When Nintendo confirmed that it'd be running lobbies and voice chat through a dedicated smartphone app there were plenty of critical remarks online. As a site we followed the line of a wait and see approach, but as crazy Hori workarounds and limited details emerged there was the whiff of a messy launch, and here it is.
The Nintendo Switch Online app is up and running and, to start with the positives, the undoubted high-point is the Splatoon 2 area - Splatnet 2 - which is actually rather neat. It rapidly updates with your in-game data and you can see fun details and even work towards rewards. This hub informs us of stage rotations and events, and has a handy item store where players can buy clothing and gear that'll then pop up in the game. It all works, and very much represents the best of how the Nintendo Account infrastructure is supposed to operate.
The voice chat solution also works, in that it connects instantly with your game and does allow for private lobbies and chat. Unlike Splatnet 2, however, the end result is not desirable. It's awkward, terribly barebones and unintuitive. In fact, to be blunt, I thinks it's rubbish, and that's not a term I use often when referencing a Nintendo product. Our man on YouTube - Alex - also feels largely the same way and goes into this in the video below.
Nintendo - and presumably DeNA - have launched a functional service, but we're seeing just why some scorned the idea in the first place, with further omissions muddying the water further. To start on the latter, it fails to do what's needed to help players find friends to play quickly and efficiently. Yes, you can view your system and social media friends, but it's hard to tell if they're online and actually playing the game - there's no 'status' to see in the app. You can send out a handful of requests as a test and nothing happens, because those that get notified aren't actually in a position to play. Oh, and they can't reply in the app to tell you that with a text message, so you just stare at an empty room. They'll have to reply through other means, ie non-Nintendo apps and social media.
None of this was with a headset in my case, either, just dabbling with the phone nearby while playing the game. Yet when you voice chat on another console or want to get a lobby going, you do it all on the system and there are profile indicators for whether your friends are online and in-the-game. With this Switch workaround you have the external device and can't tell who's playing and would potentially like to team up. You send out invites blind unless you HOME menu out of the lobby (on the Switch) and go into your user profile area. Do that, see if anyone's playing Splatoon 2 (heck, they could be settled in for a bit in the single player campaign), send an invite in the app and hope for the best. If they join you can have a chat and play a private match, if they don't then you just stare at your phone while feeling a bit lonely. It's no wonder that so many are just saying they'll keep using Discord / Skype / anything else to catch up with friends, as at least they have multiple messaging options (including text messages).
So Nintendo's solution is functional, just about, but unintuitive.
The irony is that, actually, Nintendo has supported really good voice chat in the past, but few remember. Because of the built-in mics on the 3DS and Wii U GamePad there were a few cases where chat was intuitive, sorted out in-game and needed no headset or accessories. It's long forgotten now but Heroes of Ruin had in-game voice chat on 3DS; the quality was average but it worked. On Wii U we had Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate as the gold standard, as you could use the GamePad to chat without a headset. A number of games also supported headsets that you'd plug into the controller, and I recall some sessions in the humorously buggy online co-op of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist where I would chat and laugh with a friend about the game kicking us out of a level after an hour of careful play.
The common theme with all those instances is that they were third-party games, but at least Nintendo provided the tools for the job, even if few went to the trouble. It was a very Nintendo solution too - integrate a mic and speakers into the hardware so that it's easy to use, no headset or accessories required unless you wanted to use them. It gave a nice level of accessibility to the feature in those few games that used it; the only downside was the lack of actual support and some uneven usage.
The Switch doesn't have a microphone, of course, which may have been a design choice or a simple logistical decision based on cost, space on the board and so on. In any case, right off the bat accessories are needed, though if voice chat was handled through the hardware it could be as simple as using a wired headset straight through the console's headphone jack or - more ideally - a wireless option.
As Alex says in the video, above, and a reason I wanted to 'wait and see' when the app was first announced, is that having an external voice and lobby service isn't necessarily an awful idea. It is divisive, though, so the fact that the initial 'lite' solution for Splatoon 2 is half-arsed is a PR own goal. Nintendo is reinforcing the stereotype that it doesn't know how to do online gaming, which isn't entirely fair but is trotted out a lot online. After all, across Wii U and now Switch we see Nintendo typically deliver excellent, smooth-running and reliable servers. On a decent connection online gameplay is often great with Nintendo games in recent years. Yet voice chat has been rarely used or absent and is used as a sticking point by critics of the company - this app simply gives them a shiny new bat with which to hammer Nintendo.
Strangely, it also seems a bit unnecessary. Splatoon 2 works fine across its various modes, even Salmon Run, with the in-game text communications. Yes, ideally I (like many others) would like a seamless in-game option to have a bit of voice chat in teams, but it's not a game-breaker. Yet instead of keeping it simple and holding back on a voice chat / lobby solution until it was actually ready to go, Nintendo clearly rushed the app out for the game. It's a bizarre piece of software, too, as it counteracts what Nintendo is typically all about. It's clunky, awkward and confusing to newcomers; this from a company that is masterful at producing hardware, games and gameplay that are accessible and enjoyable for all.
Some have said Nintendo wanted to keep voice chat off the hardware to keep it 'safe', but there are parental controls for that, and kids have smartphones and tablets anyway to access the app if they want; most know more about how to use them than their parents. Even if that 'safe' argument is true, it's been a mistake to launch an app that, in its core function of supporting lobbies and voice chat, is a bit embarrassing.
Nintendo will surely improve it in the coming weeks and months, and especially once the broader service becomes a paid option in 2018. Right now, though, it's simply set itself up for criticism, and saddled the brilliant Splatoon 2 with debates around the app.
Frankly, that's the bigger crime. Splatoon 2 deserved to fly on its own as a fantastic sequel, without being associated with a shoddy early access version of a smart device app.