How Nintendo Killed the Golden Goose

Project NX was a mysterious piece of hardware that Nintendo kept in its pocket, creating buzz and rumors abound before it was showcased to the world. Whispers of a home and mobile hybrid console crept onto blog sites and YouTube videos, yet many wondered if such a thing could even be possible. Nintendo showed the world that, indeed, such a device is possible when it unveiled the Nintendo Switch on Oct. 20, 2016. The company enjoyed solid sales of the Switch when it released on March 3, 2017, and analysts declared Nintendo was back with a fun – albeit still gimmicky – new golden goose. But, with the announcement of the new Nintendo Switch Online service, the golden goose may yet fall.

Switch addressed many issues I and many others had with modern handheld gaming experiences. Can I get a more AAA experience with handheld? Switch touted that publishers like Bethesda would bring titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to the platform. Can I get a better overall experience without gimmicky controls like the 3DS’ stylus reliance or the Vita’s back touchpads? The console introduced multiple ways to play games on the go.

Impressed as I was by these options, I was more excited for what the Switch meant: solid software choices on the go. Titles like a future Mario and Metroid seemed like a no-brainer, and we knew that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would be a launch title for the system, but I was pondering the Virtual Console options.

Games like the first Metroid Prime or Luigi’s Mansion would be available for play on the go if Nintendo were willing to tap into past console libraries such as the GameCube, and expanding on other libraries the company previously but briefly flirted with such as the Nintendo 64 and DS were also possibilities.

Nintendo Wii U
Nintendo’s Wii U will be the last console to offer Virtual Console

Bringing the best of both Virtual Console worlds to one system seemed to be the way to go. The NES Classic was the hottest-selling Christmas item in 2016, but it still didn’t fill the void of being able to play those games on to go with the new control schemes offered by Switch. I wanted to meet a friend in the park and play a game of Mario Bros or Hockey with the new Joy-Con control layout. I imagined the expansion of the Nintendo 64 library so I could play Super Smash Bros on my next flight and actually have a choice of controls – much like the two previous iterations with the GameCube controller added in.

These daydreams died yesterday when Nintendo announced its plan for the Switch’s upcoming online service. The company’s $19.99 – or $5 if you enter into a Family Plan with six others – annual service for online play will be coupled with Nintendo Entertainment System – Nintendo Switch Online, a service that provides subscribers with a library of classic games from the Nintendo Entertainment System era.

One could possibly argue that there is still a small portion of a Virtual Console vibe with the Nintendo Switch Online’s cloud backup system, but whether that will be hailed in the same light as the VC’s save states remains to be seen.

Save options are not the issue, however. The consumer’s choice was torn away the moment Nintendo made this decision. The potential library of games that a fan would love to collect for on-the-go play is hoarded away into a library that will grow only as quickly as the company wants it to.

The lack of clarity on what to expect in the library going forward is equally puzzling and worrisome. Will a healthy dose of Nintendo 64 and GameCube games be added to the fray? Should we expect to see a DS lineup in the future? There is no certainty, and consumers are entirely at the mercy of Nintendo.

It would be easy to blame the best-selling lineup of “mini” systems Nintendo has released over the past two years. The NES Classic Edition and SNES Classic Edition were a license to print money. They wreaked havoc in online marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon and created a boom of scalper activity at retailers like Toys’r’Us and Best Buy. Prices for the mini systems continued to soar in online auctions, yet many wondered if even half of the stock reached the hands of actual Nintendo fans.

Anyone would be right to blame Nintendo for these blunders as the company’s policy of never wanting to keep products sitting on shelves and looking lonely came back to haunt it, but the mini systems quickly became the victims of an entirely new problem once more stock was shipped: being too damn popular. Scalpers again did everything they could to secure as many systems as possible, and again many wondered if actual fans were getting any of the new shipments despite Nintendo’s valid attempt to correct a mistake.

A pessimist could argue that the scenario I laid out suggests Nintendo chose to leave Virtual Console off the Switch platform to sell more mini systems in the future, but past instances of Nintendo selling the same title – like the original Legend of Zelda for example – on both Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console suggests the company is not afraid to sell a consumer the same thing twice with a straight face. Plus the Class Editions don’t put their timeless classic titles in the hands of the mobile gamer. Instead, the presence of Virtual Console creates an entirely new problem for the company: it makes Nintendo Switch Online look like hot garbage.

Fans would gladly pay piecemeal prices for the games they actually want rather than pay an annual fee for the possibility of getting something they may like sporadically. Choosing your experience rather than being offered a sketchy library of titles you may not want with no solid outline of what to expect in the future seems like the better choice, and buying VC games individually didn’t stop fans in the past – hence why Virtual Console was such a success.

NES Classic Edition
You may be quick to blame these minis, but they’re likely not the problem

Not to mention the number of Switch games that use online play is astonishingly low, and that list isn’t expected to grow exponentially throughout the remainder of 2018. Nintendo Switch Online is a service that a large portion of Switch owners don’t need, and the lack of overall features – streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu are still absent – makes one question why the Big N decided to charge consumers at all. Games will still use peer to peer networking rather than use dedicated servers. That could – and probably should – change in the future but shouldn’t be expected until an announcement is made.

Lack of Virtual Console on Switch is a major misstep and a fine way to kill the company’s fiery momentum it built up earlier this year. The company limped along with Labo sales in the west, but the Japanese market was able to keep the experimental, do-it-yourself lineup afloat. These factors combined mean Nintendo is having a rocky mid-year when most fans and industry analysts saw where the company could do no wrong.

A strong presence at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo and good sales of fall titles can swing the pendulum back in a positive direction for Nintendo, but if there were ever a time to be careful, that time is now.

ResetPatrick

Former ScrewAttack Lead News Editor, creator of community group Debasedtothis(DTT), co-host of The Reset Button and Super Reset Bros, co-creator of Reset Press. Also a former Game Hero, featured on countless websites.

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