Nintendo routinely receive a lot of criticism for the way they’ve handled (and continue to handle) their digital storefronts – and these complaints are rarely undeserved. In the past some of their policies have come across as anything from dismissive to downright hostile towards repeat legitimate users – the one group of people you think you’d definitely want to keep on your side – and for all the slow, slow, steps towards modernisation they’ve begrudgingly made Japan’s longest-running gaming powerhouse have still only managed to find themselves more or less where everyone else already was two hardware generations ago. It’s a real shame because this inevitably overshadows all the good that quietly – almost accidentally – happens on their numerous disconnected eShops too, and we end up once again not realising just how much treasure we have right under our noses, hidden behind awkward sign-in procedures and off-putting restrictions.
And this is why I want to spend an entire article talking about how great the (Japanese, and I assume with slightly naive hope, the rest of the world too) 3DS’ eShop is.
It may not have the sheer volume of the (again, Japan’s) PlayStation Network’s enjoyable deluge of classics or the Wii’s remarkable line-up of surprise ports of old arcade hits and N64 games (at the time it felt as though the entire world was grateful for Sin & Punishment‘s digital release) but it’s impossible to argue with the quality of what is there – who wouldn’t want to own a handheld that made switching between Super Metroid, Link’s Awakening, and the original Castlevania as easy as it was cheap? And unlike the Switch’s subscriber-only retro replacement service (which has brought its very own nifty benefits and significant issues to digital game access to the table) once you’ve paid a small sum for them – sometimes firmly within pocket change territory, sometimes just very cheap for anyone keen on playing the higher-priced classic Pokémon games – they’re yours to keep until the end of time… or until your 3DS gets accidentally stood on/dropped on a hard surface, shattering into a thousand pieces and making the nigh-mystical system transfer process to a replacement unit all but impossible: whichever comes first.
M2, arguably the current masters of retro game restoration, comfortably steal the 3DS show in the same way they seem to do everywhere else; Sega’s old hardware shining on Nintendo’s portable with their magnificent Virtual Console and 3D Classic releases of Mega Drive, Game Gear, and even Super Scaler arcade classics, each and every one of them also including a wealth of extraordinary options we now glibly consider to be “basic features” for such releases: Region switches, sound balance based on the specific model of Mega Drive you want to emulate, handy cheats at the touch of a button, and new display options that can enable true widescreen modes or tilt displays in real time to mimic deluxe arcade cabinets created decades ago. And this is all before we talk about their expert use of the handheld’s defining 3D screen to either give games visual depth they’ve never had before (and perhaps never will again) – foreground details appearing to truly stand in front of everything else – or nostalgically mimicking the pleasant curve and slight fuzz of an old CRT TV set connected to a console via composite cables (that’s the yellow/red/white ones). Many of Sega’s biggest and best-known early hits were included in this lavishly attended to range – Streets of Rage, arcade OutRun, Gunstar Heroes – but they also made sure they included selected titles from Sega’s wider catalogue too, bringing the likes of Galaxy Force II, all three Game Gear Shining Force Gaiden games, Dragon Crystal, GG Shinobi, and more to a wider audience, and occasionally for the first time too. Did we end up with complete celebration of all things Sega, or even broad parity with the earlier SEGA AGES 2500 line on the PlayStation 2? No, not even close. But that shouldn’t diminish what the 3DS does have, which is a selection of some of the very best games of their era, every one exactly the sort of thing fans hope to see when developers promise to bring old games to new hardware.
Those in search of something outside the familiar comfort zone of Eighties/Nineties favourites have just as much to keep themselves busy: Rare and/or the otherwise unattainably expensive games like Trip World – a cute Game Boy platformer that now fetches “That’d be a heck of a lot of money even for a rare PC Engine shmup” money for a (genuine) bare cart – Demon’s Blazon (AKA: Demon’s Crest), Street Fighter 2010 (remember when 2010 was a year reserved for far-flung sci-fi futures?), and even the incredible hardware-defying Famicom shmup Summer Carnival ’92: Recca are all as affordable and attainable as any other title on the eShop. And Nintendo didn’t sit back and leave it to everyone else to fill in these eye-catching gaps either, as the Japanese store includes such once obscure delights as the Super Famicom remake of Famicom Detective Club II, Super Famicom Wars, and Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 – all titles that physically debuted not even as hard-as-heck to buy low-print releases, but on Nintendo Power rewritable cartridges. You can also find both of the Famicom Disc System’s Shin Onigashima titles bundled together in one convenient purchase, or pick up the endlessly charming Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru (the wonderful game Richard, of Richard’s Villa, came from) and Balloon Fight GB too – at the time of writing the 3DS eShop is the easiest and cheapest way to buy and play these games on any format.
Sadly there’s still still some plain old Nintendo weirdness tripping up these otherwise welcome re-releases: Basic features and options are not unified across formats, and that means Super Famicom games allow you to switch back and forth between 1:1 square pixels or 4:3 screen modes at the tap of a button, achieving something similar with a Game Boy title requires you to hold down the Start button while booting up the game (a real shame seeing as they made the effort to craft appropriate Game Boy/Game Boy Color bezels to go with it), and the choice doesn’t exist at all for Famicom games, forcing a slightly blurred 4:3 display on you whether you want it or not. And it’s worth mentioning that in spite of all the enthusiasm I have for it the 3DS eShop is for all intents and purposes “dead” these days, in the sense that while the store is still up and running the same as it always has been if something new was added to it now it would be considered a newsworthy event rather than another release to look forward to – but even so, that doesn’t mean it isn’t well worth logging on for one final splurge to mop up the last few games you always meant to buy but never quite did, a whole world of adventure in one pocket-sized device.
There’s always a slightly understandable worry that having such casual access to games of this calibre somehow lessens others personal appreciation for the real thing: There’s no hunt for a copy of your very own this way, nothing to grasp and then wiggle around a temperamental cart slot, no beautiful artwork to admire in a manual, no history – and yes, to a limited extent I’d say that’s true. But what it does do instead is something truly magical: the eShop helps make old games games again. Something to play without the worry of scuffing or creasing an irreplaceable high-value box or having to laboriously set up an old console for what should’ve been a quick fun go on something you fancied playing for an hour after a long day at work. Your money buys you far more than just a well-emulated ROM or an enhanced port of an old favourite; you also buy the ability to lounge around on a bed playing Tactics Ogre or sneak in some Link to the Past on a lunch break, to play Mighty Final Fight in the park just because you find tiny Cody, Haggar, and Guy utterly adorable and happen to have left your 3DS in your pocket. You buy the chance to play games because you like playing games.