Yes, Microsoft has an advantage right now. And even once it corrects, it's still going to be close.
The release of Rare Replay on Xbox One, with a full quarter of its catalogue being N64 titles, immediately sent the internet into a frenzy over Nintendo's lack of Virtual Console N64 releases to this point. Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo mentioned in his review of Rare Replay that there were more N64 games on Xbox One than on the Wii U.
Although Totilo is technically correct (the best kind of correct), this is a situation that will eventually be resolved, perhaps as soon as this coming week. And in both cases, Rare's output and Nintendo's releases to this point represent a significant portion of what is available for a potential Virtual Console release.
Let's take a look at the N64's catalogue and see just what could potentially come to Wii U Virtual Console before the console running NX releases in a couple of years. As a reminder, Nintendo's master game list (PDF link) lists 299 games released for the N64, and the 2007 release of Sin and Punishment on Wii Virtual Console means the number of games we are working with is 300. (Note that we are using North America only for this, although as of this printing only five N64 games are on the Wii U eShop in PAL regions.)
First Party: Not Just Rare Is Missing
Nintendo published 55 games on the N64, a little bit more than 1/6 of the system's North American output. And although six of them are already out (Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, Paper Mario, The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, Mario Tennis and Kirby 64), a further 14 titles are available through Wii Mode. In fact, there were more N64 games available in North America's last Club Nintendo code list than are in Rare Replay, and presumably the ones under full Nintendo control will be available on the Wii U eShop directly at some point.
The 14 Wii mode games are as follows: Mario Kart 64, Star Fox 64, F-Zero X, Wave Race 64, Yoshi's Story, Sin and Punishment, Pokemon Snap, 1080 Snowboarding, Cruis'n USA, Pokemon Puzzle League, Mario Golf, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Super Smash Bros, and Mario Party 2.
So that's 20 games so far. Of the remaining 35, eight are in Rare-related limbo: the seven Rare Replay games (Killer Instinct Gold, Blast Corps, Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Tooie, Conker's Bad Fur Day) and Goldeneye 007 which is in its own licensing hell. Another 13 have no hope of happening for various reasons:
- Mario Party 1 still causes massive damage to control sticks
- Three games were licensed from Disney, so a remaster would be required if Disney isn't disavowing their existence: Star Wars Shadows of the Empire, Episode 1 Racer, and Mickey Speedway USA
- The NBA Courtside games and Ken Griffey Jr MLB games (two each) are lost due to licensing issues
- Nintendo published Command and Conquer, Starcraft 64 and The New Tetris, two of which would have fallen back to their original owners (Activision and EA), and the last is blocked by a combination of The Tetris Company and Ubisoft's exclusivity for digital forms of Tetris that got Tetris GB pulled
- Pokemon Stadium 1 and 2 won't release without support for the Transfer Pak
The remaining games are questionable – normally they'd be impossible, but Donkey Kong 64 released on Wii U against all logic. Diddy Kong Racing may be free and clear despite containing two Microsoft-owned characters in Banjo and Conker. Excitebike 64, Mario Party 3, and Dr. Mario 64 would probably have released on Wii if Virtual Console releases weren't constrained by WiiWare and the Adelman Doctrine. Mischief Makers, Ridge Racer 64 and the two Nintendo published Bomberman games are possible, as the 3rd parties involved (Treasure, Namco and Hudson/Konami) are on good terms with Virtual Console releases. Hey You Pikachu would require massive reworking to work with the GamePad's microphone so it's probably no go, while Pilotwings 64 is still mysteriously absent in the way Earthbound was. The remainders are a golf game that licensed courses (Waiaile Country Club) and Tetrisphere which may be a no go.
Even in a best case scenario, 14 additional games would come from Nintendo. That represents a total of 34 more 1st party games on the service.
3rd Parties: They're Dead, Jim
Third parties released 245 of the N64's 300 games, but only a small percentage of the games are possible to release on Wii U. The Dream Team was largely a Western-focused production, and the companies who traditionally have supported the Wii U's Virtual Console largely developed for the PlayStation as a result while giving the N64 token support.
The biggest problem is that so many of the companies just flat out don't exist. Three of the four largest N64 3rd party developers were Midway, THQ and Acclaim, who died in 2009, 2012 and 2004 respectively. Between the three companies, they released 90 titles, more than a third of the 3rd party content on the system. More than half of the companies who published games (22 of 42) are dead, and some of the rest only exist as mobile developers who don't give a flying fadoo about console development (three different companies were acquired by Infogrames, now Atari who see fit to turn Asteroids into an online shooter).
The other problem is that Western 3rd parties tended to lean heavily on licensed games that they may not have the rights to. EA released 24 titles on the N64, but I could only identify one game that may be free and clear: Knockout Kings. Setting aside their “unprecedented partnership” with Nintendo, there'd be no sense in going after them for old baseball or basketball games.
There was one 3rd party release on the Wii's N64 Virtual Console: Atlus is the publisher of record for Ogre Battle 64. Of 3rd parties on Wii U Virtual Console, Capcom can release two games – Resident Evil 2 and Mega Man 64 – out of 3 games published (the last one is Magical Tetris Challenge, which loses as a Disney Tetris game). Konami was a strong supporter of N64 relatively with 16 games, but six of them are licensed sports games – they'd also have to reauthorize Hudson's titles. Sunsoft, Natsume and Koei all had small presences on N64, but at best the possibility exists for 20 games from 3rd parties to come to Wii U. And that's allowing for things like Mega Man 64's voice acting issues being resolved, which prevented the PlayStation Mega Man Legends from being released as a PSN classic.
In the eighteen weeks since the N64's addition to the Wii U Virtual Console, there's been a game added on average every three weeks. Realistically, they've hit in two week bursts three months apart since events like Mega May and the need to add DS titles have gotten in the way.
But we know that there's only about 50 games left that could possibly be released, and since so much of the N64's North American library is inaccessible whether through choice or circumstance, they could stand to accelerate the pace of release a little bit. The games will come, and the Kotaku review will eventually become inaccurate, but the key for the fan is to temper your expectations. As was said at the last Nintendo shareholder Q&A, there's some games that are simply going to be unavailable – and more of those games will fall away as companies come, go or become purveyors of erotically violent Castlevania pachinko.
But really, the darkness filter on N64 games is a bigger issue than the release schedule.