The Virtual Console was Nintendo's first entry into digital distribution and a major example of legal console game emulation, with the Wii version launching on November 19, 2006, the same day as the system's launch. On a weekly basis, games from not only from Nintendo's own backlog of home console titles were made available, but also those of former rivals such as Hudson, SNK, and even Sega. While some games remained exclusive to their regions, just as they had in the past, others (such as Sin and Punishmentnote and Pulseman) would manage to finally see global release thanks to the service. Over time, the Virtual Console effectively made the Nintendo Wii a fantastic gaming console to own if you had an interest in retro gaming, but didn't have the money or space for all the original hardware and software necessary for the authentic experience. As a side note, Nintendo's actual equivalent to Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, would come over a year later in early 2008.
The Virtual Console brand would continue into the following generation, on the Nintendo 3DS (launching June 6, 2011) and Wii U (launching January 23, 2013), before being retired. The former would put the bulk of its focus on games from past Nintendo (and Sega) handhelds, though its library would also come to include some console games as well. Similarly, the Wii U would continue to focus on home console offerings, with the addition of some handheld games. The Wii's Virtual Console ceased operation on January 30th, 2019, while the 3DS and Wii U's would cease operation on March 27th, 2023; if you didn't already buy the games offered on these services, then you're out of luck.
The Virtual Console does not exist on the Nintendo Switch, with access to libraries of classic titles instead being a subscription bonus for Nintendo's paid online service, Nintendo Switch Online. Many third-party publishers that had previously offered their back catalogue through the Virtual Console now sell these older titles directly on the Nintendo eShop under their own banners, such as "Arcade Archives", rather than through the subscription service — Nintendo themselves have noted issues in renegotiating licensing rights because of this. As of 2023, Nintendo Switch Online currently offers NES, SNES, Game Boy, and Game Boy Color games on its basic subscription; meanwhile, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, and Game Boy Advance games are on a higher subscription tier called the Expansion Pass.
As a side note, Nintendo also put out the NES Classic and SNES Classic mini-consoles, which each contain thirty and twenty games from those game libraries, respectively; but since those were released as limited-run items in the late 2010s, good luck finding one of them for a reasonable price these days.
The games on the service for the Wii came from these systems:
- Nintendo Entertainment System
- Super Nintendo Entertainment System
- Nintendo 64
- Sega Master System
- Sega Genesis*
- Neo Geo
- MSX (Japan only)
- Commodore 64 (North America & Europe only — delisted in 2013)
- Arcade Games via "Virtual Console Arcade"
The games on the service for the Nintendo 3DS came from these systems:
- Game Boy
- Game Boy Color
- Game Boy Advance *
- Sega Game Gear *
- Nintendo Entertainment System *
- Super Nintendo Entertainment System New Nintendo 3DS, n3DS XL, and 2DS XL systems only
- TurboGrafx-16 (Japan only)
- 3D Classics (Select NES, Arcade, Sega Genesis, and Sega Master System games remastered for 3D)
The games on the service for the Wii U came from these systems:
- Nintendo Entertainment System
- Super Nintendo Entertainment System
- Nintendo 64
- Game Boy Advance
- Nintendo DS
- MSX (Japan only)
- Wii *
The Virtual Console service shows examples of...
- Copy Protection: The Wii, as well as the Wii U's Wii mode, will deny any games on an SD Card that weren't installed from the system's own Wii Shop Channel. This can create problems when trying to transfer the data to a larger-capacity SD card, however.
- Damn You, Muscle Memory!: The Wii U Virtual Console is notorious for the input lag that its games suffer from, especially with N64 games; while not all-that noticeable to a newcomer, people who've played the games on their original systems note that this split-second delay tends to mess up their performance every so often, particularly during moments that require good precision. This video provides a good example of the issue, comparing the Virtual Console port of Super Mario 64 to the N64 original. Given how the issue is present on the Wii U Virtual Console but not on the 3DS or Wii one, people have theorized that the issue stems from the Wii U using a wireless controller and streaming video output to two screens at once.
- Digital Destruction: Virtual Console games tend to be unusually dark, and Wii U re-releases of NES games also seem noticeably blurry due to the permanent anti-aliasing effect. Additionally, the audio sounds somewhat muffled compared to both the original versions and third party emulations. Supposedly, all of this is to mimic the effect of playing the games on a CRT monitor, but it just ends up looking and sounding muted. All of these problems are remedied on the NES Classic Edition, however, complete with a more authentic "CRT mode"
- Easter Egg:
- Any Game Boy or Game Boy Color game on the 3DS has a hidden letterbox. Hold down Start and/or Select while starting the game from the home menu, and the game will be shrunk down to its original resolution, with a border that resembles the game's original console to fill up the empty space. The game screen "sinks" into the border when the 3D slider is turned up. The battery light even dims when the battery reaches 25%.
- The Game Boy library has a feature to switch from the black and white palette to the pea-green palette on the original Game Boy. To do this hold L and R and then press Y. NES and SNES games on 3DS that use the second controller use this combination to switch between the two controller inputs, with SNES games using the extra ZL and ZR buttons on the New 3DS rather than L and R.
- Late Export for You: Often, a game that didn't initially release in a nation will come late through this service.
- Mythology Gag:
- The trailer for the Donkey Kong Country games is a direct homage to the first game's original commercial.
- StarTropics has Uncle Steve's letter in the Operation's Guide on the Wii version. Not only is it word-for-word from the original release, but there's also a picture of piece of paper over a bucket of water. Touching it reveals the password for level 4, which digitally simulates how you got it in the original release. The Wii U version just gives you the code while telling you how it would have worked if you played the game back in the day.
- Old Save Bonus:
- If the user has a Virtual Console game on the Wii U's Wii Mode that's available on the Wii U library, the player can upgrade to the Wii U version, albeit for a small fee.
- Knuckles in Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles, and Blue Sphere can all be accessed like the original games by pressing the minus/select button at any time and then choosing which game to lock-on.
- Updated Re-release: A well-known feature of Virtual Console games is that some of them have modifications to do something as simple as fixing a bug or adding a completely new feature.
- A general one: Every game that has flashing or excessively bright lights (e.g. the Donkey Kong Country trilogy games) at some point has the lights slowed down, dimmed, or removed completely to reduce the risk of seizures. EarthBound (1994) in particular took a while to release on Virtual Console because of its copious use of flashing lights, and the situation was only amended by adding in a blur effect that activates in response to excessively fast image changes.
- A small number of Japanese import games such as Sin and Punishment and Monster World IV have received English translations for their international releases.
- Pokémon Snap can send photos to the Wii Message Board from the gallery by pressing select. For whatever reason, it can only be done once per day. This is to simulate the Snap stations that were available during the game's release.
- Tecmo Bowl replaces all the names of the players with just their numbers, due to Electronic Arts' exclusive NFLPA video game license.
- Wave Race 64 replaces all the Kawasaki Product Placement with Wii and Nintendo DS advertisements, even though those systems didn't exist when the game was released, mainly due to Nintendo's license with Kawasaki having expired. The Wii U and Switch versions puts the original Product Placement back in.
- On top of carrying over every Lawyer-Friendly Cameo removal from cartridge revision 1.03, The Revenge of Shinobi adds one more: Spider-Man is now depicted with a completely pink Palette Swap, due to Activision holding the rights at the time. He still retains his Spider Man-related boss patterns though. The title screen is also redrawn such that Joe Musashi looks less like Sonny Chiba.
- Phantasy Star IV fixes the infamous Level 99 glitch.
- Most Pokémon games that feature Jynx change its face from black to purple, to match its modern design. The sole exception is Pokémon Red and Blue, which like other OG Game Boy games is in black and white and limited to four shades of gray.
- Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow and Pokémon Gold, Silver and Crystal support trading and battling over 3DS' wireless connection and Gold, Silver and Crystal additionally support Mystery Gift via infrared (as on the Game Boy Color), and Pokémon caught in these games can be sent to Pokémon Bank via Poké Transporter and later to Pokémon Sun and Moon and Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Yellow also has the "Pikachu's Beach" Mini-Game unlocked by default, instead of through having Pikachu know Surf. In Gold, Silver and Crystal, the infamous GS Ball, which originally was a Japanese-exclusive event item, is now given to the player by going to the Goldenrod City Pokémon Center after defeating the Elite Four.
- The Mega Man Battle Network series games that included multiplayer have been modified to grant the player the Socialization Bonus chips from the beginning of the game, as they would otherwise be unobtainable because of the inability of GBA games on Wii U to use multiplayer.
- Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 has all 38 e-Reader levels unlocked by default.
- StarTropics includes the password for level 4 in the Operations Guide. It even shows a piece of paper being submerged in a bucket of water.
- Excitebike, Mach Rider, and Wrecking Crew add the ability to save custom levels.
- Castlevania: Rondo of Blood replaces the intro dialogue voiceover with the one found in the embedded Rondo of Blood port included in the game's PSP remake Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles.
- Puyo Puyo adds online play... in Japan.
- All three Donkey Kong Country games have less Interface Screw on snow levels.
- Duck Hunt, Hogan's Alley and Wild Gunman add crosshairs for better aim, though this can be turned off so that it only appears when the player shoots.
- Animal Crossing: Wild World removes the Socialization Bonus requirement for unlocking Nookington's.
- Super Smash Bros. 64 changes the GameCube controller mappings to match that of later installments.
- Metroid somewhat fixes the infamous "ENGAGE RIDLEY MOTHER FUCKER" password. Entering the password now intentionally crashes the game back to the Home Menu. While it's obviously just a safety precaution, it still references the damage the password can do on actual hardware.
- Various Master System titles that used the Japan-only FM Sound Unit add-on have their FM audio accessible for all regions by pressing Minus/Select at any time. Phantasy Star I is the exception, as the FM sound code was removed from the game during localization to free up space for English dialogue.
- The Genesis version of Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers adds online play.
- Super Mario Bros. Deluxe changes a few of the fortune teller cards to coincide with the lack of multiplayer.