Nintendo Disrespects Its Own History By Making It So Hard to Play
Opinion: The storied game company relies on nostalgia, but also takes steps to make its past hard to explore.
As part of the most recent Nintendo Direct, the company unveiled plans to expand the Nintendo Switch Online service. Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack costs $50 USD a year instead of the usual $20 and gives players access to Animal Crossing: New Horizons DLC as well as a limited number of emulated Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games.
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: The expansion is too expensive. At $50, the price point is comparable to PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live, both of which retail at $60 for a 12-month subscription. Both of those services offer a handful of free games a month and discounts on their digital storefronts, in addition to online multiplayer for paid games (on both Xbox and PlayStation, free-to-play games don't require a subscription). At around $5 a month, that's a good deal, especially if you buy most of your games digitally. Unlike Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation also don't lock basic online features like voice chat behind a paywall--you get that without having to pay for Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus.
At $20 USD, Nintendo's first basic online price point, it feels a tad scant. At $50, with only a couple of additional features, it feels stingy. That's especially true in light of the fact that the Switch launched without a paid online service--only later did the multiplayer in Splatoon 2, for example, become a feature of a paid online service. In comparison to its competitors, the Nintendo Switch Online expansion's inadequacy is plain to see. However, the details of what Nintendo's expanded service offers also show Nintendo's disregard for its history.
As has often been noted, the libraries of retro games on Nintendo Switch Online are severely limited. It's curation by a company man, sticking to established first-party classics while skipping over missteps or oddities or even just classics from third-party companies. It's difficult to imagine a definitive NES library without Mega Man or Castlevania, an SNES without Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger, or even an N64 without Banjo Kazooie, but this is exactly what Nintendo's online service offers. The Sega Genesis library does open this up a bit, but at least out of the gate, it is still missing major titles like Sonic and Knuckles and cult classics like Shadowrun.
Nintendo's own canon suffers from this, but the real cost is in the margins. NES and SNES alone had a wide variety of titles that go unrepresented here, from the horrific (like Clock Tower) to the tactical (Ogre Battle). Some never made their way to the US, playable now only through fan translations and ROM patches. Official releases, even on an online service, would open up these games to a broader audience. It would encourage a playful approach to gaming history, rather than the sterility of “playing the hits.” The service also focuses exclusively on home consoles, as opposed to handhelds, and entirely excludes more recent history. That emphasis shows its limits when one cannot play Metroid Fusion ahead of its sequel Dread. Nintendo relies on and encourages nostalgia for its own products, while simultaneously denying access to them, often limiting fans to either expensive or extralegal methods of playing.
To be clear, there are undoubtedly reasons both legal and practical why the service cannot offer more games. Why would Capcom or Konami or Square Enix offer up their games to Nintendo's online service, when they can force customers to pay a premium for their own proprietary nostalgia grabs? Including classic licensed games like Super Star Wars or Disney's Aladdin presents its own problems. However, because there are obstacles does not mean there are no solutions. Nintendo has worked with major companies to produce collaborations before; take a look at nearly every Smash DLC character. Other companies have faced similar issues in getting older games on their platform and nevertheless succeeded, at least partially. Xbox One gained comprehensive backward compatibility only after several updates. PSN offers PlayStation 2 games like Dark Cloud. It's also unlikely that every game would be a huge hurdle to get on the service. If Sora can be in Smash, I would hope it'd be possible to get Super Mario RPG on the Switch.
Setting aside the issue of the library itself, Nintendo Switch Online does have some convenient features. Online multiplayer is a fun treat with games like Kirby's Dream Course. The rewind feature is a lifesaver in brutal titles like Ninja Gaiden. These features, though, often serve to highlight the limited appeal of the service, rather than make it stand on its own. Save states and rewinding are foundational features of many emulators, at no additional cost. It's not surprising that emulation remains popular, when the official means of accessing these games is more expensive and, at best, only moderately less difficult. Additionally, what's the point of retro online multiplayer if I can't get some friends together for Mario Party? The reason for that, of course, is Nintendo's $60 Mario Party throwback releases later this month. The promise of the online service, easy and affordable retro gaming, extends into a labyrinth of costs.
In conversations like this, it is important to keep in mind that video games are, by nature, somewhat exclusionary. Video games and their consoles are expensive. Games often do not come with accessibility options for disabled players. The mechanics of interacting with the medium can be unintuitive or frustrating for the uninitiated. However, this does not mean that even for-profit companies cannot work to make the hobby more financially and practically accessible. It does not mean that Nintendo can't at least feign a desire to preserve its history. What if Nintendo included retro titles as a bonus for purchasing the system? This would let users, especially kids and families, access a history they might never have known, as well as boost sales for an already popular system. What if the service were constantly updating with new games, with resources devoted to newly translating or highlighting forgotten titles?
Nintendo likes to present itself as providing gaming for all, but its actions show a company like any other, one with a narrow vision of nostalgia and a disrespect for its own history. A historian or curator must cut and omit of course. A good one, though, keeps an eye toward the whole, both the known and obscure, and always grants resources for further reading. Nintendo will only show history on its own terms, thereby limiting exploration and, ironically, play. Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack's price point is only a symptom of that fundamental problem.