The news of Nintendo ending the eShop on 3DS and WiiU in March 2023 has sent shockwaves through the fanbase. Many quickly noted the number of games that were released as digital exclusives that will become completely unavailable to purchase anywhere once the service ends. What’s really gotten to me, however, is the reality that this will be the end of the Virtual Console.
A now-removed question and answer from the Q&A section of the announcement addressed the discontinuing of the Virtual Console and Nintendo’s plan to offer retro games in future.
Once it is no longer possible to purchase software in Nintendo eShop on Wii U and the Nintendo 3DS family of systems, many classic games for past platforms will cease to be available for purchase anywhere. Will you make classic games available to own some other way? If not, then why? Doesn’t Nintendo have an obligation to preserve its classic games by continually making them available for purchase?
Across our Nintendo Switch Online membership plans, over 130 classic games are currently available in growing libraries for various legacy systems. The games are often enhanced with new features such as online play.
We think this is an effective way to make classic content easily available to a broad range of players. Within these libraries, new and longtime players can not only find games they remember or have heard about, but other fun games they might not have thought to seek out otherwise.
We currently have no plans to offer classic content in other ways.
So what are we losing here?
The Virtual Console first appeared on the Nintendo Wii in 2006. It was the first of the Wii’s legacy services to be discontinued, along with the Wii Shop Channel, in 2019. The Virtual Console later became available on the Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo WiiU shortly after their releases.
The Virtual Console library was made of games from numerous platforms from the Nintendo stable and beyond. It was home to games from across Nintendo’s own stable of home consoles from the NES to the Nintendo 64, and its handhelds from the GameBoy to the Nintendo DS.
It also catered to arcade cabinets like NEO-GEO and SEGA’s Golden Axe, as well as games from competing and even obscure platforms such as the TurboGrafx-16, Sega Master System, Sega Mega Drive, Commodore 64, MSX, and Game Gear. By the end of the Virtual Console run on the Wii, it boasted 659 titles across all the above platforms. The 3DS library consisted of 244 titles and the WiiU library, 466. Some may disagree with me on this particular point, but I always thought these games were quite reasonably priced as well. This was definitely part of the draw for me.
Another thing that made the Virtual Console so attractive was the consistency of releases, with a new game added every week. Considering the snail-adjacent release schedule of games on the Nintendo Switch Online library, that consistency kept people interested in the Virtual Console.
You could accuse me of having rose-tinted glasses on while looking at the past, and you might not be wrong. However, it’s hard to remove those glasses when comparing the Virtual Console to the Nintendo Switch Online library.
While the Nintendo Switch Online library may be a more financially viable way to access retro Nintendo games by paying for a subscription over individual titles, the Virtual Console had the benefit of letting you curate your own library and store them whenever you want. Not every game is going to be a must-buy, so having the ability to pick and choose was great.
I’m not sure about you guys, but when I found out that Nintendo wouldn’t be continuing and expanding the Virtual Console on the Nintendo Switch, I was pretty bummed. While I’ve been lucky enough to own multiple Nintendo consoles, there were plenty of games that I missed while those consoles were active that I later ended up playing on the Virtual Console on the Wii, 3DS, and WiiU.
The thing is, emulation is more accessible now than ever. As computers and smartphones become more powerful, the ability to emulate games we played as kids has become easier than ever before. If you told people when the Nintendo GameCube came out that there would come a point where you could play GameCube games on your phone, with ease, those people probably would have laughed in your face, before putting you on a chunk of floating ice and pushing you into the vast ocean.
(Editor’s note: It’s true, I would have. —David)
To have emulation this accessible almost makes concepts like the Virtual Console feel unnecessary in the modern age. On the other hand, there are still many people that don’t have access to computers or phones that can run emulators and don’t have the tech skills to iron out any kinks that they might face when running them. That’s where the desire to have these games available on modern-day consoles comes in.
People like backwards compatibility because it gives more lifespan to older games, and more opportunity to discover games of the past. Services like the Virtual Console extended the idea of backwards compatibility to allow access to retro games spanning back to Nintendo’s earliest years in the video games market. While they still technically are making games available through the Nintendo Switch Online library, the big titles lie behind a regular paywall and will be a lot easier to cut access to considering there’s no way to actually own them.
I hope the Virtual Console will be fondly remembered. In comparison, the Nintendo Switch Online library really feels like one step forward in an economic sense (subscription services are a big financial win for companies) and many many steps back in terms of what they already achieved with the Virtual Console.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to take a trip down memory lane, Nintendo has launched a website where you can look back at your history with the WiiU and 3DS. Weirdly enough, I can faintly hear Vitamin C’s ‘Friends Forever’ playing in the distance.