The comic Achewood by Chris Onstad follows an anthropomorphic cat named Ray Smuckles as he looks after his teenaged "Little Nephew," among other exploits. When Little Nephew gets caught up in a ridiculous fashion trend—individual pant-cuffs that buckle up at the knee so the wearer's undergarments can hang out as much as possible—Ray loses his temper and bellows, "How come you kids are so god damned stupid and just do the stupidest thing possible every second of the god damned day?"
As a long-time fan of Nintendo, Ray Smuckles' outburst echoes in my memory again and again. To love Nintendo is to watch the company make baffling choices while crying out, "Why would you even do that? Why can't you just be normal?"
While Nintendo's refusal to follow trends shapes a big part of its personality, it also makes for moments when the company seems frustratingly out-of-touch. At times, its determination to look the other way is inexcusable. The best example can be found in the state of its online services, which are—and almost always have been—dismal. From poor connections to terrible user interfaces, the words "Nintendo Online" still cause a shudder to ripple through competitive gamers. To make things even more aggravating, Nintendo shows no interest in catching up with the rest of the industry's barest standards.
We've admittedly been lenient with Nintendo for its slow connections and mediocre online interfaces because the service was free when Nintendo started taking its consoles and handhelds online with the Nintendo DS in 2004. Nintendo Switch Online, though affordable at $20 USD per year, is still a paid service. It's been available for a year and It should be performing at a certain level, but it lingers far behind the competition's options. Here's what's gone wrong, and how it might be addressed.
Virtual Console Was Virtually Meh. Then Things Got Worse
When Nintendo launched the Virtual Console service alongside the Wii in 2006, people's excitement went beyond the novelty of downloading and playing the retro games they grew up with. The Virtual Console's potential alone was big news, since the NES and SNES' game menus had big gaps thanks to titles that were never localized for the West. It was also our chance to play games we missed on rival consoles from the day, like the Sega Genesis and TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine.
Though the Virtual Console eventually slipped into the sunset without really showing off what it was capable of (and it was woefully underserved during the Wii U era), it's still fondly remembered for its novelty. When all's said and done, it still gave us a few much-desired localizations, like Castlevania: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine.
There's been less enthusiasm over Nintendo Switch Online's catalog of retro games. Whereas the Virtual Console let us purchase games from myriad retro systems, the Switch's selection of retro games has been limited to a trickle of NES titles—few of which come from third parties. Nintendo has been teasing the addition of SNES titles for a long time, but it's surprising the available selection of retro games isn't beefier considering Switch Online is coming up on its first year anniversary.
Arlo, the cuddly blue puppet-monster who talks extensively about Nintendo on his YouTube channel, believes the current selection of retro games for Nintendo Switch Online isn't bad, but it could definitely be better. "I'd expected it to be one or two games in rotation or something. However that's not to say that I'm happy with the service," he tells me via email. "I personally don't care much about most of those old games, and without the ability to buy or access games from other classic systems it feels like a meager offering."
Arlo points out one more benefit of the Virtual Console over Nintendo Switch Online's games: Once you downloaded games on the Virtual Console, they were yours to keep. "It was frustrating how slowly titles tended to trickle onto the Virtual Console, but in comparison it was an excellent service," he says. "At the end of the day we were able to buy and keep a substantial amount of older content, and now it seems that was a luxury we took for granted."
Trading the Virtual Console for the anemic Nintendo Switch Online selection is only one example of Nintendo rolling back its success stories instead of building on them. The Wii U isn't anyone's idea of a blockbuster console, but there's still love for its unique social media platform, Miiverse. Miiverse gave rise to some truly "unique" users, but it was still a charming walled garden that was certainly unlike any other community platform on any other system at the time. It's a shame Nintendo never carried the Miiverse over to the Switch, but it's a bigger shame there isn't any kind of community that keeps Switch users glued together. Outside of self-contained communities in games like Super Mario Maker 2 and Splatoon 2, we're all drifting in space.
The Switch's lack of a robust retro game catalogue or decent communication options is unfortunate, but Nintendo's most worrying shortcoming is its continued failure to provide steady connections and decent player options for its online games—which is a bit of a problem considering Nintendo's offering more games that center around online competitive play.
I Just Can't Connect With You
News about a new Smash Bros. game, a new Mario Kart game, or a new Splatoon game brings big time excitement, but there's no denying all that enthusiasm is cut with trepidation from the masses. Like a kid who never seems to get any better at putting puzzles together, Nintendo's never been much good at offering a steady internet connection despite its growing selection of online games. There are constant complaints about slow pings, chugging, and frame skips, not to mention Nintendo's refusal to open its games to native voice chat. Instead, players who want to strategize through a match of Splatoon 2 or engage in banter during a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate smackdown are expected to wrestle with Nintendo's poorly-constructed voice chat app. It's a mind-boggling practice in 2019.
Games writer George Yang plays some competitive online games as well as games-as-a-service (GaaS) titles, so he depends on solid online connections and well-built online infrastructure. Unfortunately, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate gives him headaches with its bad matchmaking—a problem that wasn't as much of an issue in Super Smash Bros. Wii U thanks to options that Nintendo pulled for unexplained reasons.
"My main problem with Smash Ultimate is the matchmaking system, as I think it's a downgrade from Smash Bros. 4. Because I am a somewhat competitive player, I like having the one-on-one, three lives, no items rule set," Yang tells me via email. "Smash 4 had that with its 'For Glory' mode, and Ultimate got rid of that with its weird custom rule set mechanic. I'll put in my usual rule set, but sometimes it'll put me into a match with someone else with only two out of three of the rule set criteria I wanted."
Nintendo Switch owner Alyssa is quite serious about her Splatoon 2 ranking, and she admits Nintendo's failure to provide a solid online connection has negatively impacted her scores.
"During my ranked modes, I had this super nasty strings of disconnects which resulted in my progress bar cracking and breaking," she tells me via Twitter. "After you take a certain number of losses, the bar gets a crack. If you get four cracks and you're not in the safe zone, your rank gets booted down. So, if you get four cracks and you're not in the safe zone, you can get kicked from A to a A-."
Connectivity problems were bad enough on the Nintendo DS, 3DS, Wii, and Wii U, but we could at least shrug those issues off by saying, "Well, what do you want for a free service?" Now that we're expected to pay a subscription for Nintendo Switch Online, these sparse online options and connection problems aren't acceptable.
Unfortunately, the stability of Nintendo's online connection may be the toughest problem to solve because Switch Online utilizes a peer-to-peer connection instead of dedicated servers. The Splatoon 2 subreddit has a good breakdown of what a peer-to-peer connection entails, and why it seems to turn up so many problems. Put simply, a smooth online experience with a peer-to-peer connection is more easily achieved when a console is hooked up to a LAN, but who's using a LAN connection for a mostly handheld system like the Switch?
The author of the linked subreddit post, a user going by the handle "danegraphics," argues that Nintendo's online games wouldn't run much smoother with dedicated servers. Others in the thread disagree, but Nintendo's tendency to play things safe with its online services means we're unlikely to see dedicated servers for any of its online games in the near future. As Alyssa points out, dedicated servers "open a whole different can of worms with cost, maintenance, and protection from someone trying to DDoS or crash the system."
Unmoved By the Competition
It's not as if we live in a world without examples of game companies who supply steady, feature-rich online gameplay to their userbases. While the PlayStation Network has grown into a real competitor to Xbox Live, Nintendo Switch Online continues to paddle along at its own meandering pace while giving its customers few amenities.
Aside from generally offering a much more dependable online connection than Nintendo Switch Online, Sony and Microsoft dole out free games to PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold subscribers every month. It's true Nintendo Switch Online subscribers get free retro games, but the competition's free titles are substantially newer and meatier. August 2019 brought Wipeout Omega Collection to PS Plus, and Gears of War 4, Forza Motorsport 6, Torchlight, and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow to Xbox Live Gold. Nintendo Switch Online subscribers received Kung-Fu Heroes and Vice: Project Doom for the NES. Good games to be sure, but not exactly guaranteed to keep you enthralled for hours at a time like a Wipeout Collection or Gears 4.
It's fair to mention a Nintendo Switch Online subscription is substantially cheaper than PS Plus or Xbox Live Gold: $19.99 USD a year versus $59.99 USD for an annual ticket with the competition. That said, Nintendo Switch Online subscribers are irritated at paying any price to go online with Nintendo games, given its infrastructure is still rickety and its selection of "extras" like free games is poor compared to the competition. The Switch doesn't even have any kind of Trophy or Achievement system, which is a huge blow for Achievement hunters like Yang.
"I am very reluctant to get certain third-party games on my Switch. If I can get Achievements/Trophies on another system, I'll buy it on there," he says. "I mean, the whole concept was invented more than a decade ago starting with the Xbox 360."
Even Nintendo's conventional game sales are typically unexciting next to Sony and Microsoft's price drops. Independent and third-party Switch games might have a few dollars lopped off their price tag here or there, but if you want to buy some of the Switch's first-party best-sellers—say, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, or Super Mario Odyssey—you'll grow old waiting for a substantial price drop.
"Modern Problems Require Modern Solutions."
To recap, Nintendo Switch Online has three big problems: Shaky connections, a lack of amenities like free games and sales, and a user interface that was stripped down to its bones and left bare after Miiverse died. A quick fix for Nintendo's connectivity woes probably isn't possible, but it can correct many of its other problems in a reasonable amount of time.
For starters, it can stop rolling back features for every new generation. "I feel like Nintendo is always weird in terms of features. They'll nail one aspect perfectly, but then when it comes to the sequel or the next system, they'll botch it completely," Yang says. "If I could recommend some basic improvements, I'd say put in a folder system, and maybe let us have custom themes at the Switch home page. Also, I would highly recommend a unified account system. It's so annoying that my 3DS account is different than my Wii U account, and they're both different from my Switch account. I have three different looking Miis for Pete's sake."
More "cool surprises" would go a long way to improving Nintendo Switch Online as well. Tetris 99, an online 99-player Tetris battle royale, was an exciting addition to the service when it dropped last winter. If Switch Online sees these kinds of unexpected bonuses more often, it'll help liven up the system's online scene.
Not everything about Switch Online should be a surprise, however. Nintendo needs to be more transparent about what's coming, and when. When can we expect SNES games? Will N64 and/or GameCube games follow? How about Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS? We're paying to access Nintendo Switch Online's games, so talk to us. We want to know what's going on.
Many of us accepted long ago that Nintendo doesn't walk a straight, sensible line with its game development. In some ways, that's fine. In an industry where rising costs make triple-A developers less likely to experiment, we can count on Nintendo to still try something new and crazy on occasion.
Unfortunately, there's nothing new and crazy about Nintendo's online services. It's just old and busted at this point, and even the good stuff gets walked back. Sure, Nintendo Switch Online slowly adds welcome extras like a rewind feature to its NES game catalogue, but is there any guarantee that feature will make the transition to whatever Nintendo has planned for its next generation of online services? If history is anything to go by: Not in the least.
Complain as we might, the Switch's strong sales might be all the confirmation Nintendo needs that it can keep going its own way as far as online is concerned. Yes, Splatoon 2 and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate run on an infrastructure seemingly constructed with gum and toothpicks, but what are your options? You won't be able to play Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on PlayStation Network any time soon. You know it, I know it, and Nintendo knows it.
As always, the ancient industry credo holds true: For better or worse, Nintendo is going to Nintendo.