Despite being one of the world's most recognizable gaming companies, Nintendo has never quite mastered online multiplayer. The company's game consoles have been hampered by friend codes, confusing (or absent) voice chat systems and inconsistent performance for years. Still, fans often forgave the company. After all, unlike Microsoft and Sony's services, it was free. It's hard to argue with free.
That excuse disappears in about a week. Nintendo is getting ready for the full launch of the Nintendo Switch Online service, which places most of the console's online multiplayer behind a paid membership paywall.
What is it?
Think of Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus, but for Nintendo: It's the key to multiplayer gaming on the Nintendo Switch. If you want to play games like Splatoon 2 or Rocket League online, you'll pay for the privilege. The service costs $3.99 for a month, $7.99 for three months or $19.99 if you pay for a full year in advance.
It isn't all about online multiplayer, though. The Nintendo Switch Online service also gives subscribers a library of classic games, support for cloud backup of game data, access to the Nintendo Switch smartphone app and exclusive offers available only to members.
Let's take a quick look at each of those benefits, their caveats and a few of the program's odd quirks you should know about.
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Classic Nintendo games
When the Nintendo Switch hit store shelves, it was missing one iconic part of Nintendo's past several game systems: the Virtual Console. This was what Nintendo called its library of downloadable classic games; the eShop's catalog of NES, SNES, Game Boy and Nintendo 64 titles. Eventually, Nintendo revealed that these games wouldn't be made available as separate downloads anymore but would be part of the Nintendo Switch Online service. Think of it as Netflix for select Nintendo games. Now the company has announced about two dozen retro games, all of them from the original NES, that will be paired with the service.
Twenty of those games will be available on launch day, and most of them are classics. Day One subscribers will have access to games like Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, the Legend of Zelda, Balloon Fight, Donkey Kong, Double Dragon and River City Ransom. In October, Nintendo will add Solomon's Key, NES Open and Super Dodge Ball to the library. In November and December it will follow up with Metroid, Wario's Woods and other games.
It's also more than just a subscription-based virtual console. Nintendo is augmenting these classic titles with online multiplayer support, meaning you'll be able to play Dr. Mario against a friend over the internet. If the game only offers single player, the Switch will allow you to hand off control of the game between turns, and if the second player doesn't want to actually play, they can use a hand-shaped on-screen cursor to point out hints on a friend's screen.
Nintendo hasn't announced the full list of games it'll add to the service in 2019, but here's every NES title coming to the Nintendo Switch Online that's been announced so far:
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These are the games Nintendo will add to the service in the coming months:
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Naturally, you'll lose access to the games if you let your Nintendo Switch Online subscription lapse. But you should know that you'll also lose access to your NES library if your console is disconnected from the internet for more than a week. Nintendo says the console needs to check in with the service every seven days to maintain access.
That isn't an issue with games downloaded from Xbox Live's Games with Gold or PlayStation Plus.
Access to online multiplayer gaming is the main selling point of most console subscription services. Just like with Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus, subscribing to Nintendo Switch Online will allow you to play games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Arms and Splatoon 2 online.
In addition to working with retail titles, online play is also enabled for the Nintendo Switch Online service's library of classic games -- just in case you want to relive the torture of waiting for player 1 to die before taking your turn in Super Mario Bros.
At least one favorite online multiplayer game will work without a subscription. Fortnite will be playable online even if you don't have an active online subscription. There may be other exceptions to the rule, presumably for games that feature online multiplayer exclusively. Nintendo hasn't made a full list available yet.
Cloud save data
If you wanted to back up your save data on a Nintendo Wii, Wii U or 3DS, you needed to transfer it to an SD card. On the Nintendo Switch, that isn't an option. If your system is lost, stolen or broken, all the hours you sunk into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be lost forever. Nintendo Switch Online's save data cloud feature aims to change that.
For Nintendo Switch Online subscribers, game data will automatically be backed up to Nintendo servers if you have an internet connection. If you sign in to your account on a new console, you'll be able to download that data and pick up right where you left off. It's an easy, simple way to protect the time you've invested in Nintendo Switch games.
Unfortunately, there's a catch. In order to prevent save scumming and cheating in online games, certain titles aren't compatible with this feature. On the surface, that seems to make sense -- we can't have players hacking their Pokemon Let's Go: Pikachu and Eevee save data to cheat -- but it means that competitive multiplayer games with a single-player component aren't protected. If you lose your Switch and want to pick up where you left off in Splatoon 2's single-player campaign, for instance, you'll be out of luck.
Nintendo also says it can't guarantee the data will stick around if you cancel your subscription.
Voice chat and the Nintendo Switch smartphone app
Online multiplayer is great, but without the ability to talk to other players, it's a weirdly solitary social experience. That's why voice chat is so important. Unfortunately, Nintendo's solution to voice chat is... weird.
Most game consoles allow you to plug a headset into the console's USB port or audio input jack and talk to players directly through the game. But most Nintendo Switch games that support voice chat require the user to piggyback off of a smartphone by using the Nintendo Switch Online smartphone app.
It's a convoluted and weird experience. To chat with other players in Splatoon 2, for instance, you'll need to download the app on your phone, invite your friends to a Skype-like VoIP chat in the app and, finally, connect to your match. You'll be talking with your team on your smartphone while playing the game on your console.
In a recent Nintendo Direct, the company praised the system as being more open, a way for other people in the room to hear and talk on the voice chat via speaker phone. If you want to have a traditional console experience, you'll need to buy a complicated audio splitter to literally tether your Switch to your smartphone.
It isn't a user-friendly experience, which is why some games have already sidestepped it. Want to use voice chat in Fortnite on Nintendo Switch? Simply plug a headset into the console and play. Despite how much better that is, Nintendo is still doubling down on app-based voice chat. It's part of the Nintendo Switch Online service, and at launch will support Splatoon 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, ARms, Mario Tennis Aces and the subscription service's library of Nintendo Entertainment System games.
In select games the app will also allow you to access other special features. Right now the only game that supports this seems to be Splatoon 2, which gets you exclusive items from a game store only available via the Nintendo Switch Online app.
Nintendo Switch Online members will get access to special offers. These could be discounts, in-game items or special products not available to nonsubscribers.
So far, there are only two examples of what these kind of special offers might actually be: special in-game gear for Splatoon 2 (available to subscribers that pay for a year of service in advance) and Nintendo Entertainment System Controllers for Nintendo Switch -- a product Nintendo says will only be sold to subscribers -- not in stores.
It's kind of a shame these controllers are available only to subscribers of the Nintendo Switch Online service. They look almost identical to the original NES' gamepads, save for a Joy-Con rail on the top edge of the square controller to dock it to the Nintendo Switch for charging. Still, the limited availability makes some amount of sense: They're designed specifically to be used with the Nintendo Switch Online's library of classic NES games, which themselves are only available to subscribers.
This benefit could be a goldmine for memorabilia collectors in the future, assuming the controllers are any indication of the kind of "special offers" available to subscribers.
You'll need a Nintendo Account to sign up
This is where things get a little complicated. Your Nintendo Switch has individual user accounts for each user. Nintendo also has a "Nintendo Account" to manage your profile and purchase history on the website, console devices and smartphone apps. To use Nintendo Switch Online, you'll need both. If you already have a Nintendo Switch, you've probably already got this covered, but if you're new to both Switch Online and the console itself, you'll want to head over to http://accounts.nintendo.com to get started.
Right now Nintendo and Switch accounts can be linked and unlinked at will. But that's going to change soon. Starting Sept. 18, any Switch profile linked to a Nintendo Account will be permanently locked in, so make sure you like your username.
Up to 8 Nintendo Accounts can share a Nintendo Switch Online subscription
Don't want to shell out separate subscription fees for every member of your family? You're in luck. Nintendo is offering a 12-month Family Membership for $34.99. Every person on the family membership plan should get full access to the Nintendo Switch Online service benefits.
There's a free trial
Not convinced? Nintendo knows its service will be met with skepticism. That's why it's offering all users a one-week free trial when the service launches Sept. 18. The seven-day trial offers almost all the benefits of the core service but won't include access to special offers, like those retro NES controllers.
If you don't like the service, however, you'll have to manually disable auto-renewal to avoid being charged a $3.99 monthly fee at the end of your trial.
OK, how do I sign up?
The service isn't live, so there's no way to actually sign up for it. Prepaid subscription cards are available at select retailers, but the easiest way to buy the service is simply to wait for it to launch. When the service is live, you'll be able to add it to your account through the Nintendo eShop.
This post will be updated as more details on Nintendo Switch Online emerge.
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