Nintendo has often been called “out of touch” when it comes to their online strategy, but I tend to use the less reductive term “idiosyncratic,” or perhaps even “incoherent.” It isn’t new for the company to be practicing with “Nintendo-like solutions” rather than industry standards but in this day and age, their online infrastructure with the Nintendo Switch has been nothing short of frustrating.
When Nintendo Switch Online finally launched a few weeks ago, it felt more like a blip than a massive display of fireworks promoting a new age of online for the platform. With bizarre restrictions on cloud saves and a paywall on online multiplayer that used to be free, this new service seemed more like an obstruction and less like an open door.
But a feature that Nintendo has been quiet on is the ability to play classic NES games on the Switch through a new app provided by the paid service, the clumsily-named but still-expanding Nintendo Entertainment System-Nintendo Switch Online software. It may not seem like much at first, but this application could set the foundation for what can be an amazing piece of retro gaming software for Nintendo in the future.
The most shocking and perhaps most pleasant aspect of Nintendo Switch Online’s collection of NES games is just how responsive it is. Upon opening the application, every game that the service has to offer is right there on-screen, with virtually no loading times. After selecting any of the several NES games, it will take you right to the start screen without any wait. Most importantly, the familiar option to have save states and access them at a later time is faster than ever. It sounds a bit cliched, but the service feels like magic.
It certainly helps that the UI works, at least with the current selection of games. The box art portraits for all included software are laid out, and the menu resembles the rather minimalist style of the rest of the Nintendo Switch’s aesthetic. While it is a bit bothersome that the boxes are not all the same size and aren’t totally aligned with each other, it works on a conceptual basis.
I can see some problems occurring if Nintendo keeps adding new titles. The box layout of the user interface might become cluttered with tiny individual pieces of art, and I would guess that the games would eventually be divvied up into categories, potentially rendering the now-simple experience of navigating through the software lineup a bit convoluted. Not to mention that in handheld mode, touchscreen controls are not supported to even select games. But still, in the infantile stages of this retro game software, almost everything looks and feels right, and I expect Nintendo to go further.
While the current offerings of NES games on Switch are either obvious or minor, the lineup as of now demonstrates how eclectic Nintendo’s selection of retro games for subscribers can be. Mainstays like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Excitebike are a must—then we get into more obscure territory with several classic NES sports games like Soccer, Hockey, and Tennis.
Believe it or not, as a relatively young person, this software was my first exposure to playing Double Dragon, which I played two-player with a friend. In the days of the Wii Virtual Console, I was hesitant to purchase so-called “classic games” that I had never actually played, instead sticking with the ones I already knew and had nostalgia for. Just think of all the young Nintendo fans out there who have never played that, Gradius, Tecmo Bowl, or that really bad Yoshi puzzle game.
I have a strong desire to see this service grow, not only with new titles but with new features. The fact that you can play NES games on the go is a novelty, but Nintendo is underselling the feature of online play with these titles. This is opening the possibilities to modern features like online multiplayer to other, albeit still “retro,” eras of gaming.
Nostalgia is king in this era of video games, and big gaming companies are putting out their own retro boxes every other week now, it seems. But rather than continue on the line of “Classic” physical consoles, with maybe a Nintendo 64 Classic in the future, Nintendo should continue to go on this digital route with the NES collection of games on Nintendo Switch Online. There are simply not enough spots on an entertainment system or HDMI ports on a television to keep supporting these new/old boxes.
While I hope they’d change the name, the next obvious step is some sort of “Super Nintendo Entertainment System – Nintendo Switch Online”—the possibility of taking A Link to the Past and Super Metroid on an HD portable screen with you on the commute to work seems like a dream, but this testing ground with NES games appears to show that it is possible. Perhaps asking for Nintendo 64 and GameCube support in the future might be wishful thinking at this current moment in time, but it provides an opportunity for Nintendo to give their fans what they’ve been asking for years.
The Virtual Console is dead, and it isn’t coming back—but that could be a good thing. With this service coming alongside a subscription to Nintendo Switch Online, Nintendo can truly have their own “Netflix” for their games. I can only hope that the Switch will have a long lifespan to continue the expansion for this service, because if this is the true future of how old games will be played on new platforms, I’m all in, and everyone should follow suit.
I just wish that Nintendo would actually promote it.