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Nintendo's eShop closures are putting generations of games out of reach

The closure of the 3DS and Wii U eShops was inevitable, but it's still a tragedy.

Photo by Sean Buckley / Engadget

The Nintendo eShop for the Wii U and 3DS game consoles officially closed for business on March 27th, 2023, permanently disabling all new purchases on the platforms. We knew this was coming. Nintendo quietly announced the eShop's closure over a year ago, asserting that it was the "natural life cycle for any product line as it becomes less used by consumers over time." That's true. It's even a reasonable business justification. That doesn't make it any less of a loss for Nintendo fans, because legally playing some of these console’s best games is now not only harder, but in some cases, nearly impossible.

The time to argue that Nintendo should keep this aging digital storefront open has long since passed (though yes, they should have). The eShop is closed, but it's worth reflecting on what consumers are losing with it: one of the last affordable, convenient and legal options for buying a vast library of games. And not just Nintendo's retro library of "Virtual Console" titles from its classic era, either. Between the 3DS and Wii U eShop's closure, consumers have lost easy access to modern and classic games from a dozen platforms — from more recent systems like the Wii U and 3DS, to the original Wii, the DS and DSi, three flavors of Game Boy handhelds (Advance, Color and original), the Sega Game Gear, the TurboGraphix-16, as well as the Nintendo 64, Super Nintendo and original Nintendo Entertainment System. Losing these libraries now is especially painful, as it's becoming harder than ever to find and play older games.

It used to be easy. Unless you were looking for something rare, building a modest library of classic and recent games was fun and affordable. Recently, that changed. Prices for used games shot up dramatically since March of 2020 — a 2021 analysis from Pricecharting.com found that retro game prices shot up 33% in just a year — and prices have remained high. To make matters worse, the retro market has also been flooded with bootleg cartridges, which often aren't properly labeled as reproductions.

Digital storefronts like the Nintendo eShop offered an affordable alternative. Let's say you wanted to play Metroid Prime, for example. You could pick up Metroid Prime Remastered on the Nintendo Switch for $40 and enjoy the updated visuals and new features, but if you wanted to play the other two games in the series, you'd have to find a copy of Metroid Prime Trilogy for the Wii. According to PriceCharting.com, that'll set you back between $80 and $90 — $117 if you want it in the original case. The Wii U eShop, on the other hand, sold a digital copy for just $19.99.

Dr. Luigi on the Wii U
Dr. Luigi on the Wii U

There are countless similar examples. Game & Wario sells for between $30 and $80 on eBay, but it could have been had for $30 on the eShop. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, which still hasn't been ported to the Switch, goes for between $30 and $100 used — but the eShop let you play it for just $20. If you are itching to play the 3DS versions of Dragon Quest VII and VIII, you'd have to pay in the ballpark of $100 each on the secondhand market, but the 3DS eShop sold them for $49.99, their original retail price.

The eShop was also home to a lot of exclusives we may never see again, like Pushmo, Attack of the Friday Monsters, Dr. Luigi and more. All gone, now that consumers no longer have convenient, legal access to the eShop’s library. In the past, Nintendo has pointed to the Nintendo Switch Online subscription as the future home for classic games, but the service's current offerings are a paltry sampling of was available before. Not only is this solution limited, and only available if you’re subscribed to a service, but it offers only a modest selection of nostalgic classics, without the depth of the eShop’s back catalog of retail games. Players looking for affordable ways to play hard to find Wii, Wii U and 3DS games are now just out of luck.

Not that accessing those games was remotely easy. The Wii U and 3DS digital libraries (not to mention Sony’s counterparts for the PS3 and PS Vita) may be vast archives containing multiple generations of playable gaming history, but each of these storefronts is chained to an aging platform. As Nintendo Fans dusted off their old consoles before the eShop’s closure, some found that their Wii U consoles were suffering from memory corruption, potentially the fallout of having sat unused for so long. Even accessing these stores on a healthy device presented a fair share of hurdles: all of these platforms have disabled native payment options, forcing users to add funds through other consoles, web portals or by redeeming retail points cards.

It’s a frustrating situation, because historically, Nintendo has taken a strong stance against piracy. Now, it's leaving its fans with fewer options than ever. In a now deleted section of a FAQ about the eShop’s closure, Nintendo dodged its own question about having an obligation to preserve its back catalog — stating that it has “no plans to offer classic content” apart from the previously mentioned Nintendo Switch Online subscription service.

In lieu of Nintendo’s discarded ‘obligation,’ independent games preservationists have taken up the task. Jirard Khalil, creator of The Completionist on YouTube, recently bought every piece of content on the 3DS and Wii U eShops. The effort cost $22,791 and took almost a year to complete, due to wallet limits, interface frustrations and the limited storage capacity of the consoles themselves. He’s donating the completed archive of 866 Wii U games and 1,547 3DS games, plus all relevant DLC, to the Video Game History Foundation. That’s a noble endeavor, but that doesn’t help the average consumer that wants to play these games. As VGHF co-founder Kelsey Lewin recently told Ars Technica, even if these games were made available from a preservation entity like VGHF, the only way one could legally play one of them would be to physically visit the library themselves and sign a consent form to play it on-site.

Thanks to the work of games preservationists and the emulation community, almost no game is truly out of reach if someone wants to play it, so long as you’re comfortable exploring the hobby pirate scene. But there's still a big market for those of us who want legal, convenient access to older games. It's why the NES and SNES Classic both sold so well. It's why Sony reversed course on closing the PlayStation 3 and Vita stores in 2021. And it’s why the closure of the 3DS and Wii U eShops is such a loss for keeping video game history accessible to consumers.

We can’t rely on the commercial games industry to preserve its own history. Publishers have proven to us time and time again that these fleeting windows into nostalgia will be closed when they are no longer profitable. Publically mourning the loss of Nintendo’s digital stores, and fearing the eventual end of PlayStation Store support for the PS3 and Vita, won’t likely stop these companies closing them in favor of streaming, subscription services and other, newer trends. Still, I hope one day these companies will realize that while their back catalogs may not be the most lucrative part of their business, they still hold a lot of value for many fans. And we’ll happily pay to access them – if you let us.