It's more complicated than you think
The Nintendo Switch has turned out to be a massive hit for Nintendo. A major turnaround from the company’s Wii U home console and slow-starting 3DS handheld. Nintendo have merged both of their console product lines into a single hybrid machine, offering thousands of handheld games at or above the quality we saw in AAA titles on previous generation machines such as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
It’s a great machine, but what about Nintendo’s massive backlog of acclaimed titles? Is the Switch backwards compatible with them? The answer is more complicated than you may think, but we’re going to break it down so you know exactly what your Switch can and cannot play from older catalogues of games.
Hang On, What Does Switch “Backwards Compatibility” Mean?
“Backwards compatibility” has traditionally meant that a new version of a device, such as a games console, can still run software or use media designed for the model that came before. In the days where video games were only available as physical media, the distinction was academic. Since video games have gone digital, you can have backwards compatibility with the digital copy, but not the physical copy of a game.
In modern times, the ability for a new console to run a previous generation console’s games via emulation has also been referred to as backwards compatibility. The Xbox One plays select Xbox 360 games this way and the Playstation 3 uses a Playstation 1 emulator for the same purpose.
To understand Nintendo Switch backwards compatibility, it’s important to know this broad umbrella that backwards compatibility falls under. That’s because the Switch encompasses elements from various different approaches to backwards compatibility.
Backwards Compatibility On Previous Nintendo Consoles
One of the main reasons that this question even comes up has to do with previous Nintendo consoles that have been backwards compatible with those that have come before them. So, the Wii U can play Wii games. The original Wii can play Gamecube discs as well.
On the handheld side of things, it’s even more robust. The 3DS can play DS games. The DS can play GameBoy Advance cartridges and that console can play original Game Boy and GameBoy Color cartridges. An unbroken line of succession! So it’s no wonder that people have certain expectations of Nintendo’s latest console.
The company has been particularly good about ensuring a smooth transition from one generation to the next. What about Nintendo Switch backwards compatibility? With the launch of the Switch, its hybrid nature and unique position in Nintendo’s console history has changed things significantly. Let’s see how it works in practice.
Can I Play Media From Older Nintendo Consoles?
The Switch can only play physical media meant specifically for it. Unlike previous Nintendo handhelds, you can’t stick a DS or 3DS cartridge into this system’s slot.
Obviously, since the Switch also lacks a disc drive, there’s nowhere to put media from the Wii or GameCube consoles either. If it doesn’t come from the eShop or on a Switch cartridge, you are out of luck.
Can I Buy Titles from Older Systems via “Virtual Console?”
Sadly, unlike the previous Nintendo Consoles, there’s no “Virtual Console” on the Switch. On previous generation machines from the company Mario built, you could buy emulated digital copies of older classic games. In fact, you still can. However, Nintendo has chosen to take a different path this time around.
Unless released as an individual classic release (such as with Sega’s excellent “Ages” releases) you can’t buy 8-bit and 16-bit games on the Switch from Nintendo. Instead, those who pay to subscribe to the Nintendo Online service also get access to a curated selection of NES and SNES games, with new titles added periodically.
Sadly, this does not give users the choice to buy the games they want once-off. The good news is that Nintendo is including some pretty good titles from their classic platforms. There are even rumors that consoles like the N64 and GameCube may eventually be added to this service, although there is no official confirmation of this at the moment.
Given how much Nintendo have charged for Virtual Console downloads in the past and that they have to be rebought every generation, the selection of games included with the subscription is actually a remarkably good deal. As more games are added, the value proposition improves as well. If you have multiple Switch players in the household, the annual family plan is by far the most cost effective way to go.
What About Wii U Games?
The Wii U did not sell a very large number of consoles, but did play host to some excellent titles. If you own Wii U games, you can’t transfer them over to the Switch. However, if you’re OK with paying for them again, there are some truly fantastic remasters of Wii U games that have been released for the new console.
While that might not be the best news for those with big Wii U game collections, it does mean that the many people who did not buy a Wii U will now get a chance to play some of these gems.
Some standout examples include Mario Kart 8 and Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. There are a long list of Wii U titles that are likely to come to the Switch in future, so if you’re patient then over time your Switch will likely be able to play these.
And 3DS Games?
Even if the Switch were backwards compatible with 3DS games, its lack of a vertically-stacked dual-screen design would make these games tough to play. A 3DS game would require a substantial redesign to make sense on Switch, as would DS games.
Although there are already some games that can be played in a vertical orientation, this isn’t comfortable without some sort of third-party adapter. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Nintendo could come up with an official way to support digital versions of 3DS games on the Switch, but it seems pretty unlikely.
Ports Of Games From Older Consoles
While this is not strictly an example of Switch backwards compatibility, the Nintendo Switch has become a haven for ports of games both from older Nintendo Consoles and other consoles from the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era.
For example, Playstation 3 gems such as Ni No Kuni and Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen have found their way onto the plucky little console. Titles which plenty of people who own a Switch have never played or perhaps even heard of! Of course, you need to buy these ported remasters again, even if you own the media from the original consoles.
Alternatives To The Switch For Retro Gaming
So if you are looking for a good solution to play previous-generation Nintendo games, you’re actually better off buying a console from the previous generation.
If you primarily game on a television or at home, it’s a great idea to pick up a Wii U. The unique controller featuring a screen lets you play virtual console titles in “off-TV” mode. In other words, as long as you are in the range of the console, you can play these titles as if they were handheld.
If you want to actually leave the house, you can buy a “New” 3DS, which has an extensive virtual console library for once-off game purchases. This updated 3DS model now also includes SNES games, which comes in addition to the many Gameboy and NES games on offer.
Don’t forget that you can use Nintendo DS cartridges directly with the DS.
The lack of proper Switch backwards compatibility also represents a significant rethink by Nintendo when it comes to their main console. Now unified into a hybrid device with two separate lineages, it wouldn’t be surprising if current Switch games will be forwards compatible with a hypothetical “Switch 2”.
A new generation of this winning formula may also have enough additional power to emulate titles from the Wii or Wii U era. Which could mean more robust access to those libraries on the go. Here’s hoping Nintendo finds a way.