Nintendo Switch Online is Great (From a Certain Perspective)
It’s been about a week since Nintendo Switch Online launched, and it’s been a bit of a mixed bag. For a lot of folks, I’d even say most, the service has left a lot to be desired. Lack of integrated voice chat, no noticeable improvements to existing online games, etc., etc. But I came at this service from a different angle. I couldn’t really care less about the online stuff. The NES library though, that’s where I’m at. And I have to say, from my perspective, I’m pretty happy about my purchase.
Viewing things strictly from the perspective of “I’m paying $20 a year for access to this NES app on my Switch,” I really feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. I’ve been buying and re-buying NES games since NES games were sitting on store shelves, and as such I’ve played a lot of different iterations of these classics. To my eyes, this is far and away the best emulation I’ve ever seen. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always wanted the image on my screen to be as sharp as possible. The NES Classic Edition was about the most perfect image I had ever seen, but there were other issues holding it back like flat out wrong sound emulation and some pretty nasty input lag. This though, doesn’t have any of those problems. It’s the cleanest image I’ve ever seen of an NES game. The colors are spot on with how I remember them in my head, the sound emulation is flawless, and most importantly, there’s no input lag. Even the 3DS NES emulation had minor input lag, which has always mystified me, but to my eyes, on Switch there is none. I won’t be able to tell for absolutely certain until they release Punch-Out!! On it, but so far I’m astonished with how tight everything feels.
It’s worth noting before moving on that this isn’t necessarily the case for everybody. I’ve seen a bunch of reports around the internet of people having input lag issues with the system in docked mode playing with a Pro Controller, but I haven’t experienced any of it firsthand. My play experiences have been about as perfect as I could have possibly hoped.
The app’s overall presentation is quite nice as well. The games load instantaneously, accessing and using the save states is a breeze, and you can even change the order of the game boxes in the menu however you like. I put all the Black Box games in a row up top because I’m a dork and they look cool. The presentation isn’t without a few drawbacks though. Scans of the original instruction manuals would be a nice touch, as well as maybe the backs of these boxes they’ve lovingly recreated for us to look at. But bigger deals come when you’re actually playing the games. There’s a button layout at the bottom of the screen and it just won’t go away. Ever. It’s always there, and it’s as annoying as it is pointless. There’s also a slight issue with the pixel perfect mode that drives me a little nuts. Pixel perfect mode was something I had never heard of before the NES Classic Edition. Basically, it recreates the games visuals the way they were originally drawn. The original NES stretched the image horizontally to fit standard screen sizes back in the day. Pixel Perfect mode "corrects" that. It was a little jarring to look at at first, but now I can’t seem to go back. The issue with the Switch app is that pixel perfect mode isn’t zoomed all the way in. On the NES Classic Edition, the image reaches to the top and bottom of the screen, zoomed in while maintaining the correct aspect ratio. For the Switch, the image just kind of sits there in the middle with black on the top and sides. It’s not a disaster or anything, but it is kind of crappy looking all things considered. There’s also no option to turn off the banner image on the sides, and while the comic book gradient thing they have going on isn’t exactly offensive, I prefer to play my games with just black filling the unused portion of the screen, so the inability to turn that off is kind of bothersome, especially with Pixel Perfect mode drawing more attention to the borders by not filling the top and bottom of the screen. Again, not a dealbreaker by any means, but a minor inconvenience that could be easily fixed.
So, for the most part, the technical basics of this service are great, but what I think is possibly this thing’s most brilliant aspect is the library itself. A lot of folks are complaining about the game selection and that we’re only getting 3 new titles added per month, but honestly, I think that’s a really smart way to handle it. I think this for two primary reasons. One, the limitations on the selection force me to pay attention to games I would otherwise overlook. There’s no way I would have ponied up another $5 to buy Balloon Fight were they to go the traditional Virtual console route, but since it’s just there in my library for me to play, I’ve actually spent some time with it and I really forgot just how much fun this game is. I’ve never actually played NES Baseball. Now I have. It kind of blows, but I can cross that one off my list now. Same with Soccer. Not a great game, but an interesting diversion for a few minutes. I’ve never really spent time with River City Ransom, but since it’s there, I went for it and wow, what a game! Looking ahead at their 3 games per month, at first I was pretty underwhelmed, but now I’m looking forward to actually trying games I’ve never bothered with before. Maybe I’ll finally see the draw of Mighty Bomb Jack. Who knows? The second thing I love about this library is that the NES app isn’t in danger of overwhelming my existing Switch library. There are tons of great and interesting games coming out on Switch every week. If I suddenly had a couple hundred of the best NES games ever made, I’d likely spend all my time replaying games I’ve played a million times before instead of heading to the eShop and trying out some bananas new game like The Messenger or Kero Blaster. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at the menu of my Everdrive N8 and never settled on anything to play because there’s just so many things to choose from. This library starting small and building is brilliant, and I think it’s the only way Nintendo could have done it without ticking off the other developers who make games on Switch.
Then there’s the whole Famicom aspect. If you have a Japanese account set up on your Switch (which you absolutely should. It’s free) you can go on the Japanese eShop and download the Famicom version of the app. So far the game selection is the same, but it’s the Japanese versions so they’re just a bit different. Zelda is on the Famicom Disk System and features a ton of different sound effects, alternate versions of some of the game’s iconic music, and a different type font for some reason. Super Mario Bros 3 is harder, and Ice Hockey has a totally different song that plays during a game. It’s so cool seeing this stuff, especially since it’s available at absolutely no additional cost. The box art is pretty amazing too.
I would be remiss if I didn't at least touch on the online multiplayer aspect, but I honestly don't’ have a ton to say about it. It’s a neat feature that I’m glad is there, but I can’t see myself using it all that much. That said, there are a ton of great multiplayer NES games that would be awesome with online play. Heck, with the right releases, even I might be convinced to find a friend and go online with some of them. Super Spike V’ball with 4-player action, Contra, Double Dragon 2&3, Bubble Bobble, Life Force, Double Dribble, Marble Madness, Blades of Steel, the Bomberman series, Stinger, Nintendo World Cup, these would all be super cool with online play. And if Hell froze over and we could get some of Rare’s stuff on there, Battletoads, Snake Rattle n Roll, and RC Pro-Am 2 would be amazing. Of course, we have no idea what's coming to the service after December. We don't know if they're going to eventually take games away to "make room" for new ones. We don't know if their current schedule of 3 games per month will continue. Nintendo has been tight-lipped about the answers to these questions. But I'm choosing to be optimistic. Not "Wizards & Warriors on Switch" optimistic, but "this is going to continue to be worth my money" optimistic.
This also lays a pretty cool groundwork for future releases, too. How nice would it be to get some of the NES’s absurdly rare titles on this service? The Wii U saw games like Demon’s Crest and EarthBound made widely available, so why not get games like Snow Bros., Panic Restaurant, Bubble Bobble Part 2, and Little Samson up there? Sure, we’re never going to see licensed stuff like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters, or that super rare Flintstones game, but the rest sure would be nice.
But why stop there? Let’s take real advantage of this online stuff and get the competition cartridges running. Make it so they’re only available for a limited time, and while they’re up have a high score content or something. And speaking of the future, I think it’s safe to assume this isn’t going to stop with just NES. I’d love to see apps for SNES, Game Boy, N64, etc pop up in the same vein as the NES and Famicom apps. Heck, they could even use this online service to recreate the old BS Satelliview broadcasts, this time in english!
I know I just rattled off a bunch of stuff I want to see in the future, but I still stand by this drip feed of games and features. It keeps the conversation going and it keeps the focus on a few titles at a time so no one gets overshadowed. I’m very excited to see where this service goes in the future. And while I wait, I’m going to finally beat the Famicom version of The Legend of Zelda.