Nintendo's Wii U and 3DS stores closing means game over for digital archives
On March 27, Nintendo will shutter digital storefronts for the Wii U and 3DS consoles for good. That means classic games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies or Pokémon X & Y will no longer be widely purchasable on the aging hardware, driving a hot discussion about how this ephemeral but beloved medium can be preserved as official access gets more limited.
Because unlike movies or books, games require special hardware to play, and — increasingly — don't even exist in the physical world at all.
Archiving the intangible
Fans have been airing their grievances over the closure when it was first announced back in February 2022. In a public statement, Nintendo said the closure comes at the end of their product's "natural life cycle," as the 3DS and Wii U have long been eclipsed by their fast-selling Switch console.
But plenty of collectors, content creators, and fans of the DS and 3DS in particular still play its older games. Soon, they won't be able to buy digital versions altogether. The situation is even more dire for smaller indie games or add-ons, which were never released physically, and only existed as purchasable downloads.
Meanwhile, hard copies for titles on the even-older Game Boy, Super Nintendo, and the Nintendo DS have soared in price since before the pandemic, with some reaching well beyond the cost of a modern AAA game.
Last year, Kinda Funny Gamecast spoke with Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer about the importance of preserving video game history.
"I really wish as an industry we'd come together to help preserve the history of what gaming is about so we don't lose the ability to go back," he said. Classic Nintendo, PlayStation, and even Xbox games are harder to obtain because of the outmoded technology used to play them.
Video games can't be archived the same way film and television are, as older titles require a number of tools to keep them playable over time. This includes emulation — which imitates the technology a given game operates under.
Emulation and its limitations
Independent programmers and aficionados have developed numerous well-crafted emulators to keep us connected to the games of our childhood. Software emulation imitates a console's software, with programs like Dolphin Emulator and Project64 available on most PCs, smartphones, and a burgeoning handheld device market.
Even with these upsides, software emulation isn't without its faults. In order to play a game on an emulator, you need a copy of the original title, commonly saved as a ROM (or read-only memory) file. Depending on how the title is copied, what the condition of the cartridge or game disc is in, or the geographic region the game is locked to, you can find yourself with a buggy version of Pokémon Crystal or Super Mario Bros. 3 that can hardly run. Creating and distributing ROMs is also fraught with legal issues.
However, Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (or FPGAs) have provided safer, hardware-based solutions. Without getting into the complicated specifics of this technology, FPGAs essentially emulate the old console's actual circuitry, making for more accurate representations of older video games. This technology imitates everything about a console, not just its software.
They come at a hefty price though — one popular handheld that utilizes FPGAs, the Analogue Pocket, launched at $219, but high demand has caused prices to more than double on places like eBay.
But there's more to a game than just its code.
"I think the future of game preservation is in making sure we're considering more than the literal games themselves," says Kelsey Lewin, co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving games and teaching their history. Lewin pointed to massively multiplayer RPGs — where community is essential to the experience — as an example of games that could never be replicated.
"We might be able to preserve World of Warcraft — but is a historian coming to it 20 years later really playing World of Warcraft? [...] All games have additional context that could be lost if we're not preserving and telling [their individual] stories now."
A Completionist's Quest
Ahead of the Nintendo eShop closures, one content creator embarked on the daunting task of buying all 866 Wii U games, as well as the 1,547 3DS games made available. Jirard Khalil, host of the YouTube channel The Completionist, said the idea came out of the need to preserve the games soon to be made permanently unavailable.
"The reason why [preservation] is important is because it's about having not just one copy, but as many copies or several copies as possible," he said when I asked him about the project.
"And while fans out there and archivists and people online have gone out of their way to download games and make them easy for people to rip and consume and to preserve, there's no legal way for anyone to play these [older] games."
Khalil said the project ran his team nearly $23,000 and the effort was a glaring reminder that the upcoming eShop closure could have damaging implications.
"Digital is taking over, and so now more than ever, it is becoming so important that you physically go out and buy your games because you never know what's going to happen."
Though Khalil is frustrated with the upcoming closure, he's happy with the way the project turned out. The Completionist plans to donate all the Wii U and 3DS hardware used and software downloaded to the Video Game History Foundation in an effort to preserve both popular and niche games soon to disappear from Nintendo's digital storefront.
Indie titles that have garnered a cult following will bear the brunt most, Khalil believes. "You have this situation where there are tons of games that are literally not going to exist," he expressed. "They're there for a month or a year and then they disappear forever. And a lot of these developers go defunct and and no one will ever play their game ever again."
The Nintendo Wii U and 3DS eShops are set to close March 27, leaving fans only a couple of days to grab their favorite games before they may be out of reach.
James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story.