Subscription Gaming Services Have Ruined the Promise of Digital Distribution

Nintendo's Virtual Console Was Too Beautiful for This World

Games Features digital distribution
Subscription Gaming Services Have Ruined the Promise of Digital Distribution

In many ways, the proliferation of digital distribution opened up the past, present, and future of videogames. Smaller studios have a lower barrier to entry for their games. Ideas that might never have made it as a physical release, even from a major studio or publisher, can find a home—and an audience—through Steam or the digital marketplaces of the various console. And, of course, retro enthusiasts get to see old favorites—and potential new favorites—return as relatively inexpensive digital re-releases. Or, at least, often inexpensive compared to the cost of hunting down physical copies from another decade to play on aging hardware not everyone has just lying around, anyway.

It didn’t take very long for the shape of digital access to gaming’s past to change and shrink shortly after it was opened up, however. In an era where subscription services like Netflix and Hulu and Disney+ are the norm for television and movie viewing, subscription services to play old videogames seem like the right (or at least, the accepted) idea. The transition away from what we had to the era we’re now entering, though, one that all three first-party console manufacturers are now partaking in after Sony’s Playstation Plus revamp was introduced, is a negative one. And puts us even more at the whims of the powers-that-be and what they decide to make available to us, and for how long.

Go back a couple of console generations ago, to when Nintendo’s Wii, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 all introduced branded digital storefronts—WiiWare! Minis! Arcade!—meant to show you that these digital games were a different animal than their physical counterparts. Each console would unveil, to varying degrees, retro titles. Microsoft would get the occasional old favorite from a pre-Xbox system in their Arcade store, and made some attempts at keeping the 360 backwards-compatible, too, but in neither case did this allow for a comprehensive collection. Sony made original Playstation games available for purchase in North America on the PS3 and Playstation Portable, as well as select PS2 titles for the former, but they kept the more robust, more retro-flavored games of that generation for Japan—you might not know that the PSP, for instance, was designed to emulate PC Engine (and PC Engine CD) games, because those titles weren’t available outside of the Japanese Playstation store. (And the selection of classic Playstation titles was also significantly larger for Japanese PS3 owners, but that didn’t stop me from finding a way to download Einhänder, anyway.)

The Wii, though, was comparatively loaded with retro, thanks to the Virtual Console. It had NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, Sega Master System, Turbografx-16, and Neo Geo games. It even had imports! The North American debut of two of Treasure’s finest hours, the Mega Drive’s Alien Soldier and the N64’s Sin & Punishment, both came through the Wii Virtual Console. Titles that had all but disappeared from not just shelves but also the collective consciousness found a new home there. Folks like myself, who didn’t own a Turbgrafx-16 or Neo Geo in their youth, or couldn’t go out and rent or buy every ‘90s game worth playing, suddenly had access to more games than they could have ever imagined, for just a few bucks each.

You could complain about the rate at which games were released—”just” a few per week—or which games were prioritized, but zoom out a bit and consider just how much was there, all in one place and easily affordable: everything on the Virtual Console was priced between $5 and $12 dollars, with the $12 only for the rare N64 import like Sin & Punishment—and it’s incredible that it ever happened in the first place. There were 427 VC releases on the North American Wii before Nintendo and friends stopped putting games on the service, and Nintendo made it so that these titles would also be available to play on your Wii U, should you wirelessly transfer the heart and soul of your Wii into that system. Who knows what Nintendo does in the future with regards to backwards-compatibility, but the Wii straight-up thought it was a GameCube if you put one of those tiny discs inside, and the Wii U let you press a button that transferred you to the Wii menu, and allowed you to access whatever Wii games, Virtual Console or otherwise, were stored on the system memory or a SD card. Good, user-friendly times.

In addition, if a game you purchased on the Wii’s Virtual Console also released on the Wii U’s, you would be able to buy it again at a significant discount: a $7.99 Super Nintendo game purchased on the Wii was now a $1.50 game on the Wii U, while N64 games received a drop from $9.99 to $2 even. You were basically paying for the upgrade in emulation features, like suspend points, from console to console, and didn’t have to do so if you didn’t want to, either. While the Wii U lost retro SNK and Sega support, it did add DS, Game Boy Advance, and $20 digital Wii titles, including some harder-to-find late-life releases from the latter.

It wasn’t a perfect system by any means—427 games across as many systems as the Wii had retro access to is a drop in the proverbial bucket—but it felt like the start of something, and those that still have their Wii or Wii U—or handheld 3DS, which had its own Virtual Console that included Game Boy, Game Boy Color, NES, SNES, and Sega Game Gear titles—can still play those games today. Because, and this is the rub, they were able to purchase them. That won’t work forever, considering Nintendo already shut down the Wii shop and is inching closer to locking up the Wii U’s and 3DS’, too, but so long as your console or handheld keeps turning on, you will still be able to access the games you handed over your dollars for years ago.

Not so with what has replaced the Virtual Console. Nintendo Switch Online is an improvement on the Virtual Console model in some ways—the emulation is better, with more care put toward how the games look and the inclusion of quality-of-life additions like rewind and save states—but if you thought the Wii and Wii U weren’t pumping out enough new releases each week, then the NSO’s “every couple of months at random” structure is a nightmare. The service currently includes NES, SNES, N64, and Genesis games, and the selection for each is quite limited, with little reason to believe it will ever expand beyond that description. You can only access NSO with a Switch Online account, which will run you an admittedly reasonable $19.99 per year for a single user ($34.99 for family access) if all you want is NES and SNES access along with the ability to play Switch games online, or the less reasonable $49.99 per year for one user ($79.99 for family) if you also want N64, Genesis, and the occasional free bit of DLC for a first-party game, the access of which is tied to continuing your subscription.

This service is likely enough for many people out there, who are going to go, “Hey, Star Fox 64, I loved that game!” and then fork over the cash without further consideration. And don’t get me wrong, there is a draw to that! But what we used to have instead of Switch Online had Star Fox 64, as well. And it didn’t cost you $50 a year to continue to access it until Nintendo decides to pull the plug on that, too.

Sony’s new Playstation Plus keeps getting comparisons to Microsoft’s Game Pass, since it will build a library of new(er) titles along with those classics that are currently in the vault. It’s more like a cross between Game Pass and Switch Online, however: both Nintendo and Sony are able to pull games out for these services that predate Microsoft’s entry into the console market at all, and have considerably larger first-party catalogs to populate their services with. Will they leverage those libraries, though? We already know that Nintendo doesn’t. The lack of third-party support for NSO isn’t really something they have complete control over, since publishers can look at Switch Online and compare it to simply re-releasing the game themselves on the Switch’s digital shop, or as a $40 remaster or with-modern-touches collection, and will oftentimes bet on themselves there. Consider how publishers like 2K and Sega act when the opportunity to delist the older versions of newly remastered games arrives, and then you’ll know how these companies will behave in these scenarios. What’s Nintendo’s excuse, though, for such a limited quantity of their own considerable back-catalog appearing on their subscription service? There are no barriers to entry there, besides the ones Nintendo themselves put into place. And, intentionally or not, that’s just what they’ve done.

Similarly, the revamped Playstation Plus hasn’t been fully rolled out yet, but early returns are not promising. Yes, the games will feature save states, trophies, and other modern amenities, but for whatever reason, Sony is using PAL versions of some of the PSX games available on the service: without getting too bogged down in the technical part of what that means, just know that it means the games are going to run more poorly on today’s televisions than if Sony had used the NTSC versions of them native to regions like North American and Japan. Sony also made this egregious decision with their foray into the mini console space, so expecting them to even understand what they’ve done wrong here, or to address it, might be a waste of energy.

The Playstation Classic might teach us quite a bit about Sony’s view on all of this in more ways than just how the games will display. For what the system did and what games were available on it—compare not just the number but which 20 games are on the PS Classic with what Sega and Konami did with the Genesis and Turbografx minis, respectively, to get a sense of the problem—it was wildly overpriced at $100. It’s the only one of the mini consoles you can regularly find for sale well below MSRP instead of aggressively inflated in price on the secondary market, and that’s certainly not because Sony flooded the market with them. It felt like a mini Sony released because there was a market to capitalize on, but they weren’t quite sure how to do it and couldn’t be bothered to find out. Not that this should be a surprise, considering Sony Interactive Entertainment’s president and CEO Jim Ryan is on the record as saying he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to play PS1 or PS2 games when better graphics exist in the present.

And, well, the initial rollout for classic games on Playstation Plus isn’t making me feel any less pessimistic about this new program. Sony is going to run into the same problem Nintendo has, unless they offer significant incentives to third-party publishers to allow these games on their service, but at least in Sony’s case, it appears that individual purchases of these upgraded titles will be possible. It’s not a full-on Virtual Console revival, no, but it’s not nothing, and might even be the ideal balancing point between the relatively inexpensive access to more games that drives these subscription numbers in the first place, and letting people choose to pay for more permanent access to those same games.

It’s also really all that I’m asking for, too. The ability to purchase these games just like with new releases, instead of only being able to pay a subscription fee for whatever retro scraps are placed in front of me. Nintendo has very intentionally moved away from a purchasing model and will leave it entirely in their past once the Wii U and 3DS shops shut down after March 2023, and while Sony seems to not be in total lockstep with them, their own recent past suggests Sony’s service won’t be as robust as it could or should be on the availability side of things.

Like with Netflix, like with Spotify, you’re just not allowed to own anything through a subscription service for videogames, which means you will be perpetually charged for whatever title Nintendo or whomever decides is available for you now, and lose access to it the moment you end your subscription. That might work fine for some, and even make plenty of logical sense to many, but it’s a problem for the people who want to play more than just what’s new or what’s being repackaged that way, who want to be able to go back to whatever they have paid money for whenever they’d like, or even for those who seek to more easily preserve the industry’s past. Digital purchases might not be the answer all on their own, no, but at least those games will still be yours for as long as you own the console you made the purchase on. That’s a significantly better situation than where access to the past is heading now, a future where no one even pretends that the people playing the games own any part of them.

Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.

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