Opinion: Nintendo needs to get more serious about its back catalog

A company's back catalog can be a powerful thing. Nintendo isn't taking best advantage of its own history right now.

Rare Replay was announced at E3 last year: a collection of 30 games that spans Rare's entire game-development history. Many of Rare's games — including some in the Replay collection — were originally released on Nintendo consoles. But guess what? They are now available to play… exclusively on Xbox One.

I had to come to terms a long time ago with the fact that Nintendo sold Rare, but it's still off-putting that the Xbox One has a selection of classic Nintendo titles that Nintendo's own Wii U doesn't. 

Many of these titles— take Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie or Conker's Bad Fur Day as examples — aren't, and have never been available on any of Nintendo's own Virtual Console services, even though they were originally released on Nintendo consoles. These are games that epitomized gaming for many Nintendo 64-era players. Rare Replay even uses an emulation of Conker’s N64 version over Microsoft's own Xbox version. The folks at Rare know which version people want to play. They get it.

When I asked Rare employees at E3 about the emulation behind the collection, mum was the word. Licensing is a weird beast, and Nintendo could have forfeited all licensing rights to even modern adaptations of past Rare games when it sold the company. But the only point that matters is that parts of Rare Replay are essentially NES/N64 emulators for 11 separate titles that never got the same treatment on Nintendo consoles. It just feels odd.

In other words — and I have a feeling this is exactly what Microsoft was counting on — if you were a fan of Rare back in the day, you need to buy an Xbox One (or Xbox 360 for some of the titles in the collection) to play these games on modern hardware. Combine this with the Xbox One's Backward Compatibility and new potential hardware upgrades, and it’s clear that Microsoft is starting to understand the power that of a robust back catalogue.

Taken by itself, Rare Replay isn't a huge deal; it's more a weird anomaly given Rare's complicated relationship with Microsoft and Nintendo. But, this isn't the only instance of Nintendo slowly watching its own history pass through its fingers.

Last fall, Disney and Sony released a Darth Vader PS4 bundle. It’s pretty. It's slick. I bought it. Even better, included with it is a digital copy of Super Star Wars. Yup, that Super Star Wars…the one you may remember playing on the Super Nintendo back in the day. You can't play Super Star Wars on current Nintendo hardware (it was on the Wii's virtual console, but isn't on the Wii U)…but you will be able to play on PS4.

For Nintendo, both Super Star Wars and Rare Replay represent lost opportunity. Nintendo needs to try to attract every bit of third party support it can--  even if that means paying for exclusives and bolstering retro third-party support on its Virtual Console. And it should, at the very least, be fighting to hold on to those third-party titles it once did have. Even the recent addition of SNES titles to the New Nintendo 3DS was all first party titles... and titles that have been available on the Virtual Console previously. Nothing new to speak of here. Sony has been buying up exclusives left and right this generation, but now it’s starting to buy classic titles that used to be exclusively licensed to Nintendo platforms. Not only is Sony wining this generation, but it's start to erode away at past Nintendo victories.

Nintendo needs to be a better protector of its own past, or-- in an industry so fueled by nostalgia-- risk seeing its relevancy wane in the future. 

And it's weird, because in some ways, Nintendo does just this. The company is great at re-releasing its own titles as HD remakes or nostalgia throwbacks like "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds." But when it comes to the Virtual Console, Nintendo has almost all but abandoned the service. It's possible that with NX development and the new account system on the horizon, Nintendo simply isn't focused on the Wii U. But the Wii U Virtual Console has always seemed like an afterthought: It has greatly lagged behind what the Wii offered.

But it's not just about Star Wars, or Rare Replay, or any individual title-- it's about rights deals. When Nintendo was licensing titles in the SNES days it probably wasn't thinking quite as far ahead as 2016. Securing those rights now would mean a financial investment from Nintendo, one that may not be worth it just for a few old Star Wars games. But it was one that Sony was glad to make.  

On the micro-level, it might not make sense for Nintendo to pay to license individual NES, SNES, or Nintendo 64 titles from its third party partners these days. But, on the macro-level, Nintendo needs to tap into any past victories it can. Virtual console games can also help with gaps in a system's release schedule, another issue facing the Wii U.

It's possible that Nintendo doesn't think the potential for licensing these titles is worth what sales reward it could reap. For all we know, maybe third party titles didn't sell well on the Wii's virtual console, so Nintendo decided that licensing them in the future wasn't a necessary expense. But it's more about the mindshare that Sony and Microsoft are taking away from Nintendo.

But it isn't a simple revenue versus expenses equation. It’s important for Nintendo to keep players’ nostalgia-needs fed, protect its own history, and secure the memories of fans for generations to come. There's a demand for these retro experiences. Players will either get them on Nintendo's own hardware... or find them elsewhere.

Nintendo sits on one of the most valuable back catalogs in the industry, and at times it seems content to do just that: sit on it. Now more than ever, and especially with the NX on the horizon, Nintendo needs to hold on to those past exclusives at all cost. Otherwise, it's going to have an even harder time fighting for its existence in the future.