Only Pirates Will Save Us

A Wii Shop Channel Post-Mortem

Toribash, one of the most original titles available on the Wii Shop Channel

On January 29, Nintendo fans rejoiced as Piranha Plant was added to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The character, first revealed before the game’s release, was a free DLC release, and to many fans initially a baffling character choice compared to fan-favorites like Geno or Bandana Waddle Dee. While this new character, who had become a meme in the intervening month, hit the stage, Nintendo quietly killed a piece of their history. The Wii Shop Channel has finally fizzled out.

On the night of January 29, I sat before my Wii trying to desperately redownload my games that night. It reminded me of how hostile the Shop Channel, with its cheerful music and minimal, 2000s Apple style layout, actually was. Re-downloading games had to happen one at a time, and was frankly very tedious, especially when the servers would decide to crash and reset my downloads, dumping me back into the app’s welcome screen. Scrolling through icons of games I bought a decade ago, I chose which ones to take back, and which to let go.

It’s really not true that these games are going away forever. Yes, Nintendo will no longer host them, but archivists and pirates have made sure the international Wii Shop library will not disappear. Instead, what has died is the idea that preservation can ever be the work of for-profit entities, as well as the myth of digital ownership.

For all of its “revolutionary” posturing, the Wii was inherently an old school console. On a hardware level, it was mostly a Gamecube, souped up with a nicer shell, motion controls, widescreen and wi-fi capabilities. Nintendo followed up their [then] least popular console, with their most, and yet both machines were, on the interior, very similar.

For all of the posturing of revolution, of games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit and Wii Play and Wii Music being new avenues, the Wii was also a refuge of the old ways. It was the last great CRT console, running in standard definition, and even in 240p in some cases. It became a refuge for Japanese developers at times when the cost of development ballooned and western developers were becoming a dominant force in console gaming. Many of its own top titles were retreads of older styles. The recent revival of the 2D platformer got a lot of its footing on the Wii, which featured decisively old school romps in the New Super Mario, Kirby, and Donkey Kong Country series. The Wii’s core audience was aimed at families, and many of its top games, like Mario Kart Wii, were able to appeal to the hardcore gamer audience, but also people who had fallen out of the practice, but still had nostalgia for simpler times.

To supplement its own library, which often would go long periods of time between notable “core” releases, the Wii also became a place to experience a fractured take on its medium’s history through the aptly named “Virtual Console”.

The line of games, available via the Wii Shop Channel, was offered from the console’s launch in late 2006. Starting with a small selection of NES, Sega Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, SNES and N64 games, the selection grew about 3–5 games per week. While Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 featured a large library of downloadable classic games, these games often added online features or cleaned-up graphics to account for the greater resolutions available on those consoles. Wii Virtual Console games, however, were faithful emulations. All games on every console had the same pricing, except for the occasional import game.

The Virtual Console’s slow trickle of releases, along with the lack of licensed game and focus on a handful of mostly Japanese publishers, meant that the Virtual Console was marked as much by its J.J. and Jeffs as it was by its Super Metroids. Regardless of the utility of the system, its incredibly strange that the Wii, one of the most popular cosoles of all time, maintained an online store that featured multiple different versions of the same several Wonder Boy games. Sure, it featured the original Sega Genesis Sonic the Hedgehog games, but it also featured the much less beloved Sega Master System versions of Sonic 1 and 2, as well as OG Sega mascot Alex Kidd. There was something random and uncurated in feel about the whole thing. Nintendo didn’t reveal releases in advance, so many fans would wait in the morning on Nintendo’s press site to see just what games were coming out when, once a week, the games would launch

For me, a pre-teen with a burgeoning interest in classic games and an aversion to emulation, the Wii shop was a bizarre crash course in history. While some of my purchases on the service were far from eclectic, your Super Mario Worlds and Ocarina of Times, some of my favorite titles ended up being total wildcards, like Treasure’s brilliant Gunstar Heroes, satanic TG-16 pinball game Devil’s Crush, or Nintendo’s own Ice Hockey.

Devil’s Crush, a game I’d never have played if it wasn’t $6 on the Wii Shop

The Wii shop brought its own canon to the table, and while Mario, Pokemon and Zelda inevitably rocketed to the top of the best sellers list, they had to share their space with obscure Neo Geo fighters, classic space shooters and primitive first-person dungeon crawlers. I certainly had no idea what the TurboGrafx-16, known as the PC Engine in Japan, even was before owning a Wii. The NEC console was huge in the east, where its CD peripheral kept it popular well into the mid-90s, but in America it was a failed obscurity. Consequently, its games were cheaper than its Genesis and SNES contemporaries on the American Wii Shop, yet also plentiful due to the console’s Japanese popularity. The console’s bizarre multi-tap meant many of its games supported 5 players, like the frantic Bomberman ’93 and Battle Lode Runner, or the Gauntlet-like Dungeon Explorer. These games weren’t amazing, but they were great shared experiences, giving exposure to obscure games that had never really had their due in the west, or that didn’t congrue with the trends in the industry at the time The TG-16’s fast processor made it perfect for space shooters, and its CD add-on, while poorly marketed and produced in the west, was host to some incredible games with beautiful soundtracks. The Virtual Console gave this material a legitimate second life, not buried in a collection or lost in a database of ROMs, but on display in a storefront for a low price, at least relative to other games on the service.

For now, while players continue to dig into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a game that references and connects hundreds if not thousands of obscure figures from its medium’s history, Nintendo is letting this legacy of archival wilt. In business sense, there’s little argument against it. Sure, many players with games left undownloaded will lose access to things that were basically their possessions, but the Wii Shop is on an obsolete console easily outpaced in hardware by a budget smartphone, and Nintendo has found new ways to peddle its own back catalog on the Switch with the $20/year online service’s complimentary collection of NES games, alongside many classic arcade and console games for sale on that console’s store, and the hugely popular SNES and NES Classics systems resell gussied up versions of the same ROMs that Nintendo sold a decade prior.

It’s not like these titles are gone forever either. While the VC and the all-original Wiiware suite of games may never again be sold, pirates who long ago ripped the rom files will be able to keep them in circulation as well, doing the archival work that corporations can’t and won’t bother with. With Nintendo’s own attacks on sites like EmuParadise, however, these archivists are running legal and financial risks.

The dream of the Wii is dead, but the console too lives on in the hands of the people, in homebrew, in modding and hacking and in petty theft. Maybe it’s better this way, but it sucks that what was once an accessible entry point to classic and new games has been struck down and abandoned. Fact is, these systems have failed us before, and they will continue to fail us. The old cartridges will go bad and the CDs will break. Only pirates will save us.