Digital game stores — need they die?
Nintendo sure seems to think so.
In what must be the worst timing I’ve ever achieved, I decided on a whim to dig out my old Wi U the other week. Although largely rendered obsolete by the Switch, the preceding console still has the odd title that has yet to make it across, as well as legacy games that don’t have distracting halftone dot borders. Specifically, I fancied a bit of the two Zelda remasters Nintendo put together for the ill-fated console: Wind Waker and Twilight Princess.
Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the Wii U store had stopped accepting purchases forever two days beforehand. Just like that, its vast digital game collection — including many legacy titles from the Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, GBA, and DS — is gone, meaning my only way of buying these games is to pay rather unattractive prices on the secondary disc market.
Although as a web developer myself I understand that online services require constant maintenance and aren’t going to be around indefinitely, I am nonetheless curiously disturbed by this. I’m not sure if it’s the equally disturbing phenomenon of time seeming to pass faster as one ages, but the Wii U really doesn’t feel all that old to me.
I’m pretty sure it was only five minutes ago that I was tucking into my first high-definition Nintendo games, with the crisp graphics of Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8, and Breath of the Wild blowing my mind (funnily enough the same games that define Nintendo’s current system).
It was in fact over a decade ago that the Wii U launched, so fair enough I suppose. Being 11 years old and six years past the console’s premature discontinuation somewhat justifies the Wii U store being killed off. Or does it? Well, let’s look at some competing digital stores.
The PlayStation store has been going for about 16 years now, as has Microsoft’s Xbox counterpart. Although some stipulations have cropped up over the years — for example I believe the only way to purchase PS3 games now is to do so via the PS3 itself — the services remain completely functional.
And why not? Is it unthinkable to let people buy digital PS3 and Xbox 360 games long after those consoles’ heydays if they want to? It’s less essential with the Xbox given the remarkable effort Microsoft has put into backwards compatibility, but it’s still necessary for a number of games. And with the PlayStation, the PS3 is a gateway to all sorts of games that can’t be played any other way, such as the iconic Metal Gear Solid series which excusing some blips of unavailability can be enjoyed in its entirety on the PS3.
If we move into the PC space, Steam is of course one of the earliest digital stores to exist and is still going strong 20 years later. Any game you have bought is still there, and the service has continued to support new features and platforms such as Linux and Mac, plus new CPU architectures. This is not a million miles away from adding new console generations while keeping the underlying store running indefinitely.
Nintendo clearly has not taken this approach, instead choosing to view each console as something with its own store that lives and dies with the system. The Wii, DSi, Wii U, and 3DS stores are all essentially separate entities that have been dealt a crushing blow in that unless you happened to buy a game at the time, you can no longer get hold of it1.
On that note, although after shutting down purchases almost five years ago Nintendo claimed the Wii and DSi stores would stop supporting downloads of already purchased items at some undetermined point in the future — and worryingly they did go offline completely for several months — at the time of writing downloading existing purchases surprisingly still works, making it even more frustrating that you can’t buy any games not in your collection.
To be clear, other console manufacturers haven’t perfected this art, and in Sony’s case there was some wavering before wisely backtracking, but they seem to be trying. Sony and Microsoft are doing various things to let you run games from past generations on the latest consoles, carry store purchases forward, etc. And as mentioned before, if we conveniently ignore the stores that flopped and disappeared, PC stores tend to go on and on. But Nintendo simply isn’t engaging with this game at all from what I can tell, preferring that you buy games for their latest system and that’s it.
So, what of the future? The Switch certainly put Nintendo back on the map, being a rip-roaring success that more than compensated for the tragic performance of the Wii U. Nintendo also finally has an honest-to-god online subscription service where a big part of the offering is ongoing access to a vast library of classic games, and Mario Kart 8 is practically a game as a service at this point, with new maps and characters being added to the same underlying game for nine years now2.
It feels like at this point they must surely keep some sort of cross-compatibility with whatever succeeds the Switch, but I can’t overlook that Nintendo has not shown much interest in this previously. And even if Nintendo does give it a shot, will it just mean one extra generation before the store’s demise? It hardly encourages me to invest in what is probably the most expensive of digital stores.
Competitors have shown that it can be done, which is surely shifting consumer expectations. I for one hope that Nintendo doesn’t kill off its previous stores any more than they already have been — re-enabling purchases would be even better — and that the next Nintendo console ships with a store that has had more effort put into it than before when it comes to interoperability and longevity.
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It would be remiss of me to not mention that there are unsanctioned ways of playing these old games, but that is for many people a last resort, or not an option at all as they don’t have the technical know-how. It also takes some of the magic and authenticity away in my opinion.
This touches upon a subject that I feel is beyond the scope of this article, which is that without a working online store you also don’t get game updates, whether they include new features or bug fixes. Given the unfinished state that many games launch in nowadays, it would be a sad state of affairs if you were unable to download updates for them.