Since the launch of the Wii a month or so back, the focus has been, understandably, on the big launch releases for the system. Zelda and Wii Sports, in particular, helped make Christmas 2006 one of the most memorable in years. Friends who'd been out of touch with games for yonks were almost weeping with joy at the likes of Wii Sports Bowling, and vowing to get a Wii as soon as they came back in stock. Meanwhile, normally reluctant family members were clamouring for another round of Golf or Tennis, and what could have been a dull days watching old movies became magically transformed into hilarious and competitive multiplayer magic.
But inevitably you're left wondering what else the Wii has to offer, and with a quiet January bereft of major new Wii releases now seems the perfect time to explore what's available on the Virtual Console. With little fanfare, Nintendo has populated its download service with over 35 titles spanning five systems: the NES, SNES, N64, as well the SEGA Mega Drive and the TurboGrafx-16.
The problem with old games in general, though, is many of them are saddled with hateful old-school game design conventions. Just giving them a spin can turn from a teary-eyed nostalgic trip into a frightful and spiteful experience that often makes you question how you ever got into games in the first place. Things like instant death, no continues, no checkpoint systems and an inability to even do simple things like save your progress can contribute to degrees of frustration we're simply not built to tolerate any more. It's not the games fault as such. It's just the way things were back then, but it doesn't make it any easier to stomach being punished so severely.
Wimps, all of us
Defenders of the retro faith opine that modern games mollycoddle us to the point of hardly daring to offer a challenge - and playing most old games will demonstrate that in an instant. But older games often reveal how many good ideas have been implemented since, and sometimes there's just no going back once you're used to playing games a certain way. Even though original ideas seemed to be ten a penny back in the 8- and 16-bit days, such surging creativity seemed to demand extremely high levels of tolerance, skill and dedication to get good at things. The chances are you won't take kindly to being killed every five seconds, and over the subsequent articles in this series we'll try and find out which games on the Virtual Console truly stand the test of time, and which ones should just stand for the rest of time in a museum.
But it's not even a simple question of whether the games are still good, when many people just can't tolerate the way old games look. Again, it's hardly the fault of the games - especially when you consider that they were the height of visual excellence at the time. What's really to blame is the arrival of large, high definition widescreen displays. They generally make old games look intolerably awful, stretching out pixels to reveal every harsh jaggy, and often shatter the illusion of how your favourite old games looked in your mind's eye. So a word of warning, then. If you've got a shiny new giant HDTV, then you might be better off not using it to play Virtual Console games. It sounds daft, but digging out your old faithful 21" 4:3 CRT set will show off these crusty old games far more sympathetically than any new TV will, and in the correct aspect ratio, too. You'll be amazed how much better old games look on the sort of displays they were designed for.
With that out of the way, you'll also need to be prepared to shell out for some new kit in order to play old titles on the Virtual Console. Some (like Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros.) will work on the Wii Remote, but many (such as Super Mario 64 or Super Castlevania IV) demand that you either use the Classic Controller (available separately for about GBP 14.99) or plug in an old GameCube pad. You'll also need to purchase some Wii Points, either via a retailer (2000 points can be bought for GBP 14.99) or online in the Wii Shop. Talking of which, you'll also need a broadband connection in order to actually download the games, though the Wii has 512MB of built-in flash memory, so no additional storage is required. However, you can later back up any downloaded games onto an SD card if you like.
I do love a bit of cake
Purchasing and downloading is a piece of cake. Simply head to the Wii Shop Channel on the Wii's main menu, click on the Virtual Console button and browse either by platform or most recent new additions, click on the game you want, wait a few minutes to download it and then you're away. The game of your choice gets added to the main Wii menu, and starting it involves nothing more than clicking on it. Needless to say, they load in an instant. Better still, when you quit to the Wii menu, the console automatically saves where you were (on all VC games) so you can pick up from where you left off - an excellent feature. Sadly there's no 'permanent' save facility other than those used in the original games, so no cheating!
Incredibly, Nintendo has really hit the ground running in terms of offering tons of games right from the launch date, and has been topping up the VC channel with new titles every Friday since. Already, the service has delivered almost as many titles for download in four weeks as Microsoft has managed for the 360 in, what, 13 months? If it keeps up the current rate of new offerings, Nintendo's library of classic games will utterly dwarf Microsoft's in no time. The Redmond giant's response? New Rally-X and some picture packs for four ancient Namco titles.
It's not all slick brilliance from Nintendo, though. The most baffling omission of its Virtual Console service is a 'try before you buy' facility. Risk free demos have served the Xbox Live Arcade so well since its inception, so it's odd that Nintendo has made the assumption that we'll already know what we're buying. With games priced between roughly Ł3 and Ł7.50, there's a fair chance you'll end up making a buying decision based on reputation alone, or - worse - the view from your rose tinted spectacles. Such an inability to trial games first is undoubtedly going to hurt the service's potential - or maybe Nintendo is convinced that, actually, people will buy more games if their illusions aren't shattered first. It's a fair point, as we've found out. But more of that another day.
Also, Nintendo's fledgling online service lags behind Microsoft in notable areas, such as lacking any sort of online leaderboard system for high score-based game. Having had enormous fun on Xbox Live Arcade comparing scores with pals on numerous games over the past year, this is definitely an underrated feature worth bolting on at a later date if possible. Obviously online play is out of the question too, for the time being at least, although it would make perfect sense on Mario Kart when it's finally added to the service.
Another irksome thing is the fact that Nintendo has so far ignored its rich, early '80s arcade heritage, choosing to focus solely on consoles. That in itself wouldn't be such a big problem were it not for the fact that there are so many inferior console ports of classic arcade games for sale on the Virtual Console. For example, anyone brought up on Donkey Kong in a smoky pub or chippie will baulk at paying for the NES version that's, bizarrely, lacking one of the four stages in the arcade original, not to mention looking, sounding and playing quite differently.
By the same token, it's all very well being able to grab loads of SEGA's classic 16-bit games, but not so tempting once you realise that the arcade originals were significantly better. Ditto the TurboGrafx arcade ports like R-Type. Again, after enjoying so many arcade perfect games on Xbox Live Arcade, the last thing you want as a retro gamer is a port of a port, and with arcade emulation now a routine exercise, there's absolutely no reason why Nintendo had to go down this route - though it could easily rectify the situation by adding an arcade channel in the future.
On top of that, there has been no evidence of Nintendo's stated promise of offering new and original games for sale for download. To give Microsoft its dues, for every piece of retro it trawls out on Xbox Live Arcade, it follows it with something quirky and interesting the next week, and Nintendo definitely should go down that road - if only to trial new concepts and ideas in a risk-free fashion. We're sure the games would be excellent too.
And what of the technical glitches that have reportedly befallen European gamers? For reasons not entirely clear, many of the titles available to European Wii owners via the Virtual Console service appear in their inglorious 50Hz form, reviving all those tedious discussions from the early '90s. In the case of all the SEGA Mega Drive titles, all come with quite laughable borders, running fully 17 per cent slower than our NTSC counterparts in Japan and the US. But the problems don't end there. Even borderless games like Super Castlevania IV on SNES have been proven to be running at the 50Hz speed (the in-game countdown clock when you die takes 12 seconds to countdown 10 seconds, for example).
Other titles also appear to suffer from a discernible flicker, which while not a deal-breaker as such, is a slightly irritating and unnecessary issue and detracts from what should be a routine task these days. Other users have reported problems when using component cables on certain TVs with certain VC games, and European forums are awash with disgruntled retro gamers feeling that, yet again, European gamers have been given a raw deal. The feeling seems to be that Nintendo should, at the very least, demand that all games on the service are offered full-screen, and preferably with the option of a 60Hz switch so that all games can be played at the speed at which they were designed. Many people won't even notice - but that's most likely because they've never played the originals.
At the moment the Virtual Console service is having the kind of teething troubles you might expect from any new service, but in the main we have to congratulate Nintendo primarily for getting so many great titles out there so quickly and - in doing so - hopefully inspiring Microsoft to increase its output (or, better still, offer SEGA arcade games in a piece of one-upmanship). Sure, the VC service could definitely do with a lot more N64 titles, and offering slightly better value for money would be a big plus, but so far it's a great start, and akin to a getting a solid gaming education to boot.