Nintendo brings back cult classics like ‘Earthbound’ with Wii U Virtual Console, but still lags behind

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The Nintendo Wii U has to date only flirted with the past. Its launch line up was peppered with ports of recent hits like Batman: Arkham City, but it released without a crucial element of Nintendo’s video game business of the past seven years: the digital distribution Virtual Console line of classic games. The company didn’t manage to create an easy transition for the Wii’s substantial library of NES, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, and other classics to make the jump to the new console. This year, it’s released a trickle of budget priced Virtual Console games like F-Zero and Punch-Out! to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Famicom console, but the full service has been on hold. Next week, the waiting ends as the Virtual Console comes to Wii U with the promise of some long lost vintage games to come. 

Nintendo confirmed during its Nintendo Direct presentation on Wednesday that the Wii U Virtual Console will be officially released on Apr. 24, launching alongside a selection of Nintendo and Super Nintendo games.

The initial line up is still somewhat anemic compared to the robust selection of games on Nintendo Wii. A selection of very early NES games like Ice Climber, Donkey Kong Jr., Excitebike, and Balloon Fight will be offered alongside the meatier late-era NES game Kirby’s Adventure, and the lone new Super Nintendo Virtual Console title will be Super Mario World, one of the company’s most enduring platformers.

Nintendo also promised that, by the end of 2013, it will re-release Shigesato Itoi’s cult role-playing game Earthbound on the service. Fans have been clamoring for a re-release of the game since the Virtual Console released, but licensing rights over music in the game prevented the English version from coming to Wii.

Nintendo said other platforms like Nintendo 64 and even Game Boy Advance would be made available at a later date.

For players that already purchased these games on Nintendo Wii, Nintendo has said that they will be able to re-purchase them at a discounted price – $1 for previously purchased NES games and $1.50 for Super Nintendo games – but the company hasn’t commented on whether the eShop will offer comparable service to other digital distribution venues. By contrast, Sony’s PlayStation Network let’s PS Vita and PSP owners download previously purchased PSOne classics if they already own them on PS3. Apple let’s iTunes customers pay for iOS games a single time and lets them download them across iPhone and iPad.

With Virtual Console crossing Nintendo 3DS and Wii U through the eShop for the first time, Nintendo’s silence on industry standards for digital distribution is cause for concern.