Back at E3 2005, Satoru Iwata pulled out a black rectangular box and declared it to be Nintendo's new 'Revolution,' thought of as such because of how it would evolve games based on control input and not visual level as both Sony and Microsoft would go on to do. One key detail he spoke briefly about, and the titbit that would keep the unit fresh in Nintendo enthusiasts' minds was its potential to download three generations of Nintendo console-based software, ranging from the humble NES to the 3D powerhouse that was the N64, through a quick and easy downloading ability. Microsoft would seek to offer a similar service with Xbox Live Arcade at the Xbox 360 launch later that year, but it became clear that it would be difficult to match up against Nintendo's own retro games alone, much less the entire licensed catalogue of those machines.
The reality of the Virtual Console itself, however, became apparent upon Wii's worldwide release in late 2006. Although few could argue that the legendary Super Mario 64 is a worthy headliner for any launch period, and the added Genesis/Mega Drive and TurboGrafx categories would add even more diversity, they were but a mere smattering of the potential hundreds on offer from all five machines. Granted, looking back on it now it would have been completely unrealistic to expect Nintendo to be able to grab all those games in a matter of months, even when not considering the ratings system for each game in each territory and the time and costs associated with that.
The service had more damning issues to contend with regardless, particularly in PAL territories. European gamers once again had to return to the days of a thinner, slower 50Hz picture for nearly all NES, SNES and Mega Drive games whilst all other regions were treated to full 60Hz retro glory. The Wii Shop Channel, the means by which potential customers would access and purchase these games, was slow, clunky, and unwieldy in finding the games you might be interested in. And then there was the extremely limited storage space, which wasn't a huge issue until more games starting popping up for purchase and Wii owners rightfully grew tired of the laborious process involved with moving games to and from SD cards. This issue was resolved with the SD Card update a couple of years after, but to this day the clunky shop interface and slow update activity of the Virtual Console puts off many from purchasing the wide array of classics on there. Also, the lack of security regarding possible loss of those purchased games spoke for itself, especially when both Sony and Microsoft made use of account-based systems.
As everyone looks to the Wii U launch later this year, could the Wii's underappreciated (and quite frankly undervalued even by Nintendo's own standards) download component be the new machine's greatest asset coming out of the gate? Consider the briefly mentioned sparse selection at the Wii's street date, and then consider just how many have been put on the service since. What was a grouping of a couple of dozen retro games has exploded into hundreds of titles across a multitude of formats, including three others that Nintendo added during the Wii's throne years; the Master System, Neo Geo, and the Arcade systems.
For the many that own a Wii hooked up in the living room or resting an early retirement elsewhere, Nintendo has confirmed you will be able to transfer the catalogue across machines, which suggests two key details. First of all, that aside from the re-clarification the games might need with the ratings boards for each region (possible but unlikely given what little needs to change), the entire catalogue will be Wii U enabled from Day One. Secondly, the process will most likely replicate how DSiWare games were moved to 3DS systems from DSi ones, possibly via a Wii Channel created for that very purpose. These games should logically tie into the Wii U's user accounts, which Nintendo has already confirmed for the system and that should also spread to the 3DS in good time.
For an example of how Nintendo has learned from experience with its download services, one needs look no further than the eShop on 3DS. Since its introduction not long after the 3DS launch window, the service has constantly evolved and altered to streamline the user experience in a way the Wii Shop Channel never could, making use of proper currency instead of Nintendo Points, and a download function that could be suspended or left to its own devices when in 'Sleep Mode.' Pricing on the Shop Channel was at best passable and at worst a rip-off, but with Nintendo's recent sales offerings on the eShop there is potential for a wider pricing net for the Wii U. Acting as a mishmash of the Shop Channel and the media-packed workings of the Nintendo Channel, the eShop provides all the trailers, demos, screenshots, and downloadable titles it can hold, all wrapped up in a user-friendly presentation, and it would not be difficult to see Nintendo continue this style with its next home console, especially considering the similar dual screen layering.
Additionally, this is where we get to the real strawberry centre of the jam doughnut, the Wii U Pad itself. Nintendo has been coy in regards to how far the GamePad's usage goes, beyond just the Wii U menus and games that we know of already, but it would be difficult to imagine the big N missing out on a vast potential selling point; being able to play retro titles in the palm of your hands. More than a few retro games on the service do not mesh well with the huge display that a High Definition television provides, so a much smaller optimised screen would complement them greatly, not unlike the Game Boy Advance SP's frontlit bigger picture to the Game Boy micro's backlit, smaller but more focused display. The button mapping of the GamePad would easily support any of the requirements of the games in the Virtual Console library, and its motion capabilities and touch screen can provide a workaround should more complex titles require it.
Then there is one more thing to consider. Since the initial announcement of the Virtual Console in 2006, Nintendo has practically doubled the system support on the service with aforementioned SEGA and arcade-based machines. One of the major reasons speculated as to why more games from disc-based machines didn't appear was the restricted Wii memory and download speeds, two aspects that Wii U looks set to bypass with a much larger amount of on-board flash memory and support for external USB Hard Drives. Virtual Console releases for the Wii have trickled down in number over the past year in relation to its current status in sales and reception, so there would be very little the Wii U could add on top of those system catalogues.
Not to say it would be an easy task, but few would object to seeing Third Party PlayStation One and PlayStation 2 games on the service, and unless Nintendo plans to make a HD classics line like the New Play Control series, GameCube games are as good as confirmed too. Heck, why not throw the legendary Dreamcast and slightly-less epic Xbox libraries into the mix? Nintendo's mention of suggesting that the Wii U could be left overnight to download more data-heavy titles (like Wii's WiiConnect24, except actually working as stated) would be ideal for these bigger titles, and the PlayStation 2's catalogue minus Sony's own games could fill out an entire download schedule for the Wii U's lifespan just on its own.