When Metroid Dread was revealed and explicitly called Metroid 5, I knew immediately that Nintendo had an optical issue on its hands. By the time that Nintendo went game for game explaining the entries which preceded Dread on social media, the issue must’ve been overt to the company too. It’s an obvious and avoidable one: neither Metroid: Zero Mission nor Metroid Fusion are readily available for players to check out. This drummed up the cyclical problem of Switch’s lacking options for legacy content, and the way in which Nintendo was failing its Switch audience, an audience that has brought many new and lapsed fans into the fold.
Without easy access to these past Metroid games through a Switch Virtual Console, it was rather challenging for many to understand and experience the lineage which made Dread’s reveal such a meteoric moment. However, the zeitgeist surrounding this revival ignited a desire to surmount this challenge and play the past titles anyway. So, it became painfully obvious how inconvenient access is. Between ridiculous prices in the secondhand market (not to mention copious bootleg carts) and digital availability largely relegated to Wii U’s Virtual Console, many left the Metroid exercise burned or out a fair chunk of money. To the latter Nintendo saw the inverse, as sales charts for the Wii U’s storefront illustrated a boom in Metroid interest as those few Wii U owners went all-in for these titles.
This Metroid debacle has become the clearest example of the desire and necessity for a proper Virtual Console on Switch. However, we didn’t really need this chaos and that Wii U sales data to make the point clear. Obviously, players want convenient access to Nintendo’s legacy, and that access is becoming more and more essential as Nintendo returns to series with backstories. The release of Pikmin 3 Deluxe would’ve been, in an ideal world, precipitated by the release of Pikmin 1 and 2 on Switch. That’s no different from how Metroid Dread’s release should be precipitated by Zero Mission and Fusion. These are only two key examples. These points and concepts are also well-trodden ground. Everyone who’s in the know consequently knows and feels these things, and we all clearly see that Nintendo has little desire to rectify the issue. Enjoying Claymates on SNES Online?
From a community level, there isn’t much we can do either. The best I can say, personally, is that if you care about Nintendo’s back catalog, then you should go buy a Wii U and fill it with the wealth of Virtual Console titles available on that machine. Of course, that’s suboptimal and unrealistic though. Unfortunately, it’s the best (and probably most cost effective) advice that I can offer until Nintendo addresses this omnipresent problem.
But here’s the rub – I think that the “Virtual Console problem” has been largely misrepresented. We all want access to classic games. We all want that affordable entry point into the classics with the hybrid form factor that the Switch provides. Many understandably want to go into a game labeled Metroid 5 with the firsthand experience of Metroid 1 through 4, so that they don’t have to ask if the fifth narrative installment is an amicable entry point. These are all sensible desires that justify the revival of Virtual Console. However, the fact remains that these are all desires usually predicated on access to games that will continue to live on with or without digital re-releases.
What I’ve come to really appreciate about Virtual Console this year is that it is a lifeline for the Nintendo games that time has forgotten. This is why Virtual Console matters. The 2D Metroid experiences will always persist because Metroid is always going to be an important series. The success of Virtual Console isn’t that you can play Super Mario 64 on modern hardware, or even that you can play Metroid Fusion on modern hardware either. The success of Virtual Console is that you can play Sin & Punishment beyond Japan or Kuru Kuru Kururin for the very first time in North America. Without Virtual Console, these titles would exist only in the margins, if at all. Virtual Console preserves series with future prospects only as bright as a potential Spirit in Smash Ultimate.
I think we as Nintendo fans often have a myopic view of which franchises are actually obscure or in jeopardy. Metroid and F-Zero really aren’t, for example. Sure, they’re much less popular than Mario or Zelda, but they’re continually represented to some extent or another across hardware generations. Doshin the Giant, Captain Rainbow, the aforementioned Sin & Punishment and Kuru Kuru Kururin – among many others – are legitimately obscure. F-Zero very well may see a revival somewhere in scope between Advance Wars: Re-Boot Camp and Metroid Dread/Prime 4. However, these others that I just listed absolutely will not.
The only way in which a Doshin could ever live again is through Virtual Console. If Nintendo put the European GameCube ROM on the Switch eShop, not only would players be able to experience a cult Nintendo favorite, but Doshin would escape the annals of history. I bought a Japanese GameCube earlier this year for the explicit purpose of checking out Doshin, Kururin Squash!, and similarly forgotten games. If you want to talk about hoops to jump through for access, buying regional hardware to play a handful of regional exclusives makes finding a copy of Zero Mission look downright simple. That isn’t to say that the latter is easy, but on the scale of difficulty, those aren’t one-to-one.
As such, when I think of Virtual Console releases that really matter, I think of the regional exclusives brought worldwide. Or, I think of the Super Mario Advance: Super Mario Bros 3 release, which bundled the e-Reader levels into the release. The utility of Virtual Console is its ability to look beyond convenience and into preserving the very life of games and experiences which are otherwise totally dead in the water. Consider the Duck Hunt Wii U release! As NES Zappers and HD TVs mix like modern Paper Mario and RPG elements, having a modern way to play Duck Hunt again is vital in an era where CRTs have no place in anyone’s entertainment setups.
So, in short, yes, we need a Virtual Console that can prop up the likes of Metroid Fusion. However, that’s not why I think a Virtual Console is a necessity. It’s a necessity because without it, reams of truly obscure and unplayable games in modernity will totally vanish. Zero Mission isn’t going anywhere, these other titles are. And soon, the Wii U, which has become a haven for these obscure releases – Earthbound Beginnings being another that I’ve yet to mention – will fade away too. Already, Nintendo is restricting how funds can reach the machine. Before too long, its storefront will be pulled asunder.
Then how will we play Sin & Punishment? I suppose we’ll spend an arm and a leg to buy a Japanese cart and then either sand down the region-lock on the console or disassemble the cart to make it fit in a non-Japanese N64. This is the future which Virtual Console safeguards us against. This future is one that often goes unnoticed as we focus on the more accessible games that could be accessed even more conveniently. Again, that’s very important. But, that’s just not what’s most important. If we reframe this conversation, then I think we could truly illustrate why, from a preservation angle, Virtual Console is invaluable. I love these niche Nintendo titles, and I want others to be able to love them too.