When Nintendo first unveiled the Switch Online catalog of classic games with NES games, I lamented the announcement of what I felt was an inferior content delivery system. Not only were we asked to play with a much smaller game library than on the Wii or Wii U, I didn’t even have the opportunity to purchase those games. Instead, we got a small library of games from a single console, with no ability to carry over entitlements from previous purchases or actually own the classic games I played. I found Nintendo Switch Online to be an inferior service by any measure, even as Nintendo added a robust NES and SNES library to the offering.
Then, in 2020, something changed. With many of my normal social activities being put on hold, I had more free time at home than ever before. I’ve mostly spent that time dabbling in TV shows, movies, and, yes, video games. As part of that, I delved deeper into Nintendo Switch Online’s classic gaming offerings – after all, I paid for the entire suite, not just Super Mario World as you might have believed based on my gaming habits. What I found was a wide variety of titles that I had either never heard of, never played, or had completely forgotten about since childhood.
Yes, access to old favorites like Super Mario Bros. 3, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Donkey Kong Country is awesome. but I had a surprising amount of fun engaging with the titles, which I would never have if I had to pay for each title individually. As someone who grew up with a SNES, Genesis, and Nintendo 64, these previously unplayed gems live mostly in the NES catalogue. I played a lot of NES as a kid, but it was never at my house unless someone brought theirs. As such, I was at the mercy of my friends’ games. I initially missed titles like NES Open Tournament Golf, Rygar and StarTropics, and I relish the opportunity to go back in time to games like Gradius, Ice Hockey and Super Dodge Ball – titles I’ve played at friends’ but never owned. And it also allows me to play SNES games that I’ve missed and always wanted to try (Pilotwings, Donkey Kong Country 3, and Super Punch-Out!!) without having to shell out the extra cash.
Then it gets even better with the fact that it adds some extra features. Saving states and rewinding are pretty standard additions for retro games these days, but Nintendo has also added online multiplayer for multiple titles across the various libraries. What I appreciate most though are the special versions of select games that Nintendo has added over the years, like a version of Super Mario World with Special World deleted and the various twists that come with it, or a version of Super Metroid with Samus fully updated . While there’s quite a bit to be said for working your way through these games to earn these prestigious unlocks, instant access to them via these optional special versions is a cool twist on the standard retro game offering.
In 2021, Nintendo introduced the Switch Online Expansion Pack, giving gamers access to N64 and Genesis games, as well as premium expansions for games like Splatoon 2, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. While I loved my Genesis back then, the Nintendo 64 was the component I was most looking forward to at this new subscription tier. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the experience I was hoping for at launch, but with the added availability of the N64 controller for Switch, a steady rollout of new titles to the service, and improved emulation, the Nintendo 64 has done the same for me that the other catalogs did: There was me a chance to revive old favorites and experience games I missed when I was younger.
That’s not to say that the Nintendo Switch Online classic games catalog is better than the Wii and Wii U virtual consoles in every respect. In fact, there are many places where it falls far short of the earlier official method of bringing these classic titles to modern Nintendo -Hardware to play. For one, content ownership is something I think we underestimate in today’s world of Netflix and Spotify. Yes, these services are excellent value for money, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fired up Netflix to watch something in particular, only to find that show or movie is no longer on service. At least for movies, TV shows, music, and most gaming subscription services, I have the option to purchase the content digitally on modern hardware, while for retro Nintendo games, my only official option on modern hardware is the non-ownership route through that subscription service.
Additionally, some of the games (Nintendo 64 in particular) had shoddy emulation in the Switch Online library. While that can happen regardless of whether it’s Switch Online or Virtual Console, it’s unfortunate that some games don’t play as well as they did 25 years ago, when the Nintendo 64 library was one of the main selling points for belongs to the more expensive expansion pack. Fortunately, Nintendo has improved its N64 emulation in the time since the catalog was launched.
I still wish I could own my favorite retro games, but as a former Virtual Console loyalist, the breadth of offerings in Nintendo Switch Online’s classic game catalogs won me over. Sure, there are still ways to improve Nintendo Switch Online’s approach to retro gaming offerings, but I’m sick of pining for the Virtual Console days. Just as I’ve sacrificed owning music and movies in the name of value, convenience, and unparalleled access to a wide range of content, I’m happy to do so (to a degree) through services like Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, and Nintendo Switch Online.
Well, if only we could scale back the large number of subscription services, but that’s a conversation for another time.
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