As most of you probably know, Nintendo Switch Online subscribers can play a variety of original NES and SNES games via classic, emulation-driven libraries facilitated by the service. This is a big selling point for a lot of people, as it provides unbridled access to dozens of retro gems that are difficult to obtain otherwise.
Naturally, fans have long assumed that the next old-school machine to get the Switch treatment will be the N64. I don’t think this is unreasonable given the timeline of Nintendo console launches, although I’m personally not too interested in it outside of a few bangers like Ocarina of Time and Pokemon Colosseum. Also, as I mentioned yesterday, Zelda’s 35th anniversary is just around the corner. If we get Ocarina and Majora’s Mask, and remember that Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy, and Super Mario 64 are already playable via the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection, then Nintendo would be pretty hard-pressed to sell a virtual N64. Its flagship titles are all available independently – what’s the point in a pesky monthly subscription?
Still, Super Mario 3D All-Stars’ limited availability probably means that even if we do get some Zelda ports from the N64 era, there will likely be an N64 Switch library down the line. However, I’m far more interested in one of Nintendo’s other consoles: the GameBoy, or more specifically, the GameBoy Advance.
When I sit down and actually think it through, my favourite console I ever owned was my trusty GameBoy Advance SP. It could run three iconic generations of Pokemon and eight mainline Zelda games. It had Sonic, Mario, and dozens of other illustrious franchises in its impressively large and diverse library. Plainly speaking, it was an absolute tank – and I wish Nintendo cared more.
There are some obvious rebuttals to my argument here, mostly pertaining to the fact that the 3DS and Wii U have already assimilated tons of classic GameBoy titles into their respective libraries. I understand that completely and it’s not an incorrect point. It is, however, at least slightly unexamined. Handheld devices, while regularly used by enthusiasts, are nowhere near as popular as they used to be. Nintendo is leaving the 3DS to die a slow death with gradual delistings and app removals, while the Wii U has shipped a mere 20% of the units the far superior Switch has, despite being on the market for almost five years longer.
What I mean is, the Switch is Nintendo’s solitary titan now, and we’d all do well to remember that. Sony has the PS4 and PS5, while Microsoft tends to both the Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S. Nintendo, on the other hand, only offers proper maintenance for a single platform. If we look at sales figures, we can clearly see that this tactic is absolutely working – the Switch outsold both next-gen consoles at launch and was the highest-performing console of 2020 across the board.
So yeah, it does make sense to bring older titles to modern systems, regardless of whether or not they’re available on retro hardware. It might not be how they were originally intended to be played, and I’m sure purists would sooner see folks fork out the cash for a secondhand GameBoy Color than boot up Pokemon Crystal on the Switch. Ultimately, though, that doesn’t have nearly the same reach. That’s what I’m all about when it comes to games: reach. I want people of all ages and demographics to have access to the games I loved as a kid. I don’t care for platform-gating, or hardware-gating, or any other bullshit that prevents people from easily accessing games they want to play.
And that’s what brings me back to GameBoy. The N64 was revolutionary for home consoles, and it’s definitely still relevant today. But I want you to remember that the Switch is a hybrid console – as well as being compatible with home entertainment systems in docked mode, it’s a handheld machine that you can boot up on a flight, on the sofa, or – if you’re hygienically experimental – on the loo. It’s managed to capture that same magic imbued in turning the lights off and tucking yourself in under loads of blankets, where the flashes on screen illuminate the gap between the real world and the one you’re playing in, and all of a sudden you’re experientially invested in whatever you’re playing to the fullest possible extent. That’s what gives it an edge over other consoles – well, that and Nintendo’s first-party exclusives.
That’s my main point here. I already chatted about the GameBoy library briefly – remember, covering GameBoy Advance means you’ve got that whole catalogue, as well as those of both GameBoy and GameBoy Color. But the real reason I would prefer a GameBoy Advance emulator to an N64 one is because I don’t really give a shit about Switch in docked mode. My PS4 already runs any non-Nintendo exclusive far better than the bottlenecked Switch ever will. It’s cool that the Switch offers you the option to play on a telly, but that’s not why I bought one. I bought one because the youthful GameBoy fan in me was overjoyed by the opportunity to play Zelda on a handheld device with a screen the size of my head while I’m lazing about on a boring Sunday. It’s like 2004, except it’s actually 2021. I love it.
Listen, I know loads of you are probably N64 fans, and I hope you get your NSO N64 library so you can enjoy all of the games you grew up with. At the same time, all I personally care about right now is the GameBoy Advance era. Not for the machines themselves, or even for the amazing games that were developed for them. For me, it’s all about the palpable experience of handheld play, and how desperately I hope Nintendo recreates it for the Switch in 2021 and beyond.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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