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How important is backwards compatibility on the Nintendo Switch?

by Ron Duwell | January 19, 2017January 19, 2017 11:30 am PDT

Super Mario 64

You can argue how far behind the times Nintendo can fall when it comes to certain trends, but it has been on the ball for backwards compatibility over the last decade and a half. GameCube games carried on over into the Wii’s lifetime, and likewise, Wii games were playable on the Wii U throughout its life. Nintendo’s handhelds have also remained consistent in this approach going all the way back to the Game Boy!

Nintendo doesn’t straight up ignore a previous generation’s games, nor does it set up a complicated system in which your older purchases trickle out slowly (well, maybe it does, but we’ll get to that). For two straight console generations and five handheld generations, boom! All your games are still playable! Congratulations!

With the Nintendo Switch, however, we’ve hit a roadblock and the console hasn’t even come out! The device uses game cards, and the Wii U’s “proprietary high-density optical discs” won’t be able to work with the console. So, obviously physical backwards compatibility can be ruled out entirely.

Xenoblade Chronicles X

However, this is the digital age, where downloads can supersede the needs to have any physical media whatsoever. Given the year it’s being released, chances are you can go the entire Nintendo Switch’s lifetime and never have to buy an actual, physical video game. All new games, and older ones for that matter, should be able to cram into a single memory card and be carried around with no effort at all.

Thus, we come back to big question of backwards compatibility, or, as Nintendo likes to call it, Virtual Console.

Resting our hopes and dreams on Virtual Console… oh no…

We haven’t learned of Nintendo’s plans for this upcoming generation’s iteration of Nintendo’s downloadable service, and it still remains one of my biggest, if not the biggest, question marks that hovers over Nintendo’s latest machine. The Internet is already supremely unimpressed with its “free Super Nintendo or NES game for a month” offering, so it appears Nintendo is still learning the difficult task of giving away stuff for free and probably making its online store more consumer friendly.

It could take a while for Nintendo to catch up, but if it plays its cards right, this could be the ultimate retro-gaming console machine. If not, then, it’s yet another speed bump in the long, painful journey of Virtual Console achieving perfection.

We all remember when the Wii U came out. Many of us wondered if our Wii Virtual Console games would work on the shiny new console, and Nintendo replied with a huge “Yes! But…” Because they cost money to be upgraded onto the new console, you had to pay an extra dollar or two to transfer them. You also had to wait for your games to be re-released a second time if they were re-released at all, the aforementioned “trickle out” situation.

Some kicked and screamed, but I, being a sucker for old games, coughed up the money just for the sake of it.

Eventually, the Wii U got to the point where you could straight up buy Wii games through its service, and many still raised questions about a discount. Buying the physical game for $50 wasn’t enough to get you any extra money off, and the digital downloads would still cost you $19.99. The physical games at least could still be played for free, so even without the digital option, your experience was smooth sailing.

Link to the Past

Obviously, this is not the case with the Nintendo Switch. Those physical discs won’t be playable on the console. If Nintendo were to open up Wii U games through the Virtual Console service, if that’s even possible through emulation, there is the likelihood that you’ll have to pay for the full digital download, which might still be less than what you paid for the disc the first time but still more than you’re willing to pay for a second time.

Let’s also remember that the Wii U did have full retail digital purchases, raising the question: if you bought it digitally once on the Wii U, will you get a discount on another digital purchase through the Nintendo Switch? That’s a nice gesture, but if that were the case, then those who bought the physical game are going to feel like they got shafted.

You see what I’m getting at? Backwards compatibility on the Nintendo Switch might be just too much of a hassle for Nintendo because of how utterly complicated it made the whole system. Too many “What ifs…” too many hypotheticals and exceptions.

How about this scenario? You bought The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on your Wii Virtual Console, and you got the discount when you upgraded to the Wii U. You are now thinking you want to pick up the Nintendo Switch and expecting the same discount that allowed you to upgrade to the Wii U. Sweet, for just a dollar or two, maybe even free if we’re stretching our wishes here, you get A Link to the Past on your shiny new console!

Turn the situation on its head. You bought A Link to the Past on your Wii Virtual Console, but you skipped on the Wii U because you didn’t like its actual games. However, like a good Nintendo customer, you upgraded to the New Nintendo 3DS because you want to play A Link to the Past and your other favorite Super Nintendo classics portably. However, there is no discount here because Nintendo draws a clear distinction between the portable virtual console and console virtual console. So that’s two full-priced copies of A Link to the Past you’ve paid for, and you don’t want to pay full price again. That goes possibly triple if you bought it on the Super Nintendo and Game Boy Advance as well.

The time comes to buy A Link to the Past on the Switch, and you definitely want to run through the nostalgic classic. The Nintendo Switch is a hybrid machine, as Nintendo is marketing it. Does it continue to distinguish between console and mobile Virtual Console, or will it revert to being a “home console you take with you” when Nintendo needs it to?

What if the Wii U’s discounts work and the New Nintendo 3DS’ don’t? The people who bought the New Nintendo 3DS games would have to pay full price a third time, and those who bought it on the console would get a discount for a second time!?

So many complications, it hurts!

Metroid Fusion

Or, what if Nintendo magically comes to its senses and decides to just streamline the whole thing? For example, from this point on, realize that you don’t have to distinguish between the two Virtual Consoles anymore, and just honor the previous purchases no matter where they got it. What if Nintendo realizes that it is punishing its most loyal customers who already sunk hundreds and thousands of dollars into their digital collections?

It is these people who will feel the burn the most when you come back and tell them, “It’s time to cough up the dough again, or it’s only outdated hardware for you.”

The Nintendo Switch has the chance to be something special

With the Wii U and the Nintendo 3DS, it ultimately wasn’t that big of a deal. They got their Virtual Consoles and people grumbled about the whole confusing situation. They’ll fade out of popularity since the Wii U is wired to the floor and the Nintendo 3DS lacks horsepower. Whatever…

However, as I said before, the Nintendo Switch is different in that it could possibly be the ultimate retro gaming machine, and backward compatibility is essential to its overall success. Nintendo now has the power to potentially create perfect emulation for every console it has put out, all the way up until at least the Wii. It can cover Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and the consoles of retro rival companies. And best of all, it’s portable. All of your favorite childhood masterpieces become the portable hits of today!

Everywhere you go, the best Nintendo games ever can come with you! No need for a TV or clunky controllers. This slick setup has it all packed away nice and neat.

Balloon Fight

This has never happened for Nintendo, even on the portable market. When the Nintendo DS came out, it couldn’t play original Game Boy games. When the DSi came out, Nintendo scrapped the Game Boy Advance dock. When Virtual Console came to the Nintendo 3DS, it ditched out on providing Game Boy Advance games. With Virtual Console, we’re always one step shy of perfection, and we foolishly always hope for the next generation to fill in that gap… until it doesn’t, then we have to hope all over again.

The Nintendo Switch can put generations of “almost” to a close and make Nintendo’s entire library playable on a single, portable console for the first time. It’s a pipe dream, but it’s definitely one worth pointing out to Nintendo.

All it takes is a concession on their end to reward loyal customers who don’t want to rebuy their entire collections for a third or fourth time and the drive to finally push this Virtual Console idea to be the best that it can be. Three iterations across three different platforms haven’t gotten it there yet, and it’s starting to feel like this whole idea of Nintendo officially supporting retro games is make or break on the Switch. Fans are frustrated, and they are tired of getting second best for their money’s worth.

If Nintendo can’t achieve this goal while the potential is clearly there, I don’t know if I’ll be able to call the Switch a success in the long run.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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