Everyone wants you to sign up for a subscription, these days. Whether it’s yet another film and TV streaming service, coffee sent to you through the post, gyms, smartphone apps, or pretty much each and every video games platform, they all want to take a recurring fee and hope to convince you not to cancel by the time the next payment is due. Well, that and hope you forget.
Nintendo has drawn the ire of gamers at large for their own steps into these realms, first with Nintendo Switch Online and the now with its new Expansion Pack. By and large they got a pass for offering the base Nintendo Switch Online subscription at a much lower price than PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold, while offering a decent and growing selection of NES and SNES games, but now, with the introduction of N64 games, Mega Drive games and bundling in the Animal Crossing DLC, they want more money from you.
That sounds great, even with the caveat that you’ll have to pay more. The problem is… the N64 emulation simply isn’t up to the lofty standards that ardent fans of classic games demand.
Within hours of the Expansion Pack’s launch people were taking to the internet to report flaws. Fog in Ocarina of Time is rendered incorrectly, you don’t have the 3D All-Stars improvements for Mario 64, the peculiarities of the N64 sprite rendering haven’t been properly replicated, there’s game-by-game input lag, and more. These are all widely documented by this point, and there’s a great breakdown of these flaws by Modern Vintage Gamer:
Then you have other fundamental issues, like not being able to remap the buttons of an undoubtedly quirky N64 gamepad to the different options on the Switch, while newly introduced online multiplayer is also flawed, the experience brought down to the level of the worst participant’s connection.
You would expect Nintendo to provide some of the best emulated experiences for their games, but they’re not. There are better N64 emulators out there, both historically from Nintendo’s own N64 emulators that date back to the GameCube, and more broadly through fan-created emulators. As custodians of their own gaming legacy, Expansion Pack is far short of being some kind of Criterion Collection of N64 games.
That said, I’m of the opinion that this falls into the “good enough” category. I’d expect that the majority of people either have rather hazy memories from the late 90s or really aren’t all that bothered by whatever minor quirks are now present in these games. Chances are you’ll want to fiddle with a few races of Mario Kart 64 with a few friends, or run through some classic platformers for old time’s sake, probably getting an unvarnished reminder of how rudimentary early 3D games looked in the process.
That’s not to absolve Nintendo of their responsibility to do their best to preserve their own legacy, but for the initial asking price, it’s not a bad deal to get access to some of the essential classics from the N64. Certainly, if you wanted Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and Mario Kart 64 through Nintendo’s old Virtual Console releases, you’d be out more than the £17 / $20 difference between standard Switch Online and the Expansion Pack. And here’s the kicker: Nintendo’s Virtual Console often had flawed emulation as well.
That equation changes significantly by the time you’re weighing up if Expansion Pack is worth it for the second year or not. Nintendo will obviously be adding more games to the N64 library over time, trying to ape the steady trickle of new content that Netflix and Xbox Game Pass are able to achieve, and depending on how well it goes, they might continue to add new DLC expansions as Expansion Pass perks. There will always be the lure of something new to keep you subscribing.
The issue is that this is really an all or nothing subscription. You can buy Switch Online in 1 month, 3 month and 12 month periods, each offering better value, but for Expansion Pack, it’s only available for 12 months at a time. Where an Xbox owner can grab one month of Xbox Game Pass to blitz through Halo Infinite, or you can gorge yourself on Disney’s various Marvel TV series in a single 30-day billing period, you have to commit to a year of overly blocky Mario and chums at a time. These are rentals, so where’s the £5 for a month option for my N64 multiplayer gaming night?
At the end of the day, Expansion Pack could become a decent option for people looking to relive the N64’s heyday, and as Nintendo expand the library being able to drop £35 to get access to all of the best (and easily licensed) games on the system could be seen to be an absolute bargain. Yet there is a long-term cost that you will have to weigh up, and for those hoping for Nintendo to lead the way with their emulation efforts, for speed runners and retro gaming enthusiasts, you will need to look elsewhere.