Virtual Console – how Nintendo misunderstood the retro market

Norwich Retro Gaming


Last week I found myself doing that most rarefied activity among Wii owners – I turned it on. Stranger still, I found myself booting up the Wii Shop. I was on the search for Hydroventure, fresh with the newly acquired knowledge that it is, in fact, the game ‘Fluidity’ I’ve heard our overseas cousins raving about. But before I visited the WiiWare section I was blindsided by a kindly recommendation from Nintendo: ‘Download Sonic the Hedgehog on Virtual Console for 800 Nintendo Points’.


Now, simple maths: 1000 Nintendo Points are £7, therefore 800 are £5.60. Here, Nintendo were offering me Sonic the Hedgehog for £5.60. The game of my misspent youth, the first game I ever played, the game my parents paid £35 for back in 1991 (that’s £58 in today money), could be transmitted to my console – Nintendo console, no-less – in mere minutes for just over a fiver. If my 7 year-old self had time-travelled moment he wouldn’t have asked why we hadn’t invented flying cars or hoverboards yet, we’d clearly been focussing on the important stuff.


Clearly, as a Wii-owning classic Sonic fan, I’m the ideal target audience. The Wiimote is cleverly designed for horizontal retro play, and it would be great to have Sonic built in to my console, ready to play in moments. So why didn’t I buy it? Well, in short, because £5 has become too much to spend on a downloadable Sonic the Hedgehog game.


For instance, in support of the Japan relief effort, Capcom and Sega are dropping the price of Street Fighter IV and Sonic the Hedgehog on iPhone to 79p and £1.19 respectively, with all profits going to charity. They can do this because there is no packaging and limited distribution cost. In fact that is why so many iOS and Steam ports of classic games can be released for so little. Once the development costs have been recouped (which in the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, would have been around the early 90s) the games can be sold for relatively little; and often are.


And that’s not to say the answer is ‘Apple do it cheaper’. Sonic has also been re-released in physical format on numerous occasions. Off the top of my head I can think of at least one boxed compilations on almost every console since the Dreamcast. These can all be picked up preowned for around the same asking price as VC’s Sonic, yet feature 5 to 20 times the number of games and also come with free disc and box. The retro appeal of such in-box features is that not only can they be displayed on your shelf, but also leant to friends, or simply picked up, walked across the room and placed in to your console machine as part of the traditional – and soon to be extinct – pre-gaming ritual.


The instant access to Sonic on the iPhone or a dedicated ‘channel’ on your Wii Menu is obviously appealing, but since human beings are predictable animals, what comes easy often equates as not worth effort. Being so simple to boot up can not only devalue the experience, but actually leaves out a key part of it. The tactile element is missing on VC, and while retro gamers can still feel that switch marked ‘joy’ in the back of their head being flicked by nostalgia for the visual and the audial, what is lost is the handfeel of a stiff plastic MegaDrive controller or the satisfyingly chunky game cartridge that requires dust blowing off from the chip inside (or tapped against a hard surface – the debate continues). Nostalgic gamers trawl charity shops and cash converters not just because they want to play Sonic, but because the pursuit is half the value. An easily downloadable, ethemeral product has no hint of physical feedback – no pavements have been walked for it, no notes exchanged for it, and no carrier bag has taken it home.


Ofcourse, here I am in danger of falling into the Ludite argument that ‘physical experience good, digital experience bad’ which obviously has no place in relation to a digital medium. My argument isn’t that downloadable versions have less value than physical ones, just that they shouldn’t be the same price. While the logical conclusion is that they’re not for me and I should take advantage of one of the many alternative I’ve pointed at the fact is, stubbornly, I want to play Sonic on my Wii; I just don’t want to pay that much for the priveledge, and given Nintendo’s firm stance on sales and price drops (not to mention the monopoly they have on the VC’s content) there’s no reason to expect one any time soon.


Inevitably the frustration I feel for VC is how close it comes to being the service I want; the service my 7 yyar old self would want. I even catch glimpses sometimes of it actually being that service. Today I saw Final Fantasy VI (no Nintendo Europe, once everyone has played Final Fantasy VII it’s no longer acceptable to call the preceding game ‘III’) selling for 900 points – £6.30. An incredibly rare RPG experience I sadly missed out on is selling for £6.30. Now, I’ll be buying this because I loved the DS port of Chrono Trigger and, as far as I’m aware, the re-releases of FFVI on PlayStation and GBA sell for around £20 each, but while the unbiased nature pricing of Nintendo’s platform gives me a bargain in this case it’s more a matter of a stopped clock being right than a sophisticated pricing strategy.


The value of the VC release of FFVI isn’t because of Nintendo’s low-low prices but because of the deliberate scarcity Square Enix have forged through limited releases of the game. Even now, many retro gamers will baulk at the idea of playing FFVI on anything other than the original SNES. I for one don’t feel that way, largely because I’m not really a true retro gamer. I’m just a nostalgic gamer who’s open to new releases of old games, as long as the pricing reflects their age rather than an arbitrary price guide.

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