Nintendo's Virtual Console:
Potential Greatness Eclipsed by Mediocrity
28 July 2011
With the announcement today that Nintendo is slashing the price of the 3DS by $80 in the United States, starting on 12 August, it seems like the time is ripe to post a feature that criticizes the Big N. Don't get me wrong, I love Nintendo. But they sure have failed to make the Virtual Console (VC) as good as it could be.
The Virtual Console first appeared on the Wii and there was great rejoicing. After all, it's really convenient and easy to download "the greatest" hits of the 8- and 16-bit retro era. Now the 3DS is expanding upon the VC library with offerings for the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and "classic" games in 3D. One hopes that Nintendo would learn from its mistakes with the Wii VC and improve—at least—the 3DS Virtual Console experience. Let's consider some of the areas where Nintendo needs to improve this retro video game service.
Controlling Game Quality
Nintendo made its name in the 8-bit era with the "Nintendo seal of quality." In reality, however, quality control was far from perfect. To some extent, living and developing new games in real-time, that's understandable. The VC, on the other hand, offers the tremendous advantage of hindsight, so there's no excuse for loading up its library with chaff. Before Nintendo agrees to sell a game through the VC service, they're already well aware of what that title represents, because it's old as dirt. (ok maybe not quite that old, but at least 17+ years old. (For a focused list of VC games that more acurately represents greatest hits, please visit the Wii VC System Selector).
Nevertheless, there are numerous awful games available on the VC. Some of the culprits that immediately come to mind are: Baseball (NES), China Warrior (TurboGrafx-16), Ninja Combat (Neo Geo), Super Thunderblade (Genesis), Cruis'n USA (N64), Fighting Street (TurboGrafx-CD), and Black Belt (Master System).
Imagine a new Wii owner getting suckered into downloading one of those steaming turds of a game. This person is new to video games (the very audience that Nintendo carefully targeted so brilliantly with its Wii marketing campaign). He or she actually connects the Wii to the Internet and buys some Wii points. Eager to take advantage of the VC's digital collection of the "greatest games," doing research beforehand doesn't seem necessary. How can you go wrong? Plus, you don't want to have to wait. You have the impulse to get a game right now and play it. So you start off with Super Thunder Blade—after all, the title does have a cool ring to it.
Of course, just a few minutes of play reveals that Super Thunder Blade is crap. Choppy animation. Little variation between levels. Very hard for someone not familiar with the gameplay. So you end up feeling bilked by Nintendo. Why'd they even present you with such a crappy choice? Quite possibly this foray into Wii retro digital downloads represents the beginning and the end of your Virtual Console experience.
Getting Clear User Feedback
The availability of crapware on the VC wouldn't be as big a problem if there was some sort of way for users to provide feedback to prospective downloaders. Xbox 360 Live Arcade accomplishes this elegantly:
More stars is obviously better, and knowing how many people have voted for each game gives you a sense of how reliable the overall score is. The Playstation Network uses an almost identical system. Maybe if our eager new Wii owner had seen that Super Thunder Blade had an average rating of two stars he would have found something better.
Boosting the Wii Little Online Footprint
I haven't seen any recent numbers, but while back I read that about 30-40% of Wiis were actually connected online. Granted, Nintendo has been dragging its heals when it comes to online gaming ever since the GameCube. However, there's no doubt that WiiWare and the VC offer a tremendous number of excellent games, often rivaling full price Wii commercial releases.
While I don't know what the current numbers are today, I'd be shocked if more than 50% of Wii owners take their consoles online. What a tremendous missed opportunity for Nintendo. The cost of online game distribution is cheaper than anything the video game market has ever known before, and there are really easy ways to incentivize Wii owners to connect to the Internet. Imagine this ploy: Every Wii sold at retail includes a little something extra, 500 free Wii points, which you can use to purchase a high-quality (Baseball not allowed) Nintendo-developed NES game of your choice. What a different first experience our eager new VC downloader would had if instead he'd have downloaded something like this:
Providing the Best Versions of Each Game (aka Transcending Region-locking)
Understandably, the cost of translating a Japanese RPG into English and redistributing it on the VC can be prohibitive. Duh, that's a whole lot of words and the Japanese originals were never designed to include the necessary extra space for English letters (compared to the more efficient Japanese kanji characters). We don't need Nintendo to work miracles with their VC downloads.
What is not excusable, however, is releasing Castlevania III on the NES in Japan with sound that is true to that of the mighty VRC6 music microprocessor chip, yet saddling the PAL region and North American Wii fans with the original cartridge version, which dumbed down the music significantly, ignoring the two extra pulse-wave channels and the additional saw-wave channel (you can listen to the difference here). How much effort and additional cost would it have taken to deliver the superior version of Castlevania III to North American and PAL gamers? A little clever advertising could have taken advantage of such a unique offering to make the VC something truly special.
One can make a similar argument about Contra (aka Probotector) versus Gryznor (as it's known in Japan). Only the latter featured the VRC2 chip, which added impressive animation to the backgrounds of levels. Gryzor also included cut-scenes, a level map, and even additional music. Wouldn't it be amazing to be able to download that version on the VC? Especially when the additional cost of including the VRC2 chip is no longer an issue! It's not as if Contra presents a translation burden!
Oh, wait a minute. Contra isn't even available on the VC at all. WTF? Well, I guess that's yet another grip to add to this ever-expanding diatribe. Best guess is that when Konami released the arcade version of Contra for Xbox Live Arcade they signed some sort of exclusivity agreement that prevents them from bringing other ports to competing consoles.
Despite the Big N's poor choices in game versions, Nintendo has taken baby steps in providing some elements of improved gameplay. Look at the digital versions of Metroid and Excitebike that arrived on the VC for North American and PAL gamers. They allow you to save your progress via battery backup and save your custom tracks, respectively, whereas the original carts used a clumsy password system and erased the tracks as soon as you turned the power off.
Another high-point is the Bomberman games for the TurboGrafx-16. Bomberman '93 and Bomberman '94 (wow, an import download!) were tweaked every so slightly so that you actually can support five players at once by using a combination of Wiimotes and GameCube controllers.
Nintendo has scratched the surface with just enough to tantalize us. We know Nintendo can tweak gameplay to provide us with titles better than the ones originally released in our region, but Nintendo needs to focus much harder on simply delivering the best experience offered by retro games.
Avoiding (Bad) Redundant Redundancy
Street Fighter II does pose a tough challenge—all three versions (TG-16, SNES, and Genesis) are excellent and have their own strengths. That's the exception, not the rule, though, and usually one console delivers the definitive port or "best" version of a title. So why waste people's time with inferior versions? Sadly, the VC does exactly that. Given the choice between the below game versions, which one would you pick?
Alright, I guess the middle one is a little tricky, because few people have ever heard of the SuperGrafx. It's a more powerful successor to the TurboGrafx-16 (aka PC Engine), which was already capable of giving the Sega Genesis a tough fight. Trust me, the SuperGrafx version of Ghouls 'N Ghosts is the definitive home port. If only the digital version was released outside of Japan...What you're supposed to take away from the comparisons above is that right is right and left is wrong.
As a VC user you also have to cope with the over-proliferation of certain franchises. I adore shoot 'em ups and Space Invaders is a classic. But do we really need all of these?
Space Invaders: Arcade
Space Invaders: The Original Game
Space Invaders: Fukkatsu no Hi
Space Invaders: The Original Game
PC Engine CD
(OK, maybe it's not that big a deal outside of Japan, since only the SNES version is currently available for North American and PAL Wii owners.) What about the Wonder Boy franchise? There are definitely some really good games in that series, but do we need absolutely every version on every console? (hint: the best ones are linked, because they are included in my lists for the greatest games)
Earlier, I touched upon the addition of save stages to a precious few VC titles. What about some other small additions beyond a naked digital copy? It seems like you could easily incorporate leader boards into classic games, adding a competitive online aspect to them.
What I'd really like to see is a more fundamental addition: media. How about some quality scans for the original box, instructions, and cartridge/disc? Such a simple bonus, but it helps bring an otherwise stale digital copy to life. Maybe you could even have the occasional interview from game developers.
With the addition of this media, you build the perfect opportunity to offer a more polished presentation. Imagine if launching the VC took you to a 3D game room, where you simply grabbed your cartridge off the shelf to play it and could also leaf through instructions in an easy manner. Better still, how about incorporating the ability to pause games and then leaf through your virtual instructions. You could even add some humor to the experience, such as having cartridges occasionally not boot properly, so you have to shake your remote to blow on the cart and try again.
Of course, organizing your games with this more visual approach could become annoying if you have a large virtual collection. To offer users flexibility why not also give them the option to go with a more traditional text-based menu for game selection. Furthermore, you could offer a sorting option to automatically alphabetize games on the virtual shelf of your game room. To satisfy all people, it would probably also be wise to add an opt out option for the occasional gummed up carts that require blowing.
The 3DS So Far...
The newest extension of the VC is just barely in its inception, and so far the 3DS makes things look a little better but it's still lacking in many of the above areas. Already, we're finding some lackluster titles that drag the overall quality of the library down, like Baseball, Tennis, and Alleyway—all for the original Game Boy.
While I've heard no news about user feedback or ratings, Nintendo actually has given away free games to encourage taking your 3DS online. To promote the launch of the 3DS VC Shop, Nintendo allowed users in North America to download an enhanced 3D port of Excitebike for free until 7 July. It's a slick update, taking custom track design to the next level. You can save up to 32 different tracks from the track editor and the ability to use the bottom touch screen to select obstacles while viewing your current track on the top screen is a vast improvement over the old one-screen interface.
In addition, 3DS users can still download a free application called Pokédex 3D, which takes advantage of the 3DS spotpass feature and allows you to collect up to 150 Pokémon from the Black and White versions. Personally, I think this is nowhere near as good as Nintendo giving everyone who purchases a 3DS access to a free high-quality digital download to encourage people to go online and discover the (hopefully) wondrous VC. Remember, Nintendo is a very old, very traditional company. Rarely does change happen rapidly.
I haven't seen any information about significant new media extras (like box art, manuals, etc.) accompanying 3DS VC titles. Overall, this leaves the 3DS in slightly better territory than the Wii VC. For a company as powerful and experienced as Nintendo, clearly this still isn't good enough. Let's not forget Wii VC users either. Isn't one of the great advantages of downloadable software updates that you can redesign the basic interface of consoles (and ideally improve the user experience)? Nintendo, there might still be time to save the Virtual Console. You have the skill and talent. Give gamers the best versions of classic games along with a few extras in order to make them more satisfying than a mere digital copy of a region-locked title you probably used to own in cartridge form!