Nintendo Switch Online is the Switch’s “premium” online service, ostensibly Nintendo’s answer to Xbox Live Gold and PSN Plus. It enables online multiplayer, cloud saves, and a handful of other bonuses, including a modest retro game library, all for a subscription fee. Nintendo Switch Online is much less expensive than Microsoft and Sony’s services, but its voice chat system exists somewhere between convoluted and nonexistent, and its cloud save feature has strange limitations. Its low price and sheer necessity to play games online still make it a must-have subscription for many Switch owners, though we’d hold off on buying the optional Expansion Pack.
Nintendo Switch Online is available for $3.99 per month or $19.99 per year, and a family membership for multiple users is $34.99 per year. An Expansion Pack that adds a few additional and very non-essential features can be purchased alongside the standard membership for $49.99 total annually, or $79.99 with a family plan.
Multiplayer and Cloud Saves
Nintendo Switch Online consists of several components spread across the Switch’s menu system, an optional smartphone app, and an optional Switch app. Online play and cloud saving integrates into the Switch itself with all compatible games, voice chat is accessible with the Nintendo Switch Online Android and iOS apps, and playing classic NES games on the Switch requires downloading the Nintendo Switch Online app to your console. All of these features have distinct and frustrating flaws.
Let’s start with the most basic aspect of the service: online multiplayer. Nintendo Switch Online lets you play Switch games online with friends and strangers, just like Microsoft’s and Sony’s premium services do on their respective consoles. All three services require paying for a subscription to enable that online multiplayer, and to Nintendo Switch Online’s credit, it costs about a third as much as the other two.
The hitch is that online multiplayer was freely available on the Nintendo Switch for a year and a half, and online multiplayer has been free on all Nintendo consoles and handhelds since the Wii. When the Nintendo Switch Online service fully launched, Nintendo began charging for online multiplayer that was open to all Switch owners. This change is particularly unfortunate, since Nintendo hasn’t really upgraded the service in any way. The online multiplayer structure hasn’t been notably improved from when it was free, and each game relies on its own process for matchmaking and competitive play.
On the bright side, Nintendo Switch Online isn’t required to play free-to-play online games, so you don’t need to subscribe to play Fortnite.
Although the online multiplayer service hasn’t been upgraded, Nintendo Switch Online enables another important feature: cloud saves. For compatible games, you can upload your save data to Nintendo’s servers so that you can restore your saves if your files get corrupted or your system gets stolen. You can also transfer your saves to a new system. It’s a simple process you access by selecting your game in the Switch’s main menu and pressing the plus button. From there, select Cloud Saves to back up your data online. It’s functional and works well with compatible games.
There are two caveats to this feature, though. The primary problem is that not all Switch games are compatible. Cloud saving doesn’t even work with all first-party Nintendo games. For example, Animal Crossing, Pokemon Sword and Shield, and Splatoon 2 don’t support cloud saves. These are baffling omissions, especially Animal Crossing because it’s completely noncompetitive.
The other caveat is less an issue with cloud saving specifically, and more an issue with how the Switch handles save game data. To date, you still cannot back up or transfer your save files to local media. Even after cloud saves have been enabled, there’s no way to simply copy your saves to a USB key or an SD card to keep them safe in case anything happens to your Switch. Since the Switch can be used as a handheld system as well as a home console, the chances of it getting damaged, lost, or stolen are much higher than a game system that only sits in front of your TV.
Unwieldy Voice Chat
If you subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online, you technically get access to voice chat with some online multiplayer games. However, it implements voice chat in perhaps the most baffling, convoluted way possible. You cannot talk to other players online over your Switch (through Nintendo Switch Online and supported games; Fortnite has built-in voice chat and can work with any wired headset with a 3.5mm connector plugged into the system). Instead, you need to download the Nintendo Switch Online app for Android and iOS and use your smartphone for voice chat.
It’s an unwieldy system that requires juggling two separate devices with two separate audio sources. You can use a mono headset (or just one earphone) connected to your phone, and listen to the game audio through the Switch’s speakers or another set of earphones. It’s a lot to load a separate voice chat room in a smartphone app so you can talk to other players in your game, especially when much more powerful services, such as Discord and Guilded, provide voice chat and other features without the need for a subscription service.
The Standard Subscription: NES and SNES Games
On top of these features, Nintendo Switch Online offers access to Netflix-like libraries of classic NES and SNES video games, and the closest thing the Switch has to a first-party Virtual Console. It’s a fantastic concept that would be well worth the subscription price on its own, though Nintendo continues to frustratingly trickle out games on the service on a monthly basis instead of simply unloading a massive supply of classics. Nintendo 64, GameCube, Wii, and Wii U games are completely absent from the system (though, to be fair, the Switch has gotten or will be getting nearly every Wii U game of note as its own port).
The current selection includes 74 NES games and 50 SNES games. That’s a significant upgrade from the initial 20 NES games (and no SNES games) Nintendo Switch Online offered at launch, and spans some of the best games on the two systems, including Dr. Mario, The Legend of Zelda, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Startropics, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Metroid, and Yoshi’s Island. On one hand, that’s a pretty excellent library for a fraction of the price of the NES Classic or SNES Classic. On the other hand, while Nintendo has been steadily expanding its NES and SNES game selections, they’ve been eking out at a trickle with only a handful coming out every couple of months. It leaves some gaping holes among the countless classics released on those systems (and released again on the 3DS and Wii U Virtual Consoles).
The game emulation is capable and responsive, reminiscent of the NES Classic’s emulation in feel and visuals. The sprites are bright and colorful, the picture is crisp, and the options are very limited. You have a choice of three different display modes: 4:3 (a slightly wider than originally built, pillar-boxed view with no filter), pixel perfect (a narrower pillar-boxed view that keeps the native aspect ratio by pixel count), and CRT (a heavy scanline filter over the 4:3 view). That’s it. You also can’t remap your controls from the default layout in any way, choose between different regional versions of the games, or look up any supplemental material (even a game’s instruction manual, aside from a short text summary and a screenshot).
Multiplayer support, however, is surprisingly robust for a collection of NES games. You can play locally with one or two players using Joy-Cons, or you can play online with friends.
Besides the classic NES and SNES games, you also get access to Pac-Man 99 and Tetris 99. They’re battle royale-style variants of Pac-Man and Tetris that put you against 99 other players in races to clear dots/line and send obstacles to other players’ screens in a bid to be the last one standing. Super Mario Bros. 35, a Super Mario Bros-based battle royale game, was also available for a limited time as part of Mario’s 35th anniversary, but Nintendo has inexplicably discontinued it.
The Expansion Pack: N64 and Sega Genesis Games (and Not Much Else)
Nintendo has recently introduced the Expansion Pack to Nintendo Switch Online, an optional service that adds more games to the mix. Well, Expansion Pack is a misnomer, because it currently is only available as a bundle with an annual subscription to the standard service and not on its own, though Nintendo does offer a prorated discount for current members. While the standard individual membership is $20 per year, the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack membership is $50 per year. And, to be very direct, it doesn’t offer an extra 150% of value despite Nintendo’s confidence in its classic games.
The Expansion Pack adds collections of Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games to the mix. Currently it’s just nine N64 games and 14 Genesis games, including absolute classics like Gunstar Heroes, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Super Mario 64, and Streets of Rage 2. It’s still a paltry selection, lacking a lot of big hits like Banjo-Kazooie, Beyond Oasis, Paper Mario, Perfect Dark, and Rocket Knight Adventures. Presumably Nintendo will trickle out new games to these libraries like it has with the NES and SNES collections, but it will likely be just as slow and uneven.
Like the NES and SNES games, the N64 and Genesis games emulate just fine on the Switch. The N64 games still show now-low-resolution textures, but the rendering at least matches the display, so the edges are sharper and not jagged or blurry. Emulation options are still barebones, with four slots for save states and not much else; there’s no control remapping, rewind, or graphical adjustments beyond choosing between 4:3, pixel perfect, or a single CRT filter.
Besides the retro games, the Expansion Pack includes the Happy Home Paradise DLC for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which adds new features and decorations to the game. That’s it for the benefits of the Expansion Pack.
It isn’t much benefit from significantly jacking up the price of the subscription. The new game libraries are pretty tiny, and besides the Animal Crossing DLC you don’t get anything more than you’d already get with the standard Nintendo Switch Online subscription. We can’t recommend buying this dubious upgrade, unless you’re very, very interested in some of the N64 or Genesis games and don’t have any other way to play them.
The Nintendo Switch Online Experience
For all the baffling decisions and disappointing limitations of Nintendo Switch Online, all of the features of the service function exactly as intended. I played some Super Mario Bros. 3 online with a colleague, using voice chat through the Nintendo Switch Online smartphone app. Setting up the voice chat required balancing my phone’s chat audio with the Switch itself, but setting up a two-player NES game online was as easy as opening the game in online mode and waiting until my colleague saw it pop up on their Switch.
Once the game loaded, I could interact with it as the first player and my colleague could interact with it as the second player, as if he had a controller plugged into a MES’s second port. We could also control on-screen pointers using the right analog stick, indicating things on the screen and performing a clapping action when clicking the stick. It’s a friendly gesture that limits negative interaction in theory, but I can see condescending applause ensuing for every embarrassing mistake you make when playing with a friend. Super Mario Bros. 3 felt very responsive on both of our systems.
Despite the implementation issues, voice chat also worked well. Audio sounded clear on both of our ends, with less than a second of lag, enabling consistent conversation. I used the app with a set of Bluetooth earphones, while he used wired earphones. Of course, the exact same dynamic, perhaps with better performance and many more configuration options, could have been achieved as easily with Discord, Google Duo, Skype, or any other VoIP or voice chat app; the use of the Nintendo Switch Online app isn’t necessary at all for communication, since you’ll be using your smartphone regardless. Integrating voice chat into the Switch itself and using the headphone jack or Bluetooth would have been much easier to set up and use.
A Good Online Service, But Skip the Expansion Pack
Nintendo Switch Online succeeds at everything it promises. The problem is that it doesn’t try to do enough, and most of the things it tries to do are limited or convoluted. Online multiplayer is good, but Switch owners had it free for a year and a half before Nintendo began charging for it. Cloud saves are also good, but not all games support them. Voice chat works, but requires using a smartphone instead of going through the Switch.
Nintendo Switch Online’s saving grace is its $20 annual price, which is much easier to swallow than PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold’s $60 fee (though Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, while much more expensive, offers far more games for both Windows and Xbox, along with game streaming). Plus, the service has a robust library of NES and SNES games, with the promise of more to come each month. We were disappointed by the service when it launched and only recommended it as an annoying necessity for playing online games. Now it’s an annoying necessity that happens to come with over 120 classic games, Pac-Man 99, and Tetris 99, and costs much less than other console subscription services or retro game systems.
This appeal only applies to the standard Nintendo Switch Online subscription, though. The Expansion Pack bumps that price to $50 per year, and adds just a handful of games for the extra cost—a much harder pill to swallow.