So Why Are We Paying For Nintendo Switch Online Services Again?

To quote Ricky Watters: “For who? For what?”

To answer Thomas Middleditch’s question from those annoying Verizon commercials: No, I wouldn’t pay for something I don’t want. So what am I doing giving $20 to Nintendo every year?

Back in September of 2018, Nintendo finally followed through on their threat to charge Switch players for using their online services. Given that Sony and Microsoft had already been soaking their customers for online access for years, such a move was likely inevitable, but Nintendo tried to soften the blow by talking up all the additional benefits an online subscription would provide. The pitch boiled down to five main benefits:

  1. Online play for Switch games
  2. NES games (with new online capabilities) on Switch
  3. Cloud storage for game save data
  4. Use of Nintendo’s smartphone app
  5. Exclusive access to special offers

We’re now four months into Nintendo’s paid online service. How does reality stack up with what the company promised? Let’s address each of these points individually:

  • Online play for Switch games: Since the paid service began, there hasn’t been any noticeable change in Nintendo’s online capabilities. That would be fine if the company had offered a solid, error-minimizing experience beforehand, but as any Splatoon or Smash Bros. player can attest, that was definitely not the case. Not only has Nintendo’s online connectivity not improved, but it seems to be getting worse: Three months after payments started, Smash Bros. Ultimate is released and immediately declared “nearly unplayable” online. Nintendo’s response to this declaration: You should buy more hardware! So not only are we playing to play online, we’re paying even more just to have a tolerable experience. This is unacceptable.I get that other manufacturers have been charging (and charging more) for online services for years, but after over a decade of free play with the Wii, Wii U, 3DS, and even the Switch for a while, charging for the privilege now just begs the question “Why?” It can’t be because they need the money; online play remained free even during the leanest of the Wii U years. If Nintendo dropped some hints about what they were doing with the money (supporting Smash DLC or Splatoon Salmon Run gifts? Buying better backend hardware? Giving hard-working employees a raise?), I might feel a bit better about the whole thing, but they haven’t said a word about it.  Instead, my inner Bernie Sanders is left to scream that the company is just boosting profits to line the pockets of fat-cat shareholders, and the idea irritates me to no end. People often assume the worst when they don’t know the truth, and by remaining tight-lipped about how the money is supporting players’ online experience, Nintendo is leaving us to assume that they’re charging us just because they can.
  • NES games with new online features: The service launched with 20 NES titles available, ranging from the good (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and my personal favorite, Ice Hockey) to the ‘huh?’ (BaseballPro Wrestling). The company has added a few games every month since September, but the number sits at a paltry 40 today (33 if you don’t count the “SP” releases of games that were already available).I’ve opened the NES app on my Switch twice since the service started, and the buzz surrounding the game has been less “oh boy, classic games on the go!” and more “we’ve kinda played these before.” With no Virtual Console coming and SNES offerings only a datamine discovery and not yet a reality, these 33 games are all we’ve got for retro Nintendo offerings onthe console, and that’s not a sufficient answer if we’re paying a subscription fee to get them.
  • Cloud storage for save game data: This should be a clear and easy win for Nintendo: Allows subscribers to back up their save data to the cloud, and if someone’s Switch goes belly-up, they won’t lose the hundreds of hours they’ve put into Breath of The Wild or Smash Bros. Ultimate! Sounds great, right?Ah, but according to Nintendo, there’s a problem: Cheaters! Why, those slimy save scummers could unjustly preserve their online multiplayer rank or (gasp) get several copies of “rare” legendary monsters, and the Big N just can’t have that! So that means several popular Switch titles such as Splatoon 2 and Pokémon Let’s Go! Pikachu/Eevee do not support cloud backups.

    Nintendo Life (correctly, in my opinion) called Nintendo out on this decision: Why should players who’ve spent hundreds of hours putting together the perfect gear sets or training the ultimate team of Pokémon be punished just so a small handful of players can’t game the system? Personally, I think save scumming is not the bogeyman some people make it out to be (why do I care if someone scums their way to an all-Ink-Save-Main Kensa Shirt, or an entire team of Mewtwos?), and while I get that incorrect ranks lead to unbalanced matches, why does Nintendo have to subscribe to an “all in or all out” philosophy? Why can’t we back up some data from a game (like our gear, level, and single-player progress in Splatoon 2) and either a) not back up ranks, or b) save that data on, say, a dedicated server? (With all those Andrew Jacksons Nintendo’s collecting, surely they can afford a decent mainframe.) It’s a solvable problem that Nintendo isn’t bothering to address, and for me, it means that most of the data I care about is still at risk. I’m paying for a service I’m not using, and I’m not happy about it.

  • Nintendo Smartphone App: This would make me laugh if I wasn’t so busy crying. Nintendo’s smartphone app serves a mere two purposes:
    • Facilitating voice chat in a handful of games (Mario KartARMSSplatoon, Mario Tennis, and the NES games) in the most convoluted manner possible.
    • Offering some out-of-band services for games, which boils down to Splatoon 2‘s SplatNet and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate‘s Smash World.

    I can’t speak for Smash World, but SplatNet isn’t all that useful beyond buying a few pieces of gear so I can banish Respawn Punisher from my game forever. As for voice chat…frankly, as toxic as I’ve heard chats get in other games, I have no desire to open up that channel of vitriol to my ears. (If my teammates get mad at me now, the only place they can tell me to go is “This Way!”)

    Honestly, if Nintendo told me I could save a few bucks by renouncing the Switch app, I’d uninstall that sucker so fast you’d think I was wearing nothing but Run Speed Up gear.

  • Special Offers: In four months, all this has amounted to are these:
    WHAT ARE THOSE? …They’re the only giveaway we’ve gotten.

    In four months, we’ve gotten a grand total of two Splatoon gear pieces and some special offers on those minimally-useful NES Joy-Cons. Not exactly “getting our money’s worth,” huh?

Put it all together, and I’m just paying $20 just to do what I was doing before, and seeing little appreciable benefit for the price tag. I get that Nintendo has us over a barrel with their multiplayer offerings and they’re just doing what everyone else is doing, but there’s just something that feels unfair about the whole thing. (This is also why I like keeping the 3DS around: Not only is it at most half the price of a Switch, but there’s no yearly fee to trade Pokémon or find a good Scooby Doo Mii for Miitopia.) Until Nintendo shows us how us forced investment is making the gaming experience better for everyone, I’m going to be questioning my decision to buy in.