Nintendo Switch Online: should you sign up?

(Image credit: Nintendo)

The Nintendo Switch Online service has been live for near enough two years now – though even then it was late to the game. Rival services like Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus had been going for years previously, offering a host of online benefits to Switch owners who subscribe for a monthly or annual fee on top of the cost of a console. (If you haven't got one yet, check out our Nintendo Switch review, too.)

Two years on, we still haven't seen those much-hoped-for SNES games, but there's still a pretty stocked library of retro NES classics you can play with Nintendo Switch Online's emulator – the full list below – as well as upsides like cloud saves and online play.

This is Nintendo's first paid online service, though the basic $3.99 (£3.49 / AU$5.95) per month subscription is a far amount below Xbox Live or Playstation Plus. (You can check out these Nintendo Switch Online subscription prices for the best deal).

As new games and features get added each month, Nintendo Switch Online is increasingly looking like a necessary service for any committed Switch owner – or anyone with their eye on the incoming Nintendo Switch Lite, a handheld-only model launching September 20, or any new Nintendo Switch model that might come after. But what exactly does Nintendo Switch Online give players that they don’t have already?

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.

Online play was free until mid-September, and competitive games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate have proved hugely popular. 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.

Super Smash Bros Ultimate

Super Smash Bros Ultimate

(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 NES games

Latest NES games

July: Donkey Kong 3, Wrecking Crew

June: Double Dragon II: The Revenge, Volleyball, City Connection

Older: 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

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, including 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, and Baseball.

Each 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.

These are being followed by two or three additional titles each month – see the box, right – which we're sure will include games from more recent consoles like the SNES, N64, and (god-willing) the GameCube down the line.

Nintendo Switch Online NES games

Image Credit: Nintendo

Handy features include being able to pause each NES 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 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.

(Image credit: Game Freak)

Nintendo Switch online price and subscriptions

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 naturally a seven-day trial to sample the online wares before you buy – while subscribers to subscribers to Amazon Prime can claim up to 12 months of Nintendo Switch Online for free.

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.