Nintendo Switch Online underwhelms as pay-to-play multiplayer, NES games and Cloud Saves go live

Splatoon 2
Nintendo's ink-based online shooter, Splatoon 2 will be unplayable without subscribing to the new online system Credit: Nintendo

Having spent the last twelve years or so being accused of not understanding the whole concept of online gaming, Nintendo has finally launched its big pitch to get with the times with its latest console success, the Switch.  

Nintendo Switch Online has been discussed from the official reveal of the console in January 2017 when it was planned to launch that autumn. Only months later, the release date was shuffled back to 2018 as Nintendo Of America boss Reggie Fils-Amie claimed the company needed more time to work on its online offering. Presumably this was due to fan outcry over the original idea of offering one classic game per month to subscribers.

Well, now the Nintendo Switch Online service has launched properly and it is… underwhelming.

Nintendo has launched the service with five core offerings: online play, souped up versions of classic Nintendo Entertainment System games, cloud saves, access to an accompanying app for voice chat and game tie-ins, and some as-yet-unrevealed ‘special offers’. You can read the details about those feature in the the Telegraph’s round-up right here.

When you first turn on your Switch console, the online service doesn’t exactly make itself known. There’s a notification in the news feed prompting you to update your console, but after you’ve done that there’s no discernible changes on the home screen.

I got all the way into the online lobby of Splatoon 2 before I was told to sign-up to a free seven day trial of the service. You’re told that you have to put in a payment method for the auto-renew to start after the trial ends, but visiting the eShop afterwards you can find an option to turn that off if you want to (although Nintendo don’t make that easy to find.)

The only other obvious sign of Switch Online’s presence is a new offering in the eShop, a download called Nintendo Entertainment System - Nintendo Switch Online. This is where you’ll find those newly enhanced versions of the classic games I mentioned before.

The offering is a library of NES games including fan favourites like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Donkey Kong. This is likely what will sell the online service as Nintendo has done some interesting things here.

You can now play multiplayer versions of the classic both online and locally. Some games are competitive, others collaborative, others you play in tandem. In the original Super Mario Bros. for example, you keep playing until one of your dies, then the other person takes over and sees if they can overtake the first player. There’s no reward for doing so but it adds a new dimension to these classic titles.

Nintendo also promised graphical upgrades and an overlay to mirror those old 1990s televisions, but those are tucked in a corner and ultimately pretty underwhelming when you do find them.

The trouble is that these games are starting to get a little exhausting. Not to take away from the original brilliance of the earliest games in Nintendo’s library but most of these games have also been offered on the Wii, 3DS, Wii U and best-selling NES Classic Mini NES Edition. Nintendo fans who wanted to play these titles have had ample chance to do so in the last few years.

And despite the upgrades, you can only play Ice Climbers so many times before it becomes tiresome, especially to younger millennials and Gen Z folks, like myself, who have no real nostalgic attachment. If Nintendo upgrade the service over time to offer titles from consoles like the Nintendo 64 or Gamecube, that would go a long way to justify Switch Online's asking price. Nintendo is currently promising new NES games to launch every month, so perhaps there’s hope for the future, but for the time being all the online multiplayer and HD visuals can’t disguise these games’ creaking limbs.

Cloud saves are live and happen automatically. These come as standard on Xbox One consoles, so it’s arguably a bit cheeky for Nintendo to be offering this as a ‘feature’, but they’re nice to have and probably even nicer if you’re the type whose prone to console based mishaps. They also allow users to play games on other Switch consoles and continue your progress from where you left off - ideal for gaming while visiting friends, but also a really helpful feature for families with multiple consoles who aren’t particular about whose is whose.

Pokémon Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee will not support cloud saves when they launch in November Credit: The Pokémon Company International

That being said, it’s worth bearing in mind that some games such as Splatoon 2 and the upcoming Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee will not support the function. Nintendo claims this is to avoid cheating. Pokémon is cited as an example where players could manipulate the in-game trading system and cloud saves to reset rare creatures into their collections after having lost them forever.

Nintendo has got some flak for the fact that some games such as the upcoming Dark Souls: Remastered don’t support cloud saves on Switch but do on other consoles. However, it’s worth remembering that Nintendo invites the individual developers to decide whether or not to implement the function, rather than it being a blanket policy.

Next there’s the Switch Online app which already launched in beta alongside Splatoon 2 last July. At the time it was widely criticised for being difficult to use, battery draining, and unintuitive. Fast forward to the present and... it’s still difficult to use, battery draining, and unintuitive.

The app is necessary for online voice chat, presumably to save the Switch console from having to process the chat and the game itself. So far, so fine, but only certain games support the function in the first place. The battery draining aspect has been mitigated somewhat as you can now use the voice chat while your phone is in sleep mode (though you do have to tinker with some settings, which feels unnecessarily complicated.)

Still, the app does have some promise. Nintendo has announced that some games will interact with the app. We’ve already seen this with the aforementioned Splatoon 2 where you can check you in-game battle stats and gear which is a fun and handy use. If Nintendo makes more of this in future, it could certainly make the app more useable.

As for those exciting sounding ‘special offers’, there’s no sign of them anywhere on the console thus far. Presumably these will be handled through the My Nintendo account system online. We know the first offer is the special NES JoyCon controllers which can only be used for playing the aforementioned NES games.  Nice for nostalgia, but ultimately unnecessary and, despite their 'exclusive' nature, still eye-wateringly expensive at £59.99. Plus, the pre-orders haven’t even gone live in Europe yet.

Nintendo is offering these retro controllers as an exclusive to online subscribers, but so far they're only available to preorder in the USA Credit: Nintendo

The plus side is that Nintendo Switch Online comes comparatively cheap. A year’s subscription to Switch online comes in at £17.99, less than half what you’d pay for Xbox Live, and around a third the price of PlayStation Plus. So that goes someway to mitigate the rather bare-bones offering. On the other hand, those services are offering free modern games, better quality in-game chat, and much longer-lasting cloud saves.

It's not that Nintendo’s offering is ‘bad’ per say, it just does little to excite or demand a subscription. Essentially, the problem with it is that the company is charging for many features that, up until now, were available for free. And the additional upgrades and features don’t necessarily feel fleshed out enough to justify the payment. Unless you really love online play, there’s no really compelling reason to purchase a Switch Online subscription just yet.