Nintendo last week made an announcement that was both perfectly in line with everything we know about the company and its strategy, and yet somehow still a painful blow to its legions of passionate fans.
Though it was inevitable Nintendo would one day close the 3DS and Wii U eShops, the manner in which the company made the announcement highlights its antagonistic relationship to both digital ownership and game preservation.
Nintendo is shifting to a subscription model. The 3DS and Wii U eShops were notable for selling individual classic Nintendo games for one-time fees, letting players own them in perpetuity. This model has more or less ended in the Switch era as Nintendo shifts priority to Switch Online subscriptions.
- Starting in late March 2023, Nintendo will no longer let people purchase digital games for the 3DS and Wii U, including the more than 530 Virtual Console titles available across both platforms. That library includes some games that are impossible to purchase digitally without resorting to illegal emulation.
- Nintendo says it will make some of these games available through its Switch Online subscription service, like this week’s inclusion of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. But it only committed to letting people redownload software they’ve legally purchased “for the foreseeable future.”
- Nintendo posted, and then removed, an FAQ section in which it answered the question of whether it has an “obligation to preserve its classic games by continually making them available for purchase.” The answer: “We currently have no plans to offer classic content in other ways.”
Nintendo excels at selling nostalgia. The company has a storied track record of repackaging old products into new ones and slapping on high price tags. This strategy succeeds in part because Nintendo makes it difficult to buy digital versions of many of its games from one console generation to the next.
- The company banks on its core fan bases’ nostalgia for games they played when they were younger to overcome any sticker shock or trepidation over buying something twice or even three times.
- The NES and SNES classic editions and the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection are perfect examples. The consoles were produced in limited quantities, creating an abundance of demand and driving aftermarket sales and scalping. Super Mario 3D All-Stars was only available for sale for six months before it was discontinued.
- Nintendo is often rewarded financially for its approach, even when its biggest fans complain. It sold 9 million copies of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, and many of its limited-run consoles, toys and collectibles sell out almost immediately.
Nintendo can’t be trusted to preserve its own library. Nintendo could very well migrate the 3DS and Wii U digital stores or the Virtual Console catalog to the Switch, but it chooses not to.
- The only conceivable answer is that it’s financially motivated to repackage those products into its new subscription platform, and that it benefits its brand.
- Nintendo has a history of going after pirates who sell the means to hack its hardware and those who provide access to ripped game files. But it’s often the case that the company also inadvertently encourages piracy by shutting down legal avenues to purchasing games digitally.
- A game preservation organization is already calling Nintendo’s actions “actively destructive.” The Electronic Software Association, of which Nintendo is a part, has also lobbied to kill copyright amendments that would allow libraries and museums to preserve and rent digital games.
Nintendo is by no means obligated to continue operating decade-old virtual marketplaces for now-discontinued hardware. It’s also understandable that it’s shifting how it treats classic games, choosing to bundle them in a subscription platform rather than sell them à la carte.
But the company has shown time and again a blatant disregard for customers who want legal means to buy and own digital games, and the way it communicates and carries out these policy changes often leaves fans, game preservation organizations and its own products in the lurch. And unlike Sony, which reversed course last year on shutdown plans for the PS3 and Vita stores, Nintendo knows there is no amount of fan backlash that can overpower the strength of nostalgia for its products when they inevitably get repackaged and sold again in the future.
A version of this story also appeared in today’s Entertainment newsletter; subscribe here.