Nintendo is known for a lot of things: iconic characters, innovative game controllers, lovable developers and, of course, incredibly fun games.
Nintendo is also known as the one major game company that can't figure out online play. Its history of cumbersome friend codes, a frustrating lack of voice chat support and the lovable but bizarre in-house social network that was Miiverse have left it out of step with what most gamers want from an online console experience.
Between showcasing the new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and launching Fortnite on the Switch, E3 2018 seemed like the perfect time to change that -- but company didn't say a word about its paid Nintendo Switch Online service during its E3 livestream.
Using the Switch online is tougher than it should be...
The Nintendo Switch Online service doesn't officially launch until September, but current Switch owners have had access to a free version ever since the console launched. Right now, that includes access to online multiplayer in games like Arms, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Fortnite and the ability to use voice chat in select games. That's fine for now, but the way some of its features work are, well, weird.
Take the Splatoon 2 voice-chat setup for example. In order to chat with your team in an online match, you'll need to download the Nintendo Switch Online App on your phone, invite your friends to a phone-based VoIP chat, and then connect to your match. Want to hear game audio and voice comms in the same headset? You'll need to buy a complicated audio splitter to literally tether your console to your phone.
It's a messy, cumbersome experience and, frankly, it's not good enough.
Even Nintendo seems to agree: Look carefully at the consoles and headsets being used in this week's official Splatoon 2 World Championship, and you won't find the complicated adapter. In fact, the headsets the players are using seem to plug directly into the Switch dock's USB port.
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...but it may be about to get better
Maybe USB support is being reserved just for tournament play, but even if that's the case, we already know better voice-chat options are coming. Remember how Fortnite just launched on Switch? The team said that later this week, it would be updated to support in-game team chat through the console's 3.5mm headset jack. No weird splitter accessory. No smartphone app. That may seem like the obvious, default way to use a headset with the Nintendo Switch, but it's not an option in Mario Kart 8, Arms or Splatoon 2.
We've known that the Switch unofficially supports USB audio for months, and official documents show that the console's audio jack has no problem using headset microphones -- is official, in-game support coming in an update? Will Nintendo Switch Online users have multiple options for connecting to voice chat? It seems plausible, but we just don't know. Despite hosting an E3 with a big focus on games designed for online multiplayer, Nintendo simply didn't say.
Nintendo Switch Online isn't just about multiplayer, either. It's also Nintendo's new retro game service. There's no "virtual console" library of classic games on the Switch, apart from a handful of classic NES games that will be offered to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers. It would have been heartening to see some of these classic games in action on the Switch during the E3 Nintendo Direct, as well as more details about what subscribers can look forward to when the service launches later this year.
For Nintendo fans who have been waiting on the edge of their seat for more details about the service, it's a bittersweet E3. Between the Splatoon 2 World Championship and Fortnite, there are hints that Nintendo's Switch Online service is evolving, but there are precious few details to confirm it.
We reached out to Nintendo to see if the difference between Fortnite's more direct voice chat options and Splatoon 2's setup was hinting at a future update, but the company's lips were sealed. "We have nothing to announce on this topic," a spokesperson responded.
There's a lot of potential in the Nintendo Switch Online service. Hopefully, Nintendo will tap into it -- and share more details -- before it launches this September.
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