Word came down this morning that Virtual Console won't be available on the Nintendo Switch at launch, and the general reaction was, "Oh well."
It's been apparent for a while that next week will be a soft launch for Nintendo's new console—an opportunity to make inroads with the hardcore fans before going big in the fall. The 'real launch' will in all probability bring with it a bundled game and a proper Virtual Console rollout. And as someone on Reddit pointed out, every new Nintendo patch will now be big news.
And yet, I feel like this should be a bigger deal. Sure, we'll have Zelda (and Shovel Knight!) to keep us busy, but Virtual Console ought to be a key selling point from the start. The mere fact of the NES Classic is proof enough of the nostalgic power of Nintendo's old properties.
Barring a major overhaul for the Switch, this looks to be yet one more instance in which Nintendo has dropped the ball with the Virtual Console—a service they simply haven't been able to get right.
Nintendo has been pushing Virtual Console in one way or another for more than a decade now, usually with mixed results. It began on the Nintendo Wii with a handful of NES, SNES, and N64 releases each week—a veritable cornucopia of classic gaming in a period when legit copies were hard to find. Later, Nintendo added support for the Turbografx-16, the Sega Genesis, and even the Commodore 64, among other platforms. Its high water mark was arguably the release of Rondo of Blood—a rare Japanese-only PC Engine release that had been the holy grail of collectors for years.
In the early days of Virtual Console, new releases were digital watercooler moments for gamers. The release of Super Metroid or Super Mario Bros. 3 would send everyone scrambling to replay the classic they remembered from their childhood, and the subsequent conversations would sometimes last for weeks. These moments tapered off with the release schedule, which eventually slowed to a trickle. But in the end, the Wii was probably the best example of Virtual Console "done right," even hampered as it was by its one-size-fits-all pricing model and modest release schedule.
The next time Nintendo made a splash with the Virtual Console was with the Nintendo 3DS. The 3DS supported Game Boy games out of the gate; and when initial sales were slow, Nintendo hit back hard with an aggressive price cut and an Ambassador Program featuring a large number of free games—many of which never made it to the 3DS. Later support for the NES and Sega Genesis, as well as the SNES (New 3DS only), gave it a solid library, though not nearly as expansive as the one on the Wii.
The Wii U, meanwhile, was a major step back for Virtual Console. Right off the bat, it irritated people with a complex transfer process designed to accomodate the lack of a single account system (though it was nice that it at least had backwards compability, which was not unavailable on either the Xbox One or the PS4 at launch). Retro enthusiasts noted the substantial downgrade in emulation quality, and casual fans complained about having to pay a fee to get full Wii U compatibility for the games they already owned. In the end, the best thing about the Wii U Virtual Console was that it gave us Earthbound and GBA games, the latter which looked great on the Wii U gamepad.
Ultimately, each platform has had its highlights, but Nintendo has yet to put together a service that constitutes what one might call the total package.
How can the Switch fix the Virtual Console?
Over the years, the Virtual Console has steadily faded into the background, making it the province of hardcore fans willing to buy multiple copies of the same game (I will cop to buying Super Mario World on three different platforms). That it won't be available at launch on the Switch shows what a secondary priority the service has become for Nintendo.
That shouldn't be the case. Outside of big games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo's best asset is its classic IPs. If the NES Classic Mini has shown anything, it's that there's an insatiable hunger for Nintendo's classic IPs. Moreover, the buying public seems to be largely unaware that the Virtual Console even exists. When the NES Classic came out last fall, most of them treated playing old games like a brand new novelty.
At this point, pretty much everyone has tried to come up with a way for Nintendo to fix Virtual Console. Hell, we wrote a couple thousand words on the subject just last month. Seemingly everyone wants Nintendo to finally get with the program and realize that Virtual Console shouldn't be an afterthought.
The best case scenario for this delay is that Nintendo is indeed taking the time to get things right. There have been hints from Reggie Fils-Aime that the outsized success of the NES Classic caught them offguard, making them realize that retro gaming is more than just a way to lure back lapsed Gen-Xers. If that's the case, then great. The delay will be worth it.
For now, the Virtual Console remains a gigantic missed opportunity. The sooner Nintendo realizes this, the better. We'll know more... eventually.