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.