Online functionality has been a staple of console gaming, in various forms, for the past few generations. The feature was a major selling point for Sega’s swan song console the Dreamcast, gained immense popularity with Microsoft’s Xbox Live, and continues to be a key function for both the Xbox One and PS4. Over the years certain expectations have been set for these services, with Nintendo’s efforts constantly lagging way behind the competition. Now, finally, the company’s first paid online subscription service, Nintendo Switch Online, has launched and is being touted as the Japanese gaming giant’s big opportunity to innovate and improve its online presence. The theory is that because consumers are already invested in the Switch console, it having launched well before the online service, Nintendo could have the opportunity and resources to refine it. In practice, however, Nintendo Switch Online is a bit of a mixed bag.
One of the things Nintendo Switch Online absolutely nails is its pricing. The service launched with a free seven-day trial and three different individual payment plans: a one-month subscription for $3.99, a three-month plan for $7.99, and a year for $19.99. For players only looking to play online, this is an incredible deal, as both Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus have much more expensive options capping at $59.99 per year. Nintendo also offer reasonably priced options for sharing the service as players can also sign up for a family plan for $34.99 per year. The family plan supports up to eight accounts and can span across multiple Switch consoles, making this by far the cheapest option on the market.*
*All prices are shown in US currency
This cheap price point does seemingly come with some stability drawbacks, however. To my annoyance, I was booted out of just about every other match for both Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Splatoon 2; this very well could be a result of overloaded servers during launch week, but it leaves early adopters with a poor first impression. On top of a wonky launch, a very glaring omission from the service is the lack of built-in in voice chat system, a feature that has been considered the base standard in the industry for the past 20 years. Instead of simply connecting a headset to their Switch, players have to download the Nintendo Switch Online app to their phone, at which point players are better off just calling their friends or utilising other, more stable phone chat apps such as Discord. Adding insult to injury, it also seems that direct voice chat through the Switch console works perfectly fine on Fortnite, leaving users confused as to why Nintendo don’t seem willing to allow this for other, first-party titles.
Making matters worse, the app itself isn’t even that intuitive to use. Certain games allow players to strike up conversations with random people by starting up the app and joining an online match, but it took me a good five tries to get the chat system to actually work for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. This sluggish response is incredibly frustrating considering how Microsoft and Sony have had voice chat figured out for quite a while now. The app also offers game-specific services, although at this point these services are just limited to stats for Splatoon 2 that can easily be found in game. The Online App is just much more of a hassle than it should be and unfortunately serves to show just how out of touch Nintendo can sometimes be with their customer’s needs and the general state of the gaming industry.
In some ways though, Nintendo Switch Online sees the company make slow strides towards modernity. The inclusion of a cloud save feature is an absolute godsend. With a subscription, any time players connect to the internet, their games will automatically save to the cloud. This step is huge for Nintendo as it marks the first time a portable console will have cloud save compatibility. An added bonus to cloud saves is the ability to transfer data from one Switch console to another. On the downside, cloud saves are free for every other console on the market, and Nintendo will only store cloud save data for six months after a subscription has ended.
That said, Nintendo often thrives when delivering an old-school approach and here they once again utilise this tactic. The best part of the Nintendo Switch Online service is without a doubt the Nintendo Entertainment System: Nintendo Switch Online service. This mouthful of a feature gives players access to 20 NES games, with three more coming each month after. Classic hits such as Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and Excite Bike all make an appearance, as well as third party gems like River City Ransom and Gradius. As this feature is included in the overall price of Nintendo Switch Online, consumers are definitely getting a big bang for their buck. Much like the recently released NES and SNES Classic consoles, NES Online gives players the ability to save their progress and even select a few different video options, like pixel perfect and CRT wave. Utilising the new network also, players can even share these experiences with friends online.
Sadly, NES Online comes with a few caveats as well. Over one-quarter of the launch titles are made up of Nintendo’s less than stellar sports games – all six of these games are mechanically broken and were probably incredibly boring even when they originally launched over 30 years ago. The player character randomly changes in Soccer, the action is just way too slow in Wrestling, and as great as it was to recreate the 1980 Olympic match between the Soviet Union and the United States, I honestly had no idea what was going on in Hockey. It’s just a slight disappointment that such a sizable amount of the included games are this dull and forgettable.
Worse still, these less than stellar sports games are the least of NES Online’s disappointments. According to the service’s FAQ section on the official Nintendo website, players will need to connect to the internet once every seven days in order to continue playing through the NES Online library. This limitation isn’t too much of a big deal when playing in docked mode, but it does ignore the fact that the Switch’s biggest selling point is the ability to play games on the go. Switch owners on vacation may very well find themselves unable to fight Donkey Kong on their long flight home unless they’ve found a Wi-Fi source in the preceding week. It’s a somewhat understandable caveat in a time of rampant piracy but still feels like another misstep for the service.
The NES Online feature as a whole is also something of a step backwards for Nintendo. Fans of the company may find themselves yearning for the days of Virtual Console, a type of online shop for the Wii and Wii-U that allowed consumers to download not only classic NES games, but also Super Nintendo and even Nintendo 64 games. The exclusion of Virtual Console for the Switch is simply baffling. The feature worked extremely well for the company’s last two consoles, and its omission may even incentivize frustrated gamers to emulate Nintendo 64 classics like Super Mario 64. Nintendo is notorious for hyper-protecting its long dormant properties, so this decision may come back to bite them.
All of these issues aside though, Nintendo may just be ramping up for something big. On the eShop page, players will now find a Nintendo Switch Online option. Selecting this option brings up a screen with subscription information and plans at the top, followed by a download tile for the NES Online service. What’s important to note is there is just enough space next to the tile to fit two more items. Could it be possible that we may have a SNES Online and even an N64 Online in the very near future? We won’t hold our breath but having access to that vast library of hit games at such a low cost would too good to pass up.
The last big feature of Nintendo Switch Online is its “Special Offers.” These include both exclusive products that can only be purchased by having a paid subscription, as well as special download offers for players with a 12-month subscription. Both types of offers will update periodically and at the time of writing this, the exclusive product is a pair of NES inspired controllers for $59.99, while the special download is for exclusive gear in Splatoon 2. The “Special Offers” feature is not unlike the discounts players can get with PlayStation Plus but the inclusion of discounted hardware makes this not like anything we’ve seen in an online service before and is guaranteed to draw in a large number of fans.
Nintendo Switch Online may not be perfect, but it is functional and offers a baseline that the company can expand upon. Longtime fans of the company will undoubtedly still be frustrated at its stubbornness to change, but for everything the service offers, the low cost of entry is worth it. Having access to an ever-expanding library of Nintendo classics is great, and the promise of “Special Offers” is a collector’s dream but whether or not Nintendo decides to fix the many issues with service remains to be seen.