For the longest time, I have wanted to write something like this, but just never quite had the motivation or confidence in being able to pull something like this off, especially considering a huge topic a lot of people are into and remember fondly, and often gripe about when compared to the modern alternative.
Yes, today I’m going to be discussing Nintendo’s Virtual Console, and more importantly, why it and other piecemeal retro reissues have gone extinct as of late, despite cries from a lot of folk for it to return, especially when you have recent awkward moments such as the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pass costing $50 MSRP for the sake of playing N64 and Sega Genesis titles. Especially recently, as the Switch Online subscription seems to be the way of the future for Nintendo rereleases, a ton of folk have constantly asked, just why did Virtual Console die? Surely the high demand means it’d be way better than the current glacial pace of NSO!
Well, while I definitely have a lot of things I’d love to see NSO improve on, (and certain games they could add) that’s not exactly what today’s focus is. Rather, I’m going to take you readers back through the looooooooong history of retro game reissues, and explain the trends and shifts over time, and why you barely see standalone reissues these days outside of a notable exception to the rule…
The Experimentation Phase
If you grew up with any 8-32 bit console, you definitely know the feeling of wanting an arcade game brought home, seeing a promising port, only for it to be an abysmal mess, especially if a company like Micronics had their hand in it. Yes, the early days of consoles were pretty famous for ports and remixes of varying degrees, from Nintendo’s NES Donkey Kong that couldn’t fit one of the stages, to the impressive GB Qix port that somehow worked, bringing a game from one system to another was a lot more challenging in this time than it would be later on, as even ports between SNES and Genesis weren’t always 1:1.
However, a few titles would try to take the approach of reissuing older games or compiling them together. Nintendo’s own Donkey Kong Classics compilation, along with stuff such as the reprints of Punch-Out, Zelda, and Metroid in the late NES era, are just a few examples. Sega would do this for the Genesis lineup near its sunset as well, and eventually Player’s Choice would become a handy budget label for Nintendo consoles that worked as a reissue. A few remakes would even come into play, such as the Kirby remake in Super Star, and the complete remix that was Donkey Kong 94.
The Genesis on the other hand, would get some pretty good compilations, and I feel this is when they started to have a good value and match their modern purpose. The 6-Pak is a pretty famous one, and is an awesome deal, serving as a reprint of some of the best games for the entire console, and a handy package that sold well!
But it would be the 32-Bit era when things would start to explode in this regard, and when older console games would start to be emulated and ported more closely. All of a sudden, arcade perfect ports of 80/90’s era games were made possible thanks to the power of the Sega Saturn and Playstation, and nearly every Arcade company you could think of threw something in a compilation and released it. Konami, Capcom, Namco, Taito, Irem, Nichibutsu, and even Sunsoft all put out their classics from Arcades and Consoles onto the home market, and these were the start of retro games being put back into circulation, whether as a standalone title like In the Hunt, or a compilation like Capcom’s Street Fighter Collection, these ports were of varying quality but still usually got the job done.
Heck, some games were even snuck into newer ones as a secret bonus, especially near the end of the PSOne’s life! Sega even got in on the fun with stuff like Sonic Jam and the Sega Ages line. Meanwhile, Nintendo mostly left their NES stuff back on that system, and with the N64, it seemed they basically decided against the nature of compilations, with the console hardly getting any to speak of. Sure, Donkey Kong finally got an arcade port in the form of DK64, and Excitebike was unlockable in Excitebike 64, but full-fledged compilations and older reissues was clearly a thing Nintendo wasn’t too comfortable with, while everyone else was having a blast with their own reissues.
The Forest Calls for You!
Enter Animal Forest, which included a bunch of NES games on this strange, Nintendo 64 simulation. While it was launched right before the Gamecube would come out, (and thus, would not reach the states until we got a Gamecube port) it did manage to include a decent amount of content, including a couple of basic NES games. This is key, since it marked the first time Nintendo had reissued their old console games in compilation form.
It also just so happened to be during the era in which the GBC served as a mini NES, allowing some devs to port their NES titles to the handheld, including Nintendo with Super Mario Bros Deluxe! They even had a few Game Boy games remade in color for the new system, such as the awesome R-Type DX, Link’s Awakening DX, and Tetris DX, so Nintendo was finally starting to catch up with everyone else in reissuing classics, even if it was in their own way.
Still, the NES games in Animal Crossing were a pretty big deal, especially when the game would come west: Where else would you be able to play Clu Clu Land and Punch-Out on a non-NES home console before this? Granted, they were all pretty basic, and four of these games were locked behind e-reader promotions, (two of which never took place) but it was a promising step for Nintendo, and right as the next generation would bring in the biggest push for reissues yet.
One factor in this emulation being so darn good, comes from none other than a man who worked on the famous iNES emulator: Tomohiro Kawaze, and the proof is right here. That whole ordeal with everyone thinking NES roms on VC were from the internet? not at all the case, the dude who literally helped make emulation a reality just did the work for Nintendo, and thus kickstarted their own path into reissuing classics…
The Tidal Wave of Collections and Piecemeal Secrets
The next generation, lasting from 1999-2007, would arguably be the genesis behind current rerelease trends to this day, and the period that current compilations seem to take the most influence from. The PS1 was still going strong with tons of great ports, and the PS2 was getting even better, offering stunning, out of this world ports of games like Gradius IV, while the Dreamcast was a fantastic console for Sega Naomi games.
Even the Gamecube got a bunch of compilations in this era, along with bonus unlockable emulations of games such as Super Punch-Out and NES Metroid in big Gamecube titles such as Metroid Prime. Still, the PS2 was by far the console with the most ports and compilations, with the Game Boy Advance being a similar home filled with Super Nintendo reissues, and even a few waves of NES emulations! Whether it’s oddballs like Jaleco and Kunio compilations, or Nintendo’s e-Reader series, and even the Classic NES lineup that sold basic titles for twenty dollars each, this generation had tons of compilations, and for the most part, they all continued to sell pretty decently, to becoming crazy popular in the case of titles like Sonic Mega Collection and Namco Museum.
There was even a fun branch into the Plug and Play market thanks to Jakks Pacific, and those offered great Arcade and Console ports for super low prices, serving as basically a compilation game console! Case in point, this generation offered something for everyone, and some companies such as Sega fully embraced this with the super ambitious Sega Ages 2500 series, which turned around from a series of low quality 3D remakes to stunning ports and definitive, franchise-encompassing compilations of titles such as Wonder Boy and Fantasy Zone.
With Nintendo even reissuing or remaking their NES/SNES classics for the Game Boy Advance, and even putting a version of Super Mario 64 on the DS, all to some degrees of success, the future of retro gaming reissues was getting brighter! And indeed, something would further light that flame…
The Live Virtual Arcade of my Console
Two phrases sum up the entirety of this next generation, which leads to one of our major topics today.
These two services are what you have to thank for making so many great gems and compilations explode all around, somehow moreso than the wildness of the PS2 generation. Xbox Live was indeed around for the original Xbox, but it was the 360 where it really took off, due to giving publishers an option to release cheaper titles at a lower budget! It just so happened that some of the earliest and most memorable titles for the service included a range of retro ports made available as individual downloads.
Whether it’s Namco games like Pac-Man, Konami games like Gyruss, and even Capcom stuff like Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting, these became a super quick and easy way to experience the classics of old, at the comfort of your modern display! Add the fact these all supported Achievements, the hot new feature at the time, and you had a decently successful lineup of games that you no doubt had one of if you owned a 360 back in the day!
The fact that publishers didn’t have to worry about a compilation of old stuff taking up shelf space and not making money back on it, meant that a lot of developers contracted quick and dirty retro ports out for XBLA, some of which still serving as the only home port for certain titles. In fact, a lot of these are still accessible via Backwards Compatibility on Xbox Series X, so these titles are still available to buy and even go on sale occasionally, which is pretty darn neat considering how the other elephants handled things.
Yes, we have finally reached our main focus point. The Wii launched fifteen years ago, and on that November launch day you’d get access to a decent amount of retro games via Nintendo’s new online service, the Wii Shop Channel. Famous today for the theme song, a big aspect a lot of gamers remember from it are the aforementioned retro games, provided in a service dubbed the Virtual Console, launch day provided you with games from Nintendo’s NES, SNES, N64, Sega’s Genesis, and the NEC Turbografx 16! It was Nintendo’s way of trying the XBLA model, and also making the Wii their big all in one console, since you could play every gamecube game imaginable via the Wii’s Gamecube disc support.
On paper, this should have been a slam dunk, and well, it was for a while! Lots of Nintendo’s back catalogue had never been reissued, and dipping into the Sega Genesis and especially the Turbografx 16 meant that those systems had a lot of ports available for the first time in history: I’d even argue most knowledge of the Turbografx 16 from gamers today, likely came from folks trying out one of the many amazing games available for the Wii Virtual Console, so it definitely had a lot of appeal to it, with major games such as Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Ys I/II, and Revenge of Shinobi all seeing reissues over the course of the Wii’s lifecycle. Even Sony got in by making their PSOne games available for the new PS3 and the PSP, using this exact same model, so surely that means it was a smash hit, right? Well sit down, it ain’t as rosy as you remember.
The Console Crash
While the Wii Virtual Console might seem like a promising assortment of non-stop retro gaming action that was a perfect paradise, and the PSN slowly gaining some gems of its own while XBLA got more native enhanced ports, I feel that a lot of people who weren’t there as these consoles were being updated miss some key aspects and context. For starters, on the PSN/Wii, the games were notorious for all following a fixed pricing structure of some kind. On PSN, it was $5.99 per game, with “bigger” games being $9.99, no doubt due to higher licensing costs for titles such as Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, though this was mitigated over time due to how these games would at least go on sale occasionally, allowing you to get a plentiful amount of these classics for a good deal.
The Wii on the other hand, was far more strict with the fixed pricing, to the point it was a terrible idea even back then. NES games were 500 points each, and back then, that equaled $5 USD per game. Fine for classics such as Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, and Mega Man 2, but for stuff like NES Volleyball? Clu Clu Land? Urban Champion? All that adds up, and eventually, finding out that a score chaser you’ll be bored of in 5 minutes holds the same value as the original Mario or Zeldas rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, even back at VC’s launch. The sales charts reflected this, with most of the popular games on the service being Nintendo’s own, or third party classics with the occasional hidden gem.
SNES, Genesis and N64 suffered from this as well, with SNES/Gen being $8 a pop, and N64 being a whopping tenner. Granted, N64 games for $10 seem like a huge steal these days, but back in 2006 it was pretty silly to end up having to shell out $10 to play Wave Race 64 instead of using that same $10 for Super Mario 64. The Turbografx lineup had an oddball method of handling the fixed price, with Hucard games being a reasonable 600 points compared to the SNES 800, but CD games costing the same as those 16-bit classics.
The other huge issue for people, including one I personally remember fondly, was the release schedule of games, especially in the West. While Japan would get flooded with games of all kinds every month for every console, the Western regions would get a smaller assortment, with anywhere from 1-3 games per week across all consoles. Nintendo did a decent job getting heavy hitters out ASAP, especially on NES, but then things started to slow down, especially on the SNES and especially N64 front. Genesis would keep on trucking for a little while, eventually being joined by Sega’s Master System and SNK’S Neo-Geo, but eventually those two would dry up rather quickly.
Legendary import game Sin and Punishment would launch in September of 2007, and would seemingly be the perfect showcase of Virtual Console at its absolute best, offering a Japan only, super rare game translated into English for the handy price of 1200 Wii Points, a steal compared to hunting down a Japanese N64 and the OG cart. In fact, imports in general would start getting added to Virtual Console, at an extra 100 points compared to the usual fixed prices, offering some fantastic steals such as Rondo of Blood and Gleylancer for far less than real copies. Unfortunately, this still suffered from the slow pace of releases compared to Japan, and Europe mostly restricted imports to a yearly Hanabi Festival.
Not to mention, it was reported in circles as far back as 2007 that Virtual Console sales were slowing down, which considering the lack of imports and niche stuff I saw on the best sellers list, seemed to indicate the troubling reality of the Virtual Console: People would just hop in, buy their childhood classics, and then leave never to touch the store again. Let alone the fact that people back in 2007 didn’t always know how to set up their gaming consoles with the internet, and I know for me in particular I had to beg my grandparents to buy a router just so I could buy Mario Kart 64. I even knew some kids with Wiis that hadn’t even heard of the Virtual Console because of this factor! The few I knew who did connect to the internet, just stuck to the Mario and Zelda games, or the ones their parents grew up with, and that was reflected on the Wii Shop Channel sales charts: Virtual Console games in general just didn’t sell that great after a while, especially of the non-Nintendo variety. The following is a screenshot of the best selling 3 games on Wii VC, on the final day of the Wii Shop Channel, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone.
To make matters worse, not a single Virtual Console game on Wii went on sale, unless it was a unicorn-rare celebration. Even if third parties wanted to discount their games, Nintendo had to be the one to instigate it… And they barely never allowed it, so thus games remained at their prices from 2006 until the end of the Wii Shop channel, not budging an inch. The closest you’d ever get to a deal on Wii, is a free NES game if you bought the Internet Channel, that’s it. Releases were starting to slow down by an insane amount too, with Nintendo having a lot of stuff on the SNES/N64 they could still reissue. But something else would come to harm the service…
The Dawn of Wiiware, and a New Focus
In 2008, Nintendo updated the Wii Shop Channel in the west with a brand new section: Wiiware, a series of downloadable, made for Wii titles meant to be a competitor to PSN/XBLA, allowing developers to offer small scale titles at a small scale price. This in turn, seemed to mark a new focus for the Wii Shop Channel as a whole, and is what I feel led to the Virtual Console getting crippled immensely here in the west, for Japan still got games on a very regular basis, while also getting their own Wiiware games.
Now we’d sometimes get weeks with not a single Virtual Console title at all, and instead it’d be random Wiiware games of varying quality. Not even Nintendo made many games for this new service, leaving it to a bunch of small scale publishers and the first seeds of the Indie Gaming market. Unfortunately, like with Wii Retail titles, a lot of these third party, low-budget titles were just outright abysmal or rushed Shovelware, meaning that you may very well have a week where a Fireplace simulator was the most noteworthy title of the week. There were some hidden gems now and then, such as Konami’s outstanding Rebirth trilogy, and Mega Man 9 and 10, but most of the games on Wiiware flat out sucked, and the fact Nintendo seemed to be slowing down the Virtual Console to try and get those to sell more didn’t seem to really help much.
While stuff like Mega Man 9 were a success, a lot of indie games didn’t do so hot, especially compared to other consoles like XBLA. A lot did decently I hear, but nothing compared to the sort of crazy sales one would hope from a console with such a high install base. Even some indies who wanted to be on the Wiiware service, were unable to do so due to Nintendo’s asinine file size limits, the most notable being Super Meat Boy, so the whole service just ended up being a colossal mess: indies struggled with the restrictive submission process, third parties dumped loads of shovelware, Nintendo barely put out anything of their own, and gamers didn’t find much to play.
Sure, Virtual Console games would still be added from time to time, such as Super Mario RPG, Super Mario Kart, and Pilotwings, but considering how the pace had slowed to a crawl so quickly, despite Japan’s speedy output now starting to do the same? It was honestly feeling like Nintendo was banking more on the big retail games like Wii Sports Resort doing well, with the Wii Shop Channel being an afterthought. After all, if the safe games that would sell had already come out, why bother worrying about putting resources on more of them?
There were still tons of exclusions, too. Squaresoft was all but non-existent on the service, only dropping Ogre Battle and Actraiser before going on a long hiatus, and Capcom only had the first few Mega Man games up, before the others would be released near the end of the Virtual Console’s life. (With it taking until 2012 for Mega Man X2! We didn’t even get Mega Man 7, X3, or 6 at all!) This was the absolute worst on Nintendo 64, which had a whopping 21 games released for the entire lifespan, with only two third party games: Bomberman Hero, and Ogre Battle 64.
I feel this was partly due to Nintendo not emulating the Controller Pak, which was the N64’s Memory Card, that ended up being required by a lot of third party games to even save in the first place, but it also had to do with just general lack of interest. Capcom could have released Mega Man 64 and Resident Evil 2, but they either couldn’t, didn’t want to, or Nintendo wasn’t up to it. Natsume Inc, after managing to get some NES/SNES games put out on the service, wanted to do the same with Harvest Moon 64, but nightmarish technical problems stopped it from being a reality, and it took until the Wii U Virtual Console for it to finally happen. Konami? Without Controller Pak, they couldn’t put Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon even if they wanted to. All in all, Nintendo’s Virtual Console just wasn’t selling well, and third parties weren’t interested anymore.
Eventually Nintendo would put out a couple more big hitters before moving on, while Sega and D4Enterprise would make a surprise comeback to put a lot of Genesis and Neogeo games out before the end of the Wii’s life. Yet even then, Nintendo left the Wii VC without a ton of noteworthy games: No Dr. Mario 64, no Mario Party 3, No Pilotwings 64, and most startlingly, no Super FX games or Earthbound (Though this is heavily implied to be due to legal issues). Even stranger, the ESRB would rate some Wii VC games that simply never came out, with the hardest hitting one for me being Lufia and the Fortress of Doom.
LuigiBlood, known retro gaming and Virtual Console dataminer, managed to find a lot of title IDs for unreleased Virtual Console games, and his list does indeed show that stuff like Earthbound, Illusion of Gaia, and a lot of heavily requested games were indeed planned… But just never made it out. Whether due to legal issues, lack of interest, licensing costs, we’ll never truly know for sure, but it seems that in the end, not even the big wallet of Nintendo could make things happen like magic. And that would especially apply to their next endeavor…
The 3D Retro Age
Announced in 2010, Nintendo’s 3DS system would eventually be confirmed to have its own set of Virtual Console titles, from the Game Boy and Game Boy Color. It had a promising launch lineup, with Game Boy games coming out every week for a short while, and GBC games being a bit more infrequent, but it still was the very first time any handheld games were reissued at all! Unlike console games, handhelds didn’t really get much love in this regard, probably due to the lack of a powerful handheld to emulate such games, and the PSP sure wasn’t going to get Game Boy games, so Nintendo stepped in and started fresh, offering gems like both Super Mario Lands, Zelda DX, and Metroid 2 in no time at all, with a few third party games like Mega Man: Dr Wily’s Revenge and Double Dragon joining the fray as well.
Not to mention like with Wiiware, 3DS original software would be made for this new store as well, and it would take quite a while for developers to have things ready, so the 3DS VC had its own spotlight for a good few months! All seemed great, and things should have been promising, but like before, it wasn’t as it seemed due to several factors…
The biggest being the most obvious: The 3DS in general just didn’t sell well at all. Until the end of 2011, the console barely made a dent in sales, so all these VC games were going to a very limited pool of users. In fact, the VC would get a brief boost with the Ambassador Program which seemed to be adding two new systems to the equation: NES, and the heavily requested GBA. Unfortunately, the GBA games were horribly emulated, basically running on the 3DS’s own internal GBA mode without the ability to use any of the 3DS VC features or even do sleep mode. Nintendo promised these would be exclusive to ambassadors, and considering their low quality, I’m absolutely certain it’s because they wouldn’t want to be caught dead charging $8 a pop for games running off that weird emulation method.
NES on the other hand? Outside of no save state support, they ran great, offering the ability to switch controllers to pass and play, and looking super crisp on the 3DS’ screen. It was still really odd to even have NES games put out yet again, especially with Nintendo promising that everyone would be able to buy them later down the line, but surely that would be a backset to the handheld stuff, right? Even Game Gear got announced to be joining in the fun, and would eventually launch in 2012 with three titles, with 2 more announced for that summer. 3DS sales starting picking back up after a great holiday, so surely the VC train would be successful now, right?
History Repeats Itself
Unfortunately, 3DS Virtual Console quickly ran into a baffling series of droughts in North America. Europe would still get the occasional game at a semi-regular pace, including the super elusive Trip World, but North America got no 3DS VC games of any kind for a nearly two month span after the Game Gear games came out! All the while, Nintendo kept on releasing stuff weekly in Japan, making westerners very envious: they even got Kid Icarus Myths and Monsters, months before the US got it, despite the fact it never even originally launched in Japan! Just what was NOA doing, and as a matter of fact, why was so much of their GB-GBC lineup nowhere to be seen?
Well, things seemed to look up in the summer of 2012, when Nintendo announced 8-Bit Summer, a promising series of Virtual Console releases every week: Kirby’s Pinball Land, Tumblepop, The Legend of Zelda, Sword of Hope II, Wario Land, Sonic Blast, and Sonic Labyrinth. A mix of pretty fun Game Boy and Game Gear titles, it at least seemed as if NOA was ready to give the 3DS VC some focus again!
Except two of those games completely pieced out of existence, despite having store pages put up on the eShop. Sonic Blast and Sonic Labyrinth? Suddenly replaced by NES Open Tournament Golf from the Ambassador Program, and… Mole Mania, of all things. Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed in the fact that Nintendo couldn’t even seemingly keep to the schedule they planned out a mere few weeks ago, but at least Virtual Console games were coming out again, even if it felt odd that some Ambassador games were joined by non-ambassador games such as Punch-Out. Eventually we’d catch up on some of the games Europe and Japan was getting, and even Konami finally started to put out stuff in the later parts of 2012, such as Quarth and Castlevania the Adventure, so surely Operation C and Belmont’s Revenge were next, right?
Unfortunately, this is when everything came crashing to a halt. The BW Gameboy lineup would pretty much dry up to next to nothing at this point, with Kirby Star Stacker, Revenge of the Gator and Kirby Dream Land 2 being all the noteworthy titles we got in the States for the entirety of 2013: GBC would do a bit better, with Shantae and the Oracle Games, but even then, handheld gaming completely dried up on the 3DS Virtual Console. Game Gear did finally make a comeback in the summer of 2013, with Sega putting out a huge chunk of games in the span of two months… Only to never release a single Game Gear title after that point in the US/EU, with Japan slowly drying up of them later that year.
Yet somehow, despite all of this, freaking NES games were being pumped out left and right, sometimes at the same time as the Wii U Virtual Console version, even though there was no cross-buy of any sort. Most of these were repeats of games from the Wii Virtual Console, too, and you had to buy them all over again. This infuriated practically everyone I know, and while some gems like Recca and Murasame Castle squeaked out for the first time ever, it just felt completely nonsensical. Why did the handheld shift from being a haven for handheld reissues, to one filled with more NES ports of done-to-death games?
To make things stranger, there would be a few blips on the radar for GB Virtual Console, such as Capcom’s Mega Man titles all dropping in the month of May 2014, followed by the Game Boy Donkey Kong Land games a year later, but that was literally it for the Game Boy, everything else was dried up, despite the dozens of games Nintendo and their partners could have released on the service! Even Game Boy Color, the last holdout thanks to Natsume trying to put as many games as humanly possible out, would eventually slow to a crawl.
But nowhere was the direction of Virtual Console more apparent, than in Japan. Japan, the utopia of weekly releases since the Wii days, persisting to the 3DS and Wii U, had just… Abruptly stopped releasing games in May of 2014. No Game Boy, Game Boy Color, or even NES games would release outside of some really weird exceptions: Pokemon TCG at the end of 2014, and Super Mario Bros Deluxe and Game and Watch Gallery 3 via odd limited time promotions. Until the very short run of SNES games for the New 3DS, which also dried up in no time, and the Pokemon releases of the main series, the 3DS Virtual Console had died in three years, a crazy short time compared to the lengthy life of the Wii days.
Meanwhile, the Wii U Virtual Console was going at a glacial pace, with NES, SNES being the launch systems, followed by GBA, then N64 and DS, with the oddball Turbografx and MSX release now and then, but once again, Japan was slowing down quick, and while the US got a weekly game until the Switch came out, it still felt like even less than what Wii gave us, despite new titles like Excitebike 64 dropping. But there was still no Sega Genesis games, despite Sonic Advance making it to Japanese Wii U Virtual Console. So just what was going on? Why was the Virtual Console dying? Even with discounts being a (very rare) situation, the service was struggling more than ever all around the world, and while it would make sense on the Wii U due to the low install base, what made 3DS owners so allergic?
The Harsh Reality of the Virtual Console
Here’s the grand, magnum opus of this article, answering the question you no doubt came here to seek: Why did Virtual Console die? From the slow agonizing death on the 3DS, to the slow dripfeed with almost next to no attention on the Wii, while also lacking some key systems, just what was the deal?
Well, we have some insights on this, luckily, and it led me to piecing together a pretty confident picture on what happened. I already noted how people talked about the slowing sales of the Wii Virtual Console, and how best seller charts almost always stuck to the popular, done-to-death games over anything else. Well, on 3DS that also applied, but even on a less scale: stuff like Wario Land II and Game and Watch Gallery 2 that should have done pretty great, ended up not really showing up on the charts much at all. Mario Land and Link’s Awakening would do well for a bit, but even they too, would eventually fall from the charts. The Game Gear titles? Outside of the Sonic Triple Trouble game, I don’t think I ever saw Shinobi or Dragon Crystal climb high on the US charts once, and the same went for any non-sonic game part of that second batch. In fact, from what friends in the know have told me, the sales of Game Gear titles were so poor all across the world that even Sega was surprised by the turnout: even for the Sonic games, people just didn’t really want Game Gear stuff, and that was never before ported games!
Wanna know what did sell well? NES games. Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Mario 3, those would sell like hotcakes in comparison, and would be high on sales charts for years on end, with the SNES counterparts doing a decent job when the N3DS lineup was released. Considering how most third parties shifted to NES reissues rather than Game Boy/GBC ones, it’s fair to assume that unfortunately, standalone, known titles on the NES just are more recognizable than handheld games, and for most of these third parties, it was better to have Nintendo port their NES gems than to bother digging out something like Ninja Gaiden Shadow. After all, the NES games would be way more familiar! Indeed, the sales would show, and I reckon that’s why you saw a shift to NES come 2013… Which dropped in 2014/2015 when that too, started to drop in favor of people just buying newer titles at the store, since all the popular games were ready and available, and as history has shown, most people are boring and would rather buy Mario 3 once again compared to trying something new like Sword of Hope II.
We have a pretty big name giving some backing into low sales being into account: SEGA, while making their 3D Classics, would often discuss how they were surprised by the way they were selling, even if it was something not-known like Thunder Blade or Galaxy Force II. On the other hand, they once mentioned how they outright stopped porting Game Gear titles to the 3DS upon seeing low sales (which matches what I’ve gathered and heard), and how they picked their 3D Classics lineup mainly due to the best sellers on Wii. Indeed, while Sega had some obscure picks on the 3D Classics line, a lot of their games were big-names, and thus, sold well. Sonic 1, Streets of Rage, Sonic 2, Space Harrier, far more safer picks than Defenders of Oasis and G.G. Shinobi, especially when these had 3D features and brand new content from the ground up.
In fact, one of my very first moves on the internet upon making this website into a review forum, was asking Yosuke Okunari of Sega outright if there’s a chance that Wii U owners would be able to play Sega games on that Virtual Console. The answer? “No Such Plan.” This confused and baffled seemingly everyone, since of course people would demand Genesis classics! They were seemingly easy to port everywhere and always sold well, right? Well, the Game Gear lineup drying to a halt indicates how that wasn’t always the case, and unfortunately, it would repeat with their SEGA AGES lineup, where despite being in a similar fashion to the 3D Classics, mostly led to people being boring and buying Sonic and Outrun games and ignoring everything else, instead of trying out all the games like they did with the 3D Classics. Yay.
Sega in particular have also seemed to value their IPs much, much higher than they used to: while Sega US/EU would shovel out the Genesis library to anyone with money, such as the infamous AtGames and D3T, Sega in Japan didn’t really seem to want to milk their lineup to that extent. So when the Mega Drive mini from Sega was announced to be using AtGames once again, and a huge backlash broke out… That pretty much led to it going silent for a year until M2 was revealed to be doing it themselves, kicking AtGames off of the project. Since the launch of the mini, I notice that Sega doesn’t really let anyone use their IPs as much as they use to, and the only sort of outside compilation I see nowadays comes in the form of Arcade1Up machines.
But even on the Nintendo front, with games that did exist on Wii U/3DS Virtual Console… Most of them flat out sold horrendously. While not outright stated, the lack of most presence on the sales charts outside of again, done-to-death games indicated that most folk were still content to just buy their favorites and move on. Yet we have a handy tool at the ready to further prove this point, and that was Miiverse.
In an update, Miiverse allowed each community to be separated by posts from People who owned and were playing the game involved, to non-owners who just wanted to comment or discuss the game. (or in most cases on VC communities, whine about “Why isn’t X game from my childhood out this week?!?“) This proves useful, as you can generally grasp how popular a game was depending on how much owners were posting out it on Miiverse. Of course, Mario, Zelda, and even the Pokemon spinoffs would do pretty well, getting lots of activity, and some third party stuff like Mega Man Battle Network and Castlevania GBA games would spark some buzz now and then. Not Klonoa though!
But for everything else? They were ghost towns, and you can see for yourself on the archived Miiverse. This also applies to Japan, which had by far the worst showing of Virtual Console support by far: almost every small scale VC title I could think of, regardless of platform, would have less than a few dozen players talking about it at most. Even some first party games were suffering this fate, yet popular stuff like Earthbound and Mario World were reputable enough to still have some buzz and sales presence over there! In fact, this list of the best selling Japanese Wii U VC games of all time are literally nothing but done-to-death or popular first party titles, with Square games being the lone third party on the list. Case in point, VC didn’t really sell well at all, and here’s blatant examples on the Japanese front. Some of these games launched in the midpoint of Wii U’s life too.
The Gist? Virtual Console was a bomb. It has almost always been a bomb outside of the popular, done to death games, even as far back as the Wii. The sales weren’t there for most titles, so companies started to bother less and less. Those that wanted to, would even sometimes find resistance, as Natsume aimed to get more titles out on Virtual Console, but Nintendo rejected them near the end of the Wii U’s lifespan in favor of other VC systems to focus on, adding the depressing fact that Lufia II was shot down. As each console led to less and less sales, yet the same games being the ones that sold the most, it was clear the format was not working, despite everyone’s rose-colored glasses. But something would give Nintendo the hint they needed for their next step…
The Return of Compilations and Minis
In 2016, Nintendo released the NES Classic as a holdover to the Nintendo Switch, as a plug in play, all-in-one box containing 30 NES games. Effectively a compilation like that of the Jakks days, this was done by Nintendo themselves, using a much better emulator than that on the Wii U, thanks to the help of NERD in Europe. It seemed like a basic cash-in to some, and most people I knew of planned to only get the controllers or buy it as a decorative piece.
It sold out immediately, leading to huge shortages all around the world. Tons of people were wanting their hands on one, including some who hadn’t even played Nintendo systems in years! The ease of use factor, among other things, led to this being the case, and it stunned everyone, including Nintendo themselves. While clearly meant to be a limited time item, it ended up getting reissued along with a Super Nintendo Classic a year later, which also sold well despite coming out after the Nintendo Switch! This ended up being the ticket to today’s future, as the same developers behind NES/SNES Classic are the ones working on Nintendo Switch Online, the new hub for retro reissues on Switch.
Now instead of weekly releases on a per-game basis, you have monthly/quarterly drops of a random assortment of games, all compiled into neat little apps. The games never expire or go away, but you can’t fully buy them like a VC game either. It’s also bundled with an online subscription needed to play any game online, so anyone who wants to do a Pokemon battle, an Animal Crossing trip, or a Mario Party will be buying these compilations as well. Mario 3 and all the popular done to death games are on there, but so are cool obscurities like Journey to Silius and Super Valis IV! All bundled together, with this subscription.
The results? It seems pretty positive, since NSO subscriptions in general are pretty strong, and thus, these games have no doubt sold more than they ever did on VC in the past. Despite oddball months with obscure games, much to everyone’s Earthbound cravings, those too, end up being played and experienced far more often than they would have on Wii, 3DS, or Wii U. I guarantee you half the people who tried out Shadow of the Ninja on NES Online wouldn’t have even considered buying it on any of the VC services. Unfortunately, Japan is getting these at the same pace as the rest of us, so alas, no weekly updates like we used to be jealous of, but otherwise mostly everyone is on the same page.
Yet this has caused a lot of ire, whether it’s the slow release pace, the small addition sizes, and the lack of publishers like Squaresoft, a ton of fans are clamoring for the days of Virtual Console. But I’m hear to tell you, that’s never happening ever again. The Virtual Console was a huge flop, and got worse as each system came by. Ever since the NES/SNES classic showed Nintendo a handy way of compiling their old games as a bonus to something people really want, that ended up making them far, far more money than the prior model, and there’s zero reason to expect them to go back. Even their oddball Super Mario 3D All Stars compilation sold millions of copies, partly due to FOMO and partly due to the ease of use. In general, compilations are selling well on Switch, and piecemeal games are a thing of the past. Mega Man, Castlevania, SNK 40th, Street Fighter 30th, Aleste Collections, all selling far better on Switch than a piecemeal VC reissue of each individual game ever could hope to do, and thus, Nintendo absolutely will never revert back to the old model unless they can attach some sort of gimmick to it to make it sell better: and third parties will hesitate to do the same.
A SIGN FROM THE FUTURE
The only holdout in this regard, in terms of piecemeal games, seems to be Hamster Corporation, continuing the tried and true VC model with Arcade Archives… Which somehow is doing pretty OK. Again, done-to-death games like Super Mario Bros and Metal Slug sell the best here, but even newly ported, but familiar classics like Arcade Donkey Kong and Mario Bros are doing a lot too, despite being mixed in the same pool as games like Soldam and Sunset Riders. I feel being there right as the Switch launched helped tremendously with that, but also the fact that the brand itself seems more familiar to gamers on Switch, along with most of these Arcade gems being pretty well known in Japan, and even serving as the first major port for so many of their games. Putting out 100 games in the Neo Geo library would likely help matters, even if a ton of them are available in compilations elsewhere. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if even Hamster gets into the compilation business, with Taito Memories seeming like the first step in that tempting pool of money.
However, mere days before this article was to go live, Hamster trademarked a new lineup of games dubbed “Console Archives”. Having originally planned to move to Console game porting a long time ago, it seems their realization has finally arrived, but that just begs the question: Will porting FC/SNES/PCE stuff for $8 each do nearly as well as obscure Arcade titles, or will it just be a big bomb like Nintendo’s own Virtual Console? This story may just very well have a new chapter to look forward to…
In conclusion, piecemeal reissues in the way of Virtual Console are a thing of the long, distant past. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony felt low sales were a factor in discontinuing PS1 classics on PS4, and the fact we know for a fact PS2 on PS4 titles didn’t sell well in the slightest further proves that. Xbox seems to have piecemeal reissues done right, by having it be tied to backwards compatibility. Here, you don’t need to rebuy the first Assassin’s Creed when they added it: just throw in your old disc and you’re off to play the new reissue. This in turn, means you can easily build up a BC library by just going to your old retro game store, while Nintendo would never let you get a free DS game on Wii U by plugging in the cartridge on a linked DS.
But when stuff like the Master Chief Collection, HD ports of too many games to count, and piecemeal remasters with lots of new content and a retail space, like Square’s SaGa remasters are the norm, it’s hard to see the Virtual Console method ever being worth a try for anyone new these days. As much as people may miss the past and clamor for buying your favorites, you have to realize: sticking to buying favorites is exactly what led to the death of the model you so dearly loved. The future is now one where Compilations rule once again, and I sure hope more companies realize that, and aren’t afraid to make compilations of every possible thing imaginable. Even the Blaze Evercade knew this, and thus every cart for it is a compilation, which for $20 each, makes that system’s lineup very appealing, even though they could have tried to sell a rare game like Splatterhouse 2 on its own cartridge and call it a day. With the Genesis and N64 tiers to NSO costing a pretty penny, it’ll be the ultimate test to see if anyone will buy the tier at all, especially with a small selection of games, and it appears per Emily Rogers that those high Genesis licensing costs I mentioned earlier, along with generally high costs were a factor in that hike, which matches my findings.
Yet despite the vocal outrage, I wouldn’t be surprised if, like with buying the sub to go online, people who buy it to play Animal Crossing make these sell far more than they ever did on Virtual Console, no matter how much our old time selves think VC was a smash hit.
Ultimately, money talks.
Special thanks to Luigiblood, Shaun Musgrave, Eonstro, and those I’ve cited for their help with this article, and for Emily Rogers for giving me the push I needed to finish this long, long in the making piece.
May my dear friend Brian Cooper, owner of Japanese Nintendo, continue to rest in piece.