We're now firmly ensconced in the month of September, which – as Nintendo has gone to great lengths to tell us – is when its long-awaiting Switch Online service will finally be launching, a whopping 19 months after the arrival of the console itself. Even for the most dedicated of Nintendo fans, the wait is bordering on laughable, but what's even more disconcerting is that we currently know precious little about how the service will work, exactly what games we'll get to play in the months following launch and what benefits – outside of cloud storage for saves – we'll get for our hard-earned cash.
Nintendo is a company which has famously been lambasted in the past for being hopelessly behind the times when it comes to the world of online gaming. While Microsoft and Sony have taken steps to encourage online play via paid-for subscriptions which ensure a decent standard of connectivity – as well as tasty bonuses like free AAA games each month – Nintendo has, throughout the past three hardware generations, been content to keep its online service distinctly no-frills; not just in terms of cost to the end user, but also in terms of any kind of meaningful bonus features as well.
The cloud save debacle was brought into sharp relief following the launch of the Switch when it became clear that save data is bonded on a hardware level rather than an account level; lose your Switch, and you've lost potentially hours of progress as well. That cloud saves are one of the main selling points of the Nintendo Switch Online service speaks volumes; Nintendo is listening, but is this something you should be selling a subscription service around?
But wait, we hear you cry. What about all those lovely NES games, now equipped with – gasp – online play? There's no denying that these classic titles are a neat bonus, but when compared to the kind of content which is given away free with PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold accounts on a monthly basis, repackaging dusty old 8-bit games that most Switch owners have probably owned multiple times now – across NES, Wii, Wii U and 3DS – seems painfully weak. This 'growing' library will be limited to a handful of titles at launch, which is sure to make the arrival of the subscription service even more of an anticlimax.
Of course, much of this negativity is down to the fact that Nintendo has been holding its cards very close to its chest on this topic. It didn't help that it fumbled its messaging about the service early last year, initially claiming that a single NES game would be offered each month. Even after clarifying this point, the lack of genuine information on how this service – which, lest we forget, is the successor to the Virtual Console – will expand has been frustrating.
What's the timeline for bringing SNES, Game Boy, Nintendo 64 and other formats to the table? Will Nintendo seek to fix the rather embarrassing topic of voice chat on the console? Are there any plans to include free retail or digital games as part of the service, as Sony and Microsoft do on their respective machines? How elegantly will cloud saves work in reality? Online play is currently free – will we, therefore, see a marked improvement in performance because we're going to be paying for the privilege from the end of the month onwards? Is Nintendo looking to introduce elements such as the ability to create private rooms for online buddies? We've had some info, but for certain key topics, the response remains: "we will share information on this topic at a later date". Is it a later date yet, Nintendo?
Of course, there's a little bit of time for Nintendo to rectify the lack of information. The company is fond of springing Nintendo Direct broadcasts at a moment's notice, and we'd like to think we'll get one that focuses entirely on Nintendo Switch Online at some point this month. Given that Switch firmware update 6.0.0 appears to be on the horizon, we'd imagine that the company is waiting for the right time to show us exactly what delights are contained within; given that the firmware could offer some radical changes tied to Nintendo Switch Online, it's perhaps understandable that Nintendo doesn't want to ruin any potential surprises by blabbing about this early.
But still, there will be a lot of people out there mentally preparing themselves for the fact that from the end of the September, the cost of being a Switch owner is going to increase to the tune of at least £17.99 / $19.99 a year; granted, that's less than what both Sony and Microsoft are charging for their respective services, but the difference is that all Xbox One and PS4 owners will have been aware at the point of purchase that online play costs extra. Switch owners, on the other hand, have had more than a year and a half of free access to online play (without certain bells and whistles, admittedly).
Because of this, Nintendo needs to effectively communicate why that additional cost is worthwhile – and thus far, it has done a largely terrible job of that. A handful of free NES games and cloud save support (which, while vital, is something many people may not even have to use during their time as a Switch owner) aren't the kind of things that will have consumers gleefully reaching for their wallets; the ball is well and truly in Nintendo's court when it comes to altering this perception, and time is running out. As we said not so long ago, we're willing to give it a chance – but Nintendo has to give us a chance to get excited about it first, and at the time of writing, we don't even know exactly when the service will be launching this month.
For Nintendo, old habits die hard.