The Virtual Console has been a major feature of Nintendo systems ever since it was first introduced back on the Wii. Many gamers took a strong liking to it quickly since it provided an easy (and legal) way to gain access to hundreds of retro titles through just one system. Thus, it was a big surprise when the VC didn’t make a return on the new Switch. Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aime recently confirmed that the service is no more and will instead be replaced by the upcoming Nintendo Switch Online. The reaction to the news has been less than favorable from what I’ve seen, but I think that this is probably going to turn out to be a really good thing.
I’ve seen a lot of positive comments about the Virtual Console, but there’s also a negative point that I’ve seen brought up a few times—some Virtual Console titles are a bit pricey. The available selection of titles across the 3DS and Wii U ranges between $4-$10. Some modern indie titles go for similar prices, so the point about these retro games being kinda pricey is debatable. To add to this, due to these titles being tied to the system instead of an account, if a system is lost or damaged, then it would require the user to repurchase all of their games again. This policy thankfully doesn’t apply to the Switch. But, what about the purchasing of games? Here’s where the benefit of Nintendo’s new approach with Switch Online comes in.
Switch Online is going to be a subscription-based service. On top of its features like online multiplayer and cloud saves, at launch there will be a selection of 20 NES titles for subscribers to enjoy. These titles will be modified to support online multiplayer, which adds to their value. Subscribers are going to be able to gain access to all of this for just $20 per year, or $4 per month. So, a one-year membership is the equivalent of two $10 VC titles, and a monthly membership is the equivalent of a single smaller VC title. From a price and features perspective, Switch Online is already sounding like the better service. If Nintendo plays its cards right, this really will turn out to be the case.
Like any other subscription service, the appeal of Switch Online is found in allowing players to gain access to numerous things by just paying one flat fee. Think of how much it would cost if you bought every song in your Spotify/Apple Music library. What about every movie from Netflix? In either case, the cost would be astronomical. Sure, buying a few Virtual Console titles isn’t incredibly expensive, but it is more economical to just pay a single fee at once for access to all of them rather than individual prices.
Paying one flat fee as a subscriber to Switch Online is arguably more economical than buying individual titles.
This change in business strategy is decent enough, but if Nintendo really wants to sell Switch Online as the true Virtual Console successor, then it’s going to need to make sure that the selection of classic games grows, and even more importantly, that it grows rapidly. Another complaint I’ve seen many people make about the Virtual Console is that new releases used to trickle out at a painfully slow rate. This was especially agonizing for those who were waiting for one specific game, only for their hopes to be dashed when the new release finally cropped up and it didn’t end up being what they wanted. Nintendo’s porting team needs to work faster this time around in order to keep the flow of content feeling fresh. This will not only make current customers happy but will also, in turn, attract new ones as they hear about how good the library is. Growing the number of classic games isn’t the only important thing, though. Of course, the real icing on the cake would be to also incorporate titles from a variety of systems, just like the original VC did. Especially ones that have never been a part of the Virtual Console service, like the Gamecube, Saturn, and Dreamcast.
A lot of gamers still consider the original Virtual Console on the Wii to have had a better library than the 3DS and Wii U’s offerings. The decrease in selection is likely due to licensing issue. Even a big company like Nintendo likely has a lot of trouble getting the proper permissions to resell a lot of these older titles. In any case, if the company really tries to garner as many titles as possible, this will only help bolster Switch Online. It would essentially be like Spotify or Netflix, but for retro video games. Considering the vast popularity of those services, that certainly isn’t a bad thing to be compared to.
Personally, I’m not as gung-ho over the idea of playing retro titles on the Switch like many others are. But, that’s because I was born well after that era. I’m just getting to the age where I can feel a real sense of nostalgia, and I’m slowly but surely coming to understand why older gamers are so passionate about past titles. I immaturely wrote the whole situation off as nothing more than incessant whining a few months ago in another article. But, after reading some testimonies from those that reacted to that article, it helped me to put things into perspective.
The convenience that a service like this would offer is quite nice. Having a collection of retro games on a system that can be played either at home or on the go—that’s definitely something that no retro fan would frown upon. On top of that, the subscription model makes it even easier for anyone to jump in. The only real downside that I can imagine is losing access to your collection if and when games are cycled out of the library. But, that doesn’t seem to be a big problem for services like Netflix that constantly make changes to their selection. Perhaps Nintendo will also be able to find its own comfortable state of balance with handling a situation like that.