[Nintendad Coffeehouse] The Underlying Importance of Virtual Console

Written by Abram Buehner

A Bad Day Turned Great

I was seven years old. I just returned from GameStop with a GameCube controller and a copy of Mario Kart: Double Dash!! It was the best day ever: I could finally use Wii backwards compatibility. My parents bought me a PS2 prior to the Wii, so I never truly experienced the GameCube other than play sessions at friends’ houses. As such, this was the moment I’d been waiting for. I plugged in that controller and popped in that disc, but there was a problem. The controller worked, the disc did not. I was seven years old. I just got a copy of Mario Kart doesn’t work. This was the worst day ever.

My parents said that next week we could go back to the store and exchange the disc, but that was eons away from that moment, the moment my seven-year-old world ended. My dad was quick on his feet, though. He knew about the Virtual Console, and he asked if there were games that I couldn’t play before that I can play now with this brand-new GameCube controller. Of course, there were; I’d never had access to the SNES or N64 libraries prior to now. He told me to pick out a game, and I bought Paper Mario. I was seven years old. I just gotten a GameCube controller and a copy of Paper Mario. Once again, it was the best day ever.

In retrospect, I have no idea why seven year old Abram decided to buy Paper Mario when he had access to everything that the SNES and N64 had to offer. Paper Mario is a wonderful game, but as my first title from the entirety of those two systems, perhaps I read about Paper Mario in Nintendo Power around the same time. My rationale for starting there didn’t matter, though. I was already immersing myself in an era of Nintendo I couldn’t previously.

A Deepened Appreciation

This may seem like a strange memory to drum up now, but the recent announcement of Paper Mario: The Origami King got me thinking. As such, I’ve been reflecting on how I became the Nintendo fan I am today. I believe it is due in large part to the Wii’s Virtual Console and backwards compatibility. The Wii was my first Nintendo system, and there may not be a better entry point than that. I was able to experience Nintendo’s library from the third console generation to the seventh in one place. It sparked my love for these characters and worlds, as well as an appreciation for the company’s deep history.

I was lucky enough to become a Nintendo fan in an era where Nintendo viewed access to their back catalog as essential. I couldn’t have asked for a better machine than the Wii to develop my appreciation of Nintendo’s history. My understanding of Mario wasn’t limited to Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, I had titles from SMB to Super Mario 64 loaded on my machine as well. I saw where Mario began and what he grew into.

Even the Wii U and 3DS, which had comparatively lacking Virtual Consoles, still provided me with easy access to Game Boy and Game Boy Advance titles, which I couldn’t easily acquire at the time. My knowledge base expanded, and my appreciation for Nintendo’s franchises grew with it. Now, of course, we’ve moved onto the Nintendo Switch, and that access has seemingly dried up.

A Probelm to Overcome

The Switch does have the NES and SNES Online suites which, in fairness, have curated fairly respectable libraries. However, this is a poor substitute for the Virtual Console: a service we need back. Hot and original take, I know. But, while the drum has been beaten a lot, it’s an important tune to play. So many people focus on the simple joy of having games like F-Zero X playable on a portable system for the first time ever. Others focus on the missed potential for the Switch to the ultimate Nintendo machine. However, people rarely look beyond that and strike at the core of why a Virtual Console is so important.

You can enjoy Super Mario Odyssey, but I don’t think you can truly appreciate the way it evolves the franchise and celebrates its history unless you’ve played what has come before. The same, I believe, holds true for all of Nintendo’s franchises. Tracking and understanding the development of a Nintendo IP from its inception to its modern day iteration allows you to engage with the new games on a deeper and more thoughtful level. Not only can games resonate with the player more when a series’ roots are understood, games can be held to a higher critical standard. If you follow Kirby’s path from the Game Boy to the Switch, you can more clearly see how Star Allies falls short in respect to ambition and content. Being versed in Nintendo’s catalog simply makes someone a more thoughtful Nintendo fan.

This is of paramount importance, especially in an era where so many new Nintendo fans are being created. The Switch’s sales figures are astronomical. Three years into the console’s cycle, it has already surpassed even my loftiest 2016 hopes for lifetime sales figures. And, the hybrid doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Much like the Wii, the Switch is exposing so many kids to Nintendo. Yet, they aren’t being given the same tools that I had as a kid to fall in love with Nintendo and its games in a robust way. They aren’t being given the opportunity to thoughtfully learn about the company’s franchises and worlds.

The Need for a Solution

Becoming that considered fan is predicated on access to these older games. Currently, Nintendo just doesn’t seem to view this as a priority. As such, it’s hard for me to realistically advocate that people explore Nintendo’s back catalog. I certainly can’t expect kids to do so – I could barely afford a Virtual Console title a month with the meager money I had when I was little. Nowadays, as an adult with a job and poor impulse control, I have a handy collection of original Nintendo hardware and stacks of legacy games. That isn’t realistic for most people to do, though.

Beyond the impracticality, original hardware shouldn’t even be the only avenue to engage with Nintendo’s history in 2020. This access is important. It goes beyond just being able to play Ocarina of Time on Switch. It’s about the ability to value evolution in design philosophy and creative ambition. It’s about being able to look at Nintendo’s new games and issue praise or criticism based on fact and experience. I see a lot of that lacking in contemporary Nintendo discussion. There is a crisis of perspective, and it has been manufactured by Nintendo’s unwillingness to put substantive legacy content on Switch. It’s long past time for this problem to be rectified.

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