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Nintendo Switch Online: Your guide to the subscription service and its growing retro library

The hybrid console's online subscription service offers online gaming and a sizable library of classic SNES and NES games that's adding Donkey Kong Country 2 and other games next week.

Multiplayer is at the heart of many of Nintendo's biggest games: There's a unique joy to the chaos of a Smash Bros. match or Mario Kart race with your friends. For years -- from the Wii to the early days of Switch -- it was free, but Nintendo launched its $20-a-year Switch Online subscription service in September 2018.

Think of Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus, but for Nintendo. If you want to play games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons or Super Smash Bros. Ultimate online, you'll need to pay. The service costs $3.99 for a month, $7.99 for three months or $19.99 if you pay for a full year in advance.

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If you want to get the most out of Pokemon Sword and Shield, you'll need a subscription.

Nintendo

You could also opt for the $34.99 family plan, which is meant for households with a bunch of people who want their own accounts. It lets up to eight people play online for a year.

Online multiplayer isn't all you get. The Nintendo Switch Online service also gives you access to a library of classic SNES and NES games, support for cloud backup of game data, access to the Nintendo Switch phone app and a few exclusive offers. Let's take a look at the service's features, so you can wring every drop of value out of your subscription.

Read more: Nintendo Switch Lite is in stock at GameStop and Best Buy: Latest inventory update

Online play

If you want to visit a friend's island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons or battle a team in Pokemon Sword and Shield, you'll need a Nintendo Switch Online subscription. However, one major multiplayer game will work without a subscription: Fortnite is playable online even if you don't have an active online subscription.

Classic Nintendo games

Subscribing to Switch's online service lets you access a library of old games, like Netflix for Nintendo games. These are all found within the "Nintendo Entertainment System -- Nintendo Switch Online" and  "Super Nintendo Entertainment System -- Nintendo Switch Online" apps, which you can download from the eShop. Within the apps, you'll find wallpaper spreads of classic video game box art. Select one, and you'll be instantly dropped into the game.

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It's a-me, old school Mario.

Nintendo

Much like the NES Classic and SNES Classic retro consoles, you can switch between visual filters in the apps' menus -- a 4:3 mode, pixel perfect and a fuzzy scan-line-filled CRT mode for the true retro experience.

Less retro is the cheeky rewind feature -- if you want to try something again, you can press and hold ZL and ZR to jump back a few frames, and it'll be like your mistake never happened.

Read more: Nintendo Switch's new SNES feature is ruining everything

Nintendo has also added an online multiplayer mode, even in games that don't have multiplayer modes -- you can pass the second player controller to a friend over the internet, so you can take turns. You can also try SP versions of some games, which add special features.

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Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong's Quest leads the Sept. 23 batch of SNES and NES classics coming to the service.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

The initial September 2018 selection included 20 NES games, and it ballooned as Nintendo added two or three a month after that. A set of 24 SNES games brought it into the big time in August 2019, and it's been adding to both consoles' libraries periodically since then. 

You'll also lose access to your NES and SNES libraries if your console is disconnected from the internet for more than a week -- the console needs to check in with the service every seven days to make sure you're still subscribed.

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There are two SP versions of Metroid, and one lets you skip straight to the battle with space dragon Ridley.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

Here are the lists of games available within each app, with SP versions highlighted.

Classic NES games

SNES games

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The Japanese library is a little different.

Nintendo

The Japanese library

You can access more classic games via the Japanese eShop, at no extra cost. Here are the steps for this:

1. Create a second Nintendo Account and set "Japan" as the region. You'll have to use a different email address than the one linked to your regular account.

2. Create a new profile on your Switch and link it to your Japanese account.

3. Download "Family Computer -- Nintendo Switch Online" and "Super Famicom -- Nintendo Switch Online" apps from the Japanese store. Don't worry about the language barrier; you'll spot the English "Nintendo Switch Online" option.

These apps are similar to the NES and SNES ones, in Japanese. They also contain that country's versions of games and a few that aren't available in the West:

There's also an SP version of NES Open Tournament Golf that's exclusive to Japan. There are some regional differences in games, beyond the language. The Japanese version of The Legend of Zelda was released on the Famicom Disk System, a Japan-only console expansion that never got an NES equivalent. So it has a more complex soundtrack, offering richer music with more audio channels and instruments than the Western release.

The Japanese release of Super Mario Bros. 3 is also slightly harder. When Raccoon Mario gets damaged in that version, he drops all the way back down to small Mario. In the Western one, Raccoon Mario drops into Super Mario, so you can take an extra hit before losing a life.

So far, the Japanese Super Famicom library doesn't contain anything that isn't in the Western SNES selection, but that's likely to change down the line. For now, you can gaze at that region's box art (which is generally prettier).

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The Japanese Super Famicom selection is presented with that region's vertical box art.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

Your main Nintendo Account's subscription will give you access to the apps from the Japanese store, so you won't need to pay for a separate subscription. If you can overcome the language barrier -- all the text will be in Japanese -- it's worth giving these games a try.

Cloud-save data

For Nintendo Switch Online subscribers, game data will automatically be backed up to Nintendo servers if you have an internet connection. If you sign in to your account on a new console, you'll be able to download that data and pick up right where you left off. It's an easy, simple way to protect the time you've invested in Nintendo Switch games.

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You can back up most games' save data in the cloud.

Nintendo

Certain titles aren't compatible with this feature, to prevent cheating. On the surface, that seems to make sense -- players can't hack their Pokemon Sword and Shield data to get all the starters -- but it means that competitive multiplayer games with a single-player component aren't protected. If you lose your Switch and want to pick up where you left off in Splatoon 2's single-player campaign, you'll be out of luck.

If you cancel, you have six months to resubscribe before your cloud data is potentially deleted, Nintendo told IGN. That's the same amount of time Sony gives PlayStation Plus users.

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Playing through A Link to the Past in Japanese might be a bit too challenging.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

Voice chat and the Nintendo Switch app

Online multiplayer is great, but without the ability to talk to other players, it's a weirdly solitary social experience. That's why voice chat is so important. Unfortunately, Nintendo's solution to voice chat is a little strange.

Most game consoles allow you to plug a headset in to the console's USB port or audio input jack and talk to players directly through the game. But most Nintendo Switch games that support voice chat require the user to piggyback off a phone, using the free Nintendo Switch Online app, available on Android and iOS.

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Voice chat isn't as straightforward as it should be.

Nintendo

To chat with other players in Splatoon 2, you'll need to download the app on your phone, invite your friends to a Skype-like VoIP chat in the game, then fire up the app and, finally, connect to your match. You'll be talking with your team on your phone while playing the game on your console.

An update made it a little better, in certain games. If you start a multiplayer session in the Switch's NES library, the phone app will automatically detect your play session and connect you to your friend. Some games will even let you chat with other players who aren't on your friends list: Mario Kart 8 will tell you that other users are in voice chat, prompting you to open the app.

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Super Mario Kart is a retro treat on the Switch.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

If you want to have a traditional console experience, you'll need to buy a complicated audio splitter to literally tether your Switch to your smartphone.

It isn't a user-friendly experience, which is why some games sidestepped it -- you can chat in Fortnite by plugging a headset in to the console and playing. 

The app also let you access special features in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Splatoon 2.

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The NES controllers let you get truly old school.

Nintendo

Special offers

Nintendo Switch Online members will get access to special offers. These could be discounts, in-game items or products not available to nonsubscribers.

Mario-themed battle royale game Super Mario Bros. 35 throws you into a 2D arena with 34 other players, all battling it out to be the last survivor. It'll be available to subscribers from Oct. 1 until March 31, 2021.

Prior to the June 2019 release of Super Mario Maker 2, Nintendo introduced its Nintendo Switch Game Vouchers promotion, which let you download two qualifying Switch games for a set price of $100, instead of paying $120 to buy them separately. Nintendo updates the list of eligible games regularly; this offer applies to the recently announced Paper Mario: The Origami King.

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Puzzle game Tetris 99, exclusively for subscribers.

Nintendo

It's also offered free original games, like Tetris 99, which came out in February 2019. A physical version has since become available for $30, in a bundle with a 12-month Nintendo Switch Online subscription.

If you subscribe for a year, you'll get in-game items for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Super Kirby Clash.

If you want to feel extra retro when playing the console's retro library, Switch-compatible NES and SNES Controllers for Nintendo Switch are available only to subscribers. It's $60 for a pair of NES ones and $30 for a single SNES pad, but they're currently sold out.

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You'll have to link your Nintendo account to your Switch profile.

Screenshot by CNET

You'll need a Nintendo account to sign up

Your Nintendo Switch has individual user profiles for each user. The company also has a Nintendo account to manage your profile and purchase-history on the website, console devices and phone apps. To use Nintendo Switch Online, you'll need both. 

Just make sure you link your profile to the right account -- any Switch profile linked to a Nintendo account will be permanently locked in.

There's a free trial

If you want to sample the goods before shelling out any money, Nintendo is offering a one-week free trial. The seven-day trial offers almost all the benefits of the core service, but it won't let you access special offers, like those retro NES and SNES controllers.

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Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels is monstrously tough, with its poison mushroom betrayals.

Nintendo/Screenshot by Sean Keane/CNET

If you don't like the service, however, you'll have to manually disable auto-renewal to avoid being charged a $3.99 monthly fee at the end of your trial. If you started the free trial during its launch week, you'd better check your bill now -- it's probably about renewal time.

How do I sign up?

Prepaid subscription cards are available at select retailers, but the easiest way to buy the service is simply to try to play a multiplayer game on your Switch -- it'll take you directly to the eShop to complete the sign-up process.

This post will be updated as more features, games and offers are added for Nintendo Switch Online subscribers.

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