Nintendo and Hamster seal a critical gap in game history with Switch Arcade Achives
Or at least, they're patching it up halfway.
Yesterday's Nintendo Direct transmission offered 3DS and Switch owners a lot to unpack, but from the perspective of video game history, nothing mattered nearly so much as the fact that the company has teamed up with third-party publisher Hamster to get a large selection of ’80s Nintendo arcade classics onto Switch.
As I've lamented long and loud on both the podcast and in my NES retrospective videos, Nintendo's failure to make those games easily accessible to the public has been a disservice to themselves, to fans, and to the medium as a whole. When Nintendo announced Virtual Console Arcade for Wii several years ago and conspicuously failed to bring a single first-party title to the service, it felt almost like a deliberate act of sabotage. It wasn't, of course; corporations are driven by profit, not spite. Or, for that matter, by a philanthropic concern for the greater good.
So, it's probably just a sign that the staggering success of the Classic NES Edition and Super NES Classic Edition mini-consoles has convinced Nintendo that its profit potential lines up with the greater good of the industry. That's fine. The important thing is that several landmark arcade creations will be coming to home consoles for the first time ever, beginning with the original Mario Bros. on Sept. 27. Hamster has already been publishing Neo Geo arcade conversions for Switch (along with a wider array of Konami, Tecmo, and Jaleco titles for PlayStation 4, which hopefully will make their way to Switch as well), so the infrastructure for these releases already existed; Nintendo just had to give the green light to have its games ported over.
The list of announced releases for the Switch Arcade Archives might seem a case of Nintendo working already tired soil; most of these titles showed up on the Classic NES Edition. In practice, however, many of these games featured substantial differences from their NES counterparts. For example, Balloon Fight (whose arcade version I lamented the inaccessibility of literally moments before the Direct broadcast) was developed by a separate team than the NES game; it operates on the same principles, but its level designs are radically different than the home game's, with each stage scrolling between two screens' worth of obstacles arranged vertically. Likewise, VS Super Mario Bros. shipped after the NES game and featured multiple levels from the in-development Disk System sequel — the closest Americans came to being able to sample The Lost Levels until Super Mario All-Stars shipped nearly a decade later. Meanwhile, the arcade version of Punch-Out!! looks and feels quite different than the NES game, sharing more in common with the Super NES sequel.
In many cases, Nintendo reworked the VS. versions of NES Black Box games as budget releases for the Famicom Disk System. However, those revamps were Japan-only releases. The updated Mario Bros. appeared as a late NES release in Europe only, and only one reissue has ever made its way to the U.S. before now (Clu Clu Land D, which appeared as an unlockable title in Animal Crossing for GameCube).
So, this is all kind of a big deal for fans of arcade and NES history. Here's a list of the games Nintendo has announced for Arcade Archives so far, and why you should care about each.
The original NES version of Mario Bros. appeared very early in the console's life, long before the system made its way to America… and long before Nintendo had a handle on its capabilities or had access to cartridge ROMs large enough to support proper arcade ports. The NES adaptation's a very solid conversion and holds up well, but the reissued Disk System edition (Kaettekita Mario Bros., or Mario Bros. Returns) felt far more faithful to the arcade version. We've never seen that one in the U.S., though, but that's OK — now we won't need to. The arcade original is still the best. We discussed it on this week's podcast, as a matter of fact, and while you can look forward to a fundamentally similar play experience to the NES game, fans who only know the console port will be surprised by the arcade release's added graphical detail: It has richer color, a subtle glow effect on certain elements like coins and fireballs, and enemies appear larger and include a wider array of animation. It's a great two-player game in its purest, primal form.
We've talked about this one a lot, but it's quite different than the NES game. It also features a two-screen display, similar to the arrangement Nintendo would use for the DS… so hopefully Hamster will include support for "tate" vertical play, or else it's going to be an eyesore.
VS. Super Mario Bros.
You may have seen Super Mario Bros. in arcades. You may also have been surprised when you got to World 1-4 and — whoa! — it was totally different and killed you quick. You may also have been surprised that certain familiar elements, like the 1UP mushroom near the start of the game, didn't show up. Nintendo remixed the NES game with new stages and subtle difficulty increases for arcades, making this a brilliant choice for people who know Super Mario inside and out. It's the same fundamental game, but just different enough to wreck you.
VS. Clu Clu Land
VS. Clu Clu Land appeared on Disk System as New Clu Clu Land, also known as Clu Clu Land D. It's more or less the same as the NES version, but it includes new enemies (including a gigantic sea urchin boss) and some tweaks to puzzles and visuals. Also, it has a simultaneous two-player mode.
The arcade version of Pinball probably changed the least from NES. The VS. version has improved multiplayer and mildly updated graphics, but don't expect to have your world rocked by this one.
VS. Balloon Fight
On the other hand, VS. Balloon Fight will feel wildly different than the NES game thanks to its two-screen scrolling arenas. I've spent enough time this week on Balloon Fight, though, so I won't belabor the point.
VS. Ice Climber
This is another one that showed on on Disk System in revamped form. This conversion does some tricky things like adding wind effects, but it also allows you to choose different levels at will and tracks "victors" for each completed stage.
But wait, what about…
Nintendo's current slate of announced titles features a lot of omissions. This wasn't the complete VS. Unisystem lineup by any means. The press release announcing Arcade Archives uses wording that leaves a lot of ambiguity and suggests we'll be seeing additional games down the road. You can understand why Nintendo wouldn't necessarily want to lead with, say, Baseball. A lot of VS. titles haven't aged as well as you might hope.
Of course, there is the elephant in the room… or rather, the gorilla. All of the above titles come from late in Nintendo's arcade tenure, yet they omit the company's early releases. Officially, the line seems to be that they're focused on multiplayer-centric games, but then you have the single-player Punch-Out!! Surely you'd think they want to get smash hits like Donkey Kong and Popeye on Switch, right? The absence here of anything predating Mario Bros. would seem to confirm all the speculation about old Nintendo arcade games being tangled up in rights issues with the contract company who programmed them. Donkey Kong, the derivative Donkey Kong Jr., and older games like Sky Skipper, Radar Scope, and Sheriff: Chances seem pretty strong that we'll never see those. But who knows — stranger things have happened. For the moment, the fact that Nintendo will acknowledge even a fraction of its arcade output constitutes a modest victory for game history.