The following article’s information is based on a mix of fact directly involving the confirmation of the corporations involved, carefully assessing and relaying scattered secondhand and thirdhand information from other reporters and sources, and speculative analysis. I will keep transparency on which is which.
On September 23rd, Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack was officially announced in the Fall 2021 Direct. Like Animal Crossing New Horizons’ latest update, this has been in the works for quite a while and delayed multiple times (out of Fall 2020 and Spring 2021) due to the effects of COVID. That is part of why multiple new systems are being introduced at once, Nintendo is eager to start catching back up on where they were ‘supposed’ to be by now. So what do we know so far? Well, officially, not as much as we’d like. Nintendo will be more fully detailing this update in October with an exact release date, price of the new membership plan, and additional benefits, and I will revisit this subject and article then, in one capacity or another. So here’s what we have officially so far.
The Expansion Pack premium plan includes all existing benefits of the base plan. Nintendo announced that games from Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis will be featured on the new Expansion Pack membership plan. The N64 titles featured in NSO at launch will be: Super Mario 64 triumphantly returning from 3D All Stars‘ delisting, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (arriving during Zelda 35th anniversary season without specific fanfare), Star Fox 64, Mario Kart 64, Yoshi’s Story, Mario Tennis, Sin and Punishment, WinBack, and Dr. Mario 64. Future N64 titles include but are not limited to a selection shown in the announcement video, explicitly described in the Direct as with “many more” to come. Those already confirmed are as follows: None other than the original Banjo-Kazooie itself, Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Mario Golf, Pokémon Snap, F-Zero X, Kirby 64, and Paper Mario 64, as well as Custom Robo and Custom Robo V2 in Japan’s NSO. The Genesis titles featured in NSO at launch will be: Ecco the Dolphin, Golden Axe, Gunstar Heroes, Puyo Puyo/Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, MUSHA, Phantasy Star IV, Ristar, Shining Force, Shinobi III, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Streets of Rage 2, Strider, Contra: Hard Corps, and Castlevania Bloodlines. These add to a total of 23 launch titles for NSO-EP.
Save states are clearly visible as supported for both consoles’ offerings, and rewind is supported for Genesis titles. Online multiplayer up to four players is is confirmed as supported for all N64 games, just like NES and SNES NSO. Emulation of the Controller Pak memory card is confirmed as WinBack required it, and emulation of the Expansion Pak is confirmed as Majora’s Mask required it. (We’ll get to the…other games that required the Expansion Pak later.) Based on the brief look at F-Zero X footage, N64DD inclusion looks unlikely, which isn’t a huge deal, the vast majority of N64DD software was left incomplete and transferred to other hardware. The N64 footage used in the announcement (and later official screencaps) also visibly shares at least one of the improvements featured in Super Mario 3D All Stars‘ emulator, lacking the dark filter used on Wii U VC for NES and N64, which did reappear in the limited Fire Emblem 1 release last year. Wireless novelty Switch pro controllers based on N64 and Genesis’ controllers are set to release alongside the new plan, sold exclusively to any NSO subscriber for $50 USD each. Upgrading to the second plan is not obligatory and the base NSO plan will continue to be supported. As such, new NES and SNES games will continue to be released to provide support to both customer bases and add value to the base NSO membership plan.
Moving into analysis. 15 N64 games are already confirmed so far just from the announcement trailer, relative to the total roughly 20 mostly identical N64 games each featured on Virtual Console for Wii and Wii U. WinBack and Dr. Mario 64, have never been featured on previous N64 Virtual Consoles, and this is their first rerelease whatsoever in roughly 20 years, since respective PS2 and (Japan/China-only) Gamecube/iQue ports. WinBack is Koei Tecmo’s only N64 game and the first cover based third person shooter. Dr. Mario 64 also has a unique history as the final first-party N64 release (outside Animal Crossing‘s N64 Japanese release), as a mostly Wario Land themed 3D remake of the original Dr. Mario, and as a game that was never released in PAL territories until its NSO release next month. The first entry in Treasure’s duology, the original Sin and Punishment was never released in the West despite a mostly complete localization, until its Virtual Console releases in 2007 and 2015. It’s now fully localized, complete with a new official North American boxart! All of these games have historical significance both broadly and specifically in Nintendo’s history with retro rereleasing, and positioning them as launch titles is noteworthy by itself, but also meaningful messaging for the goals of N64 NSO. I’ll get back to messaging and goals later.
These are the games previously on VC currently unconfirmed for Switch: Bomberman Hero, Pokémon Puzzle League, Cruis’n USA, Super Smash Bros 64, Excitebike 64, Harvest Moon 64, Bomberman 64, Donkey Kong 64, 1080 Snowboarding 64, Wave Race 64, Ogre Battle 64, and Mario Party 2.
These are first party titles that have never been on VC: Pilotwings 64, Mario Party 1 and 3, any of the three Pokémon Stadium games, Cruis’n World, Cruis’n Exotica, and Ridge Racer 64.
What are the previous and potential difficulties with these games? Most are expressly known. Some are simple third party licensing matters, from Excitebike 64’s bike and gear brand licensing, to Konami’s inconsistent managing of its series like Bomberman, and Ogre Battle 64 being from Square Enix, a publisher who has yet to provide a single game to NSO at all. DK64, as well as the prior DKC titles, (Ever wonder why those would delist and relist on occasion?) required Rare and Microsoft’s license due to Rare’s ownership of the many various games it developed and the characters it created that are featured in the DKC games. Reupping that at this point was one of the simplest parts of Nintendo and Microsoft’s dealings. Natsume owns the Harvest Moon title while Marvelous and Xseed now own the backlog games published under that title. Natsume has already released for NSO, and Marvelous hasn’t. So Nintendo would need a new agreement with Marvelous to bring Harvest Moon SNES and Harvest Moon 64 to NSO, and they will need to be fully rebranded under the Story of Seasons line, like the Friends of Mineral Town remake. Third parties’ management of their backlog games has been a largely consistent obstacle for NSO up to this point.
Pilotwings 64 is believed to have licensing issues relating to its now defunct co-developer Paradigm. Ridge Racer 64 is a game that Bandai Namco has to be a part of licensing since they own the series, even though Nintendo did develop and publish the game themselves, and Bandai Namco has basically given up on that series, recently canceling Ridge Racer 8 mid-development. Mario Party 2 was likely just chosen as the best representative without any felt need to have all three, and the original Mario Party of course has some specific stigma attached to it from the hand-shredding lawsuit. GameFreak is notoriously strict about rereleasing its games and is known to have specifically obstructed the Stadium series for VC. And Midway’s ongoing bankruptcy halted the Cruis’n games for a period of time. But Nintendo now fully and solely owns Cruis’n as a series, so the only obstacle now to any and all of the three games on N64 NSO is whether the new game game is preferred over them for self-competition or other reasons. With Pokémon Snap and Mario Golf already confirmed for NSO, two series that received new entries just this year, it’s clear that competition between new and old entries of the same series is not a tangible problem here. Direct use of old materials in a new release, like the forthcoming Mario Party Superstars‘ boards from all three N64 entries and minigames from all mainline entries, seems a more likely problem with no Mario Party games in sight for NSO yet. Ultimately, Nintendo might simply prefer the overall quality of the newer Cruis’n game to its predecessors, but we shall have to see.
As for the widely reported Game Boy and Game Boy Color games not appearing? It’s simple: the aforementioned ‘catch-up’ plan was much more widely known to reporters than which systems would be first for announcement, and Game Boy was the conservative guess that proved to be the wrong gamble. Nintendo is aware that GB/C has more limited value and excitement, that’s why it’s going to be a new addition to the base tier of NSO and needed to be announced separately from the systems exclusive to the premium NSO tier. Nate and Eurogamer’s Tom Phillips both support this info. And for people asking about Game Boy Advance: Nintendo has several more individual remasters and remakes of GBA titles like this December’s Advance Wars 1+2 Re-Boot Camp in the works right now. If GBA for NSO is being considered at all, it is much deeper in the reserves than other systems right now. Those original versions will come at a delay, and perhaps the ultimate gap between releases of 2019’s Link’s Awakening Remake, and original Link’s Awakening via GB NSO if that happens, will serve a good blueprint for how long the delays might be for GBA and Mario Party.
Before finally moving into the real meat of this feature, I will quickly be addressing existing concerns about NSO Expansion Pack. Nintendo selling the six-button Mega Drive wireless controller only in Japan while the rest of the world gets the more limited three-button Genesis controller, and the appearance of 50Hz N64 footage in the European versions of the presentation, have already ignited some concerns. The controller thing really is inexcusable, it’s just a shitty decision that should be reversed, period. But the 50Hz situation is a little more complicated. Check this out.
A prominent French expert in emulation and datamining offered an analysis of this matter. As the caption says, only a specific assortment of titles had their PAL versions and 50 Hz footage featured, and what these games have in common is that their PAL ROMs had multilanguage options. This is consistent across the launch titles and the future games, games that were originally released as English-only in Europe still have 60Hz footage in the European Directs, games where the PAL version is depicted by cover and/or footage are the ones with language options. Most notably, Pokémon Snap had six separate ROMs offered with a different language in each (Japanese, English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian). As evidenced, it is distinctly possible, though unconfirmed at this time, that choice between ROMs of a title will be provided in NSO in order to have the freedom to choose between languages. NSO, after all, is completely region-free like the Switch as a whole, except for SNES NSO specifically keeping Magical Drop II inaccessible to Korean subscribers since its release earlier this year, for some reason.
Now, time to talk NSO as a platform, the messaging of this announcement, and what that messaging tells us about the future of NSO. Believe it or not, vocal hobbyists aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with NSO. Nintendo isn’t satisfied with it either. The last time Nintendo provided data this back in September 2020, the NSO install base was 26 million, only roughly a third of the total Switch install base in what was the potentially Switch’s most successful year overall. Less than a third at this point, until we get an updated number. Compare that to almost 48 million PS+ subscribers as of earlier this year, or Game Pass’ 20-25 million subscribers in a total install base only half the size of Sony’s. Nintendo wants more out of NSO, and Niintendo wants its customers to get more out of NSO in order to achieve that. That’s the basis of the plans formulating internally the past two years. Plans to secure better third party support, to overcome obstacles affecting parts of Nintendo’s own vault, to expand NSO as a service to such an extent that it might accomplish a goal summed up in an internal logline. “We want our longtime fans saying that NSO now has better value than Virtual Console ever did.“
That is the vision for the individual systems and for the platform as a whole. What does it mean for both N64 and Genesis on NSO to potentially, significantly surpass all previous official offerings, both their respective Virtual Console predecessors and the Switch eShop?
How is Nintendo already communicating this goal? Front-loading almost every single first party N64 game they’ve rereleased, and some they haven’t, almost daring you to ask, “Well what else surprises must they have up their sleeves if they’re already covering all of those?” That’s a part of it, a good start. NSO’s first outright third-party system announcement, with plenty of support from Sega, and additional third party cooperation within it already visible, that is another part and also a good start. The Genesis can be emblematic of more consoles like it to come where possible. But the following is most essential. Choosing exactly the right handful of third party games to be reflective of the eventual lineup and the major deals that went into them without pushing the marketing budget as far as the negotiations budget. Choosing the right candidates to imply so much more to announce later. Capcom’s acclaimed Genesis version of Strider in only its second rerelease ever and Konami’s Contra and Castlevania games already secured for the launch lineup, all games that are otherwise exclusive to the retail releases of their own collections and/or the Genesis Mini.
In this modern era where the value of these older games is much better clarified than back in the Wii VC days, being able to convince these companies to share the games at all is more work than ever. It cost money. Finally potentially securing Square’s partnership for NSO costs money. When you’ve secured a landmark deal to share Rareware’s N64 titles between two hardware publishers, why expensively market all of them more than once when highlighting the crown jewel of Banjo-Kazooie out of the gate sends the same message? Treasure, developer of Sin and Punishment and Gunstar Heroes, has already mentioned “future additions” for NSO on its social media. Rare has stayed more ‘professional’ towards its larger PR commitments and only reconfirmed Banjo-Kazooie. They don’t need to. Banjo-Kazooie is a message unto itself, one that hits right at the heart of some of the loudest people in the broad Switch audience. All these games represent the rest of the games that effort and money got out of these companies. That’s the short of it.
Reportedly, more money was spent on preparing NSO this year than ever spent before on a Nintendo retro service, mostly in service to said negotiations. And not only going into the new more expensive NSO plan either, but also securing missing titles for ongoing NES and SNES support. But where are they going to fit all these new games, you ask? How do you keep support up for all four systems at once they’ve already committed to, let alone any additional, at the volume of games being suggested, at a two to three month update schedule? Well, the answer is you probably don’t. You probably pivot back to monthly updates, alternating between systems month to month, and keep that up for a while, if only temporarily.
Even with all of that, Nintendo hasn’t forgotten an initial priority for NSO from when it first launched in 2018. Some of you might remember both former NOA president Reggie Fils-Aime and former interim president Tatsumi Kimishima discussing in the lead-up to that delayed launch that pricing NSO roughly at cost, that maintaining a “no-brainer” consumer value for it was a priority. Internally, that explicitly translates to “We are permanently keeping this below PS+ or Xbox Gold ($60 USD),” let alone Game Pass’ total standard cost. And that hasn’t changed. There is a firm price ceiling internally set straight from the top. That’s not generosity, it’s classic Nintendo conservatism. They are trying to carefully find a balance, a middle ground between further increasing NSO’s value to increase the install base and the risk of alienating customers by pushing the price too high. $40-50 USD annually is the likely rough ceiling, coming both from my judgment and specific external info sources. I’m not certain how that translates to the per month price, but realistically, that’s not going up to say, Game Pass Ultimate’s monthly price. And they’re not leaping right to that ceiling straight away. No, it’s most likely $5 or $10 now, and perhaps more increases later as relatively needed.
This is a long term plan involving more systems both first-party and third-party, and broader infrastructural adjustments on things like the actual online, cloud saves, free game trials, etc. in addition to the already discussed improved software releases. The larger project of the ongoing Switch ecosystem and the forward-compatible back catalogue with it is still ongoing, and NSO is now formally not only a part of it, but a keystone.
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