The recent Nintendo Direct surprised many viewers and teased a bunch of upcoming titles fans either have been dying to play or thought they wouldn’t receive in their wildest dreams. Of course, reality rarely measures up to dreams.
Nintendo’s biggest Direct announcements included a surprise Metroid Prime remaster/remake, a release date trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, and the addition of Game Boy and Game Boy Advance players to the Switch Online service. In some ways, that last announcement wasn’t that surprising. After all, the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance have sold hundreds of millions of units, far outstripping the sales of most of Nintendo’s other consoles. Many expected Game Boy titles to be available via Switch Online’s retro library much earlier than 2023, but late is usually better than never.
The Game Boy and Game Boy Advance reveal gave Switch Online subscribers renewed hope. On paper, these new emulators give gamers access to many titles they can’t play anywhere else (unless they still have a working Game Boy). It’s been ages since Nintendo did anything with games like Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and Wario Land 3, and it’s certainly enticing to imagine playing those classics on Switch.
Of course, a similar level of promise once extended to the other official retro game emulators in the Switch. In reality, though, Nintendo has had trouble following through on those emulators’ obvious potential.
For instance, when the N64 emulator was added to Nintendo Switch Online (technically the more expensive Expansion Pak subscription level), the service didn’t exactly earn the Nintendo Seal of Approval. According to sites such as Kotaku, the emulator was plagued with lag, framerate problems, and unintuitive button layouts. Sure, Nintendo fixed the issues eventually, but the initial issues called into question the company’s ability to properly emulate certain titles.
The games Nintendo ported to the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance players so far work fine (for now), but what will happen when Nintendo adds something a little more unorthodox (such as Kirby Tilt ‘n Tumble)? Will the game cooperate with the Switch’s gyroscopic controls? Could hardware issues get in the way of trying to emulate similarly eccentric games such as Yoshi’s Universal Gravitation, Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand, or Warioware Twisted!? Nintendo tends to take the path of least resistance when it comes to its emulators, so it’s hard to imagine they’ll put in the effort required to make some of the more novel Game Boy games lost to time work properly.
Another cold dose of reality that can, and probably will, get in the way of the Game Boy and Game Boy Color players is Nintendo’s notoriously slow release schedule. After all, Nintendo promised plenty of major Game Boy and Game Boy Advance titles will be released through the services (such as the Legend of Zelda: Oracle games, Metroid Fusion, and Golden Sun), but they conveniently forget to include even a release window.
That’s sadly been their standard so far. When the company started offering emulated games through Nintendo Switch Online, they stuck to a reliable monthly release schedule. Starting in September 2019, though, Nintendo switched to a more sporadic release timetable. Sometimes the company would go a month without updates and sometimes they would go several months. Moreover, because Nintendo started supporting more than one Switch Online emulator, it cut down the number of games it would release per emulator per drop.
Each time a new batch of Nintendo Switch Online titles drops, the company releases roughly the same amount of games. However, instead of, say, all six games belonging to the NES, one will be an NES title, two will belong to the SNES, two will be Genesis games, and one will be an N64 title. Or three will be Genesis games, three will be N64 titles, and none will be NES or SNES games. With the addition of Game Boy and Game Boy Advance emulators, there’s no guarantee Nintendo can keep up with itself. We might go more months between releases, possibly with only one title per platform. Many gamers are looking forward to Golden Sun, but who knows how long Nintendo will wait to launch that game? It’s a system that often leaves you feeling lucky whenever you get anything, which isn’t exactly ideal in the age of modern digital services.
The final hurdle for the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance players is the pesky matter of IP rights. While Nintendo was initially able to publish many games on its beloved handheld platforms, the company doesn’t have control over all of those games to this day. For instance, while the various Nintendo Switch Online retro game services feature games from Capcom and Sunsoft, we have yet to see a single Square Enix title on the service, even though the SNES was ground zero for some of Square’s best RPGs (including Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, and Chrono Trigger).
Unless Square Enix changes its mind at a later date, we probably won’t see any beloved Square GBA titles launch on Nintendo Switch Online. Sure, some were rereleases of those SNES classics, but the handheld also boasted several essential Square classics, including Final Fantasy Tactics Advance or Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Moreover, publishers have started rereleasing many of their own retro games on modern platforms. Case in point, the entire Castlevania GBA library is now available in the Castlevania Advance Collection. Will Konami let Nintendo publish those beloved games through the Game Boy Advance player as well? History tells us you shouldn’t hold your breath.
The same doubt can also be raised for many other beloved Game Boy games, such as Phoenix Wright. While Western audiences first played those games on the Nintendo DS, Capcom first published them in Japan on the GBA. Will Capcom allow Nintendo to launch the GBA originals on the Nintendo Switch Online emulator, even if they remain Japan exclusives? Or will Capcom tell gamers that if they want to play some of the best crime drama visual novels ever, they need to purchase the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy? We can’t guarantee IP holders will actually restrict what games subscribers can play through Nintendo Switch Online, but again, Nintendo’s history with pursuing those kinds of projects doesn’t inspire much hope that the necessary efforts will be made.
We are ecstatic to finally play games like Metroid Fusion and The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap through the service, and you probably are too. However, our exhilaration is tempered by past experiences with the other Nintendo Switch Online emulators and the video game industry in general. There’s hope Nintendo could prove us wrong, but being able to play Game Boy games on Nintendo Switch really should feel a lot more exciting than this.