Friday, April 17, 2009

In Praise of the Wii Virtual Console

Retro gamers have a love/hate relationship with Nintendo's Virtual Console on the Wii. No matter how many great games are available, there are always a handful of personal favorites that remain elusive Monday after disappointing Monday.

The standardized pricing can seem out of whack, and calculated to target our nostalgic addictions -- yes, I too have paid $5 for Super Mario Bros. on the VC, even though its sheer commonality makes the original cartridge universally overpriced at rummage sales and flea markets.

And emulation is inherently imperfect -- the Wiimote and classic controller will never really feel like an NES or Genesis or Neo-Geo controller. Purists will insist that the refresh rate, flicker level and sound timing don't replicate original hardware well enough to suit the purpose either, and they're probably right if you view the world through an oscilloscope.

But there are a number of reasons to love the Virtual Console:

-- Import titles. They are generally brand new to me, and they just work. No pinouts to convert, boot discs to employ, or soldering irons to wave around inside your vintage hardware. Just download and play.

-- Browseability. Now that the Wii's limited storage problem has finally been addressed with proper SD card support, it's like having an iPod of retro games. Boot up the Wii, go into the SD menu, and you have your whole library (well, up to 240 games) at your disposal. Most VC games are small enough to launch quickly from the SD card, and even a huge collection won't approach the 32 GB SDHC max, so as far as I'm concerned the storage problem is well and truly fixed.

-- Quality. VC emulation is solid and reliable in general, and a good deal less hacky and configuration-tweaky than PC emulation can be. (Yes, tweaking is sometimes fun. But it distracts me from actually playing the games, and too often allows me to cheat myself out of the full experience.) The games are legitimate ROM images from the publishers, without random corruptions or hack/crack text inserts courtesy of the underground. It's emulation for the masses -- it starts up, it doesn't crash or fail to save the game, and it's handled cleanly and simply. Well, aside from the lack of widescreen support -- that's still a pain. I'm glad to see Namco's VC Arcade releases have an awareness of aspect ratio, and I hope that becomes a standard feature.

-- Legality and Economics. I like to know that the bucks I'm spending on classic games are giving me the legitimate right to play them, and unlike my thrift store searches, generating new revenue for somebody with an interest in responding to me as a market. Yes, the publishers that own the games today are not necessarily passing any cash on to the people who actually created them. And yes, I am often rebuying something I already own in physical form or on a disc-based compilation, which feels penny-foolish and convenience-driven. But the VC demonstrates once and for all that there's gold in these retro hills. Judging from Hudson and Konami's output, they're seeing a solid business case for supporting the VC, and WiiWare to boot, with titles that appeal to my retro tastes.

-- Pricing. Yes, many classic games won't cost you $5-$10 if you find them in the wild. But Neo-Geo games at $9 are very reasonable compared to finding and buying physical cartridges (if not compared to the SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 collection, also available on Wii). And there are other bargains -- for example, Ogre Battle and Harvest Moon, two fine but rare SNES games, are a lot cheaper to play on VC than to acquire as collectibles on eBay. And frankly, Super Mario Bros. on the VC is still good value for money -- anyone who claims that's not $5 worth of entertainment doesn't eat out very often.

-- The Library. Hundreds of games are available. Yes, there are many games I want that aren't there (Ys III, please, and the TG-CD version, not the SNES version.) There aren't enough Western publishers represented, although Activision has finally entered the fray. And yes, Mondays are too often underwhelming. But when I am ready for something new to play, and I just open up the Wii Shop channel and start browsing, I never come up empty-handed or have to settle for something I know is a poor choice. I haven't exhausted all the GOOD games on the VC, nor even all the GREAT games, not by a long shot, and that alone keeps me excited about the service.

I like XBox Live Arcade and WiiWare a lot, but when it comes to pure retro content, the Virtual Console is the only game in town.


  1. I'm pretty rigorous about respecting copyright (I don't download music, movies, etc.; I still buy CDs), but I'll admit I have a hard time shelling out cash for games I paid a lot of money for on a platform that no longer works.

    Even old consoles that are still operational are glitchy. It's tough to fire up my SNES to start a game of Final Fantasy III when I know a bump could erase the whole campaign.

    I don't own a Wii yet, but the Virtual Console does sound more and more impressive. However--do you really own the games? Do you need to connect to the internet to play them? Can you back them up?

    In a similar vein (and to avoid legal issues, let me be ambiguous here) you have a friend who's played around with PC-based console emulators? I have a friend who's found them to be a fun diversion, particularly for games that he (1) once owned or (2) can't find in print anywhere.

    What are your thoughts on emulator ethics? Is it ok to download games you once owned on consoles that no longer work? How about "abandoned" or out-of-print games, a la Abandonia?

    Great blog so far!

  2. Thanks for the questions.

    You "own" the Virtual Console games in the sense that you bought a license to play them. You don't have to be connected to the Internet to play your Virtual Console games once they are downloaded -- but they ARE tied to your Wii. I believe the downloaded files are encrypted in a way that's specific to your console, to prevent piracy. (It seems to be working -- reports indicate that 2-D Boy [the World of Goo guys] have seen the majority of their sales on the Wii and a lot of "sharing" afoot on the PC.)

    Long term, your Virtual Console games will work whether or not you have an Internet connection. They play from local storage, so once they are downloaded they are "yours", at least in a virtual sense, and they do not need a live Internet connection to verify anything. I have taken my Wii and its complement of VC games to Wi-Fi-less zones and everything works fine.

    The only risk I see is this -- if you send your Wii in for repair and it gets replaced with a new unit, Nintendo will re-key your licenses so they work on the new Wii you receive. When the Wii is someday no longer supported, that lack of physical transferability will become an issue. But by then, presumably there will be something else that works in a similar fashion, or the existing encryption scheme will have been cracked by hobbyists and preservationists.

    As a content creator, I suspect I may be more scrupulous about copyright than the general public. My philosophy is generally that if I own a physical copy of the game, I'm legally protected for emulation; at least I think I could make a defensive argument if I had to. I've been known to buy arcade boards for obscure titles so I can emulate them on MAME, which probably puts me on the extreme side of the "respect for copyright" discussion.

    That said, there is a point where I see preservation of the history of videogaming as critical, to be valued over and above aging copyrights whose value tends to drop pretty rapidly over the decades. Too many early films are gone -- if copies of Namco's King & Balloon ROM are out there in cyberspace, it can help make sure that doesn't happen to early games (because even Namco isn't releasing their ENTIRE back catalog in these new distribution channels.)

    One of the things I like about the Virtual Console and compilation discs is that they put a dollar value on these vintage items, establishing some legal precedent and low-overhead sales channels that I hope will help to bring copyright owners of the rarer items out of the woodwork. I try to support those efforts with my dollars whenever possible.

    Where the original copyright owners have gone out of business and whoever acquired the IP has no interest in marketing it, I think the abandonware philosophy has merit. But it hasn't really been legally tested, so it remains iffy IMO.