Depending on how you want to count their attempts, you could say that Nintendo Switch Online is the company’s third major attempt at an online infrastructure, but it’s sadly not a case of third time lucky. For the last 18 months, Switch fans and Nintendo sceptics alike have been wondering if, when and how the service would launch and whether or not it would lead to a tangible improvement in Nintendo’s approach to online.
Switch Online puts its best foot forward as you sign up, prompting you to download the NES game library and delve into the initial catalogue of 20 classic games. From Balloon Flight and Donkey Kong through to Super Mario Bros. 3, Gradius and Dr. Mario, there’s some great games to tuck into, and they’ve been updated to support both local and online multiplayer, creating a lobby that friends can join to play with you.
Outside of a few key titles, the NES catalogue is really just filled with retro curios to play for 5 minutes and move on from, with the dated controls and programmed physics hampering even some of Nintendo’s games.
In truth, this is little more than Nintendo’s NES emulator shipped out onto the Switch, as proven by Switch hackers, but the way the catalogue is presented is really nice and the multiplayer overlay works very well. You can set up a lobby for a friend to join – sadly, there’s no playing against randoms – and play, with the neat feature of the right analogue stick bringing up a pointer and letting you applaud by clicking it in.
If you’ve got the Switch Online app on your phone, it might also ping to say you can join a voice chat lobby together. Nintendo have stuck to their original plan of having the app act as a hub for voice chat, but it’s sadly as barebones today as it was when the preview launched alongside Splatoon 2 last July. Weirdly, Splatoon 2 is still the only game with an in-app area to view stats and get little bonuses, but the game will now prompt you to join voice chat lobbies for NES, Mario Kart 8, ARMS, Splatoon 2 and Mario Tennis Aces.
Other games will gain support in future, I’m sure, but why the hell is there no Fortnite, no FIFA 19, no Overcooked 2, Paladins, Rocket League, or any of the other great multiplayer games on the system? How have Nintendo squandered the last 12 months in not pushing third parties to implement the in-house frameworks? Worse, it’s time to break out your old cross-game chat memes, because there’s no generic party chat.
It’s simply staggering that 18 months after the Switch release, 14 months after the app originally launched, there’s no way to view your friends list in the app, no way to send messages to other users. Literally the only positive that I can see from the current set up is the notion that you can use the app to act as a speaker for the room so that non-players can join the chat… except Xbox added this feature in the last 12 months. The apps that Sony and Microsoft provide put Nintendo’s effort to shame.
And so we come to the third pillar of Nintendo’s service, which is the ability to backup your saves to the cloud. Well, most of them, because a few notable examples like Splatoon 2 and FIFA 19 won’t. Honestly, when the Switch still won’t let you back up saves via USB, it’s a nice safety net to have in case your Switch is lost, stolen or damaged. Considering it’s a portable device, that’s far, far more likely to happen than with PS4 or Xbox One.
However, for long time Switch owners, beware that there’s no initial dragnet to upload all your saves. Viewing your save data in the console settings shows that they’re only uploaded automatically when you’ve gone and played a game. Sure, you can manually tell it to upload each save, but it’s sure to catch a few people out who expect it to all sort itself out.
In a minor positive that’s actually a total aside to Switch Online, Nintendo have opened up their DRM system ever-so-slightly, letting you play your digital games on other consoles in a similar way to PS4 and Xbox One. Your primary console lets anybody using that system play your games on or offline, while you can now log in on another system and, so long as you have an online connection.
Switch Online has been a disappointment waiting to happen for the last year and a half, and now that it’s here? Well, I’m disappointed at how badly Nintendo can continue to get this wrong. The one saving grace is price, coming in at less than half that of PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live, but then you also get so much less than those services. Instead of being quirky and experimental like Miiverse on Wii U and 3DS, it’s still just the bare framework of an online network that needs major investment and rapid improvement to truly be worthwhile.
If there was one time that Nintendo should have sucked it up and copied their peers, it was with Switch Online. The only thing they seem to have learnt is that people will pay for it.