certain beloved animated classics locked away. "Buy now, before Bambi and Snow White return to the Disney vault!"
Over time, it allowed Disney to make a big event out of every issue and reissue of a film. It worked; the Disney vault still retains its limited-time-only appeal. It's why Disney aficionados were excited when then-CEO Bob Iger said previously vaulted films would be added to the company's Disney+ service.
At least when the media was physical, a limited-time or limited-scale launch made sense. There was a tangible limit to how many units could be made available of any one product. When the media moves into the digital sphere though, constraints end up feeling artificial. This is the age of immediate availability, without the concerns of tape wearing out or discs being scratched.
Nintendo isn't a stranger to limited-time releases. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Master Quest on the GameCube was, at first, a limited-run bonus disc for Wind Waker; it later became an add-on in Ocarina of Time's 3DS release. The Four Swords Anniversary Edition is unavailable as of the time of this writing.
With several recent releases though, Nintendo's been setting a trend. As part of Mario's 35th anniversary, the company released several different games paying homage to the platforming plumber. One was Super Mario 3D All-Stars, packaging Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy into one collection for the Nintendo Switch. Another was Super Mario Bros. 35—a game that marries the original Super Mario Bros. with the battle royale genre.
Both of these Mario releases are limited-time launches dissipating into the digital ether on March 31, 2021. Sales for 3D All-Stars were only topped by Marvel's Avengers in its launch month. Seemingly realizing that it now has a formula for success, Nintendo announced today that the first Fire Emblem game—newly-localized in English on the occasion of its 30th anniversary—willonly be available from Dec. 4, 2020 to March 31, 2021.
Beyond the ominous portent of so many digital games disappearing on the same day (do you know something we don't, Nintendo?), it's a move that sets a worrying trend for Nintendo moving forward. While the original Shadow Dragon did get a remake on the Nintendo DS, this is the first time the Famicom version will be localized for the States and brought over to a modern platform. It should be a triumphant moment for a series that's currently have a bit of a moment, celebrating 30 years of Fire Emblem games and the resounding success of 2019's Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
The limited release of the Mario 3D All-Stars collection led to backlash, with some fans calling it anti-consumer. Still, you can rationalize it with sales numbers and the popularity of Mario. It feels like, up to this point, it was easy enough to follow some theoretical line of reasoning for why the Mario games were set for a limited window. It's a big event, a one-time thing; they might come as a package deal now, and get split up and sold separately later. It's easy to do that with something as prevalent as Mario, but much harder for a game like Fire Emblem, making this decision all the more confusing.
All of this serves to put a dampener on what should be a celebratory moment. Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, and Fire Emblem are all hitting major milestones between this year and next, and Nintendo's response is to milk these moments with blatantly exploitive limited time events. Wario would be proud.
Fire Emblem fans have been through a lot. The series wasn't brought over to North America until Blazing Blade, and many of its flagship entries like Genealogy of the Holy War and Thracia 776 have still never found their way over to the States. Now, the surprising announcement of a return to Fire Emblem's roots, as the series celebrates its 30th, is dulled by the fact that it will only last until the end of March.
Digital availability should allow for just that: availability. Ease of access to games that would otherwise be anywhere from difficult to impossible, let alone expensive, to get a hold of and play today. Portions of Fire Emblem's back catalog are notoriously rare and costly to acquire. Making these games available on a permanent basis means more people can play them, discover them at their leisure, recommend them to friends, and share in a piece of Nintendo's history together.
A better compromise might be to just have the extremely good Collector's Edition be the limited run, and have the digital version remain on sale after stock runs out there. There are production reasons for why a special, physical version of a game might run out of stock, but not a digital download of mere megabytes. Making this version impermanent and "vaulting" it is just a cash grab, and not one that engenders any good will for future Nintendo re-releases.
Yes, I'm still going to buy the Fire Emblem localization. I've made it readily apparent how much I like this series. And on Twitter and other platforms, I'll harp on folks to make sure they grab it before time's up. I'm just hoping this isn't the sign of more time-limited moves from Nintendo to come.