Few game companies are as prolific as Nintendo. The gaming giant has an incredible library of first-party games dating back more than 35 years at this point. With that much history spread across multiple generations of consoles and handhelds, it’s understandable that there’s no easy way to play everything in one place.
But there is a way to solve that issue. It just requires Nintendo to do the one thing it has long struggled with through its storied history: get with the times.
As Nintendo continues to re-release its classic games in an increasingly convoluted fashion, Microsoft is revolutionizing the way we play its games with Xbox Game Pass. What started as a subscription experiment has become an ironclad template for what companies like Nintendo can, and should, do to ensure that players always have access to the company's greatest hits.
The concept of Xbox Game Pass is so simple, which makes it surprising that it took so long for someone to crack it. Microsoft’s service gives subscribers a giant library of games to download and play, from indies to big third-party titles. Most importantly, it’s a home for all of Microsoft’s first-party exclusives from Halo to Forza. That even means that subscribers get brand new games like The Medium without having to pay $60.
It’s an idea that studios have flirted with over the years but are only now starting to double down on. EA Play and Ubisoft+ take a similar Netflix-style approach where gamers pay a monthly fee for access to a catalog of games. Sony has even come around on the idea in its own way, offering the PS Plus Collection on PlayStation 5 for those who subscribe to its online service. It doesn’t include the company’s entire backlog, but it is full of the PlayStation 4’s best games in one easy place.
Nintendo’s equivalent is more obtuse. Nintendo Switch Online subscribers can download NES and SNES apps that include a handful of freebies. While most of the big-name titles are on there, there’s also plenty of weird oddities, including a recent batch of obscure games that has fans scratching their heads.
Also notably puzzling is the fact that the company hasn't put recently re-released Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light on the app at all, despite it being an NES game. Players would have to buy that separately either through the eShop or via an elaborate special physical edition, making the NES app feel incomplete.
When it comes to anything that’s not an NES or SNES staple, fans are at the mercy of Nintendo’s benevolence. Want to play the Metroid Prime trilogy on the Nintendo Switch? Players simply have to hope Nintendo decides to re-release it for the console. It’s especially jarring coming off of the Wii and Wii U, which featured Virtual Console, a shop that would let players buy classic games carte blanche. My Wii U currently has games like Wario Land 4 and Pokemon Snap installed, but those aren’t available on my Switch.
Instead, imagine a service that lets players pay $15 a month to access first-party hits from the NES to the Wii U. Is that too much to ask? From Nintendo’s perspective, it might be.
The company is infamous for double-dipping on its games, finding new ways for players to buy titles they already own. Even just last year, the company put the original Super Mario Bros. onto a new Game & Watch and sold it as a special edition collectible. That’s not to mention re-releases like Super Mario 3D All-Stars or products like the NES Classic that have been cash cows for the company.
From a business standpoint, it doesn’t make sense for Nintendo to make a Game Pass if fans will still line up to rebuy 35-year-old games with the right packaging.
At the same time, it’s feeling more and more like there’s a missed opportunity here. Players are clearly willing to spend money to play these classics, putting Nintendo in a good position to capitalize with a proper subscription service. Fans who buy re-releases a few times a year could just as easily convert to consistent monthly subscribers.
More and more, the future of gaming seems to be heading in a subscription direction, which some fans may be wary of. It’s hard enough trying to keep track of every video streaming app, let alone having to worry about gaming ones. But Nintendo’s current alternative isn’t really a more functional alternative.
If given the choice between paying once a month to have hundreds of classics in one place and buying sporadic double dips every few months, I know which option I’m choosing.