Four months into the Nintendo Switch’s lifespan, and we still don’t know what’s up with the system’s “virtual console” retro game store. Nintendo has said that classic games like Dr. Mario and Super Mario Bros. 3 will be part of its upcoming online subscription service, set to launch next year, complete with new online-enabled features. But as for a dedicated shop to buy retro titles — a highlight of Nintendo hardware since the original Wii — there’s been no word. And it’s a shame, because the Switch might just be the ideal platform for playing old-school games.
I realized this while playing Namco Museum, a new collection of mostly ‘80s titles that’s available today on the Switch. It’s not exactly the most robust package: for $30 you get 11 games, which vary in quality quite a bit. There are bonafide classics, like the original Pac-Man and both Galaga and Galaga ’88, two of the best arcade shoot ‘em ups ever made. There are also worthwhile curiosities, like the Friday the 13th-inspired Splatterhouse, which may not be particularly inventive, but is still worth experiencing for its tone and style. A few of the included titles don’t hold up especially well. Most notable for me is the drab Rolling Thunder action series, a boring side-scrolling shooter with a dash of Benny Hill, as thugs inexplicably come in and out of doors, just waiting for you to shoot them. (The collection also features a surprising but welcome addition: Pac-Man Vs., a 2003 multiplayer-focused version of the classic.)
The package looks great, even if it’s lacking in frills. Each game has new online leaderboards, and you can tweak the display parameters in a lot of ways, from adjusting the image size to adding scanlines. The games all have classic arcade cabinet art displayed in the background, and, perhaps most notable, you can rotate the screen around so games can be played vertically. It can be a bit awkward, since the Switch kickstand only works horizontally, and you need to use controllers while you’re playing. I found myself cradling the Switch in my lap, with a Joy-Con controller in each hand, and managed to make some decent progress in Galaga ’88. It’s a nice addition even if it doesn’t work perfectly.
Retro games have always seemed like a great fit for devices like smartphones and tablets. It’s why the Sega Forever service, a sort of Netflix-style collection of Genesis titles for iOS and Android, drummed up so much excitement. The idea of having your favorite games with you wherever you are is undeniably enticing. But 10 years since the iPhone launched, we still haven’t figured out how to make these games work well on a touchscreen. Controls overlaid on the screen are both intrusive and imprecise, and while third-party controllers help, few people own them. It’s why Shigeru Miyamoto and his team completely rethought Mario when they brought Super Mario Run to mobile late last year.
The Switch doesn’t have this issue, since it’s a tablet where controllers are a fundamental part of its design. It can play a game like Galaga as capably as any traditional console, while also fitting snuggly in your carry-on baggage. And Namco Museum isn’t the only example. Neo Geo has been steadily releasing titles from its back catalogue since the Switch launched, and I’ve found myself playing obscure 2D fighting games like Galaxy Fight: Universal Warriors and Garou: Mark of the Wolves, simply because they’re such a great fit for the platform.
I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record at this point, but certain kinds of games just feel better on Nintendo’s unique hybrid machine. It’s true of sandbox crafting games and competitive shooters, and it’s true of comparatively bite-sized retro games. It feels strange, though, that of the pixelated games I’m enjoying so much on my Nintendo tablet, none are actually made by Nintendo. The company clearly knows there’s a demand for its enviable back catalogue, as the circus around the NES and SNES Classics can attest. I just hope it’s not too long before I can play A Link to the Past on the same machine as Breath of the Wild.