There are two ways to view Nintendo Switch Online.
Either you think Nintendo’s online play should be free and paying for this service should get you more than you had before to justify the price, or you understood from the get-go that online features as a free service would one day go away, and you would be stuck paying to get back to where you were to begin with. These can be boiled down to whether you expect more for your money — and the money, in this case, is a lot less than rival services ask — or if you’re fine with paying for something not to be taken away.
I won’t judge you if you fall somewhere between those two options, because Nintendo Switch Online, taken as a whole, also can’t seem to make up its mind about what it wants to offer or if it needs to compete with Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus.
So is this a service worth adding to your expenses? In short, it’s hard to say; Nintendo Switch Online has launched as a polarizing, indecisive mess. In long? Well ... let’s dive in.
Nintendo Switch Online was an inevitable move
To be honest, Nintendo doesn’t give you much of a choice in the matter of whether you should subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online or not. Not subscribing means that you’ll no longer be able to play many of the Switch’s most popular games online. The decision to join may be as simple as being willing to spend a few bucks to continue to play your Switch as you have been since it launched, since charging for online play has become standard practice in this industry for console manufacturers.
The good news is that Nintendo is charging less than its competitors, with a year of the service running $19.99 for individuals and $34.99 for family plans that include up to eight players. It’s silly not to use the family plan if you’re going to sign up; it brings the price of the service down to under $5 per person, per year. You can even pay for a membership with your My Nintendo coins, if you have enough saved up.
Fortnite will still work without the service, however, as will the Jackbox games. There will likely continue to be games that don’t require Nintendo Switch Online for online multiplayer as well. Nintendo rarely launches anything without some degree of uncertainty and complications in term of basic infrastructure, and both of those are here in abundance.
While Nintendo is catching up with the industry practice of charging for online play, the features still don’t match up with the minimum we expect from those services. You still need the ridiculous smartphone app if you want to access voice chat for many games — although there are some exceptions, like, again, Fortnite — so you’re in for an unpleasant surprise if you expected voice chat to become more accessible. It’s the same system you used before, and it’s horrible.
Even the merciful addition of cloud saves, which are turned on by default in the menu, is imperfect. They don’t work for every game, including some of Nintendo’s biggest. Not only that, but your cloud saves also exist only as long as you pay for the service. If your subscription lapses, you better hope you have those files back on your hardware. Luckily, it’s easy to see if each game has a file in the cloud or whether it has been backed up lately, and you can even turn cloud saves on or off on a per-game basis. I’m not sure why you’d want to turn them off for a game, but the option is there.
So some games require the subscription service to play online; others don’t. Most games require your phone for voice chat; Fortnite doesn’t. Cloud saves exist now, but not for every game, and only for the life of your subscription. Meanwhile: Why the hell are we still using friend codes for this damned system? It’s just ... bad.
But what are you going to do, not play Splatoon 2 online? The feature set is bound to improve with time, just like that of every online service, and the grumbling fans will likely fall in line and pay to play in anticipation. The transition to premium online play was never going to be fun for Nintendo or players, but it’s made even more so by how tiny the steps Nintendo has taken are.
Nothing about this service is competitive in this marketplace. For the most part, it’s what you’re used to in terms of online features for your Switch, except now you’re paying for it.
Still, it’s only $5 a year if you’re sharing a family plan. And you get a bunch of nifty NES games.
Those nifty NES games
The biggest bonus offered by Nintendo Switch Online is access to a bunch of exclusive games — classic ones that come with a major, very cool upgrade. You unlock 20 “free” NES games with your subscription, and the list of games is impressive: These range from Super Mario Bros. to The Legend of Zelda to River City Ransom.
You can play with a friend locally, but the biggest difference is online play, which lets you play games in two-player mode. Playing Tecmo Bowl with someone across the country feels surreal, in a good way, and it worked with minimal lag when we tested it out. It’s an exciting way to revitalize games from more than 30 years ago.
If you’d rather not be competitive, you can just follow along and watch someone else play. You’re given floating hands that let you point at things on the screen or clap in this mode, which is one of those unexpectedly delightful touches that Nintendo handles so well.
You also get three visual options for these games — I think pixel perfect is the best choice, and the CRT filter gives me a near instant headache — and the ability to create save states in any of the games. But additions aside, all evidence points to the fact that this is a very quick and dirty port of the emulation found in NES Classic hardware. These are the same games we remember playing in front of our tube TVs as kids, but now we have the option to take them around with us or have a friend who lives far, far away join in.
Whether or not these games are a selling point that add to the value of your subscription cost is up to you, but I already feel like I got my money’s worth this year out of playing NES games with friends online. Could it be better? Sure. Having to jump online every seven days to keep the license of the NES games active probably won’t be a big deal in practice, but it’s another thing that feels like a limitation that doesn’t really need to be there. Being able to remap the buttons would be high on my wishlist, especially since the only way to navigate the in-game menus is with the plus and minus buttons on the top left and right of the Switch. It feels awkward, and I hate it.
But the basic experience works, and the UI is easy to navigate and pleasantly snappy. All that being said, support for SNES games or other Nintendo systems can’t come soon enough. Nintendo’s catalogue of classic games is one of its biggest strengths, and the pace at which it’s willing to resell them to you is often frustrating. Nintendo Switch Online doesn’t change that feeling.
To sum it all up
Nintendo Switch Online is an inexpensive online service that gives you upgraded NES games with a host of other services that only kinda somewhat work in the manner you’d hope. The fact you still can’t connect a headset directly to the Switch for voice chat remains outrageous, and launching a premium service without that ability is part of the reason so many fans are aghast. All the old issues with Nintendo’s online play are still here, except now they’re part of a suite of features you’re paying for.
Even in its current state, however, it’s worth the low initial investment. Playing Switch games online is worth the small price, and the NES games and cloud saves at least attempt to add something to the value. But overall, this is the online play you’ve had for the Switch since launch — it’s just that the free ride is over. Nintendo has always told players that for-pay online was on the way, so it’s hard to act surprised now. Getting fans used to it, however, may take a little bit of time.
We just hope it gets better, because “barely tolerable for the price” is a really bad place for an industry leader to be.