I still find the NES library to be the most spectacular and interesting of all game consoles. I do not say this out of a spirit of nostalgia. The NES games have some amazing variety. Here is the reason why.
The Famicom was seen as the ‘Family Computer’ in Japan. Now, I wasn’t in Japan during that time, but I figure the Famicom wasn’t seen as just a ‘console’ but also as a sort of computer.
In the United States, the story is the same but a little different. Consoles were declared dead and PC gaming was to forever triumph. The NES didn’t flop and die much to the annoyance of the President of Electronic Arts. The meteoric rise of the NES attracted PC games. Electronic Arts had to port over their games or the president of EA would have been fired.
So the NES was not just about Mario, Zelda, and Metroid… or Mega Man, Castlevania, and Contra. It had some amazing PC games on it. Manic Mansion. Shadowgate. Ultima games were on the NES. Archon. M.U.L.E. Spy Vs. Spy. Unlike the PlayStation consoles, which just threw every PC game it could find on the console, all these NES PC games had to endure Nintendo’s strict licensing agreements. And it was risky and expensive printing those NES carts. Despite that, these games thrived.
When you go through the NES library, year by year, it is striking how strange the console library is. The Genesis and SNES had some PC games on them. After that, the Nintendo console lost that part of the library (but the Nintendo handhelds retained it).
What is the game console library? Seriously, what is it? What has become the standard approach are brand new games, designed specifically for that console, and released at certain times for ‘momentum’. In a way, game console libraries have become predictable and quite boring. Why is it that the excitement of a new console is always thinking about a previous console’s library?
“But don’t you say that a game console shouldn’t be a dumbed down PC game machine?” I do. “So why do you mention all this?” Because that is not what happened. The PlayStation was designed as a dumbed down PC machine as is the Xbox. The NES wasn’t. The Nintendo handhelds were not. What happened is that the PC games just came onto the system regardless.
While some were born with the D-pad controller in their hands (quite literally), I remember the NES Era a little differently. While games like Super Mario Brothers were very interesting, what sealed the deal were the games like Pac-Man, Gyruss, Galaga, and all of that. “Pac-man? That sounds stupid,” says the reader. “Pac-Man is everywhere. Why would anyone be excited to play Pac-man?” Remember that there had not been a good port for Pac-Man for the home consoles. The Atari 2600 Pac-Man was largely responsible for the crash. Pac-Man appeared on computers, but do you want to play these games on a computer?
My point is that the NES attracted attention not just because it had ‘new games’, but because it had the BEST GAMES. Not the ‘best games’ because Japanese wizards made them then, but they were the best games of all games.
The BEST GAMES in the history of the arcades were on the NES. The BEST GAMES in the history of of PC gaming was on the NES. When a NES player first played Shadowgate, they may not have realized they were playing a really old game. Did it matter? No.
“Oh look,” snorts the reader. “Malstrom is going through one of his ‘NES as the Golden Age’ phases again.”
Very well, then, let us look at the Nintendo handhelds. What do we find? The Nintendo handheld library curiously resembles the NES for each iteration excepting the 3DS. The Nintendo handheld library did have some brand new games. But the handheld library had the BEST GAMES out there. Pac-Man was on there. Dig Dug was on there. Great 8-bit games got put on the Gameboy Color. Great 16-bit games got put on the Gameboy Advance. Classic PC games got put on these handhelds. No one complained when the DS got OLD RPGs such as Final Fantasy 3, Dragon Quest 4,5,6, and so on.
What I hate about modern console gaming is that I feel like I am buying a conveyor belt. The first few games are announced, you can see them at the back of the conveyor belt. When they get ‘released’, they drop off the conveyor belt. But you can see more coming. It is so boring.
I remember panicking over the SNES because I kept asking, “Where are my games?” Smartly, Nintendo re-released the 2d Marios, Tetris, and Dr. Mario on the SNES. But where was Pac-Man? Where were my old PC gaming classics? I do not view a game console as ‘going to give me something new’ so much as ‘home’ for my gaming. I was becoming distressed that I was losing my library. Perhaps this would not have happened if the SNES was backwards compatible. But I don’t think so.
When the N64 came around, it felt like the console had divorced itself from the greater gaming universe. Where as Pac-Man on the N64? No, not 3d Pac-Man. Where was Tetris? No, not 3d Tetris. Where was Super Mario Brothers? No, not 3d Mario. Purchasing the N64 seemed like destroying my game library which is why I didn’t do it. Perhaps only the young loved the N64 and Gamecube because there was no past they sensed as ‘breaking’. The PlayStation, to its credit, had everything you could find. But it also had WAY too much bloat.
The Wii was a very different console. Sure, it did the new stuff with Wii Sports and had the Twilight Princess. But what sealed the deal was the same thing that sealed the deal for many of us who bought the NES. The Wii might be ‘new’, but it was not BREAKING with the past. The existence of the Virtual Console meant that I could have all my favorite games on one console… which is what we all want.
The reason why it is hard to give a forecast of the Wii U performance (aside from the absence of Wii U’s console competitors) is because nothing is known about the E-shop. The mainline ‘console games’ are not going to be the pivotal factor in the future. It is not so much that ‘everyone is moving to digital’ but that people reject the conveyor belt ‘momentum’ approach to console libraries. If I am hungry for a RPG game, I’m not going to sit on my hands and wait for the console conveyor belt to slowly wheel one out to me when the console company thinks it can get ‘maximum momentum’. When you are hungry, you get food NOW. If I’m hungry for an RPG, I look for it TODAY. And I look for the BEST RPG I can get my hands on. If there are none for the Nintendo consoles, I would look somewhere else and this would lead me away from the console. The E-shop prevents all this from happening.
The E-shop gives us access to the BEST GAMES throughout time. It gives me access to Pac-Man (and every game console needs a Pac-Man). It also gives me access to PC games that were not specifically designed for the console but are ported over nonetheless. The E-shop removes Nintendo’s hardware liability (funky Nintendo hardware preventing porting of games). It won’t matter if the PS4 or Xbox 720 are five generations ahead in hardware power since the competition won’t be over mainline console games. The competition will be more and more over the digital games. Do you need cutting edge technology to play games with 16-bit graphics? Of course not.
My biggest fear is that Nintendo will approach the E-Shop as the traditional console conveyor belt way. Instead of granting us access to their extensive game library, we will only get a trickle, if that, of software due to fears of ‘cannibalizing the retail games’. The reason why the retail games aren’t selling is because they suck. It isn’t because people are buying twenty year old games in their place. People like me WANT to buy the new games, but they suck so damn much.
“But if we prevent you from buying that twenty year old game,” Nintendo says, “you will be driven to buy the retail game.”
This isn’t how it works. What happens is that the person doesn’t buy the console at all. If the 3DS had a healthy E-shop (along with the D-Pad in its correct position) and was account bound, I’d be interested in getting a 3DS.
What I do find attractive is how the smartphones are getting all these great games such as Spy Vs. Spy, some classic RPGs, and so on. That makes me much more comfortable with those platforms. I wonder why Nintendo doesn’t have them on their system. Before, the excuse was retail and the cost of carts. But digital doesn’t have those costs.
The Wii U’s future depends on its approach to online… not just online multiplayer but the E-shop. If the E-shop is going to be a ‘trickle’ of ‘conveyor belt’ model, then Nintendo doesn’t get it.