Part Two: Wii U Virtual Console Upgrades and Backward Compatibility

Friday, February 1st, 2013

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Virtual Console logo

Note: This is the second half of a two-part cooperative editorial written by two separate authors about the recent Wii U news involving the Virtual Console. Part one is titled: Wii U Virtual Console Can’t load Wii Saves for Older Games?

To get a better grasp of the debate with Nintendo’s recent announcement regarding the Wii U’s Virtual Console upgrades, Joel and I felt that a look to the history of backward compatibility was appropriate. The ability to play games from the previous generation has been prevalent on handhelds – the Game Boy Advance played Game Boy cartridges, the DS and DS Lite ran GBA carts, and the 3DS continues to play DS titles. In addition to Nintendo, SNK provided for backward compatibility with the Neo Geo Pocket Color, and Sony’s Vita plays digital PSP titles.

Consoles have been a different story, however, where backward compatibility was rare. Aside from the Atari 7600, and the Sega Power Base Converter add on for the Sega Genesis, the first mainstream implementation of the feature was in the PlayStation 2 – since the CPU of the original PlayStation system was used as the PS2’s I/O module, backward compatibility was simple to execute. This method was used with the PlayStation 3 as well, as early units included both the Emotion Engine and Graphics Synthesizer chips. The Wii, built on a similar architecture to the GameCube, was able to accomplish backward compatibility with similar ease.


As the manufacturers needed to reduce costs, backward compatibility was the obvious choice to cut. Early on, Sony removed the Emotion Engine from the PS3, limiting compatibility to software emulation, and later cut the Graphics Synthesizer as well, ending all support for PlayStation 2 titles. In a similar effort to slim down, Nintendo removed the GameCube ports and memory card slots on the Wii, making the unit no longer backward compatible. Meanwhile the XBox 360 had very limited backward compatibility accomplished through emulation.

Looking at each system’s implementation of backward compatibility, a pattern begins to appear as the ability to play legacy games only continues so long before it is removed. Even though the cartridges fit, Game Boy games could not be played on the DS. The DS and DS Lite supported GBA titles, but the games would not “sleep” when the lid was closed like DS titles, and the cartridge slot was removed from the DSi. Consoles and handhelds have had their backward compatibility removed as they mature, with manufacturers believing that the most important time for a console have the feature is when the console is first released.


There has been a significant change to this dynamic in recent years, however. As much as “hardcore” gamers hate to admit it, the smartphone industry has had a tremendous effect on the gaming industry. And all those games downloaded onto your phone or tablet, linked to your account? When you upgrade to a new device in one, two, four years, those purchases come with you. Apps like Sword & Sworcery EP, Tweetbot, or SpellTower are not tied up on an old device, but freely mobile to other, future devices. This not only makes customers happy, but keeps consumers within that ecosystem; iOS users have invested in apps and are hesitant to move to Android, and vice versa.

So far, at least, Google and Apple have not developed away from old software, and that may well set consumer expectations for digital purchases, at least. This is where concern over Nintendo’s announcement of their Virtual Console upgrade program has caused some waves – the worry over losing save files, the cost to upgrade, and the segregated interface.

white-and-black-wii-uIt is a jarring difference because of what consumers have come to expect thanks to the mobile sector. But historically, the setup is just as consoles have always experienced. The cost to upgrade is seen by Nintendo as a sort of convenience fee: you can still play the games you have as you always have, with the Wii remote or classic controller, or you can pay the fee to open up the Wii U Gamepad, Miiverse, and all the other new functions that were not available before.

So, is Nintendo a harsh mistress for locking away new functionality on our old content? Have we become spoiled by Apple and Google allowing us to transition our content gracefully(so far at least)? Let us know in the comments.

About Brad Williams

Brad's love for gaming began over thirty years ago on the IBM PC1, and is an avid PC and console gamer. Living in rural Vermont, Brad also enjoys target shooting and backyard astronomy, as well as spending time with his wife, four cats, and dog Wrex. He has a Bachelor's degree in Business Management from Johnson State College, and is seeking employment in the nonprofit sector.

  • Guest

    Not exactly true…

    The only reason mobile/smartphones/tablets have such an easy time moving games across devices is because each new “generation” is only a minor upgrade. You can hardly compare the 9 months between new iOS iterations and the 5-6 YEARS between a new generation of dedicated gaming devices.

    Also, in the “good ol days”, the physical nature of devices made it impractical to create slots to fit every type of game ever made (although it could be cool to see a machine that has slots for NES, SNES, GB, GBA, N64, DS/3DS and a disc drive that could read GCN-Wii U games).

    Nowadays, with digital, that is no longer an excuse. However, THE IMPORTANT thing to realize is that Nintendo ISN’T MAKING EXCUSES…

    Nintendo did exactly as they promised – you have FULL backwards compatibility with Wii, including Virtual Console and WiiWare. You just need to go into the Wii menu to do it.

    Why did Nintendo choose to do this? They may never disclose the real answer, but I think a big hunch is the fact that the original Wii was relatively simple to hack, and if they included the ability to play Wii software directly from the Wii U menu, the same vulnerabilities would exist within the Wii U, leaving it open to hacking and potential piracy. Whether or not that’s true is not my concern, but Nintendo did, in fact, allow FULL backwards compatibility with Wii.

    NEXT: Virtual Consoles games are not simply a ROM dumped into a catch-all emulator. Each individual game placed on the Virtual Console is reviewed for copyright material and sometimes edited for copyright reasons. Each Virtual Console .wad file contains a specialized emulator that is developed specifically with the needs of that game in mind. For Nintendo’s first-party offerings, sometimes it even means enhancing the titles (such as Pokemon Snap) or fixing glitches that existed in the original (Donkey Kong Country 2). Add on top of that the fact that Nintendo will be creating and curating Miiverse communities for every Virtual Console game, implementing Gamepad play, and creating a database for every game in the eShop.

    For the $1-1.50 they are asking, it’s mere pocket change for an enhanced experience that Nintendo never even had to offer in the first place. These gamers whining and acting entitled are forgetting that Nintendo isn’t FORCING people to buy the enhanced Wii U versions of the game. You can still play them like everyone else as they originally purchased them within the past six years – you still have 100% backwards compatibility.

    And since this is a brand new console, you can’t call them “early adopters”… if you bought these games from the Wii VC, you bought it with full intention to play it right then and there. Just like you can’t complain if you buy a brand new game on launch day for $60 when you could have waited a year or two and got the “Game of the Year Edition” that includes all of the expansions and DLC for just $20.

    Entitled “gamers” need to get off their high horse and realize that if they don’t want what’s offered to them, they don’t have to buy it.


    Dedicated gaming consoles and handhelds have a much longer lifespan than “mobile” devices. A dedicated gaming device typically last 5 (or more) years. The typical smartphone/tablet is replaced every year (or more) by many consumers (especially the rabid Apple fans buying the latest iPhone every 9 months).

    Not to mention that *most* smartphone content is sheer garbage and seeing as the iTunes Store and Google Play are both a giant freaking mess of apps of varying ages and levels of compatibility, I would hardly use those devices as an example.

    With account-based systems and an all-digital future, maybe TRUE backwards compatibility will be something to look forward to in the future, but it won’t be happening this generation or next, doesn’t matter what platform is your preference. Mark my words that PS4 and Xbox 720 will have the same issues Wii U does with BC.

    • Guest

      Putting it into perspective, the DS Fat+DS Lite+DS mini+DSi+DSiXL+3DS+3DS XL have all been around for much longer than Apple or Google have been making smartphone OSes. And yes, the 3DS is fully capable of running original DS games with no problems.

      Let’s see how Apple’s “compatibility” would go if they actually released a real upgrade akin to the difference between GBA and 3DS.

      Then again, newer mobile devices also use the same ARM architecture, so that might also be the issue – new dedicated gaming devices always seem to have a different architecture than the predecessor, making it a pain to port to the next generation console.

    • dbclick

      My gripe is simple: All the points you make about the VC are valid – but only for Wii.

      All the work of reviewing the content and licensing, creating the digital manuals, fixing the emulation, patching, etc. for existing VC titles has already been done. The work to get the game running on the enhanced Wii U emulator should be identical for each game now that the emulation kinks have been worked out. if it isn’t, then Nintendo is re-doing the work they’ve already done.

      The enhanced emulation system should be implemented once and applied unilaterally across all the ROMs they are baking into the Wii VC games. The only “substantial” work that should need to be done is to reformat the digital manual for the GamePad’s buttons instead of the Wii Remote (which I could honestly do without since the manuals are rarely complete enough to be very useful).

      They are not going to tweak the Wii U features for each new VC title – those will remain uniform. Since they are only doing the work for the emulator as a whole rather than per title (or they should be) I don’t feel they should be charging a fee per title to “Upgrade”. If they felt justified in charging a fee for the enhanced emulation, then that should be a one-time fee applied across all Wii -> Wii U VC games. Or they could do like Sony and provide it as a system update for free (for example, like they did for providing the new PS3 emulation feature with virtual memory cards for PS1/2 games).

      I can understand not transferring old save files, as that could be more technically infeasible and might require lots of work per title to rip the save out of the right location that may vary from title to title (depending on how they coded it).

      As to why Nintendo provides the Wii BC in the Wii U in the form of a separate menu: The Wii U processor ISA is a direct superset of the Wii ISA and can be used to run directly the Wii software with a special mode set on the processor. This ensures the ability to properly run Wii software because it is in fact, running as a Wii with the exception of the video output conversion to run over the HDMI cable. This is very similar to how the Wii runs Gamecube games. It’s an easy, uniform approach to BC that doesn’t have potential flaws in the same way emulation does. I’m not actually sure the Wii U has the power needed to properly emulate Wii anyway. They honestly could have made Wii channels launch from the Wii U menu, but it still would have necessitated running in Wii mode while the software is running, which means no Miiverse, etc. In fact, the Wii Menu is baked into each Wii program (channel or retail disc) separately and could not be disabled (which would make for a very odd experience even if they could manage to get the normal Miiverse experience to overlay with the additional CPU cores somehow).

  • I can see it both ways.

    I believe that the Virtual Console service is based on emulators. Now, I have not experimented, but I don’t think that you can pull one save file or save state from one emulator and use it on another. So, the reasoning here is that with new hardware, Nintendo rewrote every Virtual Console emulator. That’s why the Virtual Console was not available for launch: it took time to rewrite the emulators. So, now, while all the ROMs on the service work on the new hardware, the old save files will no longer work. Is that a good excuse? No. Nintendo HAS the code for how the save files worked. It should be no trouble to write a translator, that takes the information from the old emulators, and makes it compatible with the new.

    And, yes, Nintendo SHOULD implement universal eShop accounts. And saves from the Wii U should work on the 3DS. Yes, “Transfarring” of “Cross Saves” could work on Nintendo, at least with Virtual Console. Nintendo, YOU HAVE ALL THE CODE! Figure it out. By not acknowledging that mobile devices have done anything right in the eyes of consumers, you are alienating this new consumer base. Paying an extra dollar or two to get my Virtual Console games on the Wii U would not be so bad if I were to get this functionality. Sony has already done this, Nintendo! Yes, the Vita is failing. That has nothing to do with the features like Cross Save or universal PSN accounts. Sony is getting all their services right! Now if only they could figure out why people want to play a handheld, they’d do alright. Maybe even beat YOU, Nintendo. Yes, I said it. Sony could beat Nintendo if they’d make their handheld a handheld instead of a portable console.

    Nintendo, this is not the time to be resting on your laurels here. I know why you’re pushing digital distribution so hard this cycle: somebody either told you, or someone on your board figured out that “this digital distribution thing is kind of cartridges. Licensees have to come through. We decide whether or not to let them on, and they have to pay us for the privilege. But it’s better, becasue there are no physical copies people can trade back to stores or rent or borrow out to others.” Yeah, I get that. But to actually GET there you’ll have to “bite the bullet” and give consumers what they actually WANT. Part of that is making the Virtual Console service as simple and user friendly as Apple’s App Store. Iwata, YOU’VE USED THE APP STORE. I know from reports that you OWN an iPhone, and I’m pretty sure you ALSO own an iPad. So, copy that.