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Virtual Console Gripes

I love it. You love it. Nintendo loves it. The Virtual Console makes maxing out your credit card fun and easy. I can spend hundreds of dollars before even leaving my bed in the morning (or afternoon as is often the case.) Yet despite the appearance, things aren't all fun and games. That pun is only the beginning of the horrible horrors. Inspired by someone's minor ordeal on another forum, I've finally decided to neatly package my grievances here, largely because I want to stop bitching in random forum threads whenever I'm reminded of things about the VC that make me angry.

Gripe #1: Changes
Despite any impressions intended or imagined, playing games on the Virtual Console is not entirely true to memory. Certain games have been altered. Granted, some have been improved, such as the now functional saving of created courses in Excitebike or sharper graphics in Nintendo 64 games. However, more often than not the games have been altered in a way that makes them unfavorable to their original versions. Cheat passwords in Air Zonk and Kid Icarus no longer work. Time trial ghosts can't be saved in Mario Kart 64. Devil's Crush has had graphics altered. Tecmo Bowl has had player names removed. Some of these changes have understandable reasons behind them, such as licensed material in the original games being removed since the licenses had run out in Tecmo Bowl and Wave Race 64, or hardware issues like difficulty in emulating the 64's Controller Pak functionality, which renders the ghost saving functions in Mario Kart 64 and Wave Race inoperable. Others are more baffling, like the cheat codes in Kid Icarus and Air Zonk no longer being valid. Come on, Nintendo, if hackers working for free can whip up an emulator and harness whatever black magic allows Icarus to Fight(s) Medusa Angels, why can't you?

One other change that irritates me because it hasn't been made: adding rumble functionality to the Nintendo 64 games when a Gamecube controller is used. I include it here because it could feasibly be done; the Gamecube ports of the Nintendo 64 Zelda games had rumble functionality included. I know the Wii emulator is different, and I'm not a programmer, but it seems to me that adding rumble to VC N64 releases wouldn't be that difficult, especially since solving the problem once would solve it for all games with rumble, as far as I can reckon.

Gripe #2: Prices
Okay, okay, before you wag your finger and accuse me of just being an unrealistically cheap bastard, I'll explain myself. Yes, I (and every other game buyer) would always be in favor of a price decrease if asked. You can't expect the opposite. Yes, I realize and appreciate the fact that the VC prices are much better, on average, than you could ever hope to get for the same games on cartridges/HU cards from your local used game outlet or eBay. And the $100+ I've spent on Wii points so far attests that, on the whole, I believe Nintendo has priced their offerings appropriately. So why am I bitching about price, then, you ask? Good point, I answer. I'm not really angry at the prices, but they are part of what I'm angry about.

You see, there has been a trend in recent years (indeed, since the SNES days but only picking up steam the previous console generation) of companies packaging several of their arcade/console games in one product and offering this collection at a budget price, usually $20-$30. I personally found this to be a hell of a deal; if you count every single game on these collections separately, then my game collection has expanded to three times its former size in the last few years for less than $150 based on these compilations alone. Now, however, I don't think there will be many more of these collections coming, and this isn't solely the VC's fault; Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade are also likely to contibute, but currently the VC provides the best example. Simply put, publishers stand to make a hell of a lot more money selling their old games individually on download services than throwing 20 games on a disc for $20.

To illustrate my point: remember Capcom Classics Collection on PS2 and Xbox? Around twenty games for twenty bucks, including Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, Super Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, Final Fight, the first three iterations of Street Fighter II, and Section Z. Now how much would all of that cost you on the Virtual Console, taking into account you will not be getting the arcade versions of certain games, but the arguably inferior console ports? $50 by my calculation (SFII: Champion Edition and SFII Hyper Fighting are one game on the SNES.) And there are more games on that compilation that had inferior ports that can be sold individually. Assuming the royalty rates are comparable to those for disc based games, both Nintendo and Capcom make quite a bit more scratch off this arrangement, even more so with the savings from distribution. And even if most of the games on Capcom Classics disc were garbage, if you liked just three out of the 20 games, it would be a better deal than downloading them by a couple bucks, even with sales tax. You can do your own math for the Sega Genesis Collection. There is some hope, though, as one of the early Wii titles was Metal Slug Anthology, and Namco is releasing yet another Museum compilation, though Wii-specific remakes of a few old games are the main focus in that release. Still, as more companies wise up to the opportunities they gain from digital distribution, the compilation is an endangered species.

To further demonize the VC vis-a-vis XBLA and PSN, note that often old games on those services will have added features such as optional graphical makeovers and online high score tables or even online multiplayer. They also commonly go for five bucks, including the PS1 games on PSN. For a direct comparison, Ecco The Dolphin costs $3 less on XBLA than on the Virtual Console. As seen above, Nintendo is only interested in removing features from games, not adding to them. My real gripe, more than the specific prices, is the bang for my buck, which seems to be diminishing.

Gripe #3: Licensing/Ownership

This gripe is not limited strictly to the Virtual Console, but is indicative of a much larger trend in entertainment media. The Virtual Console does get it's own special nod in this regard, though, much as in Gripe #2.

If you've ever read all the way to the back of a game manual, you may remember seeing a section about how the game you "bought" is not actually "sold" to you, but "licensed." It also said something about unauthorized backups being illegal and unnecessary; the whole end section was basically a scary wag of the finger at pirates. Still, you did legally and in effect own a copy of the game. You could lend it to your friend for the weekend, take it to a party and use it with the host's system for hot multiplayer action, offer it for sale, trade it in for six pesos in store credit at Gamestop, etc. Obviously, a VC game is not a physical product, and like other digitally distributed entertainment, much of what you could theoretically do with a game you purchased on cartridge or disc you cannot do with the exact same game as a collection of bits stored in your hardware. Because, theoretically, these bits could easily be copied and pirated, Nintendo and other companies exert much control over your use of them through DRM. On the Wii, this means that VC games are tied to the specific console to which they are originally downloaded, and can only be played from that system's internal memory. For storage purposes VC games can be placed on SD cards, but they cannot be read from them; they must be copied to the memory of the originating Wii console in order to be played, as there is no copy protection on SD cards, so theoretically someone could copy a game from one SD card to another, and give their friend a free copy of the game. As a side effect, you can see how this eliminates the advantages of cartridges and discs. (You can also further see why I lament the death of the compilation discs.)

What is most annoying and alarming about this is that now you have a whole collection of games tied to a particular piece of hardware. What if that hardware breaks? This is exactly the scenario that inspired me to compose this diatribe. Someone on a message board related his tale of having a failing Wii taken care of by Nintendo. It was under warranty, so naturally he could have it repaired or replaced for free. When given the options, however, it was noted that should he choose the faster option of sending in his broken system and getting a replacement, he forfeited use of any of the software he had downloaded, specifically VC games and the Internet Channel. As he only had a couple VC games, the cost of replacement was negligible to him. Before making his decision, however, he inquired as to whether linking the VC purchases to his My Nintendo account would allow him to download the games he had already paid for onto his new system. No was the answer; VC games are strictly tied to the serial number of the console they were purchased from, and linking them to My Nintendo doesn't change this. This is because software purchased from the Wii Shop Channel is LICENSED, not SOLD. Any games would have to be downloaded again, and could not be done so for free.

So what happens when your Wii breaks down out of warranty? If you want to keep your collection, you pay Nintendo for repairs. What happens if your Wii gets chucked off a building or melted in a fire? You're fucking hosed is what happens. This is ludicrous, and I don't think many Wii owners are aware of what could happen to them. You're essentially flat rate renting VC games from Nintendo, and one day your collection may be gone. Whenever your Wii fails and Nintendo can't or won't repair it, the rental period is over. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it runs so contrary to common experience with every piece of entertainment hardware featuring removable media since the phonograph, and it is far from stated up front, and this is what I am pissed off about. It's called the Wii Shop Channel, not the Wii License Channel or the Wii Rent Channel. Nothing you purchase with points is actually "yours." If my NES exploded I could go to my local game merchant and purchase another used one, and my 20 year old Super Mario Bros. cartridges would work just damn fine on this separate but functionally identical hardware. If my Wii has a fatal hardware failure due to a factory defect and cannot be salvaged, nothing I do can recoup the $100 I've spent on Virtual Console games. My whole "collection" is gone.

And where the VC fails especially in this regard is, as I have heard it said, this is not the case with Microsoft and Xbox Live Arcade; tying the games to your personal account actually means something besides the remote possibility of a free wallpaper becoming available for download on your PC (how exciting and worth it, Nintendo- maybe I'll do a rant about bringing Club Nintendo over here next.)

And so, as it stands, I won't be purchasing any more Wii points, and will be using most of what I have already purchased to get Super Metroid next Monday. Until Nintendo rectifies my third and most important gripe, the Wii Shop Channel can go to hell starting next Tuesday. I'd rather pay what appears to be insane amounts for a collection (and the hardware to run it on) that could survive a small tragedy or three of system failures.
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About A New Challengerone of us since 3:56 PM on 04.15.2007

You may have seen me commenting on things. I'm a nerdy dude in my mid 20s. Shocking!

My Articles:
The 3rd Party Memory Card- In which I rip off Chad the C and expound upon my favorite moments in games.

It's A Secret To Everybody- In which I highlight and babble on about various Easter Eggs, cheats, and so on.


I own:
Game Boy
Game Boy Color
Game Boy Player
Nintendo DS

I like:
Fighting games, scrolling shooters, puzzle, platformer, racing games, adventure.... actually, a little bit of everything, including an occasional sports game. Also, pinball. Pinball rules.