The Slow Decline of the Virtual Console

digg_url = ‘’; digg_skin =”;

Nobody can deny that the initial excitement of the Virtual Console has waned in recent months. Releases have slowed down in the shadow of Wii Ware, and the quality of the releases themselves has taken a nosedive. Last year, we all had hope. Quality games were abounding. There was a ton of hype and everybody was looking forward to having all of their favorite old-school classics together on one console, all legally. There’s a certain satisfaction to that thought: five generations of classic gaming in a tiny white box. Sadly, that dream is starting to become tarnished by the harsh realities of business. As much as we love them, game companies exist to maximize their profits, not cater to nostalgic fans. As such, there’s a lot of games (or superior versions of games) we might not be getting any time soon, if at all.

Where’s My Cut?

Regardless of how we may feel certain titles are timeless, companies tend to think of video game releases as being far more disposable than we do. There are a lot of things to fear in the world of old-school licenses, and sometimes a company (in this case Nintendo) just doesn’t feel the need to bother putting forth the effort to rescue a forgotten classic that is tied up in licensing issues. Some classic games are branded with names (such as Tetris Attack/Sphere/Blast/Plus/ect) that cost a fortune to license and are seen as too expensive for a retro download service. Sometimes the rights to classic titles are spread among several companies who just can’t come to terms on how to split the profits, such as is the case with Goldeneye. Some IPs are owned by companies that no longer exist, often leaving the question of ownership up to debate—a costly debate nobody wants to manage. Some classic games which are based on properties still popular today bring with them license fees that are now far too high to warrant for a retro download release. Hope to someday see: Marvel Super Heroes, Batman, The Simpsons or any of the literally hundreds of quality classic licensed titles? Not a chance. You can also say goodbye to any classic NFL-licensed football game that wasn’t made by EA since they will likely always have the exclusive NFL license. That means no Tecmo Super Bowl, NFL Quarterback Club, Joe Montana Football, or NFL Blitz. Things aren’t always bleak, and sometimes we get lucky, with releases such as Earthworm Jim, Boogerman, and Clay Fighter soon to be out on the Virtual Console. Of course, one has to realize that Interplay is likely only doing this because of the cross promotional opportunities presented with the upcoming Earthworm Jim games, movie, and cartoon.

The reason Nintendo was cleared to release Tetris DS a while back was simply because they struck a deal with current license-holder THQ. Apparently Nintendo couldn’t work out a deal for the rights to release their classic Nintendo-developed Tetris games, or perhaps the cash THQ wanted was too much for Nintendo to justify for some retro downloads. Because of this sad state of things, we may never see SNES classic Tetris Attack simply because it carries the “Tetris” name (even though the gameplay is completely foreign to the Tetris brand) and Nintendo doesn’t want to pay the license fee for the name, or do work to change the name. The recent release of Tetris Attack’s sequel, Pokémon Puzzle League, pretty much buries the game for keeps. Not a Pokémon fan? It doesn’t appear you have much choice. This line of thinking (and the upcoming WiiWare release of a new version of Tetris) likely also condemns the chances of ever seeing Tetris (NES), Tetris 2 (Tetris Flash in Japan), Tetris & Dr. Mario (which sold 6 million copies largely due to its brilliant “Mixed Match” mode), Tetrisphere (one of the most original puzzlers ever), and The New Tetris, among a half dozen others.

Square-Enix made it pretty clear that no Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest titles are ever coming and that probably also applies to timeless classics like Chrono Trigger, because Square loves to sit on their IPs and plot a string of portable remakes to fund the never-ending development of Final Fantasy XIII. Of course, things aren’t all hopeless. Square finally let loose on their half of the rights to Super Mario RPG which will hit Japan in July (at a 900 point premium because Square is special). So there is hope is some instances though you can rest assured that at least 90% of their catalog is off the virtual table. Square seems to want to hold on to their IPs for remake value because they believe the virtual download business model provides limited potential for profit since the two or three games they’ve made available sold so poorly. Hey, Square: perhaps your VC releases wouldn’t sell so poorly if you would release something other than crap like King’s Knight.

And then there’s Rare. One could spend a whole page on the legal entanglements between the Virtual Console and Rare’s classic Nintendo library, so let’s boil it down to a paragraph: Microsoft owns Rare. Rare has no interest in wasting resources porting their classics to the Xbox Live Arcade, and though they reportedly tried, Nintendo of America couldn’t land a deal to get Rare’s library on the Virtual Console thanks to Nintendo of Japan’s boneheaded refusal to allow a Nintendo-published title on another platform. That means you can forget about Goldeneye, Battletoads, Banjo-Kazooie, Blast Corps, Killer Instinct, Conker, and Jet Force Gemini (just to name a select few) from ever being seen again. Rare and Nintendo’s rift also places the fate of Donkey Kong 64 into question. Yes, Nintendo got the rights to all the DK-centric Rare projects, but DK64 features Jetpac (a Rare property sitting on the XBLA right now) as a mini-game deeply woven into the quest. You can’t take it out. Rare also reportedly canceled a DS remake/port. So what becomes of DK64? Is it lost to the void much like Diddy Kong Racing, which contains Rare-owned characters such as Banjo, Conker, and Tricky? Sure, there’s a DS version of Diddy Kong Racing, but some people prefer the N64 original or maybe they would just like to have a complete digital set. Either way, it’s not happening.

There’s a long list of title screens we’re unlikely to ever (legally) see again and for just as many reasons. It’s a difficult thing to ask gamers to shun readily available illegal ROM downloads in favor of the Virtual Console when publishers let legal issues stand between fans and half of their all-time favorites.

What happened to “Playing with Super Power”?

So I’m sitting here looking at my Virtual Console collection. I’ve got around 70+ games sitting on my SD card. Quite a nice selection I must say, but here’s the problem: only a precious few of them are Super Nintendo games. In fact, the amount of SNES releases on the service doesn’t even come close to the total number of NES, Genesis, or even TurboGrafx-16 games available. How can the Genesis selection outweigh the Nintendo selection by almost a factor of 2/1? Isn’t this a Nintendo console?

How many times now has Nintendo chosen to release a Nintendo 64 sequel instead of the SNES original? Mario Kart 64 was released last year. Super Mario Kart still sits in oblivion, even though it would have made a great promo release for Mario Kart Wii. FX-Chip classic Star Fox is left in the dark, yet its 64-bit successor is sitting pretty on the download service. The list goes on and on. The only reason it would seem we got Super Metroid was because there wasn’t another 3D pre-GameCube console sequel to put up instead.

I’ve also lost track of how many classic Super Nintendo games we’ve seen float around the ESRB database, only to disappear a couple of weeks later as if Nintendo had second thoughts and decided to throw them back into the vault and lock the door. Kirby’s Dreamland 3, Super Mario RPG, Kirby’s Superstar, Uniracers, Pilotwings, and Super Punch Out! all come to mind as games that have peeped out of the water only to be just as quickly pushed back down for whatever reason. Recently, forgotten SNES classic Earthbound was tossed onto the ESRB website after Nintendo Power did a user poll for the Virtual Console most wanted and Earthbound landed on top. How many weeks or days will pass before Nintendo changes their mind on that one too?

And how many times has Nintendo chosen to toss up a crappier NES version of a multiplatform classic rather than go with the obviously superior SNES (or other console) release? That’s what happened to Wario’s Woods and Yoshi’s Cookie, and unless Nintendo suddenly decides to stop trying to make money, the same thing will happen to Super Mario All-Stars. Why release a compilation of (superior) 16-bit Mario remakes when you can simply charge 500 points for all of them separately? It doesn’t only apply to the SNES either. Even with the TurboGrafx-16 library readily available to them, Nintendo chose to go with Konami’s inferior NES port of arcade classic Gradius last year over the vastly superior TurboGrafx port that most fans consider to be better even than the arcade version. This probably happened because the inferior NES version was cheaper for Nintendo to obtain since it was released on a Nintendo console. Sometimes we get lucky, such as with the upcoming release of the Earthworm Jim games, where Interplay has claimed that they are releasing the Genesis versions since they contain extra stages not present in the Nintendo versions. That said, what is wrong with giving gamers a little choice and letting them pick which version they would rather pay for? The TurboGrafx-16 version of Gradius could be made available for a higher price, as could Super Mario All-Stars. Is having duplicates on the service really that bad of a thing?

Now, perhaps Nintendo just wants to milk fans for a little extra dough and release the superior versions of these games at a later date, but there is a good chance they won’t. Why not release any or all versions of a game at once and let gamers decide how much they want spend, or let their nostalgic memories dictate which version they want to pay for? The NES isn’t the only console people have nostalgic memories of.

We all know how Nintendo likes to work over their fans for a little extra dough. Otherwise there wouldn’t be four versions of Game Boy Advance. Perhaps they want to release the inferior versions first, then release the superior 16-bit versions at a later date with the hope people will double dip. But what if that inferior NES version doesn’t meet expectations? What if Nintendo wants to just have one version of each game available on the service and leave it at that? Will we ever see the better version many were probably waiting for? Who knows? For all we know, Nintendo went with the NES version of Yoshi’s Cookie because the higher quality SNES port was developed by Blue Planet Software (formerly Bullet Proof Software) and Nintendo didn’t want to bother with having to pay them a cut of the profits. You can bet there will be more examples of this in the future.

It may only seem like eight bits, but when there is a Super NES port of an NES game, the difference can be like light and day.

The NES and the TurboGrafx-16 were both 8-bit machines, but clearly the TurboGrafx had an edge on graphics and sound. When there is a superior version of a third party game in existence, logic would dictate we should get the better version on the VC. Sadly, money dictates otherwise. You decide which is better: NES or Turbo.

There are countless scenarios explaining why certain games will likely never be available again, and all of them are depressing. I just wanted to give you a taste of the bitter, bitter reality that has finally overshadowed the Virtual Console’s full potential. Sometimes, don’t you just wish the Wii had a cartridge slot for every legacy console? No legal entanglements are ever going to deny you the right to play that two pound chunk of plastic in your attic, under your bed, or wherever you keep your old consoles. And to be cruel, no legal entanglements are going to deny you the rights to play that illegal ROM sitting on your hard drive either (admit it; you know where you got that monster bit-torrent file). There are so many classics sitting in the annals of history that we might never see again just because Nintendo neglects them or because legal entanglements obscure them and the powers that be show little interest in digging them out of the dark.

So if you sold your old-school consoles over the years to upgrade to next-gen after next-gen and suddenly get the urge to play a little NFL Blitz or Chrono Trigger, then I pity you. Unless you feel like breaking the law and hitting a torrent site, you’re going to have to scour eBay for a $500+ cartridge and the machine to play it on.

Depressing sight, isn’t it?