As Nintendo’s roll-out of the upgraded Nintendo Switch Online goes so very poorly, there’s a bigger question hovering over it all: even if it had launched with properly ported games, functioning control schemes, and no input lag, would it be worth the price? And the answer is, from pretty much any angle, a hard nope.
Nintendo has always had the most bemusing relationship with the online world of gaming. With each generation of their consoles and handhelds, their connections to the internet have been outright peculiar. Partly because of a desire to keep their products child-friendly, and partly because they’re a company that just can’t do anything the conventional way, getting online has tended to involve strange peripherals, belated additions of wifi, or—in the case of the Switch—an annual fee somewhat justified by access to a big pile of classic NES and SNES games.
With the launch of—deep breath—“Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack,” the idea was to broaden its scope, including access to an ever-growing collection of N64 and Sega Genesis games. Yay! said everyone, right before learning that for this, the price for the Nintendo Expansion Pack service was going to more than double.
To a PC gamer, charging to get online is a pretty gross affair that sadly has become normalized in the last few years across all consoles. But Nintendo’s $20 a year for the original service was, in comparison, pretty cheap. It sucks hard that anyone has to pay extra just to use the multiplayer features in the game they bought, on the expensive console they paid for, but that’s the tithe to be able to play Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Splatoon 2, etc, online. (And even this is often not up to standard, depending upon the game.)
This ridiculously titled “Expansion Pack” sees that fee go up 2.5 times to $50 a year. Oh, and while you can pay for a month or three months for the previous version, the new one can only be purchased a year at a time. All or nothing.
There’s an odd psychological effect of such a hike. It suggests that, despite what you’re seeing, there must be a good reason for this. Surely if it costs this much more, it must actually be a lot better than it looks? But the reality here is, all that’s added (beyond the belated sop of the Animal Crossing: New Horizons - Happy Home Paradise expansion pack) is access to a selection of 20-25 year-old games. Seriously, that’s it.
At launch that’s nine N64 games, and 14 Sega Genesis games. Certainly, some of these are stone-cold classics, like Star Fox 64, Mario Kart 64, and Gunstar Heroes, and it’ll unquestionably be a nostalgic rush to play them once again once/if Nintendo gets the creases ironed out of this atrocious service launch. But, again, these are 25 year-old games. And, whether Nintendo likes it or not, some of these games have been unavailable to legitimately buy new for decades, and as such are a very normal feature of the emulation scene.
That long without any legal means to purchase some of these games means Nintendo Switch Online’s direct competition here is emulation, and in order to compete in that market, you’ve got to offer huge advantages over what’s already there for “free.” Music, movies and TV have recently figured this out, via the magic of streaming services, making a legitimate means to gain access to classic shows, tunes and films often easier and more convenient than the less legitimate alternatives. People want to pay for that ease of access.
To do this for games from three decades ago, Nintendo had to really pull out all the stops, make this something special. Instead, it appears they’ve rushed it, putting out half-assed, buggy, laggy versions of the games, with omissions as obvious as N64 titles’ impossibly demanding Controller Paks.
Worse, this was such a huge missed opportunity. N64 emulation, while no big deal on PCs, has long been the bane of the handheld market, with very few games ever working well on the RK3326 chips found in most current machines. 2022 is likely to see a new wave of handheld emu devices, led by the IndieGoGo success of the Odin, that can deliver the power to run N64, alongside Dreamcast and PSP. Nintendo could have been ahead of the game here, boasting proper, legitimate access to nine (or for crying out loud, dozens) of people’s favourite ‘90s games, on the best handheld device on the market.
Hopefully many of these issues will be fixed, some presumably very quickly. But even if this had all launched in perfect condition, it would have remained the most peculiar scheme. 50 bucks a year to play a handful of games you may well already own (I know I do), when anyone who cared enough to want them has been playing them on PC for years and years for free, all with no tangible benefits for anyone who’s paying this enormous fee.
But it will get better, right? More games will be added over time! Which seems like another strong argument, until you consider how that actually works. Pay for your first year now, and you get fewer games for the same money as someone who waits six months! Buy now, lose out! What an offer.
It’s so miserably obvious that the right approach here was to add the N64 and Genesis games to the already-existing online service. Heck, if they did that I think most people wouldn’t have objected to a five dollar price increase at the next renewal. $25 a year to get access to NES, SNES, N64 and Genesis games, alongside all the online gaming features gatekept by this fee, would have been far easier to swallow. Especially in a world where, let’s face it, you can pick up a games device from Amazon for the same $50, pre-loaded with every Genesis game ever made, to keep forever.
Nintendo needs to find a way to provide a service that’s better than the cheaper alternatives, to be the Spotify equivalent for their entire back catalogue. Then people will gladly set up those automatically recurring monthly/annual fees. At the moment, they’re being weirdly stingy, and right now, doing a bad job of even that.