Nintendo has always marched to the beat of its own drum. Even when it offers services and features similar to its competition, the company always does it in a unique way. That's a double-edged sword, because it can lead to some delightful concepts, like Miiverse, but it can also miss key features here and there. In terms on online services, Nintendo is playing catch-up again.
Last night, the company turned the key on Nintendo Switch Online, switching online play over to a paid service like Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus. As an enticement for your monthly or annual fee, Nintendo is also throwing in a few freebies. Paramount here is a collection of classic Nintendo Entertainment System titles that Nintendo is looking to grow for the life of Nintendo Switch Online. It's Virtual Console again, but with the addition of online multiplayer.
So is Nintendo Switch Online worth it? Let's dive in.
One big winner of the service is actually outside of its offerings: the subscription fee. For an individual membership, you're looking at $3.99 a month, $7.99 for three months, and $19.99 for an entire year. A family membership, which can be shared across a total of eight Nintendo Accounts, is only $34.99. When compared to Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, both of which are $59.99, that feels like a steal.
In terms of overall features there's not much to talk about. You get online play, which Switch owners already had for free, but is now behind the subscription paywall. The much-needed Cloud Save option is live on the service, letting you backup many of your save files in case you lose or damage your system. You can chat with friends via the Switch Online mobile app. And the ringer is the growing collection of NES games.
Online play... hasn't changed. Since the system didn't launch with a paid, unified online service, some games handle it on their own instead of going through the Nintendo Account system. This means online play can vary from game to game, which isn't the best experience. Xbox Live and PlayStation Network have the benefit of longevity; they've evolved over several generations and been with their current generation systems since launch.
I've previously talked about the Switch Online app with a focus on the voice chat option. It's not particularly elegant in terms of setup, requires the use of your smartphone instead of being built into the system, and isn't particularly better than other similar mobile apps like Discord. All told, the online play here isn't better than what the system launched with, leaving some to wonder why Nintendo waited 18 months for release.
The cloud save option is my personal hook. Up until now, your save files have lived on the Switch itself; there was no way to transfer them anywhere else for safe keeping, except to an entirely new system. I travel a decent amount and I've long worried that I was going to lose or damage my Switch, thus losing everything I've done so far in games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. With cloud saves, you can finally upload your save files to Nintendo's servers, protecting them from anything that can happen to your console.
Well, for most games. Certain titles do not support save data backup. On my Switch, that list of games only includes Splatoon 2 and Minecraft: Nintendo Switch Edition. (Dead Cells, which was previously reported as not supporting cloud saves, can in fact be backed up.) This means the problem hasn't hit me too hard yet and it might end up being less of an issue overall. Nintendo says it's to prevent players from reverting back to old saves to regain items or revert their online ranking, but this isn't a problem on any other system, so it's a bit perplexing that it's an issue for Nintendo.
Which brings us to the collection of NES games, all of which are online-enabled. The full list of launch games includes Balloon Fight, Baseball, Donkey Kong, Double Dragon, Dr. Mario, Excitebike, Ghosts 'n Goblins, Gradius, Ice Climber, Ice Hockey, Mario Bros, Pro Wrestling, River City Ransom, Soccer, Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 3, Tecmo Bowl, Tennis, The Legend of Zelda, and Yoshi. That's an okay list of titles, though in quality it's far short of 30 titles that come pre-loaded on the NES Classic.
With an update to its official website today, Nintendo seems to be committing to three NES releases per month. October will see Solomon's Key, NES Open, and Super Dodge Ball. November has Metroid, Mighty Bomb Jack, and Twin Bee, while December will offer Wario's Woods, Ninja Gaiden, and The Adventures of Lolo. That's roughly the same release cadence as the Wii's Virtual Console, which totaled 94 NES titles from 2006 to 2012. The Wii U saw the same number of NES games over a shorter period, which didn't stop fans from accusing Nintendo of offering a drip feed of games. This opening salvo isn't great for Switch Online, but assuming Nintendo sticks to its release speed, it could be an amazing library in a year or two.
You're low on available options when it comes to playing the titles. You can play offline, though you need to check in online once a week. Two players can enjoy the games locally using the Joy-Cons, or online. In terms of online play, there's no online matchmaking; you can only connect with friends, so if you're looking to jam in Double Dragon, make sure your friends are ready. Oddly enough, there's some latency out of the box in online play because the service defaults to its low latency setting being "off". You get three screen filter options: 4:3, Pixel Perfect, and CRT. (Warning: folks have reported pixel retention on monitors and televisions with the CRT filter.) The major missing feature is any sort of button mapping, so you're stuck with the basic control scheme.
Overall, I'd say it's good, though being an NES Classic owner, I've had my fill of the best games on the service. The emulation is great, the games load up quick, and there is a single save state available for each title. (You can also access the Japanese Famicom collection under the same subscription if you have a Japanese Nintendo Account.) Part of me wishes that Nintendo had simply moved the full NES catalog forward from the Wii U. Another part wishes Super NES games were available. Maybe one day.
Nintendo's biggest issue right now is one of expectation. The Nintendo Switch has been out for 18 months and for that entire time, online play has been free. The company will probably see a little pushback from the average consumer who wonders why online play requires a subscription fee today when it did not yesterday. Microsoft and Sony saw some heat for rolling out Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus requirements, but Microsoft did it during the launch of the Xbox 360 and Sony waited until the PlayStation 4's launch to make Plus required for online multiplayer. This is more of a problem for existing consumers though and they'll likely get used to it; for new owners, the fee will always be required.
For a launch, Nintendo Switch Online is aggressively fine. Right now, it depends on how much you love that launch list of NES games and how much faith you have in Nintendo beefing up the catalog in the future. I'm largely paying for the cloud save option and the hope that Super NES games join the family eventually. In the context of other online services, you're not getting as much overall, but you're also paying a fraction of the price. And the truth is, you don't really have another option if you want to play online, so you might as well go without a few cups of coffee this year and subscribe. In the future, Nintendo Switch Online could be a real winner, but right now it's just good.