In 2011 Nintendo launched the "Nintendo 3DS Ambassador Program," granting then-owners of the Nintendo 3DS exclusive access to twenty downloadable games. The program included ten NES games, which were later released to the public as Virtual Console games, and ten Game Boy Advance games, which remain exclusive to Ambassador Program members to this day.
At Nintendo's latest investor meeting, one investor asked whether Nintendo has thought about distributing these games publicly. Senior Executive Officer Satoshi Yamato responded, and though he neglected to answer specifically whether these Game Boy Advance games will make it to the 3DS' public Virtual Console space, he did offer a glimpse into how Nintendo may distribute classic games in the future.
"We have been thinking about a lot of different ways to make use of Virtual Console titles, and not just Game Boy Advance titles. Similar to these software titles we have made available on a variety of platforms over the Internet, we consider the Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Famicom ... to be a type of Virtual Console. It would be possible to sell these titles as packaged software or via download cards, but if we were to start selling products like this in the future, I think we would first have to consider whether we can establish that kind of business model, and do our due diligence in finding out if there is sufficient demand for it." — Satoshi Yamato (The full Q&A can be read here.)
This is especially illuminating for Nintendo Switch, a platform whose owners have been eagerly awaiting a Virtual Console feature like that of its predecessors.
But perhaps Nintendo's previous services shouldn't define our expectations for the future. Nintendo of America's President and COO Reggie Fils-Aimé was recently careful not to associate the name "Virtual Console" with Nintendo Switch. "We've not used the term 'Virtual Console,'" he told Kotaku's Stephen Totilo before reframing the subject to focus on Nintendo Switch's online services and promising more information in the future.
Yamato's statement makes it clear Nintendo considers their Virtual Console program to be distinct from the platforms on which it appears: one which can manifest as digital downloads, packaged software, and even miniature replications of classic consoles. It seems Nintendo is specifically rethinking the Wii-borne Virtual Console model and exploring new ways to approach their legacy content.
That doesn't mean Switch owners won't have classic games to play. Nintendo has already announced a subscription service which grants access to a library of classic games, including Balloon Fight, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Dr. Mario, enhanced with online multiplayer features. Perhaps the ideal endgame for consumers would be for this service to encompass Nintendo's entire back catalog, but Nintendo's likely to take a more nuanced approach which considers the specific business opportunities for collections and remasters on a game-by-game basis.
Ultimately how the Virtual Console manifests itself in the future is largely unknown, at least to the public. But one thing seems clear: just because its appearances on Wii, 3DS, and Wii U bore strong similarities doesn't mean the old model will persist forever.