Wii U's Virtual Console appears to be a big step back

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Wii U's Virtual Console appears to be a big step back

There's a lot about the Wii U Virtual Console that's encouraging. Starting it off – even before the official launch of the service – with a sale that gives users great games for 30 cents is a smart move, one that should entice lots of people to give it a try. And the implementation of the games is great, with a surfeit of control options well beyond what the Wii Virtual Console offered.

And, to state the obvious, playing Balloon Fight on the GamePad is fantastic, just like playing Balloon Fight anywhere is.

But despite these encouraging steps, today's Virtual Console announcements also disappoints me and leads me to believe that the Virtual Console as a service peaked back on the Wii. I don't have much hope that it's going to get much better in this next generation.

The initial announcement during today's Nintendo Direct added Game Boy Advance games to the home Virtual Console lineup for the first time, along with the information that the service would also include NES and Super NES games. No mention was made anywhere of all the other platforms the Wii (and 3DS) Virtual Consoles support.

What's missing? Well, this announcement cuts out the N64, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Sega Master System, Genesis, Turbografx-16, Turbografx-16 CD-ROM, Game Gear, Commodore 64, Neo Geo, and arcade platforms. That's all.

Maybe they're coming later, but Nintendo doesn't make it sound that way. Here's Nintendo's official word in its press release: "A spring system update will add Virtual Console software to the Nintendo eShop for Wii U. The service will launch right after the spring update and will include a selection of NES and Super NES games, with Game Boy Advance games to be added in the future." Only Game Boy Advance is mentioned as a future addition. CEO Satoru Iwata mentioned "other platforms including Game Boy Advance," so maybe I'm being too pessimistic in this case.

As it is, you can play all those other games on the Wii U through the "Wii Mode," but you can't play them on the GamePad, and you can't configure the controls in the same way, and you can't buy them through the Wii U eShop. Worse, their absence from the Wii U Virtual Console means there will very likely be no more Virtual Console releases from those platforms.

Looking at the platforms that will be served through the Wii U, it's not clear whether the full Virtual Console libraries will be available on Wii U from the start of the service, though I doubt it. During the Nintendo Direct this morning, Satoru Iwata said the service would launch with "a selection of NES and Super NES titles," noting that the full Wii Virtual Console lineup took years to compile. "A selection" does not sound like the 93 games available on the Wii Shop (even though that's a small percentage of the full NES lineup).

Wii U's Virtual Console is a big step back

Finally, there's the scheme for transferring your Wii Virtual Console purchases to the new service. It's not as bad as it is on 3DS (where you just have to buy any Virtual Console games you already own on Wii for full price) but it's still pretty rough. Any VC games already on your Wii U can be purchased from the Wii U eShop – whenever they become available on the Wii U eShop – at a substantial discount: $1 for NES games and $1.50 for SNES games. That's on top of the $5-7 you already paid to get the game on the Wii, for the privilege of using the updated interface, playing off-TV, and interacting on Miiverse.

I don't want to be a big downer about Virtual Console. I was thrilled to see the discounts, and I'll pay the $1 each to upgrade my NES games, as I'm sure many of you will. But just because I'll grudgingly acquiesce to the service as it is doesn't mean I don't want it to be better. I still long for the retro game service that doesn't invent its own stumbling blocks. Between Nintendo's repeat costs and reduced lineup between platforms, and whatever was going on with the Vita's PSOne Classics, nobody's getting it right. And as someone who wants nothing more out of the next generation than easy access to piles of old games, I find it frustrating.