Ask any Nintendo fan about the company's track record with line multiplayer, and you'll hear the hard truth: it's the one thing the company just never got right. From the Wii, to the Wii U and even into the modern era of the Nintendo Switch, the company's game consoles have been hampered by friend codes, confusing (or absent) voice chat systems and inconsistent performance for years. Still, fans often forgave the company. After all, unlike Microsoft and Sony's services, it was free. It's hard to argue with free.
That excuse doesn't work anymore. Nintendo recently launched its Nintendo Switch Online service, which places most of the console's online multiplayer behind a paywall.
What is it?
Think of Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus, but for Nintendo: It's the key to multiplayer gaming on the Nintendo Switch. If you want to play games like Splatoon 2 or Rocket League online, you'll need to pay for the privilege. 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.
It isn't all about online multiplayer, though. The Nintendo Switch Online service also gives subscribers a library of classic games, support for cloud backup of game data, access to the Nintendo Switch smartphone app and exclusive offers available only to members.
Let's take a quick look at each of those benefits, their caveats and a few of the program's odd quirks you should know about.
Classic Nintendo games
When the Nintendo Switch hit store shelves, it was missing one iconic part of Nintendo's past several game systems: the Virtual Console. This was what Nintendo called its library of downloadable classic games; the eShop's catalog of NES, SNES, Game Boy and Nintendo 64 titles. Eventually, Nintendo revealed that these games wouldn't be made available as separate downloads anymore but would be part of the Nintendo Switch Online service. Think of it as Netflix for select Nintendo games. Now the company has announced about two dozen retro games, all of them from the original NES, that will be paired with the service.
Twenty games launched with the service, and most of them are classics. Day One subscribers have access to games like Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, the Legend of Zelda, Balloon Fight, Donkey Kong, Double Dragon and River City Ransom. In October, Nintendo will add Solomon's Key, NES Open and Super Dodge Ball to the library. In November and December it will follow up with Metroid, Wario's Woods and other games.
To play them, you'll need to download the "Nintendo Entertainment System -- Nintendo Switch Online" app from the eShop. Yes, that name is a mouthful, but it's also exactly what it sounds like.
The game interface is pretty much a wallpaper spread of classic video game box art. Select one, and you'll be instantly dropped into the game. If you played Nintendo's miniature NES Classic console, you'll feel right at home - in our tests the emulation and visual quality felt about on par with the throwback console. It even has the same filters: drop into the menu and you can select between a 4:3 mode, pixel perfect and a fuzzy scanline-filled CRT mode.
Even so, this is more than the NES Classic repackaged as an app. Nintendo has also tacked on an online multiplayer mode - letting you pass the second player controller to a friend over the internet. It's one of those ideas that's so silly, it's actually pretty novel: these games were created before the internet was even a thing. Now you can play them online. That's wild.
Being able to play River City Ransom online with a friend is neat, but the execution has its flaws. Games that don't have multiplayer built in aren't amazing: all you can do is trade who has control of the game. Player 2 will just have to watch, or point to things with an online cursor. Setting up a game or joining a friend is easy enough - you just select the multiplayer mode, select your friend's name, and play - but the experience is pretty sensitive to shoddy internet connections. When it works, it's a blast, but throw in even a tiny bit of lag and the experience quickly becomes a mess of input delay and game slowdown.
There are a few other quirks, too. If you want change to use save states to record your progress or change to a different game, you'll have to press the L and R triggers on your controller. That's a bit unintuitive, and easy to do by accident.
Still, if you don't have an NES Classic, it's a nice way to get your retro fix on Nintendo Switch. Better still, Nintendo is planning to add more games to the library each month - and has already announced nine more titles coming to the service by the end of the year.
Nintendo hasn't announced the full list of games it'll add to the service in 2019, but here's every NES title coming to the Nintendo Switch Online that's been announced so far:
These are the games Nintendo will add to the service in the coming months:
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Naturally, you'll lose access to the games if you let your Nintendo Switch Online subscription lapse. But you should know that you'll also lose access to your NES library if your console is disconnected from the internet for more than a week. Nintendo says the console needs to check in with the service every seven days to maintain access.
That isn't an issue with games downloaded from Xbox Live's Games with Gold or PlayStation Plus.
You can access the Japanese library of retro games, too
Not content with the NES library of classic games? If you're willing to jump through a couple of hoops, you can get a few more options.
This is a little convoluted, but bear with us: Players who make a second Nintendo Account and assign it "Japan" as the region can create a second profile on their Switch with access to the Japanese eShop. This will let you buy and download any game released digitally in Japan -- including the "Family Computer" Nintendo Switch Online app. Basically, it's the exact same thing as the NES app detailed above, but filled with Japanese games.
Most of the games on the Family Computer app are the same as on its international counterpart, but there are a few key differences in some titles. The Japanese version of The Legend of Zelda, for instance, has a more complex soundtrack -- offering richer music with more audio channels and instruments than the US version. That's because in Japan, Zelda made its debut on the Famicom Disk System, an expansion that never made it to the NES outside of its home country. Did you know that the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 3 is slightly harder? It is. When Mario gets damaged in a Tanooki suit, he drops all the way back down to small Mario in that version of the game.
We can expect more games with differences, too: Metroid, due on the system in November, was also a Disk System game. It's a small bonus, but worth it for fans that want to see how some of these games were changed when they came overseas.
Access to online multiplayer gaming is the main selling point of most console subscription services. Just like with Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus, subscribing to Nintendo Switch Online allows you to play games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Arms and Splatoon 2 and the upcoming Super Smash Bros. Ultimate online.
And, as mentioned above, online play is also enabled for the Nintendo Switch Online service's library of classic games -- just in case you want to relive the torture of waiting for player 1 to die before taking your turn in Super Mario Bros.
At least one favorite online multiplayer game will work without a subscription. Fortnite even if you don't have an active online subscription. There may be other exceptions to the rule, presumably for games that feature online multiplayer exclusively. Nintendo hasn't made a full list available yet.
Cloud save data
If you wanted to back up your save data on a Nintendo Wii, Wii U or 3DS, you needed to transfer it to an SD card. On the Nintendo Switch, that isn't an option. If your system is lost, stolen or broken, all the hours you sunk into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be lost forever. Nintendo Switch Online's save data cloud feature aims to change that.
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.
Unfortunately, there's a catch. In order to prevent save scumming and cheating in online games, certain titles aren't compatible with this feature. On the surface, that seems to make sense -- we can't have players hacking their Pokemon Let's Go: Pikachu and Eevee save data to cheat -- 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, for instance, you'll be out of luck.
Nintendo also says it can't guarantee the data will stick around if you cancel your subscription. Early wording on how long the data stuck around was frustratingly vague. Recently, the company clarified: explaining to IGN that if you cancel, you have six months to resubscribe before your cloud data is potentially deleted. That's the same amount of time Sony gives PlayStation Plus users.
Voice chat and the Nintendo Switch smartphone 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... weird.
Most game consoles allow you to plug a headset into 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 of a smartphone by using the Nintendo Switch Online smartphone app.
It's a convoluted and weird experience. To chat with other players in Splatoon 2, for instance, 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 smartphone while playing the game on your console.
At least the most recent update made it a little better -- at least in certain games. If you start a multiplayer session in the new retro NES app, the Switch Online 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 friend's list: After a recent updates Mario Kart 8, will tell you that other users are in voice chat, prompting you to find and open the app.
It's still a weird speakerphone chat solution, but at least you don't need to create the room for yourself.
In a recent Nintendo Direct, the company praised the system as being more open, a way for other people in the room to hear and talk on the voice chat via speaker phone. 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 have already sidestepped it. Want to use voice chat in Fortnite on Nintendo Switch? Simply plug a headset into the console and play. Despite how much better that is, Nintendo is still doubling down on app-based voice chat. It's part of the Nintendo Switch Online service, and at launch will support Splatoon 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, ARms, Mario Tennis Aces and the subscription service's library of Nintendo Entertainment System games.
In select games the app will also allow you to access other special features. Right now the only game that supports this seems to be Splatoon 2, which gets you exclusive items from a game store only available via the Nintendo Switch Online app.
Nintendo Switch Online members will get access to special offers. These could be discounts, in-game items or special products not available to nonsubscribers.
So far, there are only two examples of what these kind of special offers might actually be: special in-game gear for Splatoon 2 (available to subscribers that pay for a year of service in advance) and-- a product Nintendo says will only be sold to subscribers -- not in stores.
It's kind of a shame these controllers are available only to subscribers of the Nintendo Switch Online service. They look almost identical to the original NES' gamepads, save for a Joy-Con rail on the top edge of the square controller to dock it to the Nintendo Switch for charging. Still, the limited availability makes some amount of sense: They're designed specifically to be used with the Nintendo Switch Online's library of classic NES games, which themselves are only available to subscribers.
This benefit could be a goldmine for memorabilia collectors in the future, assuming the controllers are any indication of the kind of "special offers" available to subscribers.
You'll need a Nintendo Account to sign up
This is where things get a little complicated. Your Nintendo Switch has individual user accounts for each user. Nintendo also has a "Nintendo Account" to manage your profile and purchase history on the website, console devices and smartphone apps. To use Nintendo Switch Online, you'll need both. If you already have a Nintendo Switch, you've probably already got this covered, but if you're new to both Switch Online and the console itself, you'll want to head over to http://accounts.nintendo.com to get started.
Just make sure you're liking your console to the right account -- any Switch profile linked to a Nintendo Account will be permanently locked in.
Up to 8 Nintendo Accounts can share a Nintendo Switch Online subscription
Don't want to shell out separate subscription fees for every member of your family? You're in luck. Nintendo is offering a 12-month Family Membership for $34.99. Every person on the family membership plan should get full access to the Nintendo Switch Online service benefits.
There's a free trial
Not convinced? Nintendo knows its service will be met with skepticism. That's why it's offering all users a one-week free trial when the service launches Sept. 18. The seven-day trial offers almost all the benefits of the core service but won't include access to special offers, like those retro NES controllers.
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.
OK, how do I sign up?
Prepaid subscription cards are available at select retailers, but the easiest way to buy the service is simply 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 details on Nintendo Switch Online emerge.