Nintendo Switch Online membership: what you need to know

Nintendo Switch Online membership
(Image credit: Nintendo)

The Nintendo Switch Online service has been running since 2019 and while it started much later than rival services like Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus, it's proven to be a worthwhile investment for Switch owners, offering a host of online benefits to those who subscribe for a monthly or annual fee on top of the cost of a console.

This is Nintendo’s first paid online service and the basic $3.99 (£3.49 / AU$5.95) per month subscription is a good deal cheaper than competitor services. (You can check out these Nintendo Switch Online subscription prices for the best deal).

Features like access to online multiplayer, cloud saves, free retro NES / SNES titles like Starfox 2, and free exclusive games like Tetris 99 and the new Pac-Man 99 are more important to some than others, and you may be thinking of subscribing for one in particular, or worry that it isn’t justification enough.

But there’s plenty to recommend Nintendo Switch Online, whether you have the original console, the scaled-down Nintendo Switch Lite, or are keeping an eye out for whatever new Nintendo Switch model that might come after. 

With millions of paid users there’s certainly appetite for the service, and it’s only likely to grow further. With all that in mind, is the Nintendo Switch Online service worth it? And what new retro games are on the way? You’ll find out in our in-depth guide below.

Cut to the chase

  • What is it? Nintendo's paid online service, allowing access to a host of premium features
  • Do I get cloud saves? Your save data is backed up to cloud with a subscription, though lapsing in your subscription will complicate matters (more on this below)
  • Do I get online play? Yes, you can play with multiple friends (or strangers) online, though the exact number depends on the game you're playing
  • What games are included? Nintendo throws in free NES and SNES games with an emulator app, with new titles added every couple of months. There are also battle royale exclusives like Tetris 99 and Pac-Man 99. Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis / Mega Drive titles will be added soon.
  • What does it cost? Subscription prices start at $3.99 (£3.49 / AU$5.95), though you can get more of a saving buy committing to longer periods of time

Nintendo Switch Online: what can I play online?

Nintendo Switch Online gives you the online capability to play, compete, and cooperate with players around the world – which means not having the service restricts your access to all of those things.

If you don't sign up to the service, you can still play all your single-player or offline Switch games to your heart's content: you don't need it to play Breath of the Wild, or for playing local multiplayer with friends in your living room. But many players will want a Nintendo Switch Online subscription to get the most out of their purchases.

Competitive games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate have proven hugely popular with Nintendo Switch Online. There’s also a tie-in smartphone app that provides players with in-game battle stats, voice chat functionality, and additional information on select titles – mainly Splatoon 2 and other first-party titles like Smash Bros and Mario Tennis Aces.

Nintendo Switch Online

ARMS (2017) (Image credit: Nintendo)

Sadly there are still no dedicated servers, so players will have to make do with less reliable P2P (peer to peer) hosting for online matches. On the upside, free-to-play online games like Fortnite, Paladins, or Warframe don't require a paid subscription to the service.

Or, if you're after the swag, there's a members-only outfit for use in Splatoon 2, and the ability to buy Nintendo’s wireless NES controllers for playing those retro games in style.

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack

Nintendo announced a second tier for its online subscription service during the September 23, 2021 Nintendo Direct presentation. Known as the Expansion Pack, the upgraded tier will include all the amenities of the base model, while adding Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis / Mega Drive titles to the service.

The Expansion Pack tier is due to launch in late October 2021, but Nintendo stressed that a concrete release date, as well as pricing, will be announced at a later time.

Nintendo Switch Online NES / SNES games

NES games

New for 2021: Fire 'n Ice, Ninja JaJaMaru-kun, Super Mario Bros. 3 SP

The rest: Nightshade, SCAT, Eliminator Boat Duel, Shadow of the Ninja, Rygar, The Immortal, Ice Climber, The Legend of Zelda, Balloon Fight, Soccer, Tennis, Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros., Dr. Mario, Super Mario Bros. 3, Donkey Kong, Ghosts ’n Goblins, Excitebike, Tecmo Bowl, Yoshi, Double Dragon, Gradius, Ice Hockey, River City Ransom, Pro Wrestling, Baseball, Donkey Kong 3, Wrecking Crew, Double Dragon II: The Revenge, Volleyball, City Connectio, Punch out!!, Star Soldier, Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels, Kid Icarus, StarTropics, Kirby's Adventure, Super Mario Bros. 2, Blaster Master, The Legend of Zelda II, Adventures of Lolo, Ninja Gaiden, Wario's Woods, Metroid, TwinBee, Mighty Bomb Jack, NES Open Tournament Golf, Solomon's Key, Super Dodgeball, Crystalis, Journey to Silius

If the warm fuzzy feeling of supporting your favorite video game publisher wasn’t enough, your extra pennies each month will also net you access to a library of classic and retro games, via the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) emulator.

This isn’t the Virtual Console from the Wii and Wii U, though. Instead of a marketplace for one-off game purchases, Nintendo Switch Online members are able to play select titles bundled into their subscription.

At launch you got 20 NES titles, with two or three additional titles coming every month. That pipeline has dried up in the past year or so, though every now and again Nintendo drops a few more titles on either NES or SNES – largely the latter, though the odd NES game is still thrown in now and then.

SNES games Nintendo Switch Online

(Image credit: Nintendo)
SNES games

New for 2021: Doomsday Warrior, Psycho Dream, Prehistorik Man, Joe & Mac, Magical Drop 2, Spanky's Quest, Super Baseball Simulator 1.0, Super Mario Kart SP, Bombuzal, Claymates, Jelly Boy

The rest: Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble!, Mario’s Super Picross, The Peace Keepers, SUPER VALIS IV, The Ignition Factor, Tuff E Nuff, Donkey Kong Country, Natsume Championship Wrestling, Wild Guns, Operation Logic Bomb, Pop'n TwinBee, Smash Tennis, Star Fox 2, Super Punch-Out, Kirby Super Star, Breath of Fire II, Brawl Brothers, Breath of Fire, Demon's Crest, F-Zero, Joe and Mac 2: Lost in the Tropics, Kirby's Dream Course, Kirby's Dream Land 3, Pilotwings, Star Fox, Stunt Race FX, Super E.D.F. Earth Defense Force, Super Ghouls ’n Ghosts, Super Mario Kart, Super Mario World, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Super Metroid, Super Puyo Puyo 2, Super Soccer, Super Tennis, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Each NES and SNES title is 'remastered' in 4:3 HD, but with the option to play in a more 'authentic' arcade viewing mode with a 'CRT' (Cathode Ray Tube) style display.

Handy features include being able to pause each game at any point, or save and reload your own checkpoints, making the experience much more forgiving than the arcade cabinets of yore. Online capability also lets you play two-player games competitively with friends, or swap over control between devices in one-player games.

Custom button mapping is absent, so you are stuck using the A and B buttons the wrong way round from an actual NES controller – unless you buy Nintendo's wireless NES controllers, which are only available for sale for Nintendo Switch Online members.

Nintendo Switch Online N64 games

At launch: Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Starfox 64 (Lylatwars), Yoshi's Story, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, WinBack: Covert Operations, Mario Tennis, Dr. Mario 64, Sin and Punishment

Post-launch: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, F-Zero X, Mario Golf, Pokémon Snap, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, Paper Mario, Banjo-Kazooie

It was a long time coming, but Nintendo 64 games are finally being added to the Nintendo Switch Online subscription service thanks to the new Expansion Pack tier. Quite a diverse lineup will be available at launch, and it looks like post-launch support will be strong, too, at least for a while.

N64 stalwarts like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64 are present and accounted for, but there's some lovely surprises thrown in for good measure, including Banjo-Kazooie and Sin and Punishment.

Nintendo Switch Online Sega Genesis / Mega Drive games

At launch: Castlevania Bloodlines, Contra Hard Corps, Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine, Ecco the Dolphin, Golden Axe, Gunstar Heroes, MUSHA, Phantasy Star 4, Ristar, Shining Force, Shinobi 3, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Streets of Rage 2, Strider

It's fair to say that Nintendo fans were taken aback when Sega Genesis / Mega Drive titles would be making their way to Nintendo Switch Online alongside the N64. Sega's 16-bit wonder was heavily represented during the Wii's Virtual Console days, so it's great to see many of them return on Nintendo Switch.

Besides MUSHA and Strider, there's no real surprises in the launch lineup, however. But for anyone who's yet to experience the Genesis / Mega Drive library proper, what's on offer here are among the best the console has to offer. Hopefully, the console will see the same level of post-launch support as the other systems featured on Nintendo Switch Online.

Nintendo Switch Online

NES (Image credit: Nintendo)

Nintendo Switch Online cloud saves

One sore point for Switch users has been the omission of cloud saves for their games, meaning that a busted Switch console will take all your hard-earned progress with it. To prevent you having to start Breath Of The Wild all over again – again – the paid service will back all of your save files onto Nintendo’s own servers for safety.

This is in keeping with the save data on Sony's Playstation Plus program, though any Xbox One owner can access cloud saving for free. If your Nintendo Switch Online subscription lapses, your save files are protected for up to six months before they vanish from the cloud.

While Nintendo Switch Online's cloud saving will be enabled by default for most titles, developers can choose to opt out to prevent online cheating – since reloading an old save file could restore items someone had traded to another player, or even reset their online ranking. 

Games like Splatoon 2, FIFA 19, and Pokemon Let's Go games are all missing the feature – so once you've traded that Eevee, there's no reloading an old save.

Nintendo Switch online price and subscriptions

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Nintendo Switch online price: how much is it?

Pricing Plans

1 month: $3.99 (£3.49 / AU$5.95)

3 months: $7.99 (£6.99 / AU$11.95)

12 months: $19.99 (£17.99 / AU$29.95)

Family (12 months): $34.99 (£31.49 / AU$54.95)

Individual users can sign up for $3.99 (£3.49 / AU$5.95) per month, with reduced rates for longer membership options (see box, right). There’s also a separate ‘Family’ option that includes allows up to 8 Nintendo Accounts to use the same subscription, for $34.99 (£31.49 / AU$54.95).

There's also naturally a seven-day trial to sample the online wares before you buy .

Players will also be able to buy a subscription with My Nintendo Gold Points – a rewards service that gives you spending tokens when you buy games on the Switch eShop, and came into effect earlier this year.

By comparison, an Xbox Live membership costs users $24.99 (£14.99 / AU$29.95) for a three-month subscription, while Playstation Plus will put you back $24.99 (£19.99 / AU$33.95).

On price alone Nintendo Switch Online is the winner, though its limited features and lack of dedicated servers currently don't match up to competing services. But if you own a Switch, it may be what you need to get the most out of the console.

Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former News & Features Editor for TechRadar, where he specialized in home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, projectors, soundbars, and smart speakers. Other bylines include Edge, T3, iMore, GamesRadar, NBC News, Healthline, and The Times.