Revitalising the NES

Nintendo Switch Online’s NES catalogue is quietly growing

Last year saw the long-awaited (and oft-delayed) launch of Nintendo’s online services for the Switch (imaginatively dubbed Nintendo Switch Online). It’s worth remembering that in the lead up to — and just after — the launch of the service, Nintendo’s approach was the subject of furious discussion across the gaming community. I wrote a piece ahead of the service’s debut that articulated the good, bad, and ugly of the service.

To a large degree, my observations there still hold true today. We’re nearly eight months post-launch, and nothing has materially changed. We’re still paying to play online, Nintendo are still committed to their bizarre smartphone app solution for online voice chat, and we haven’t yet seen a wider variety of platforms supported in the service’s classic games catalogue. Despite all this, I’ve noticed that recently I’ve been accessing the NES library quite a bit more than I did around the launch.

On the surface, this makes little sense. Not only do I have a NES Classic Mini, I also have a retroUSB AVS console, an original NES and an original Famicom. It’s a prison of choices, really. This is where the Switch comes in; since launch, Nintendo have been quietly adding more and more titles to the NES library. Now, sure, they haven’t added titles from any other consoles. And I’m sure there are people who want more releases faster, but I do think it’s worth pausing to re-consider the offering now that we’re several months down the track.

Across all territories (well, NA/EU/AU and JPN), there are now a total of 58 games (including their SP/Extra versions). Nintendo has released a handful of games each month for the service, and the library is slowly growing as a result. There are some distinct advantages for gamers here. For the most part, those of us in PAL territories are usually getting the NTSC version of the original game (which supports 60Hz, rather than the 50Hz we were all used to way back then). Also, Nintendo has released “SP” or “Extra” versions of several games. This is where I think the NES library on Switch starts to get really interesting. In some cases, the SP editions will start you at the final level — or even the final boss — of a particular game (for example, Ninja Gaiden and Ghosts ‘n Goblins). Then there are cases where the SP version will start you from the beginning, but grant you additional tools/boosts to make the game more manageable. The best example I can think of here is The Legend of Zelda, which starts you off with more rupees and several key items (including all 9 keys). Depending on the game, the SP version might not be your cup of tea (unless you want to do a multi-game boss rush, for example). Some would argue that the SP modes make certain games almost trivially easy.

But what’s interesting here is that Nintendo aren’t simply serving up re-hashed NES games yet again; they’re supplying a combination of online multiplayer for certain titles, the ability to watch your friends play and join in remotely, and now the ability to play “special” versions that give you a leg up (which, let’s face it, is sometimes welcome for certain older games that can feel especially punishing by today’s standards). I think there’s value in this approach for time-poor adults who grew up with these games (but who perhaps don’t feel like playing through them again from scratch), and there’s also the real potential to appeal to younger gamers who might love the modern pixel art movement but who never actually played 8-bit stuff before it became retro cool.

As time goes on, some of my earlier questions around the Nintendo Switch Online service seem less relevant. For instance, I had wondered if Nintendo would allow us to purchase individual games on the service — although I still like that idea, I’m starting to think that it’s an increasingly irrelevant one. Nintendo Switch Online’s NES library is essentially a Nintendo Netflix of sorts, and it seems logical that Nintendo will simply continue to expand the offering here over time in order to entice players to join (and remain tethered to) its subscription model.

I’m still hoping to see SNES, N64, and even GameCube releases at some point in the future. But for now, I think it’s worth re-visiting the NES library. If you are a Nintendo Switch Online subscriber and you haven’t looked at the NES games in a while, you might be surprised to see a flurry of new NES box art unfurl all over your screen.