When it comes to games and legacy content, few companies have quite the catalogue like Nintendo. Over three decades of game development and innovation, Nintendo has created a library filled with favorites across countless franchises, from Super Mario to The Legend of Zelda to Pokémon and more. Yet despite this backlog of legacy content to pull from, Nintendo is hesitant to make their games readily available on modern platforms. To celebrate Mario’s 35th anniversary, they’ve satiated some of these requests by putting out a bevy of Mario content, from the hectic and anxiety-inducing Super Mario 35 to Super Mario 3D All-Stars, which finally brings Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy into one collection—but only for a limited time.
Both Super Mario 35 and Super Mario 3D All-Stars are currently only available until March 31, 2021. What’s to happen on April 1? Either these games will become available by some other means, perhaps to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers, or they’ll disappear completely, no physical or digital copies left to be found. I talked with Frank Cifaldi, video game preservationist and director of the Video Game History Foundation, about why Nintendo is purposely limiting access to some of their most beloved series.
“All of these games should have been evergreen, available titles from Day 1. Of all the companies, Nintendo should be leading the efforts to keep legacy content in print. They’re leaving money on the table.” -- Frank Cifaldi, Video Game History Foundation
Cifaldi went on to discuss how limited release windows may have worked at one time for big companies like Disney, but it’s not something that makes sense to do today.
“The concept of the Disney vault goes back to the VHS days. Disney doesn’t even do that anymore, and it’s a little absurd that these titles aren’t available all the time,” Cifaldi said.
Jon-Paul Dyson, Director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, works to preserve games for future generations, but also understands the immense difficulty in doing that.
“We have to get comfortable with loss at some point,” Dyson said. “If you could hear a great Jazz musician in the 1920s, it’d be amazing to be there. We can’t go back there, but maybe we can read an account of it, or hear a recording. As a historian I’ve become reconciled to some degree of loss. We want to preserve these materials, or preserve a record of it.”
Dyson believes that sometimes preserving the record of a game is more important than the game itself. You can’t truly preserve an MMO without players, and many games that people loved as kids flourished so well because of the community built around them. When that community moves on, even if the game exists in a museum, it doesn’t hold the same gravity it once did.
“People who played Super Mario Bros. in the 1980s have a special relationship with that game. These communities come, they flourish, they go. People want to preserve something that they have an emotional connection to, and that’s the power of the game, but that’s also the fleeting nature of life.” - Jon-Paul Dyson, Strong National Museum of Play
Andrew Borman, Digital Games Curator at the Strong Museum, recognizes that the seemingly limitless availability of games is something that has not been true historically.
“During the NES or SNES, if you didn’t buy a game in the first year, it may not be available anymore, not new anyways. The idea that a game is available 24/7 is a relatively new one,” Borman said. “Timed events are starting to grow. In the larger context of how games have been made recently, with games as a service, you have games that will have a lifespan.”
Cifaldi agrees. “Asking anyone to make sure their content is available forever is not a reasonable ask,” he said. “The responsibility is more on the archivists to make sure games don’t disappear, but our tools are very limited.”
Games as a Business & Games as a Service
Nintendo has been around for over a century and has somehow managed to walk the line between commercially successful products and creating innovations that people enjoy. Their lifespan as a video-game developer has been relatively short, but they’re responsible for some of the most iconic characters recognized around the world. By offering legacy games for a limited time, they’re not only able to satisfy fans but make sure they maximize profits.
Damian Rogers from the Game Preservation Society suspects we’ll see this strategy used more in the future.
“Nintendo has stated that the limited release was due to the correlation with the Mario 35th Anniversary campaign. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on that one, but a limited retail window likely drives sales as well, especially for an IP as recognizable and loved as Mario. If the game was particularly successful, it’s likely we’ll see this model for retro game re-releases in the future.” -- Damian Rogers, Game Preservation Society
If one thing has been made obvious over the past decade, it’s that the concept of ownership is changing. Fewer and fewer people are investing in physical media and instead subscribing to streaming services. Game companies have adopted this with high levels of success, including Nintendo with the Nintendo Switch Online collection. Instead of buying a game once, game developers are now able to charge monthly for it, effectively keeping a grip on your wallet indefinitely. Without a physical release, however, there inevitably will come a day when it’s no longer available.
“Viewed on a long enough timeline, all games that are only available on an online shop are a limited release, as those shops inevitably go offline. Unfortunately, there is little we can do at this stage to preserve such games ourselves," Rogers said. "Nintendo does have a well-maintained internal archive, so I don’t think the games will be lost to time, but it is unfortunate that the public at large won’t have access to them.”
Emulation. Emulation. Emulation.
Emulators have been around for years, giving communitIES access to many games that have been practically kept under lock and key on outdated hardware, or region-locked to specific areas of the globe. Emulation may be viewed as piracy, but in many cases, it’s the only way to maintain a playable version of a game on modern consoles, even if the developers won’t do it themselves.
“I just don’t see there being any other way with a lot of material, other than fans and historians taking the reins and doing it themselves," Cifaldi said. "There’s not a lot of commercial viability to this, it costs money to archive and maintain game code. What I don’t like about Nintendo is their overzealous stance of being against emulation.”
Games are still a new, evolving medium, and Cifaldi mentions that there currently isn’t a widely adopted platform to give fans access to legacy games, like what Netflix or Hulu has done for film. Emulation may be the future, but with lawsuits and limited official support from big companies, it will only become more difficult to (legally) obtain and preserve these games.
What’s Next for Nintendo
From Amiibo to classic games and special-edition consoles, Nintendo very often creates a scarcity to drive demand. It’s not seen quite as brazenly with Amiibo anymore, but when these figurines first launched in 2014, it was very difficult to track down specific ones if you were trying to collect them all. I have firsthand knowledge from being a collector in those early days. Even when the Majora’s Mask Link Amiibo figure was released, it took me requesting a Best Buy employee to remotely pull one from their warehouse so I could purchase it at retail price. As for secondhand markets like eBay, that’s often the only solution for those interested in collecting. Much of my retro-game collection has been purchased pre-owned and secondhand, all potential profits that Nintendo is leaving on the table by not releasing their legacy content.
I think it’s likely that after March 31, we’ll see some version of Super Mario 3D All-Stars available, potentially as part of Nintendo Switch Online in some fashion. Given that it has been one of the fastest-selling titles of the Switch generation, Nintendo understands what kind of hype they can create with these collections—and will likely lean into this publicity in the future.
In 2021, Nintendo will be celebrating milestone anniversaries for Metroid, Pokémon, Donkey Kong, and The Legend of Zelda. It’s also the 25th anniversary of the Nintendo 64, the 20th anniversary of the Game Boy Advance, and the 15th anniversary of the Wii. Despite this, we’ve seen no news of adding Nintendo 64 games (or other consoles, for that matter) to the Nintendo Switch Online collection. However, they have reported that 2021 is the “Year of Pokémon” to celebrate the series’ 25th anniversary, so I suspect we’ll see some releases announced later this year.
What game collections are you hoping to see from Nintendo? Is it time to bring the Metroid Prime Trilogy to Switch, or finally get the HD remaster of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword that fans have been eagerly asking for over the past several years? Let us know your comments below!