Nintendo Remembers 3DS Virtual Console Exists

Screenshot of Pokémon Yellow
Pokémon Yellow has this delightful frame when played on a Super Game Boy.

This Saturday will be a special occasion for the Nintendo 3DS: Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow will be the first Virtual Console releases on the 3DS in over a year. If you live in Europe or Japan, it’s been even longer since your last 3DS Virtual Console release. Nintendo may have had a good reason for killing the 3DS Virtual Console, but I’ve been disappointed by the decline of such a promising ecosystem.

I loved the the original Wii Virtual Console, despite it not being as capable as many PC emulators. The Wii Shop Channel had a diverse catalog and the prices usually beat the cost of the original cartridges. The promise of the original Wii was a console that would bring in new audiences to gaming, while providing more involved experiences for dedicated gamers. The nature of the Virtual Console exemplifies these ideals. Virtual Console games were cheaper and more accessible than hunting for old cartridges like a collector so that anyone could try a few games, putting Super Mario Bros. 3 back in the hands of grandmas everywhere. Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata hoped that the Wii would redefine backwards compatibility for hardcore gamers, saying that playing, “the first Excitebike, EarthBound or Punch-Out, should make us all feel young again, at least for a while.”

Slide from E3 Announcing the Wii game console, then known as the Nintendo Revolution
Would “Revolution U” have been as confusing?

But since the peak of the Wii, the Virtual Console has only declined. While the Wii launched with a large number of titles across many platforms and continued to grow, the 3DS Virtual Console launched with very few games and only supports a handful of platforms. One of those platforms isn’t even available to most 3DS owners; early 3DS adopters were given free GBA Virtual Console titles that have never been released to anyone else. The Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and other home platforms would be good fit for the 3DS’ hardware, but the 3DS Virtual Console only goes as far as NES games.

Then there are the technical issues. The original Wii had its share of technical drawbacks and glitches of course, but the biggest flaws were the lack of more advanced emulator features like Save States. The 3DS includes a reasonable facsimile of this feature, but lacks others. Game Boy games are only available in a drab green color scheme without access to the Game Boy Color or Super Game Boy palettes. Additionally, Pokémon Red, Blue and Yellow will be the first 3DS Virtual Console games to be able to use Game Link functionality over wireless. Of course these new features would take time to develop and implement, but if that’s a concern Nintendo should adjust the pricing model accordingly. The HD remake craze has rewarded faithful and considerate ports of games. It’s also a shame that the 3DS doesn’t allow you to remap buttons like the Wii U does.

Picture from Nintendo Patent filing demonstrating an ugly touch screen device
I guess I’ll play whatever this thing is.

As they plan their next console generation, Nintendo needs to make some decisions about how they’ll handle the future of the Virtual Console, if at all. If you visit the comment section on any Nintendo blog, you’ll see at least a few gamers suggesting that future of the Virtual Console is something similar to Sony’s PlayStation Now. PlayStation Now is sort of like Netflix meets Sega Channel. Pay for a monthly subscription or for a timed rental and Sony streams PlayStation 3 to your PlayStation 4, 3, Vita, and some special TV sets. I like the convenience of PlayStation Now and in my tests it’s always been a technical marvel.

After some adjustments, this approach could be compatible with Nintendo’s catalog, but one of the worst parts of PS Now is that you don’t own access to the games in anyway. Once I cancelled my PS Now subscription, my system was filled with husks of the old games I had tried. The Virtual Console already has generally anti-consumer ownership issues — like forcing you to pay extra to upgrade a Wii Virtual Console game to your Wii U — and a streaming service would just complicate the issue. The original Wii Virtual Console had 29 title delisted. They’re still available to people that purchased them, but a subscription service would need to address that issue somehow. Streaming services also require constant internet connections, which would really cut into my time with Mario’s Picross.

Slide from Nintendo of Japan presentation on the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console

My dream Virtual Console wouldn’t be streaming based, but would have a subscription model closer to the Humble Monthly game service. Single games are still available for individual purchase, but the subscription service would guarantee a fresh feed of titles to try and a curated experience to highlight sleeper hits. While the dream Virtual Console would feature improvements on the technical backend, I’d be more excited if each game had a tighter Miiverse integration with collectible stamps and GIF recording. And of course, purchasing a game on one Nintendo platform should give me access on all of them with transferable save states.

Even without my daydream feature set, I think the Virtual Console can fulfill the promise it set out to achieve. Many classic games are still fun to play today and others are at least appeal to nostalgia. The next generation of game developers cutting their teeth on Super Mario Maker will also need access to the classic games that have become the keystones of the medium. While technical improvements are definitely needed for the Virtual Console to grow, it needs a steady stream of releases to even exist.