It doesn't launch until 2018 but we already know plenty about Nintendo's answer to PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live.
Nintendo has always been slow to embrace the world of online gaming. Through the birth and death of the Wii and Wii U, it mostly shied away from online multiplayer, dabbling here and there with games like Mario Kart Wii and Splatoon. The online infrastructure supporting these games was never anything more than functional, though. Even finding and playing games with your friends was a major hassle, involving impossible-to-remember friend codes and a total lack of voice chat. The only consolation was its price tag: unlike PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live, Nintendo's online service had always let you play against your friends over the Internet for free.
With Nintendo's latest console, the Nintendo Switch, all that is set to change. This time around, Nintendo is planning its own premium online service called Nintendo Switch Online which, like Sony and Microsoft's offerings, will require you to pay to play games online. It's not all bad news, though, as Nintendo is following in its competitors' footsteps and throwing in free games and discounts on its digital store for all subscribers. And while the service is unlikely to be as robust as PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live, its cheaper price makes it a considerably more accessible alternative.
What features does Nintendo Switch Online include?
The main reason to purchase Nintendo Switch Online is to play Switch games online against your friends. Admittedly, there aren't a whole lot of Switch games out yet that support online multiplayer. Other than Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, ARMS and Splatoon 2, most titles are single-player or local multiplayer experiences, but that will likely change as the launch date for Nintendo Switch Online draws closer. By the end of 2017, we should see games like Pokkén Tournament DX, Payday 2, FIFA 18 and NBA 2K18 take advantage of Nintendo Switch Online to deliver a multiplayer experience on par with other current-generation consoles.
Free games have proven an effective salve for the sting of paying for online play. Both Microsoft's Games With Gold initiative and Sony's PlayStation Plus free games program have become immensely popular, to the point where they provide enough value on their own to justify the monthly subscription.
Nintendo is taking a similar approach with Nintendo Switch Online. While it originally planned on a more Netflix-style model where subscribers would receive a few games every month but only be able to play them for that month, the company has since backpedalled and redesigned its free-game offer to work the same way as Sony's and Microsoft's. Each month, Nintendo Switch Online subscribers will be able to download a compilation of classic Nintendo games modified to include online play. Nintendo has not yet expanded on what it means by "online play" – it could be competitive multiplayer, though it's more likely to be online leaderboards and achievements given the difficulty of reprogramming classic games.
To begin with, Nintendo will only be offering NES games as part of the free games line-up, with SNES titles "under consideration". On the plus side, subscribers can play these classic games as much as they want for as long as they maintain an active Nintendo Switch Online subscription.
The only games announced for this initiative so far are Super Mario Bros 3, Balloon Fight and Dr. Mario.
Again taking cues from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo will be offering exclusive discounts on the Nintendo eShop for Nintendo Switch Online subscribers. No specifics have been announced, but if Nintendo plans on competing with the deals offered through PlayStation Store and Microsoft Store, it's likely we'll see subscriber-only sales and pre-order discounts on a semi-regular basis.
Dedicated mobile app
For as much inspiration as Nintendo is taking from PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live, there are still a few areas where the company is doing things its own way. Case in point: the Nintendo Switch Online mobile app. Where features like voice chat, messaging and friend invites are built into the basic operating system of the PS4 and Xbox One, the Nintendo Switch offloads them onto your mobile phone. To chat with your teammates while you're playing Splatoon 2, you'll need to plug a headset into your phone, boot up the Nintendo Switch Online app and leave your phone sitting next to you while you play. Similarly, you'll need to use the app to send game invites to players on your Nintendo Switch friend list, as well as join games you yourself have been invited to.
There's no denying this solution is a lot more fiddly than the built-in functionality on PS4 and Xbox One. That said, the portability of a mobile app allows for some handy features those two consoles lack. In Splatoon 2, for example, the Nintendo Switch Online app can be used to track the results of your previous battles, check the gear and weapons other players have been using, and view what stages are coming up in the game's rotation.
It remains to be seen how many games will take advantage of the mobile app's unique functionality, but if enough do, it could be the edge Nintendo Switch Online needs over PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live.
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Is Nintendo Switch Online available yet?
The full Nintendo Switch Online service isn't launching until sometime in 2018, but you can still play Nintendo Switch games online right now – and for free, to boot. All Switch owners have access to online multiplayer, voice chat and mobile app functionality from now until the launch of Nintendo Switch Online, all without paying a cent. The free games and eShop discounts won't be available until the full service goes into operation in 2018, at which point it will require a monthly subscription.
How much will Nintendo Switch Online cost?
If there's one thing Nintendo Switch Online has going for it, it's the price. At $29.95 for a 12-month membership, it's less than half the cost of Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus. This makes it far easier to look past its basic functionality and slimmer online games library.
If you're not ready to commit to a full 12 months, you'll also be able to buy one-month and three-month subscriptions when Nintendo Switch Online launches in 2018. A one-month subscription will set you back $5.95 while a three-month subscription will cost $11.95. Once you've decided you want to stick with it, though, you'll want to spring for the full 12-month subscription since it'll work out cheaper in the long run.