Nintendo Switch Online is underwhelming in most ways. People now have to pay to play games online, like Splatoon 2, when they were able to do so for free before. The lack of messaging, grouping, or voice chat functions inside the actual system (instead relying on a clunky smartphone app for these essential features) is baffling. Backup saves are nice, but we should have had those for free from the beginning.
Xbox Live and PlayStation Network give us those things, and they’ve been around for years. Sure, they cost more ($60 a year compared to Switch’s $20 a year), but it’s worth it for things like, you know, in-system chat. But at least Nintendo Switch Online’s $20 a year price tag gives you access to a nice hub for NES games. But even this needs improvements.
The new Nintendo Entertainment System app gives access to 20 games from Nintendo’s classic 8-bit system. The hub is attractive and efficient, and it comes with the basic features you’d expect (save states) and surprising online multiplayer support for games that used to require local play.
As a replacement to the old Virtual Console system, this feature has a lot of benefits. It’s convenient to have a single hub for all of these games, the user-interface is friendly and pretty, and it’s much cheaper than having to buy all of these games digitally separately. On Virtual Console, you paid $5 for each NES game. Here, you get 20 as part of your $20 subscription, and Nintendo is adding three new games every month.
Unfortunately, the 20 games don’t make for an ideal starting library. You have some of the big hits, like Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Legend of Zelda. But others are missing, notably the Mega Man and Castlevania series. The starting lineup also has a disproportional amount of sports games: Tecmo Bowl, Pro Wrestling, Baseball, Ice Hockey, Tennis, and Soccer. These games range from fun to OK, but it sucks that over a quarter of the app’s selections are sports.
Others are arcade-like experiences, including Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Balloon Fight. They’re fun, but they lack the depth of the NES’s best games. You may not bother playing them more than once. Compared to something like The Legend of Zelda, the sports and arcade games feel like filler. A few of them in the library is nice, but they shouldn’t make up half of it.
We can compare this starting lineup with the 30 games included in the NES Classic Edition. That 2017 micro console came with more high-quality titles, including Mega Man 2, Castlevania, and Kirby’s Adventure.
Nintendo is going to keep adding games to the Switch Online service, but it’ll be slow going. We’ll get three new NES games a month. That pace won’t be enough to maintain interest in the app. And we have no idea when Nintendo will branch out to other consoles. Nintendo 64 or GameCube games, for example, would be more exciting, since those systems don’t have micro console equivalents. The same goes for handheld platforms like the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance.
As far the online multiplayer support, it’s fine. It is novel to play these old game with friends outside of your home. But the feature is bogged down by Nintendo’s bizarre lack of party and chat features on the Switch. If you want to play an NES game with a friend, you have to organize it outside of the Switch (either through Nintendo’s smartphone app or chat service like Discord). Also, the service had a mode turned on by default that produced game-breaking latency. This rendered games unplayable until I turned it off.
These NES game are the only part of the Nintendo Switch Online experience that garners any excitement. Everything else, compared to what Sony and Microsoft have been doing for years, feels inferior. But if you want to play major multiplayer games online, like Splatoon 2 and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, you need it. And that’s the real purpose of these retro games. It makes that $20 sting hurt just a bit less.
But retro games should be more than consolation prizes. Nintendo has created a good platform for classics with this app. It just needs to decide to go all in with it, and it will have a service that’s superior to the old Virtual Console.