Nintendo’s retro revival – emulation brought into the fold
Nintendo’s retro revival has started to gather pace recently. They have fully embraced the benefits of allowing gamers access to their older back catalogues. Gone are the days when console players scoff at Nintendo and their lack of back catalogue releases. We take a brief look at Nintendo’s history with emulation and where they are today.
At the turn of the century free emulators capable of playing 8bit, 16bit and 32bit games became popular. Many gamers were turning their backs to traditional play methods in favour of free to play versions of systems from Nintendo, Sega, Atari and other console developers. The software can be used to launch downloaded roms from cartridges, floppy disks and CDs. They enable the user to play all the games for a system without owning the original hardware or software. While this may be appealing, it is not technically legal as the copyright holder does not receive any revenue from a game sale.
Opening the emulation door
Game developers, especially Nintendo, have used aggressive legal tactics in an attempt to stop the websites that share the emulators and related roms. However, they also see that the market has shifted, and if done correctly, there is a lot of money to be made from emulation. Nintendo started to find ways to offer old games to the market and satisfy gamers looking for a retro experience. The Game Boy Advance had a steady flow of NES originals and reworked SNES classics. For their GameCube console they released a compilation of classic Zelda games. It was released on a special disc included with consoles or free from Nintendo when purchased with another game. These budget titles, while successful, were never going to be enough to encourage gamer’s to give up their free emulators.
It would take Nintendo’s best selling console to really open up the possibilities of legal emulation. When the Wii Shop Channel launched in 2006 Nintendo began a journey to bring their back catalogue to its new platforms. It was their answer to what they felt had been an illegal attack on their intellectual properties. The service was opened up to other developers, past and present. With the help of Sega, NEC, SNK and others, hundreds of classic games have appeared for download. It allows gamers to go back in time to play their old favourites or discover ones they may have missed first time round.
Different companies have tried other ways to bring their back catalogues to modern hardware. Sega, with the help of AtGAmes, produced mini, inexpensive emulation devices from 2001 onwards. These have been heavily criticized over the years due to their poor performance and controls. However, they have paved the way in finding ways to release officially licensed emulated games.
Sega did find success with compilation releases filled with Mega Drive favourites on one disk. Namco, SNK and Capcom have followed suit in various ways, bringing huge amounts of older games to newer consoles. Nintendo did not jump on this bandwagon, instead choosing to curate a collection of individually released games with the occasional mini compilation. A smaller collection of carefully selected games that kept quality high and created demand from customers wanting more.
This strategy worked well for Nintendo. Millions of downloads followed and the popularity of the service sparked both Sony and Microsoft to open their platforms to similar services. For retro fans this created a world of convenience as no longer needed to keep old systems set up. Having a menu filled with games from various systems such as NES, Mega Drive and Neo Geo all in one place and only a button click away. However, unlike with the emulators of the 1990’s, gamers were now willing to pay for content.
The original Wii Shop service has since closed and replaced with the eShop allowing continued access to Nintendo’s much loved classics on their 3DS and Wii U. Some of the other companies, most notably NEC and SNK, are still supporting the service. Many 1980’s and 1990’s games that cemented Nintendo as a video game giant are easily accessed through the eShop.
This approach is not without its problems as not all games for any one system are available. It is one thing to have abundance of Mario and Donkey Kong games, but for fans looking for a Konami action fix or Square adventure their options can be limited. So it is not surprising that illegal rom emulators remain popular today no matter how many lawsuits Nintendo chuck at them. But the video game world is ever evolving and companies like Nintendo must find new ways to distribute their products.
Switching it up
Having been playing Nintendo’s latest offering, the Switch, for a little while now, its credentials for being a retro powerhouse should not be understated. Nintendo are certainly targeting the retro niche once again and have started this journey with the release of their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) – Switch Online service. Before, gamers would pay a one off fee for an individual game they wished to download. Now they have access to an entire library of original Nintendo roms played through an emulator portal.
Having a quick blast through Super Mario Bros. or facing the slippery platforms in Ice Climber has never been more accessible. The service caters for casual and hard-core gamers alike with a good mix of fun and challenging games. The added benefit of save states also adds to the pick up and play style Nintendo are attempting to portray with the Switch. You can conquer a couple of levels on Kirby’s Adventure on the daily commute before saving and continuing later on. Nintendo are pulling out all the stops with their emulator offering through accessibility, ease of use and variety.
There is a catch as the service is only available through the purchase of a Nintendo Switch Online membership. These can be taken monthly, quarterly or annually with the latter being the best value for money. While it may seem a crafty trick by Nintendo, buying the annual membership allows a year’s access to 35 (currently) classic NES titles. This is a similar price you could buy about four or five titles for individually on the eShop. However, you are able to keep individual purchases without needing a rolling Nintendo Switch Online membership.
Offering more bang
Overall it is certainly value for money as it currently costs 51p for one year’s access to each game. With the added promise of new games each month, Nintendo do seem to be coming round to the idea that to compete with the free emulator crowd they have to offer better value for money. It should also be noted that buying a membership also allows online play of compatible switch games and adds cloud storage to backup save games. Members also gain access to a few exclusive deals via the online shop. The most notable being the opportunity to purchase a pair of NES inspired wireless controllers. These quality controllers work very similarly to the Switch’s Joy-Cons by clicking into its sides to charge.
Having less buttons than the standard Joy-Con means they are not ideal for general use. But simple two button games and the main Switch menu can be navigated with ease. They are primarily aimed at those wanting to enhance their NES emulator experience. The look and feel of the controllers is almost identical to the original controller. Anyone who has ever played an original NES will feel right at home with these. They are a little heavier but comfortable and there is no lag even through the wireless functionality. With a fully replicated NES controller Nintendo have put a lot of thought into recreating the experience.
What now for Nintendo?
Nintendo are showing they are serious in providing an emulated back catalogue. It is not just a NES one stop shop available. For those not keen on taking the subscription, there are options. The eShop still has various one off downloads for the 3DS or Wii U. Alternativley choosing a Nintendo Classic Mini will enable the same experience as the Switch Online Service. The standalone NES replica has been a huge hit for Nintendo and is very affordable. It allows for a similar experience to the Switch, albeit with fewer and different games. Nintendo are reaching bigger and, maybe more importantly, younger audiences with these multiple channels. Turning the tide on their chequered past with emulation, Nintendo’s retro revival drives on.