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Almost every announcement in the September 2021 Nintendo Direct broadcast tried to one-up the other reveals. Audiences finally got the long-awaited Bayonetta 3 gameplay trailer (it was every bit as exciting as we hoped), minutes after the internet was left to decide whether to shout “Wahoo!” or “Mamma mia!” over the Super Mario movie voice cast. But the highlight of the mini-expo, even though virtually everyone predicted it, was the announcement that Nintendo Switch Online subscribers can soon play Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games… assuming they pay for a more expensive subscription model. Something doesn’t smell right.
Before we continue, here’s a quick refresher. For only $20 a year, Nintendo Switch Online hands gamers access to online multiplayer features, voice chat, save data cloud functionality, and an ever-growing collection of NES and SNES games. Sounds like a steal, especially compared to PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold, which ask for $60 annually and only offer a trickle of free games instead of an archive’s worth. But the devil is in the details.
Nintendo Switch Online’s voice chat is a smartphone app that isn’t compatible with all devices, and the save data cloud is on a per-game basis. Want to back up your Splatoon 2 or Pokémon Sword/Shield progress? Tough luck. Oh, and even though you need the subscription to play titles such as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate online, lag is a constant bugbear that can render matches unplayable. Back when Nintendo offered free multiplayer, lag was expected and even forgivable in games like Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U, but now players need to pay for online multiplayer even though lag hasn’t improved. Makes you wonder why Nintendo wants to charge even more money.
Starting late October, Nintendo will sell a “new membership plan” dubbed “Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack.” This new subscription will provide “more benefits” (no idea what they are), and the company plans to provide further details, including pricing, at a later date. The wording implies the Expansion Pack will be more expensive than vanilla Nintendo Switch Online, which stinks of unnecessary paywalling. But, the catalyst that makes the stench unpalatable is the addition of N64 and Sega Genesis titles. Sure, it’s nothing short of a miracle to play games from Nintendo’s ancient blast-processing rival on the Switch, but locking them behind an additional fee seems questionable…maybe even greedy.
Audiences have wanted N64 games on the Switch ever since Nintendo started providing complimentary NES and SNES titles with subscriptions. This would have been an obvious evolution for the service, but virtually everyone who hoped Nintendo would add N64 games expected them to come at no additional cost. That is the industry standard, after all. Sorta. PlayStation and Xbox consoles have evolved into Netflix-esque video game platforms via PS Now and Xbox Game Pass, which are separate from PS Plus and Xbox Live Gold subscriptions, but they don’t come in different tiers. Anyone with a PS Now account gets hundreds of games on demand for a flat-ish fee. It’s cheaper to buy a year’s worth of PS Now than to purchase a new game each month à la carte, but subscribers can play everything on the menu regardless; Sony doesn’t hide titles like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots or Rogue Galaxy behind extra fees. So why is Nintendo going down that path? Nobody at the company has explained the reasoning behind the decision, so we can only speculate.
One reason comes to mind, though. Nintendo likely recognizes the N64’s popularity and knows gamers will shell out to relive those classics. Sure, the N64 itself didn’t push as many units as the Nintendo 3DS, but look at any best Legend of Zelda games list. The N64 entries, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, are always at or near the top. Same with best Super Mario games lists. Moreover, the SNES Classic sold out in nanoseconds. Clearly demand for retro games is big enough to smother supply, so why would Nintendo potentially cap profits with limited physical N64 Classics when they can sell unlimited, new N64-themed subscriptions? You can’t exactly sell out of a digital product, now can you?
Under normal circumstances, we would give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt, but this new subscription is merely the latest in a concerningly growing list of questionable decisions that started with the amiibo. At first, the mini plastic statues only provided fun, superfluous extras, such as bonus Mario Kart Mii costumes and special Super Smash Bros. CPU fighters. But lately, Nintendo has locked some decidedly overpowered enhancements behind amiibo. Two special Metroid Dread amiibo (that are already sold out everywhere) will provide players with extra health and missile tanks; be thankful the game doesn’t sport competitive multiplayer, because anyone who owns the amiibo would have an advantage merely because they dropped an extra $30. And who can forget when the internet temporarily caught fire over the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD amiibo that strong armed players out of $25 for fast travel?
But, amiibo are not the only indicators. The SNES controllers for the Switch were $30 at launch (and still are). Meanwhile, the upcoming N64 and Sega Genesis controllers for the Switch are $50 each. The N64 controller’s price hike makes a bit of sense since it sports more buttons and an analog stick, but the Sega Genesis is basically a SNES controller with fewer buttons. Anyone who purchases it is literally paying more for less.
Now to be fair, Nintendo is keeping a lot of Expansion Pack details under wraps. We don’t know its non-N64/Genesis library benefits or price tag. If the new membership only costs $1 more and gives customers bonuses like monthly game discounts, free Switch eShop titles for keeps, and eventually Sega Dreamcast games, it might be more than worth the extra cash. On the other hand, if the new subscription is $10 extra, and its only new benefit lets players pre-order games early, then it will be a worse benefit-cost ratio than vanilla Nintendo Switch Online.
No matter how you slice it, though, you cannot deny that locking Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games behind a new subscription with a new price seems pretty cynical since the current subscription doesn’t really justify its cost. Then again, Nintendo will probably get away with it because we’re talking about the N64 and Sega Genesis; anything from those consoles prints money, regardless of the year.