Nintendo Switch Online Review: An Essential Purchase, but Skip the Upgrades
Nintendo's subscription service offers online play, free games and cloud saves. It's essential for most, but you probably only need the cheapest plan.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Nobody likes being forced into too many subscriptions, but sometimes they're necessary. If you're hoping to play online games with the Nintendo Switch, you'll need a Nintendo Switch Online membership. The Xbox and PlayStation require subscription plans to allow online multiplayer gaming, and Nintendo Switch Online is a similar proposition.
The good news is that Nintendo Switch Online costs less than PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold or Xbox Game Pass, at $20 a year. (You can also pay in installments, at $4 a month or $8 for three months, but the $20 for 12 months plan is the best value.) That plan gets you online play, online cloud saves and access to some free games you can play as long as you're subscribing to the service. But it'll only cover one Nintendo Switch account holder.
Optional Expansion Pack has N64 games at a steep step-up price
Families with multiple Switches, or anyone with multiple accounts on the same Switch, will need to pay $35 a year, which covers up to eight family members. Otherwise, the only way to play many games online will be through whichever individual account has the Switch Online membership.
Online play: For me, it's essential
You don't need to play Nintendo Switch games online, and Nintendo's games are arguably the most offline-friendly experiences offered by the big three console makers. (You can also get tons of local, same-room multiplayer games.) Still, a lot of Nintendo's games have online multiplayer, and for that alone the service is essential. Nintendo's online multiplayer features aren't always great, but they're slowly getting better over time: Switch Sports, Mario Strikers: Battle League and Animal Crossing are all online-focused, and many of Nintendo's recent games have online features.
There are some games that don't need Switch Online, and most of them are free-to-play games such as Fortnite or Fall Guys. So, there are ways to live with a Switch without Nintendo Switch Online.
Cloud saves: They come in handy
Cloud game saves are useful if you have multiple Nintendo Switches. Hopping from one Switch to another to play a game is a lot easier when you can just load your game save from the cloud. If you have multiple Switches in your household, only one can be set up to play games while offline, but the others can be used while Wi-Fi connected.
Even if you're a solo-Switch household, you might want this for upgrading from, for example, the original Switch to the new OLED version. If you don't have cloud saves, game save data can still be transferred between systems.
'Free' games: Nintendo's retro offerings are a nostalgic treasure trove
Nintendo dangles a few game freebies for Switch Online subscribers, but far fewer than either PlayStation Plus (which recently added some new tiers for extra premium and retro games) or Xbox Live Gold or Game Pass Ultimate, which cycle games monthly.
Nintendo leans on its NES and SNES classic games, both of which come in Switch apps that semi-regularly update their libraries with new titles. There are 62 NES games right now and 54 SNES games, so it's a lot to keep you busy. The NES and SNES apps mimic what Nintendo used to offer on those cute plug-in NES and SNES Classic retro consoles, or in "Virtual Console" games on the older Wii and the Nintendo DS and 3DS. One fun advantage of these games is that many of them are playable online.
My favorite Online freebie game is Pac-Man 99, a battle royale competitive game like Tetris 99 where you play Pac-Man against 99 others to try to survive. I love it dearly.
The step-up Expansion Pack: You don't need it
Nintendo has a step-up tier called the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack which adds Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis retro game collections (about 16 N64 games, and 25 Genesis games so far). Both of those compilations have some excellent games including Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Sonic 2, Phantasy Star IV. They also come with game save features built in, but they're not worth the added price of the step-up plan unless you're a die-hard N64 or Genesis fan. N64 games are hard to find otherwise, but there aren't many available yet. The Genesis games can be had in other ways; there's an excellent, separately sold Sega Genesis Classics compilation on the eShop, plus some standalone Sega Ages games. At an extra $50 a year for the Expansion Pack (or $80 for a Family subscription), it doesn't seem worth it.
Nintendo's also started adding some other DLC content with the Expansion Pack to sweeten the deal: a Splatoon 2 expansion, extra Mario Kart 8 Deluxe courses and Animal Crossing extras. These can be bought separately at about $25 each.
The best value among console subscriptions? Not entirely
It could be said that, for $20, Nintendo's Switch Online fee is a better deal than Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Plus. It doesn't have the discounts or continuous flow of high-end freebie games that the others have, but it certainly costs less. I also appreciate there's also a family subscription for Switch Online, considering how many Switch players are in my house.
I'm not wild about having to pay yearly fees for game consoles, but $20 for a Switch Online membership is acceptable. The Expansion Pack service, however, probably isn't worth it unless you have a serious love affair with N64 games.