Earlier this month, buried in some exciting new details about the Switch’s upcoming online service, Nintendo revealed that it was killing the virtual console as a concept. “There are currently no plans to bring classic games together under the virtual console banner as has been done on other Nintendo systems,” a company rep explained. This careful wording led to many upset fans. Since the original Wii, the virtual console has been a Nintendo staple, a place where you could buy everything from Super Metroid to obscure TurboGrafx games. What does its absence mean for retro games on the Switch? If a few recent releases are any indication, Nintendo’s tablet will be just fine in that regard.
While I loved the virtual console concept, it’s important to note that it was far from perfect. There was the pricing, for one: all games from a single platform (except for a select few premium Nintendo titles) were sold at the exact same price point, meaning that Donkey Kong Jr. Math cost the same as Super Mario Bros. 3. The system offered no flexibility to play something obscure or terrible on the cheap. Similarly, Nintendo’s drip feed, weekly release schedule for virtual console games meant you never actually knew when the classic game you really wanted to play would be available. It could be next month. It could be next year. Then there was the fact that virtual console releases were straight ports. There was no option to add things like online play or even some bonus features for fans.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Over the past two weeks, a number of classic games have made their way to the Switch, and they point to a future for retro titles on the platform that isn’t as dire as many imagined following the death of the virtual console. Capcom, in particular, has done a great job with collections of some of its best games. The two volumes of the Mega Man Legacy Collection include the first 10 games in the main series, while Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection covers more than a decade’s worth of the arcade series, starting with the original Street Fighter all the way up to the classic Third Strike.
The games remain great. The ports feel authentic and faithful to the originals, and they look crisp on a modern HD TV as well as the Switch’s own display. But what makes these collections work so well is a combination of the way they’re structured and the stuff they offer outside of the games themselves. Take Street Fighter, for example. There are five different versions of Street Fighter II on this new collection. If they were on the virtual console, each game would be sold individually, and I’d almost definitely buy just one and probably struggle over which version to purchase. But having them all in the same package really allows you to appreciate the way individual games and the series as a whole has evolved with new characters and features being added in incremental sequels. The difference between playing the original Street Fighter III and Third Strike is pretty stark, and it’s easy to see that through this bundle.
These kinds of releases also aren’t burdened by platform categories in the way that the virtual console was. While the first volume of the Mega Man collection covers the initial six NES games in the series, the second volume covers later games, including the PlayStation game Mega Man 8 and the fairly modern Mega Man 10, which initially came out on the PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360. These are games that would not make it to the virtual console because of its strict platform limitations, but they are a pretty vital part of understanding the series as a whole. The same is true of the recent re-release of the brilliant two-tone shooter Ikaruga on the Switch. In order to release it on the virtual console, the publisher would’ve had to wait for Nintendo to add the Dreamcast as a supported classic console. But this way, the port can come out whenever it’s ready.
All of these Capcom collections also include an incredible amount of supplementary material. You can listen to the entirety of a game’s soundtrack or peruse concept art and old promotional posts and box art. (It’s a good chance to get mad all over again about how bad the American Mega Man II cover was.) The Street Fighter collection also has an amazing “making of” section that details the process of developing these games, including a fascinating look at a canceled version of Street Fighter II. I especially loved the character section, where you can look through the incredible variety of fighters that have been featured in the series over the years. This is all on top of a host of other quality-of-life improvements, like the ability to tweak video settings and play some old games online with friends or even rewind the action in Mega Man.
Of course, it’s not like these kinds of collections and digital re-releases can’t exist alongside a virtual console-like service. And there are a few advantages to Nintendo’s previous classic games stores. The games were easily organized by platform, and the system encouraged publishers to release obscure titles alongside the hits. But the important thing is that the Switch can still be an excellent retro games platform even without a virtual console. It’s already pretty solid a year into its existence. Nintendo has plans for a subscription service that includes access to NES games, and it’s especially encouraging that publishers like Neo Geo and Hamster are still releasing weird old games like Ikki and Terra Cresta on the Switch.
The virtual console was wonderful, but it was also restrictive. And more flexibility for the Switch will hopefully mean both more and better retro re-releases.