For the past week or so, we’ve spent quite a bit of time with the Wii Shop Channel and Virtual Console, Nintendo’s smart attempt to sell classic games (and possibly more) through an iTunes Store-like interface built into its new Wii platform. As the single biggest part of Shop Channel, Virtual Console is only a few button presses away from the machine’s main menu, and currently provides you with the ability to purchase NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, and Nintendo 64 games, then play them through Wii.
From the standpoints of both interface and convenience, Virtual Console is currently a bunch of steps behind the iTunes Store, but there’s every indication that Nintendo will update the look, feel, and even power of the feature as time goes on. We look at the new offering’s good and bad points after the jump.
One preliminary point before we move on: Wii’s Shop Channel is currently divided into two sections: the mysterious section Wii Ware and the more populated Virtual Console. Beyond a reference to a Wii-ready web browser – soon to be provided by Opera, apparently for free download until June of 2007 – Nintendo hasn’t explained yet what’s going to wind up in Wii Ware, but there are some interesting possibilities. A DVD player interface for Wii could be easily sold or given away through Wii Ware, as could chat clients and much more. Stay tuned to see what Nintendo does there.
That brings us to Virtual Console. We’re going to work through our experience chronologically, which is unfortunate because the first things that you’ll deal with as an average Wii-buying gamer are actually stumbling points that may daunt some users, and therefore Nintendo really needs to eliminate them as obstacles to full and quick enjoyment of the service. In order, they’re the Classic Controller, Wii Points, Service Errors, and the current games library.
Classic Controller: If you want to play many of the games found in Virtual Console, the Wii’s included controllers won’t be enough for your needs. Unless you have a GameCube controller handy, you’ll actually have to buy a new Frankencontrolpad called the Classic Controller for an additional $20 – a mix of the SNES and GameCube controllers into a design that has more than enough joypads, joysticks, and buttons to play pretty much any old game that’s thrown at it. You hook Classic Controller up to the Wii’s Remote via a cable, and then play from anywhere in the room.
The good news here is that the Classic Controller will feel mostly fine in your hands, and won’t break your bank account. From a control standpoint, the only thing we’ve found less than ideal is the new location of the Z trigger – in two places on the Classic’s top, rather on the back – which makes for occasional N64 control challenges, but won’t bother you during playback of other games. The only real bad news is that you’ll actually have to find one of these controllers in a store and buy it before being able to play all the Virtual Console games, the equivalent of Apple requiring you to buy an iPod “music add-on” before you can use the iTunes Store – an unnecessary barrier to enjoyment of a feature that will ultimately make Nintendo a lot of money. No wonder that Japanese gamers are often seeing the controller included with Wii Points cards at no extra charge.
Wii Points: NES games sell for 500 points, TG-16 games for 600 points, Genesis and SNES games for 800 points, and Nintendo 64 games for 1000 points. At today’s U.S. rates of 100 points per dollar, you’ll pay $5 for NES games, $6 for TG-16 games, $8 for Genesis and SNES games, and $10 for N64 titles. Not awful, except pricing is not necessarily the same from region to region outside the U.S. Plus, buying points and buying games requires two separate transactions.
Sure, Microsoft has a similar trick for its Xbox and Zune Marketplaces, requiring you to buy point cards in specific denominations before you can buy games or music online. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things. Apple’s model of local currency-based pricing and automatic purchasing for iTunes downloads is frankly the best model out there. Establish your account on iTunes, and then make each purchase at a known price with one click or a shopping cart if you want. It’s simple – possibly requiring licensing of Amazon’s One-Click patent – but it’s the way people want to shop. Buying points in blocks, or point cards, like Apple’s iTunes Gift Cards, are a totally fine pre-paid supplement to item purchasing, but shouldn’t be the only alternative.
Service Errors: So, if you’re like us and you have a Classic Controller and a Wii Points card at the ready, logging into Nintendo’s Shop Channel should be pretty easy, right? Well, initially, it wasn’t. We had a couple of days worth of extended loading delays (with the spinning “waiting” logo shown here for minutes at a time), plus Wii- and Shop-related connectivity errors that nearly had us replace our router – the likely culprit, if you read Nintendo’s error messages and numerous discussion forums.
But then everything started to work just fine. We can’t explain it – we’re guessing it was due in some way to the December 1 Japan launch of the Wii – but we’ve had no problem using Virtual Console since then. While we’re happy to be able to use the service now, we think the confusingly numbered Wii error codes and inspecific error messages really need to be replaced with specific, common-sense on screen tips that make troubleshooting – or temporary service outages – easier for average people to handle. Replacing a router should never be the “next thing to try” when the Wii’s capable of telling you more precisely what’s actually wrong.
Fun! Playing a Game: Armed with 2000 Wii Points, we finally logged into the Virtual Console a few days ago, and succeeded in downloading Super Mario 64 – one of several N64 games with enough hours of play time to be fully worthy of a $10 asking price. Though the current Console download interface is a bit too threadbare – we love white space as much as anyone, but the elements here need a bunch more color and better-designed on-screen icons – the download progress screen was cute: Mario runs across a static screen collecting coins, popping one of three question mark blocks every time progress was 33% complete. When it ended, Mario 64 had become a new Wii Channel, just waiting to be played. Games can be saved to SD cards if you don’t want to keep them in the system’s memory, and re-downloaded if they’re accidentally lost, a great feature that Apple should really learn from, and soon.
We’ve really enjoyed playing through Mario 64 via Virtual Console – one of us is a long-time fan of the game, guiding another player through it for her first time, and at 20 stars, we’re both having a lot of fun. Other than the pesky top-mounted Z-trigger, and the in-game text references to using camera buttons that are no longer found on the Classic Controller, the game is exceptionally easy to play and enjoy, and looks even better than it did on the N64 thanks to an upscaled resolution. While bitmapped graphics – text and textures – look a step backwards, that’s to be expected in any classic game, and there’s a little polygon seam-showing as a result of the upscaled resolution. Overall, though, the experience of playing Mario 64 again is certainly better overall than it was back in 1996; the component cables make the colors pop and the details sharper than ever.
Library Offerings: That said, we still have 1000 Wii Points left, and there’s nothing else in the Virtual Console library that we really want to buy – yet. Nintendo’s going to add a handful or two of new games to the service every week, but for right now, every console seems to have one game that we’d consider (NES: Legend of Zelda; SNES: F-Zero, TG-16: Bonk’s Adventure, Genesis: Sonic the Hedgehog 1, N64: Super Mario 64), but we’re going to hold out for some better options. It’s sort of like coming to the iTunes Store back when it had only 200,000 tracks – you just know it’s going to get bigger and better – except we’re talking about under 100 games today, and without more to choose from, some of the Wii’s initial buyers may try the store once, see nothing of interest, and then not show up again. Apple may well face the same concern by offering so few iPod games – today, only 9 – through the iTunes Store.
In all honesty, we don’t think either Apple or Nintendo has much to worry about in attracting customers if they continue to expand their libraries at a reasonable pace – downloadable games, especially older titles, are a river of cash just waiting to flow into the coffers of their vendors. On that score, Nintendo obviously has a major advantage here – massive back-catalogs for each past console that can be tapped at will with only minimal additional coding and testing, rather than the need to make entirely new games for an entirely new platform. But will people be willing to shell out the variable asking prices for decade-plus-old titles, deal with Wii Points cards, and the like? We’ll just have to wait and see.