Can You Play Nintendo Wii Games on the Nintendo Switch?

Posted by William Sattelberg on June 18, 2018

The Nintendo Switch is a massive success by any threshold. After a failed attempt at creating a device designed for both handheld and console play with the Wii U, Nintendo scrapped their console and chose to pour their efforts into a brand-new device, a truly portable console that wasn’t tied to a box under your television. While there’s no doubt that uncertainty surrounded the launch of the Switch as a portable product from Nintendo, the company was able to come out of the gate with a successful launch. After confirming that the device existed a full two years ahead of its launch, the hype cycle for the Nintendo Switch (then codenamed the NX) was powerful, and the official unveil in October of 2016 was a slick, well-produced video that showed the console in action. It’s clear that, in the year-and-change since the launch of Nintendo’s newest console, their vision for a hybrid device has been a massive success with gamers.

Though Nintendo, alongside third-party developers and indie game makers, have done a fantastic job making the Switch populated with great games like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there is always demand for wider libraries of games to play through. In particular, owners of the Switch have taken to hoping that games of all shapes and sizes get ported to the Switch, from RTS hits like this year’s Into the Breach to Tokyo Mirage Sessions, a JRPG crossover between the Shin Megami Tensei and the Fire Emblem series that was critically-acclaimed, but limited to the Wii U in exclusivity. Perhaps due to the portability and the fun in playing games on the Switch, no other console quite has the same level of requests as Nintendo’s own. People just can’t stop wanting to see games come to the system..

Perhaps one of the biggest requests, however, is the ability for the Switch to work with Wii games. After all, Nintendo has a long history of backwards compatibility between consoles. The Gameboy Advance could play Gameboy and Gameboy color games; the DS could play Gameboy Advance games; and the 3DS could and can still play DS games using the same slot. Likewise, the Wii had full support for the GameCube, even including ports for the Gamecube controllers in the top of the device, and the Wii U worked with the entire library of Wii games and accessories using emulation. Can the Switch use Wii games in any capacity? Read on to find out.

Can the Switch Work with Wii Games?

We won’t hold you in suspense for too long: the short answer to this question is a simple no. Right now, the Switch can only play Switch games, for a number of reasons. Before you head off in disappointment, however, you’ll want to stay with us. Things aren’t hopeless when it comes to the Switch and possible Wii compatibility, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. First, it’s important to understand why Nintendo made the move away from backwards compatibility with the Switch, and why there’s no backwards compatibility at the moment.

If you have a Switch—or if you know someone with one—you’ll know that the Switch represents a return to cartridges for Nintendo home consoles for the first time since the demise of the N64 following the GameCube launch in 2001. The Switch’s cartridges are small, flash-based tech that aren’t too far off from what the DS and 3DS used to play games. The ability to take the Switch on the go basically prohibits the ability to use Blu Ray discs for games, which both the PS4 and the Xbox One use for physical copies of games. Using a disc-based system would require physical moving parts, along with additional noise and bulk, and make the system much more fragile. Only a single portable handheld device has ever used a physical disc-based system—the PSP from Sony—and its successor, the Vita, made the switch to flash cartridges as well.

Thus, the lack of a disc drive makes it impossible for the Switch to play disc-based Wii games. Likewise, the Switch cartridge shape is different from the DS and 3DS shape, both of which are more square than the taller, rectangular-shaped Switch cartridges that have since rolled out, making it impossible to ever play a physical game from a previous Nintendo title. That said, digital copies of games are not out of the question, something we’ll discuss in more detail in just a moment.

What About Wii U Games?

Nintendo consoles have almost always been directly backwards-compatible with the system released right before it, but the Switch’s lack of a disc drive makes it impossible for the Switch to play a Nintendo fan’s library of Wii U games. That said, Nintendo recognizes that, though the Wii U had a short lifespan and is seen as a sales failure, there were a large library of Wii U games that deserved a second chance. From sequels with improvements and changes to enhanced versions of Wii U games, Nintendo has used the Wii U’s library as a launching ground for the Switch, a way for the console to become a massive sales success with a solid library of games for anyone to pick up and play.

These are the Wii U games that have arrived on the Switch, either in a sequel format or in an enhanced remake:

  • Mario Kart 8 Deluxe: This port features all the DLC from the original release, plus an all-new battle mode that easily surpasses the original to make for the best Mario Kart game yet.
  • Splatoon 2: Though not a remake, Splatoon 2 plays similarly to the original, enhancing the original game while introducing new players to the series.
  • Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze: The latest entry in the long-running Donkey Kong Country series features some enhancements over the original Wii U version, but largely remains the same.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: Originally announced as a Wii U exclusive, the game was pushed back in 2016 to launch as the first game for the Switch and the final game for the Wii U.
  • Bayonetta 2: Nintendo bankrolled this sequel to Platinum Games’ cult-classic Bayonetta, and both titles were then ported to the Switch. The success of Bayonetta 2 allowed Nintendo to announce a third title, also a Switch-exclusive.
  • Pokken Tournament DX: The cross between Tekken and Pokemon released late in the Wii U’s lifecycle, and now it’s available on the Switch with all-new features and enhancements.
  • Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition: The hit crossover between the Warriors franchise and Zelda came to the Wii U first, then the 3DS. This final port features every piece of content from both the Wii U and the 3DS titles, plus the DLC, for the ultimate experience.

The list of Wii U ports to the Switch isn’t complete—these games are coming to the Switch soon, and either feature direct ports of Wii U titles or enhanced games first features exclusively on the Wii U!

  • Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker: This port of the Wii U puzzle game based on the Captain Toad levels in Super Mario 3D World features all new co-op modes, along with Super Mario Odyssey-themed levels. It launches on July 13th, 2018.
  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Technically, this entry in the long-running fighting game series is all-new, with mechanic changes and even new characters. But the game is most certainly based on the Wii U Smash game, and will likely be played with just as much love. It launched on December 7th, 2018.

While this doesn’t feature every exclusive game for the Wii U, it’s actually a large lineup of ports and experiences that people missed out on the first time around. If you’re a previous Wii U owner, you might find it disappointing to pay top dollar for new, enhanced copies of games you already own, but for those players looking to take their entire experience on the go, it might be worth upgrading to the better versions of your favorite games.

Will Wii Support Ever Come to the Switch?

Alright, here’s the interesting thing about the Switch: the device is powerful enough that there’s plenty of reasons to believe support for Wii titles—and specifically for certain critically-acclaimed releases—will someday come to the Switch. First, there’s the obvious support built into the Joy-Cons, which essentially act like mini Wiimote controllers and, together, can even operate like a Wiimote and Nunchuck combination. Though the Switch doesn’t come with an IR receiver and doesn’t use a pointer on its menu system to select content to play, the Switch port of World of Goo, a Wii title released in 2008, proves that the Joy-Con is more powerful than you might imagine.

When you begin playing World of Goo on Switch, it asks you to lay the Joy-Con flat on the table, then has you pick up the controller to press the + button. This spawns a cursor on the display, which is used in the menu system and during gameplay. The support for the Joy-Con is accurate once you’ve synced and calibrated the Joy-Con, working just like a classic Wiimote. It’s not just interesting technology at work, but it’s also a good way to showcase the ability for the Switch to potentially add support for Wii titles in the future.

At this point, you might be thinking this isn’t enough proof to begin looking forward to the port of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Thankfully, there’s one more example that doesn’t just speculate on Nintendo’s thinking behind adding Wii games to the Switch in the near future, but gives evidence that they have the technology to do it right now.

The Nintendo Switch was built with processing technology from Nvidia, using a “custom” system-on-chip (or SoC) co-developed by the two companies, based on Nvidia’s own Tegra technology. Prior to its announcement, rumors stated the device would be running on an Nvidia Tegra X1, along with 4 ARM Cortex-A57 CPU cores and 4 ARM Cortex-A53 CPU cores along with Maxwell-based GPU cores. These claims were confirmed following a teardown of the console after launch, proving that Nvidia had an influential and important part in the making of the Switch. Here’s the thing, though: there is one other product that uses a similar architecture, with the Tegra X1 SoC and a GPU based on the Maxwell microarchitecture, and it’s Nvidia’s own Shield TV, a gaming-focused set-top box running Android TV, that largely acts like a predecessor to the Switch in terms of technology and power.

Why does this relatively-niche product matter to Switch owners looking to play Wii games on the go, or by using their Joy-Cons on the television? Because Nintendo and Nvidia’s partnership has expanded beyond the Switch, and in China, has seen the official release of a Nintendo Wii emulator on the product. Owners of the Nvidia Shield in China can download official ROMs of New Super Mario Bros. WiiThe Legend of Zelda: Twilight PrincessPunch-Out!!, and Super Mario Galaxy, with each game running upscaled at 1080p. Each remastered game costs about $10, and can be officially played right on the Shield.

This confirms not just that the Switch is capable of running Wii games, but that an emulator for the exact CPU and GPU architecture in the Switch exists today, built by Nintendo and confirmed to be working well enough to offer straight to a limited set of geo-locked users. That’s big, big news for anyone hoping Wii games might end up on the Switch, and indeed, looking at the Digital Foundry video for Super Mario Galaxy looks absolutely gorgeous, with an upscaled copy that almost looks like a remaster, rather than just software-based upscaling.

This is obviously just speculation, but we’re forced to come to the same conclusion Digital Foundry did in their own hands on of the product (which they had to order directly from China to use). The level of polish in the emulator seems strange for a product that is hypothetically destined to stay locked to a niche Android TV product in one singular region. The participation and teamwork between Nintendo and Nvidia is evident, and the level of polish and work put into not just emulating Wii (and by extension, Gamecube) games on the Shield, but upscaling them and ensuring they work well on Tegra X1 chipsets, seems to be leading to something much bigger down the line.

Will the Switch Gain Access to a Virtual Console?

But wait, you might be saying. Does this mean the Switch is finally getting a Virtual Console, like the 3DS, Wii, and Wii U before it? That’s a solid no, unfortunately. When Nintendo finally detailed their plans for the Switch’s online service coming this fall (and originally meant for release last fall), Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, confirmed that a Virtual Console would not be coming to the Switch, at least in the planned future, by stating there were “no plans” to use the Virtual Console banner on the Switch.

Instead, Nintendo has two options for those looking to play older games on the Switch. The first is through the eShop itself, as some publishers—including Nintendo—have taken to releasing classic ports of games from consoles and arcade machines like the Neo Geo. There are a number of Neo Geo classics on the eShop right now, like Blazing Star and Fatal Fury, and the entire ArcadeArchives series has seen some solid games released to the Switch for under $10. The original Donkey Kong game for arcades was also recently put on the eShop, marking the first time the original arcade ROM was made available for official purchase through a console. There are also collections of re-releases, like the new Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, which includes twelve Street Fighter titles from the original to all three Alpha games, to the underplayed and classic Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike. Likewise, Sega has promised to bring Genesis titles to the Switch at some point in the future.

The second option for downloading classic games comes in the form of Nintendo’s upcoming online service, which promises to include a selection of twenty NES games, ten of which have been confirmed as titles like Ice ClimbersThe Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario Bros. This opens the door for future titles from other consoles, including the SNES, the Nintendo 64, the GameCube, and yes, the Wii, in future updates to Nintendo’s online service. Currently priced at $19.99 per year (and cheaper per person on family plans), you should expect to see these prices change if the Switch does eventually gain access to games from the Wii or Gamecube, in addition to other consoles. Nintendo has confirmed that the online program will increase its library after launch, so stay tuned to see if SNES (or later) games get added down the road.

The Future Awaits

Ultimately, Wii support for the Nintendo Switch remains a waiting game. We’re about two and a half months out from the promised September launch for the Nintendo Switch Online program, which promises to launch the first glimpses we’ve seen into a Virtual Console-style application for the Switch, even if it isn’t quite what we’ve had previously. Though things might seem bleak for those Nintendo fans waiting for the Switch to add their favorite classic games from both the Wii and the GameCube—or really, any older Nintendo console on the market today—there are enough signs for us to be optimistic about the future of Nintendo’s services.

For one, Nintendo seems willing to add older games to their subscription service as a digital locker of sorts, giving access to older and classic games from the backlog of Nintendo’s hardware. These games have small modifications to allow for online play, either competitively or through co-op, which means more games with modified play might be on the way. This seems to lay out the path for Nintendo to implement the emulator they built for the Nvidia Shield on the Switch, which uses nearly identical hardware to play games. That means Super Mario Galaxy or The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess would come to the Switch in enhanced, 1080p-resolution versions, and possibly using the Joy-Con technology to emulate WiiMotes we’ve seen through games like World of Goo.

Sure, all of this could add up to nothing. Perhaps Nintendo is happy with the current (and admittedly excellent) lineup of games through the eShop and from AAA and indie developers alike. But Nintendo would be silly to miss out on the demand for games new and old on the Switch. The popularity of ports like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which outsold the original within months of release, show that Switch owners are willing to pay top-dollar for games they either missed out on it their original launch, or games that they want to play again but on a portable system. The demand is there, the controllers are there, the technology is there—at this point, it seems like its only a matter of time before the stars align and grant us the ability to play Wii games on the Switch.

So, which classic games would you like to see playable on the Switch? We’d love to see the first two No More Heroes games appear, along with a revisiting of Wii Sports Resort, a title that too many people missed out on. Let us know in the comments below what Wii games you want to see emulated on the Switch!

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