In the most recent generation of video game consoles, backward compatibility has been a major point of competition between the three major hardware manufacturers. The success of the Playstation 2 in the previous generation is seen as being due in part to its full compatibility with the vast pre-existing library of PlayStation games and peripherals. Nintendo, having switched from cartridge to disc media between the Nintendo 64 and GameCube; Microsoft, being a newcomer with their Xbox; and Sega with their non-compatible Dreamcast were thus at a disadvantage, especially given the dominance of the original Playstation.
This time around, the situation is different; all three major consoles have some form of backward compatibility. Though the Xbox 360 has an extremely different architecture to the original Xbox, a system of software compatibility is available that is compatible with roughly half the games on the original Xbox. Sony's stance with the Playstation 3 has evolved with time from full compatibility with Playstation 2 games to complete incompatibility with them, though compatibility with the original Playstation has been maintained throughout. The most complete backward compatibility, however, has been made by Nintendo with their Wii; not only is the system fully compatible with GameCube games and controllers, but compatibility with earlier Nintendo systems is provided through an online service known as the Virtual Console.
When the compatibility of the Wii (then known as Project Revolution) with Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo, and NES games was announced, it was clear that direct compatibility with previously owned cartridges would be a difficult if not impossible endeavour. As such, it was unsurprising that the backward compatibility would be implemented through a download service operated by Nintendo. Some over-optimistic gamers thought that Nintendo would provide full libraries of those earlier systems to any Wii owner for free or by subscription, but most anticipated the paid download system similar to the iTunes Music Store but with classic video games rather than music.
Games and Technology
The Virtual Console was launched alongside the Wii system in November 2006, with a handful of titles available at launch and additional games being released every week (on Mondays in North America). The game selection differs by region with the widest selection available in Japan, and somewhat lesser selections in North America and Europe. A major coup for the Virtual Console is the addition of games from third-party systems, including the Sega Genesis, the Turbografx-16, and the Neo Geo AES. At present (November 2008) there are about 270 games for the North American Virtual Console, 390 in Japan, and 262 in Europe, over a total of ten different systems.
Technically, the entire Virtual Console is accomplished through emulation. The Wii, though the weakest of the current console lineup, is easily powerful enough for full, accurate emulation of any pre-1994 console. The much slower release rate of Nintendo 64 games suggests that a high-level, tailored form of emulation similar to the Xbox 360 backward compatibility is being used due to the higher complexity of the system, but a straightforward system emulator would be sufficient for all other Virtual Console systems. The use of emulation allows one particularly convenient feature of the Virtual Console for non-N64 games. At any time while playing such a game, the player may return to the Wii Menu using the Home button on the Wii Remote. Upon doing so, the system will save the exact state of the game, and return to it whenever the game is next run.
One difficulty with being compatible with a wide range of consoles is their variation in controllers. This difficulty is compounded by the Wii's highly unconventional native control system. The Wii Remote turned on its side is equivalent to an NES controller, which is in turn functionally identical to controllers for the TurboGrafx-16 and Sega Master System, but any further functionality cannot be duplicated with just the Wii Remote. A GameCube controller can be used to control Virtual Console games, though the odd layout of the face buttons may make some SNES and Genesis games more awkward. In addition, Nintendo has released the Classic Controller, which along with its uses in some native Wii games also functions as a full controller for all Virtual Console games.
Criticism and Conclusion
Virtual Console games are much less expensive than full-sized Wii games, but are still somewhat expensive. The standard prices of $5 for 8-bit games, $8 for 16-bit games, and $10 for Nintendo 64 games put them roughly on par with many new games on the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network, even though most of the work for the Virtual Console games has been paid for by their original cartridge releases. However, the display quality of the Wii Virtual Console on modern progressive-scan televisions is superior to all options other than the often dubious option of emulation on a computer. Annoyingly, though, if the Wii is set to a widescreen aspect ratio, Virtual Console games will be stretched to that size requiring the player to manually set the ratio to get undistorted graphics. As a further inconvenience, Virtual Console games must be played from the relatively small internal memory of the Wii system, causing those with large collections to shuffle games on and off the system with SD cards.
Overall, though, the Virtual Console is an important and desirable feature of the Nintendo Wii. It allows access to a large and growing portion of Nintendo's decades-old back catalogue and includes games from virtually all major publishers. The existence of a relatively inexpensive, legal way to purchase and play classic console games is an encouraging development, and one that has been mimicked by Microsoft's Xbox Originals service and Sony's PSOne Classics. In addition, it provided the prototype for Nintendo's WiiWare download service which has proven to be a useful venue for new, smaller games alongside the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Store.