Yes, I’m about to drop a heaping heapful of criticism on Nintendo! Run away! RUN AWAAAAAY!
It strikes me that Nintendo has gotten the Virtual Console all wrong.
It’s not that I think the idea of retro gaming is a dated, archaic concept – far from it in fact. I am still enjoying Super Metroid, A Link To The Past and Harvest Moon on my Wii U, alongside Earthbound. I’m a big believer in preserving the past; giving it a new lease of life and letting it do something for you, rather than sit on it indefinitely and pretend that it never happened, moreso when you consider that the aforementioned games are still as strong to play now as they have ever been. Good games shouldn’t die; they should be preserved.
However, technically, I am afraid to say Nintendo made a right old meal of it’s Virtual Console setup.
Iwata has stated in the past that the Virtual Console is done on a game-by-game basis; that is, they decide on a game and then they work in the Virtual Console technology in order to make it run smoothly. This… is a catastrophic mistake. And more’s the point; it’s a missed opportunity at that. All Nintendo have done in this is ensure that the flow of Virtual Console content is slow, bitty and frustratingly lacking any intelligent direction. It ensures that it continues to keep some of the more promising, under-appreciated titles at bay because it costs money in order to fit it inside the framework. This is completely the wrong way to go about it; and annoyingly for Nintendo, it’s own service is being trumped relentlessly by emulation platforms across the PC-verse.
Emulation sounds like a dirty word; with it’s connotations to piracy and the battles Nintendo has had over the years with Flash Cards and the like. But it provides real and important lessons for Nintendo, lessons that are very pertinent to pay attention to and learn from in order to better its service exponentially.
The primary lesson is having a framework in which the majority of games can operate with very few issues; rather than trying to force the Virtual Console setup into a game, the game slots into the emulator in much the same way any good old-school console would do so. This seems like such an obvious thing; and ironically, there are tons of very good Nintendo emulators out there, up to and including the Dolphin emulator which up-scales Wii games to an HD standard. In the face of its own fans demonstrating better and smarter ways of making things work, Nintendo’s current direction is typical of its traditional but single-minded approach; it does a good job, but it sees no bigger picture, no overarching goal.
For a start, an “emulator”-style Virtual Console, even if it is by System on the Wii U menu system, would provide far less clutter on a game-by-game basis; you can have internal menus listing all your available content (and perhaps Nintendo could even run promotions and demonstrations in this manner as well!). It’s a sophisticated, modern approach to a problem that Nintendo hasn’t quite got a handle on; no-one WANTS to make their own folders, they want Nintendo to do at least some of the more basic legwork. Self-containing SNES Games inside a “Virtual Console – SNES” isn’t simply about polish though; it means Nintendo doesn’t have to try and make one over-arching software solution that it will invariably end up struggling with adapting to other software down the road.
It also provides a far more stable and open platform for third-party content; the SNES era in particular always had vastly under-appreciated games, titles that never really scored big with the market in general. From the delightful Terranigma, to the wondrous Secret of Evermore and the barkingly inventive Evo: The Search For Eden, we are talking games that ordinarily would not appear to be worth modifying for the Wii U; but with an overarching software to run basic ROM files from, Nintendo could allow the likes of Capcom, Square-Enix and more to open up their archives and drop titles neatly into it’s little box. And to do so at far less expense than it currently operates on, which encourages people to put more of their deservingly niche old games into circulation once more.
It would also free up valuable eShop space; if Nintendo could keep the SNES games contained inside the SNES-VC software, it allows for greater room on the eShop to either promote new titles or perhaps even more space to dedicate to its growing Indie stables. And with some surprising titles still being made to work on the SNES or Sega Genesis, it would also give a whole new platform for people to release new content on. As silly as it sounds, some people really do enjoy this. And they really do sell new games!
It’s not just the SNES though; this could go for each and every Nintendo machine, from the NES right through to the Gamecube. The NES and SNES will be comparatively easier; even those making the later emulators will tell you it’s been comparatively harder over the years to make perfect emulation of the N64 and Gamecube, but Nintendo are in the position of having all the relative BIOS files in original forms; what it needs is the software in which they can not only utilise them, but exploit them for their own benefit. And there are a range of emulators out there as well that Nintendo can at the very least look at for guidance and inspiration, in addition to adding the features which we like to have on our Virtual Console; like being able to render a save point when we want it, or pausing a title mid-game in case you have a power cut or have to rush to the emergency room for whatever reasons you can think of.
But it’s so much more NATURAL, providing the basic framework. Nintendo has, I believe, vastly over-complicated it’s Virtual Console to the point of almost being detrimental to what it is intent on achieving. For such a thing to work – and work to the benefit of both Nintendo, it’s userbase and the third-parties who retain the rights and code to games of these eras – Nintendo has to make it as natural and simple as slotting a cartridge into a Super Nintendo, or opening a Gamecube to put in a disc. Giving people clean interfaces, solid emulation platforms and a good basis for others to sell their wares cheaply and efficiently through the system is paramount to it’s ideal of giving us a platform for future preservation; one that can be carried on into it’s next console, and the next one, and possibly even the next one after that! It’s about getting the basics right; getting the foundations laid for a new and prosperous method of selling and playing this content without all the kerfuffle of, “We’re implementing it on a game-by-game basis!”
Game-by-game sounds like a great philosophy; giving each game lots of attention. In reality, all it does is divert time away from more important things, and most importantly, it costs money in the end. I’m not entirely sure WHY Nintendo has made the Virtual Console so needlessly complicated, but it has, and this should be if not the forefront of its digital push – then at the very least, the backbone of it. Dependable titles from bygone eras playable on the Gamepad (which is I feel the best way to enjoy them!). A place that people can drop content off and have it work for them; rather than have to work to get it working in the first place. Nintendo will never be able to deliver content in the volume it intends to unless it completely reinvents the means in which it is currently operating; it keeps talent and money away from other more important areas, where an emulator-style app can be tweaked and modified if a game requires it, but otherwise largely left to run on its own accord without too much input.
The recent Nintendo Direct mentioned a scant few GBA titles; this is a good step, but why has it taken so long? And why Wii U, and not the 3DS (which seems a more natural home for some of that content, but I may digress on that at a later date!)? Nintendo would, in my opinion, be better investing the money in providing a bedrock of good, solid and dependable emulation software; once it has the NES/SNES stuff down, it can move onto other platforms, whilst leaving the previous stuff to work for their own benefit. By the end of the Wii U’s lifespan, Nintendo could have covered all the bases, if not even working to emulate OTHER machines in the same vein; how about a decent Saturn or Dreamcast Virtual Console in partnership with Sega, eh? Like the Game Gear version on the 3DS (An example of separate emulation software that could use some more tweaking!).
But before that happens, Nintendo has to get this idea of taking it one game at a time out of its head and consider a broader, more inventive brushstroke that can appeal far more to the greedy bottom-lines of companies sitting on old IP and ROM files than its current approach. Make it so that it is – as near as makes no difference – effortless for them to just drop a ton of content when the mood takes them. Once Nintendo has achieved this; it has achieved not only a solid foundation for its digital future, but the framework for others to come in and flood them with content.
In the process of that content arriving, Nintendo could and would be wise to discuss other deals; other business ventures, and dare I say it, new games? I see the Virtual Console not just in terms of what it could provide to us or the companies involved, but what it could provide to Nintendo – a line to third-party studios and developers, at a time when Nintendo needs that connection to be open more than it has ever needed it to be. Making their lives easier isn’t just in their interests though; it’s in Nintendo’s interests too. More money, less work, faster turnover of content. It could even afford to drop the costs of some of the games then; I know £6-£8 isn’t a lot for a SNES title considering the work to convert it right now, but compared to buying brand-new 3DS eShop games for £2.69? It seems a little excessive, and indicates somewhat Nintendo isn’t doing this nearly efficiently enough!
The current slow, sluggish way is kind of cute and nice and all – very typical of Nintendo, in a sense. Some may even consider my proposal a bit naive and overly-simplistic; but the point stands that Nintendo NEEDS this to be simple. It needs to make it as smooth and as clean and (as much as I loathe the term) as idiot-proof as it can. Once Nintendo has started on that, it can reel in more content, more support and be at the end of this generational cycle in a far healthier, more mutually-beneficial place with the main bulk of the industry than it currently enjoys.
But the main reason to do this is ultimately to make it easier for Nintendo themselves. It shouldn’t be complicated; NES games shouldn’t take so long to convert, nor should SNES games. I’d understand a months wait for a Gamecube game, but hey, I’m open-minded like that. And by separating the virtual console, it can then consider it a viable digital platform in its own right, to do with in the future as it sees fit – be that exclusive to Nintendo, or even taking it to smartphones. The framework will be there, already constructed, ready to go. All Nintendo needs to do is make the few necessary tweaks in order to make things run smoothly. To ensure that it is a digital platform running alongside the Wii U and 3DS; keeping the pace, rather than propping it up (and badly at that!).
Nintendo just needs to take some lessons from those emulators that it has so hated for so many years. They offer many indications and clues for future reference. The reason so many were attracted to them, and still are? Breadth of content, ease of use. Two killer functions that currently its laboured Virtual Console dreams cannot match. Until Nintendo does, it will never quite beat the ‘illegal method’. It can never quite stamp it out as long as they continue to undermine the very nature of the Virtual Console.
So if you can’t beat them…