If there’s one consistent thing about Nintendo, it’s their bewildering inconsistency.
One minute they’re taking what on paper should be utter disasters such as a console controlled with a wand (the Wii), an underpowered tablet with funny handles (the Switch), or literal cardboard trousers (Labo), and turning them into beloved works of utter genius.
The next, they’re making a total honk-up of ideas and services that should be the proverbial chunk of Battenburg.
Observe, love: they sauntered into mobile gaming years late, then made weirdly paranoid and irritating choices such as needing a constant internet connection on Super Mario Run for it to work. Mario himself is always skulking in dank pipes and tubes, but can you play his mobile title on a train going through a tunnel? No, no you cannot. Bloody hypocrites.
Hardware is no exception either. All they had to do to replicate the Wii’s success is make an HD follow-up and not ruin the formula. Instead, in the Wii U they guffed out the clunkiest, most charmless machinery this side of early 1970s Soviet cars, with a gimmicky controller everyone largely gave up on not long after launch.
Short of making it out of Bakelite and putting games on punch cards, it couldn’t have looked more dated even before it launched.
Plus, of course, they inadvertently created their own biggest nemesis when they utterly messed up their relationship with Sony while co-developing the SNES CD drive – a cack-handed move which led the latter to shove all the electronic bits they’d developed into in a bag with some pig organs, creating a real-life Frankenstein! (The original PlayStation.)
Hence, much as I love my Switch, it was with a fairly jaded eye that I approached Nintendo Switch Online, their new service that lets you play games against people not in the same room as you. You know: because you’re an antisocial loner.
The launch of the service has been long delayed for one thing, and for another it’s adding no-brainer stuff like cloud saves; something that should have been on the Switch from Day 1. Plus you need a smartphone app (and, obviously, a smartphone to run it on too) for voice chat – a ‘feature’ that has been standard on the PlayStation and Xbox for generations.
So what do you get for your money then, and how much of that precious coin do you need to part with to get it?
Well, one thing in the Switch’s favour is that Nintendo’s online service is cheap – potentially REALLY cheap. A year is 18 quid, or you can pay monthly for a small extra premium, but get this: you can buy a ‘family pack’ of 8 memberships for 35 quid. And in an entirely un-Nintendo move, rather than applying some arcane rule stipulating these must go to people who you have a minimum 85% DNA match with, they don’t give two hoots who you dish them out to.
In short, get yourself a group of Switch owners, club together, and save some £££. This is the option some Switch-owning chums and me went for, meaning 12 months of the service cost us all of £4.50 each. That, clearly, is a bargain.
Regardless of what you pay, you of course get online gaming. This is what it is and works fine, as you might imagine. The app-to-chat is an extra layer of faff and wiring, but I can kind-of see why they did it: Nintendo guard their kid-friendly status fiercely, so don’t want impressionable young ears wandering into chatrooms where people call each other smelly poo bums (OR WORSE).
Or, at least they don’t want that to happen without the get-out clause that someone had to have enabled it via giving a kid access to the phone and app so it’s all YOUR fault, you terrible parent you.
There’s also the aforementioned cloud saves, which finally allow you to move from one Switch to another without losing your game progress – and given the portable nature of the Switch, this is one console likely to take more ‘in transit’ damage than most and need replacing. After all, it’s not that often you’d be in a position to drop your XBox down the toilet.
And finally, a feature some people might find enticing enough to justify the whole service: NES Online. A load of classic NES games, free to play, with more titles added each month.
Admittedly a proper Wii-style virtual console would be even better, and some of the games on offer really show how retro gaming is at best 20% good, 80% ancient tedious dross, but there are enough genuine gems in the mix to keep it interesting such as Super Mario Bros 1 & 3, the original Zelda, and Gradius to name but a few.
The real seller for these oldies though? They’re also online multiplayer compatible. That means you can laugh at the horribly dated visuals and gameplay of 2-player titles such as Double Dragon with someone else, even if they live at the bottom of a well!
What’s the verdict then? Well it’s all about value for money. If you can get a group together to take advantage of that sweet, sweet family discount, go for it. It’s barely more than the price of a baguette and a coffee for a whole year’s access.
But what if you’re horribly unpopular, and have no friends?
That’s trickier. If you don’t care much about the golden oldies (and bear in mind some of these are more golden dog eggs…), and/or aren’t that fussed about online play given the Switch’s obvious strengths in local multiplayer, I’d leave it – for now.
If the NES online service expands to SNES online (or better still, N64 or GameCube online) and the price remains broadly the same, this will be an essential purchase. It’s a reasonable start, and that pricing is a cracking idea to get groups of Switch owners together and a whole social gaming thing going, but it’s still a bit threadbare.
It covers the online basics, but unless you really love the retros or are forever smashing your Switch up and need those cloud saves, have a good old think first.
SCORE: 8 bits out of 16 bits.