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Farewell to the Virtual Console, the boldest part of Nintendo's mid-00s revolution

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Nintendo’s mid-noughties revolution feels so distant now, even if its impact hasn’t really dimmed. The touch sensation of the DS led in its own way to the iOS revolution, the motion controls of the Wii helped reestablish video games in the living room and push them towards the mainstream, and the reverberations of both are felt to this day. There’s another facet of its revolution that sadly never had the same impact, and now is set to finally fizzle away.

It’s wild to look all those years back at the collection of announcements that led up to the Wii’s reveal – Iwata’s assertion that specs don’t matter so much (these were more innocent times), then the following year the reveal of the console itself, no bigger than a couple of DVDs (this is a thing that people used to watch movies on in the mid-noughties). Even wilder that before we got a proper look at that revolutionary controller the big feature that Nintendo’s bold new console would lean in on would be this little thing called backwards compatibility.

20 years of Nintendo games, all available in one place! The concept of the Virtual Console was as dizzying in its own way as the Wii Remote would be, even if the reality of it at launch in November 2006 wasn’t quite so dazzling – there was only something like a dozen titles to choose from, but I think we were all too busy with Wii Bowling to really gripe too much.

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Still, over the years it blossomed into something remarkable, and by the time the service made it onto the Wii U it was an absolute treasure trove with MSX, PC Engine and even Nintendo DS games to choose from. I’ll always remember with fondness the Hanabi Festivals that used to generously offer up games that were previously only available within Japan, and they felt an integral part of the appeal of the Wii. And Update Day, of course.

Its days were numbered when Nintendo made its back catalogue part of its Switch Online subscription – a service I’ve happily signed up for and enjoy greatly, but a miserable alternative to what it’s replaced. A miserable reminder, too, of Nintendo’s appalling attitude to its own back catalogue. Maybe all those titles will make their way to the Switch Online’s subscription service, but it’ll never replace the ability to actually own these things without risk of them being shut off one distant day.

Sin & Punishment fetches a decent price on the second hand market, then there’s the issue of getting a Japanese N64 to have it running at a proper framerate – thanks to the Virtual Console, it was possible to pick up a pukka version for next to nothing.
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It’s another reminder, too, of the importance of game preservation – something that seems even more important now given how clear it is how little big companies like Nintendo care about it. Perhaps it’s naive to expect a big business like Nintendo to take an initiative that doesn’t promise much by way of profit attention, and it puts a fresh emphasis on the vital work of archive professionals who’ve since pointed out how Nintendo’s wilfully obstructing their good work. What a shame to see a company with a history as rich as Nintendo’s so keen to obliterate it.

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