Retro gaming has been growing increasingly popular over the course of the last few years; as we move further and further away from gaming’s earliest days, it seems people are becoming more and more keen to know the medium’s roots.
This is absolutely great, as there are lots of different aspects you can explore the history of through retro gaming. You can see how storytelling has developed over the course of numerous generations of RPGs and adventure games. You can see the rise and fall of numerous mechanical genres. You can even see how now-famous creators got started!
There’s a growing problem, however; as retro gaming — and by this I mean “officially sanctioned” retro gaming, rather than the legal grey area that is emulation and ROM downloads — becomes more popular, it also becomes more difficult and more expensive to get involved with.
That is, unless you have a Nintendo Switch.
One of the biggest reasons I was excited to pick up a Nintendo Switch in the first place was down to it being an immensely appealing retro platform. Its hybrid nature means you can enjoy old classics both at home on the big TV or on the go, and numerous retro-centric companies have seemingly been queueing up to favour the Nintendo platform for their rereleases.
The excellent SNK 40th Anniversary Collection first appeared on Switch, for example, and the bumper value Atari Flashback Classics collection for Switch features 150 games in a single volume rather than being split across three discs like its PS4 and Xbox One counterparts.
On top of that, we have excellent support from Hamster, whose Arcade Archives series brings a variety of lesser-known classics and Neo Geo hits to modern audiences; former Jaleco partner City Connection — who now owns the rights to the defunct developer’s back catalogue and assets — has been both rereleasing and reimagining a variety of retro titles; Sega’s resurrected Sega Ages series provides a fine selection of subtle but tangible improvements on their most beloved arcade and console titles; and even Konami has finally realised that people might still want to play the old Castlevania and Contra titles.
It’s Nintendo themselves who have taken an interesting and bold step in a brave new direction, however, with the inclusion of both NES and Super NES games as part of a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. And not just first-party Nintendo games, either; since the NES component of the service kicked off in September of 2018, the company has demonstrated an admirable commitment to highlighting not just the predictable games that everyone has heard of, but also some lesser-known titles from a variety of developers and publishers.
I’m not generally a big fan of subscription-based services for gaming, because I’m one of those people who likes to collect the games he plays. However, with retro gaming having exploded in popularity since the advent of gaming YouTubers in particular, the price to get involved with original hardware has been gradually creeping up. This means that in the case of many platforms, you can’t really afford to make too many “impulse purchases” — unless you’re just blindly aiming for a “complete collection”, which is usually a fool’s errand in my experience! — without being sure that the titles in question are something you really want.
Enter Nintendo’s offering, then, which provides you with a gradually expanding collection of NES and Super NES games to play on your Switch, with no additional cost on top of the Nintendo Switch Online subscription. What we’re gradually going to end up with is a “Netflix of retro gaming”, where you can browse through a variety of classic titles, pick one according to your mood and enjoy it to your heart’s content. We’re not quite there yet, but Nintendo certainly seems committed to both the Switch as a platform and this idea for distributing retro titles for the immediate future. And we’re not just seeing domestic releases, either; already we’ve seen some formerly Japan-only titles (including several Famicom Disk System games) come West in an official capacity, for the first time in some cases.
The benefit of this model is that although you don’t “own” anything provided as part of the subscription — and indeed you lose access to it all once your subscription lapses — it provides a great way to get to know these games without any sort of limitation on your experience or, crucially, any additional expense.
You might boot up Wrecking Crew once just to see what it’s like, discover that it’s a puzzle game you want to spend a lot more time with and decide to seek out an actual NES cart to play on real hardware. Conversely, you might fire up Pro Wrestling out of curiosity, feel like its simplistic mechanics don’t have much to offer you and decide that you don’t really need that particular title in your collection. Or you might feel the opposite way about either of these titles. The point is, there’s absolutely no risk in trying these games this way — and none of the associated murky legal waters associated with emulation.
There are modern conveniences built in to these versions, too. Save states allow you to pick up where you left off, even in games with no native save function. (Or you can use them to cheese your way through a difficult bit, but MoeGamer by no means endorses this practice.) A rewind function allows you to practice a particularly challenging sequence until you nail it every time — or just undo a mistake that you don’t feel was your fault. (Yes, yes, you were “pressing the buttons but it wasn’t doing anything”.) “SP” variations of certain games allow you to see later stages without having to “git gud” first. And online play allows you to enjoy co-op and competitive games without having to drag your friends kicking and screaming out of their houses — something which I’ve found increasingly challenging to accomplish as we’ve all got older!
Okay, you lack the pleasingly tactile aspect of slamming one of those satisfyingly clunky cartridges into a slot… but you also lack the increasingly frequent technical issues that these ageing pieces of hardware sometimes find themselves stricken with. No more worrying if the battery in your Zelda cartridge still has enough juice to record your perfect no-death run for all eternity!
There are a few improvements Nintendo could stand to make. Slightly more frequent releases would be nice — though in principle I agree with the decision to drip-feed new titles rather than overwhelm people with a massive amount of choice right from the get-go.
The way things are currently done, Nintendo makes a point of showcasing the new titles when they are released, both via social channels such as YouTube, and on the Switch dashboard itself via the News feature. The NES and SNES apps themselves even make a big deal of new titles appearing, with sound and graphical effects accompanying new games being added to the library. This side of things is good; those new releases could just stand to be a bit more frequent to keep momentum and interest going. It’s not as if either the NES or SNES are short of titles to release, after all!
It’d also be nice to see more platforms. The SNES side of the service was a long time coming, but hopefully now that Nintendo has seen it’s a viable part of their online offering that people enjoy, it’ll take less time for us to see a wider variety of games and platforms to get our retro indulgences from. It’d be great to ultimately see all the platforms originally represented on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console storefronts — including stuff like the Turbografx/PC Engine, Commodore 64 (yes, really, that was a thing for a brief period), Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS.
The reason we’re probably not yet seeing stuff like Gamecube games is likely a matter of practicality: while NES and SNES games fit into a few kilobytes in most cases — a few megabytes at most in the case of SNES titles — and can thus be downloaded in bulk as simple update packages, the optical disc-based Gamecube games are much larger, and so those with smaller SD cards in their Switch (or those relying purely on the built-in storage) wouldn’t be able to have a complete library available at all times. This could, of course, be solved with some sort of “download on demand” service, but that lacks the pleasing immediacy that the current NES and SNES services have, and is likely something Nintendo wants to think carefully about the implementation of before unleashing it on the world.
The least likely thing I see happening, but one which would be really nice, particularly once the Switch starts getting close to the end of its life, would be an option for some sort of one-time payment for permanent, offline access to the complete libraries of the older systems at the very least, perhaps with a discount for the amount of time the purchaser had kept an active Nintendo Switch Online subscription. This would give the Switch incredible long-term value even after Nintendo has moved on to its next generation of hardware; can you imagine having a device fully-loaded with a ton of retro classics — ones that you didn’t have to trawl the grottier end of the Internet to acquire — that you can take anywhere? That’d be pretty great but, as I say, I also see this as unlikely to actually happen.
As it stands, for me the expanding retro libraries make Nintendo Switch Online worth the price of admission by itself — even though I don’t play many multiplayer games. Of course there are things that could be done better and of course you can always do all this for “free” through emulation — but in terms of a modern, retro-gaming solution that doesn’t break the bank or your conscience, what the Switch offers right now is pretty hard to beat.
The MoeGamer Compendium, Volume 1 is now available! Grab a copy today for a beautiful physical edition of the Cover Game features originally published in 2016.
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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