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Nintendo desperately needs to revive the Virtual Console

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No, that SNES Classic Edition is not the same thing

wii u virtual console Dave Tach/Polygon

The Virtual Console’s absence from the Switch is one of the system’s biggest sore spots, and it looks like Nintendo has no plans to change that yet. The company’s wishy-washy response to consumer demands for the classic games service is becoming more and more frustrating, especially with items like the Super Nintendo Classic Edition on the way.

Nintendo seems to think that the SNES Classic Edition and its older brother, last year’s NES Classic Edition, will fill the gap left by the Virtual Console’s absence on the Switch. During the company’s latest shareholders’ meeting, senior executive officer Satoshi Yamato basically said as much:

Similar to these software titles we have made available on a variety of platforms over the Internet, we consider the Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Famicom (to be sold as Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Super NES Classic Edition in the U.S.), scheduled to be launched in Japan this October (and September overseas) to be a type of Virtual Console.

For the NES and SNES Classic Edition systems to be considered proper Virtual Console replacements, Nintendo would have to do one thing: make them widely accessible to all fans. It failed to do that with the NES Classic on a dramatic scale; scalpers made hundreds of dollars reselling the systems on eBay as the mini-NES quickly became holiday 2016’s hottest gift.

Constrained supply was the NES Classic Edition’s biggest problem. Nintendo did little to alleviate it, never managing to get stock to catch up to demand. Instead, the company did the opposite of finding a solution and retired the NES Classic Edition completely.

The word on the street is that the SNES Classic Edition won’t be quite as hard to find, but we can’t be sure of that until it’s out in September. Pre-orders sold out almost as soon as they opened up in Europe, which isn’t the most encouraging of signs.

Even if the SNES Classic Edition does manage to make it into the homes of many more hardcore Nintendo fans than its predecessor, it still doesn’t match the breadth and ease of access as the Virtual Console library Nintendo built over the past 10-plus years. Between the Wii, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS, there are nearly 1,000 games to choose from on the Virtual Console. They’re not all worth buying, but they gave new and old Nintendo lovers a cheap and easy way to delve into the company’s greatest hits, from SNES greats to more recent Wii games.

That’s what’s likable about the NES Classic Edition and the SNES Classic Edition, too. They give kids a chance to discover their parents’ favorite games, while grown-ups can reacquaint themselves with the magic of Nintendo games. But as novel as these experiences sound, the Virtual Console has given us the chance to show off the wide, wonderful world of Nintendo history to our family and friends for a decade. That’s what’s best about it — it’s a simple way of getting someone hooked on Nintendo.

It’s hard to understand why Nintendo has seemingly given up on the download service, but its turn toward these physical collections could be one reason. But it seems like Nintendo’s philosophy on opening up its backlog to the masses has fundamentally changed. Here’s the rest of what Yamato had to say about Virtual Console releases to investors:

It would be possible to sell these titles as packaged software or via download cards, but if we were to start selling products like this in the future, I think we would first have to consider whether we can establish that kind of business model, and do our due diligence in finding out if there is sufficient demand for it.

He’s referring here to making the games on SNES Classic Edition available as a download, which would do away with the hardware’s biggest possible issue: that few people will actually be able to buy it. Opening up its 21 games to, say, Switch owners via download cards would be a brilliant option, even if it’s not quite as appealing as the a la carte Virtual Console service.

Yamato sounds hesitant about this, however, citing “sufficient demand” as a possible red or green light. Shouldn’t the bonkers sales of the NES Classic Edition suggest that there’s more than enough demand? Sales numbers for Virtual Console downloads aren’t available, although they reportedly hit $66 million back in 2010. (That was actually 25 percent down from the year before, according to analysts.) That’s not huge, but it’s not nothing. It’s also important to note that this is just straight profit that Nintendo can keep turning until it shuts the Virtual Console service down for good; there’s no manufacturing costs needed with the digital downloads, unlike the Classic Editions.

There are a lot of factors at play that are unknowable to the average consumer. Nintendo’s made an entire business out of being unknowable, it seems, and its continued avoidance of the Virtual Console issue is just the latest example. Yes, the Switch has some old-school games thanks to the ACA NeoGeo collection, and the console’s internet service will give away a classic game download to subscribers every month.

But even as Nintendo recognizes the value its older games still holds with consumers — and the affection that players still maintain for them — the company refuses to do much of anything about it.