Nintendo Switch Online went live last week, marking the first time the Japanese gaming giant has asked its customers to pay a subscription fee to play with and against others over the internet. Like similar services from PlayStation and Xbox, there are a number of benefits to signing up, but is it worth the price of admission?
First of all, it’s worth noting that Nintendo’s service is significantly less expensive than its competitors' online offerings. You can pay $5.95 for one month of access, $11.95 for three months, or $29.95 per year. This annual fee makes for quite a contrast to the $80 you pay on other consoles, although as you’ll see below Nintendo’s offering is arguably not as strong.
There’s also an option to buy a yearly “family membership” for $54.95, letting up to eight Nintendo Accounts access the Switch Online service, which could be quite a saving depending on how many Switch players you split it between.
This is the most obvious benefit of signing up to Nintendo Switch Online, although it may also be the most contentious. Players have been able to go online in games like Mario Kart, Splatoon 2 and Mario Tennis completely free throughout the past 18 months of the Switch’s life, so asking them to pay now could put a sour taste in their mouth. Still, this is something Nintendo has flagged as coming since the beginning, and running online servers does cost money.
Ahead of the Switch’s launch, there were concerns about Nintendo’s ability to deliver a modern internet-connected device worth paying for. Its previous efforts with the Wii U, for example, certainly fell well below those seen on competing consoles in terms of complexity and stability.
Yet the company has proven over the last year and a half that it can be trusted here, with the three games mentioned above in particular providing reliable and mostly seamless online play with special tournaments and the like keeping players coming back.
There's a lot of peripheral stuff that goes into a great online experience, such as the ability to group up with buddies and chat to friends and strangers in your game session, but Nintendo does not provide much of this as part of the Switch system itself. Instead, subscribers will have to use a special phone app. It does work well, especially if you don't mind leaving your phone on loudspeaker and just putting it next to you while you play, but it isn't ideal.
Importantly, free-to-play online games including Fortnite will not require a Nintendo Switch Online subscription to play.
Nintendo’s first, and so far only, piece of software that is exclusive to Online subscribers is essentially the Netflix of 30-year-old video games. The app contains a library of games originally released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, with 20 titles available at launch and more to be added each month.
The experience of playing these games — which so far includes usual Nintendo suspects like Super Mario Bros 3, The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong, plus some third party fare like River City Ransom and Ghosts 'n Goblins — is extremely similar to using the previously released NES Classic Mini, except you can play the games anywhere.
For two-player games you can of course hand one of the Switch Joy-Cons to another player for some instant Mario Bros. or Balloon Fight action, but interestingly you can also connect to a friend over the internet to play these ancient games together. In addition to chatting while you play via the phone app, you can use your controller to move a little hand around the screen, pointing out secrets or applauding when your friend finds a hidden stash of coins (or when they fall down a pit, if you want to be sarcastic). It's a quirky touch, but a singular one among online gaming services.
Of course even with added online features these old games seem a bit paltry compared to what you get with Xbox Live Gold or PlayStation Plus: several relatively recent full games every month. The true value of Nintendo's offering will only become apparent over time. Will it add quality games every month to eventually amass a truly worthwhile collection of classics, or will it drip feed mediocre titles while removing older ones from the service? For now, I've been having fun revisiting some of these retro goodies.
Finally, this is the most pragmatic part of the subscription and will likely be of interest to the most people, if only because Nintendo is otherwise so behind the times when it comes to securing user data. Previously all save data associated with your Switch games was held on the console with no way to move it to a PC, USB key or online server. This meant that if you broke or lost your Switch you could lose hundreds of hours of progress.
This is out of step with the way other players in the industry do things. Microsoft automatically uploads all user saves to the cloud for free, while Sony allows all PlayStation gamers to move their saves to USB storage, with paying Plus customers able to access cloud storage. With Switch Online, Nintendo is providing a way for paying customers to get some peace of mind about their epic Breath of the Wild save data, providing a strong incentive to sign up.
Cloud saves on Switch are automatic and completely painless. Whenever you update a save on your console, it's sent to the cloud to update the online version. If you get a new Switch or are signed in on someone else's machine, you can pull the cloud save down whenever you like. As long as you stay a paying subscriber, your data will always be available online so you don't need to worry about a drowned or crushed console erasing it from existence.
One downside is that Nintendo says it will not enable the functionality for every game. So far the only games I've seen that do not use cloud saves are Fortnite and Splatoon 2. This is understandable in the case of the former, as all your progress is stored online anyway. In Splatoon's case, Nintendo says being able to store and restore saves could allow players to cheat and gain an advantage online, but it still sucks that you could lose all your gear and single-player progress.
So should you sign up?
Overall the Nintendo Switch Online service has some shortcomings compared to its competitors, but it's also a fraction of the price. The online experience, retro games and cloud saves are all solid offerings, if not industry-leading, and it will all likely get stronger as time goes on.
Nintendo also claims that there will be "exclusive offers" for members only, but it hasn't exactly made a great start on that front. So far the only offers are for some exclusive clothes in Splatoon 2, and the right to pay $80 for a pair of NES-themed wireless controllers you can use to play the old games.
For me personally the subscription is a no brainer, and at this price you would have to never play online, have no interest in NES games and not be worried about losing your saves to pass it up.