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While backwards compatibility was certainly a thing for Nintendo's handhelds, such a thing was nonexistent for Nintendo's home consoles. Heck, it was nonexistent for most consoles; if you wanted to play games from an older system and its publishers haven't done a Compilation Re-release, you had to dig into your closet or attic to find that gaming console and games, if you even still owned them. Then came The Seventh Generation of Console Video Games. With the Wii, Nintendo was setting up their own digital storefront in the vein of Xbox Live Arcade, but rather than their Wii Shop Channel offering new downloadable titles, they had another idea. For the first time, they've made their home console backwards compatible, being able to play Nintendo GameCube games and make use of its controllers and peripherals. But why stop there? They also had decades of software made for other consoles that people still loved... and would likely be willing to pay a small fee to experience again in a more convenient manner.
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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.

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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. While the Virtual Console services on those systems are still active, the Wii's ceased operation on January 30th, 2019: purchased games can still be re-downloaded, but if you didn't get already buy games that weren't later made available through the other Virtual Consoles, 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 Virutal Console now sell these older titles directly on the Nintendo eShop under their own banners, such as the "Arcade Archives" and "Sega Ages", rather than through the subscription service. Currently, only NES and SNES games are currently available through NSO, and these games cannot be permanently bought. There also exist the NES Classic and SNES Classic mini-consoles, which each contain thirty and twenty games from those game libraries, respectively.

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The games on the service for the Wii came from these systems:

The games on the service for the Nintendo 3DS came from these systems:

The games on the service for the Wii U came from these systems:

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 on the system's own Wii Shop Channel. This does 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:
  • 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 will get a discount for it.
    • 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.

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