When Nintendo launched the Wii console 10 years ago next month, everyone was excited about The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and curious about the "waggle" controller. Long-time Nintendo fans, however, were equally thrilled about the prospect of Virtual Console: A built-in system that would allow Wii owners to buy and download classic games from Nintendo's past (and SEGA's! And NEC's! And SNK's! And Commodore's!) for a reasonable price.
Virtual Console has made its way to every Nintendo platform since then, but the concept has suffered tremendous attrition along the way. The 3DS added Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Gear to the mix, but lost SEGA Genesis, Master System, Neo•Geo, Nintendo 64, Commodore 64, and Virtual Console Arcade (and — notably — Super NES is only available for New 3DS owners). The Wii U picked up Game Boy Advance along with restoring Nintendo 64 support, but it dropped all three of the 3DS's 8-bit portables. Even more annoyingly, Nintendo treats 3DS and Wii U as separate accounts, forcing players to pay individually for the privilege of playing the same game on each platform — a particularly grating choice in light of Sony's cross-play support for PS1 games.
So what can we expect Nintendo's freshly announced next-generation console, Switch, to offer in terms of classic game support? Today's teaser trailer appeared decidedly light on familiar classics like Super Mario Bros. for NES, which is to be expected — a console's first-look teaser should be about facing forward, not backward. I'm sure Nintendo could have thrown in some bitmap retro graphics or Mario coin sound effects to hit the little reptile brain bit that powers our nostalgia, but it was important for them to generate excitement for Switch without leaning on easy recognition. Besides, thanks to 3DS Virtual Console (and Super Mario Advance 4 before it!), we can already play Super Mario Bros. 3 on the go. The point of the Switch intro trailer was that we'll be able to play never-before-seen games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and an original 3D Super Mario adventure on the go — a pretty significant improvement over the current state of things.
Still, you can't help but wonder what the future holds for Virtual Console, if anything. Nintendo's big release for this fall is not a new console, but rather a very old one shrunken down into miniature: The NES Classic Edition. Not only does the mini-NES offer better emulation of 8-bit games than any iteration of Virtual Console to date, it also includes 30 games that essentially represent the bulk of high-selling Virtual Console NES releases. In a lot of ways, the NES Classic Edition moots Virtual Console — and while it doesn't offer an online store front for additional game sales, Nintendo could easily adopt a strategy similar to that behind SEGA's Genesis Classic Console devices by AT Games: A new release every fall with a slightly tweaked lineup of titles included. (Though, one hopes, of superior quality to AT Games' work.)
Furthermore, it's hard to overlook the fact that nearly all Virtual Console licensees have given up on the business. The Wii Virtual Console offered titles from an enormous range of publishers, but these days most VC releases come from Nintendo, Capcom, and Konami, with the occasional release by Natsume or the holding companies that currently own the rights to Jaleco and Technos classics.
On top of that, Switch appears to bring an end to Nintendo's history of dual-format console support, which stretches back to the days of the Game Boy. Yes, the company has said it intends to keep supporting 3DS while phasing Wii U away posthaste, but that doesn't mean Nintendo aspires to maintain a portable console separate from Switch in the long term. Switch effectively is a portable, and the company has been fairly transparent in recent years that the need to support two systems amidst the increasing demand for resources seen in modern, high-end consoles puts a terrible strain on the company (which does most of its own heavy lifting while maintaining a much smaller overall staff than its major competitors). The 3DS has become entrenched, so you can expect to see support for the system for another couple of years — not unlike the way Nintendo supported Game Boy Advance for several years after the DS debuted — but unless Switch fails abysmally and Nintendo needs a new handheld as a fallback position, we can likely expect 3DS to close the book on the company's portable legacy.
What relevance does that have for Virtual Console? Well, there's the whole Nintendo account issue. Supposedly fans had to buy Virtual Console games separately on 3DS and Wii/Wii U because Nintendo couldn't figure out how to make those accounts line up; in theory that should no longer be an issue following the advent of the Nintendo ID system. So, one assumes, if content transfers from one system to the Switch, it would likely be from Wii U... but Switch runs games from physical card media that looks a lot like DS/3DS carts, appears not to include any sort of disc-based support, and is rumored not to be backward-compatible. In other words, there's a pretty good chance Nintendo intends to cut loose account-based software and simply let your 3DS and Wii U digital purchases rest in peace on those systems. To simplify things. Oh, also, because that way they can sell you Super Mario Bros. 2 again.
I don't think some form of Virtual Console would be entirely out of the question for Switch. But I wouldn't expect to be able to carry forward an extensive, existing library of titles — especially if you brought your Wii account to your Wii U. Can you imagine, say, having to go into Wii U's Wii emulation mode inside of a Wii U emulation mode on Switch in order to play Wii-exclusive titles like Rondo of Blood? What a mess.
That said, the idea of Switch-based classic gaming sounds great. Supposedly the portable screen will operate at 720p, which means it will have proper 3X scaling for classic game consoles that originally ran at 240p, such as NES and Super NES. And those detachable, uh, "Joy Cons" look perfectly suited for classic games, so two players could grab a Joy Con and play something like Super C or Secret of Mana cooperatively on an airplane or car trip. There's a lot of potential here, if Nintendo bothers to exploit it. But if the company would rather focus its resources on new, original content for Switch (and iPhone, I suppose), that wouldn't necessarily be all bad — provided the Classic NES Edition mini-console turns out OK, that is. I don't really see Virtual Console ever returning to the glory days of 2007, and the whole venture has become a case of diminishing returns for both Nintendo and its fans. And with more and more dedicated third-party devices (both high-end and affordable) capable of presenting classic Nintendo games with gorgeous fidelity, it's not like we're exactly starving for classic gaming options these days.