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Nintendo’s Switch Online is slowly turning into an amazing classic games service

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A link to the past

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Nintendo is terrible when it comes to the internet, and in a lot of ways, the Switch Online subscription service is no different. There are annoying restrictions around cloud saves, for instance, and voice chat is relegated to a mobile app. It can feel archaic, especially compared to Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus. But there’s one aspect of the service that has become an indispensable part of how I use my Switch: the free retro games.

The best part of Switch Online is the included NES app, which gets you access to a handful of 8-bit classics as part of the price of your subscription. It’s sort of like Netflix for NES games, and while it started out with a fairly slim selection, it now features an increasingly robust library. Yesterday saw the addition of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Blaster Master, alongside “special” versions of Ninja Gaiden and Ghosts ‘n Goblins that start you off well into the game so you can get to the good stuff faster. (These special editions do a great job at making occasionally obtuse retro games more welcoming.)

There are obvious benefits to this. It’s great having Metroid, Gradius, and Dr. Mario with me wherever I take my Switch. But the service also has me playing games I probably wouldn’t otherwise. In the same way that I’ll watch Bright or Bird Box on Netflix, but would never pay for a movie ticket to see either in theaters, I find myself trying NES games on the Switch that I would never spend money on. A good example is the often maligned “black box” NES games — those early 8-bit titles with simple names like Ice Hockey and Tennis.

With Nintendo’s old virtual console, I would’ve had to pay $5 to stumble through a game of Soccer, which I never did. But when it’s part of a subscription? I’m definitely going to play around with it, even if just for a few minutes. (My two kids recently had a lot of fun trying to figure out how to pin each other in Pro Wrestling.)

Zelda 2

From a preservation standpoint, the NES app for the Switch means exposing more people to these games, which is always a good thing. And hopefully as the service continues — it’s only a few months old at this point — its lineup will grow to include not only well-known games, but also more obscure stuff. Recent rumors suggest that games from the SNES and potentially other platforms could be added to Switch Online in the future.

The service has had a slow but promising start, and with a more varied lineup and support for multiple old consoles, it could end up being an invaluable tool for fans of game history. The added functionality, like online play or the easier special editions, is just icing on the cake. The option to easily play Japanese Famicom games doesn’t hurt either.

Switch Online has the potential to be something akin to FilmStruck, but for games — a modern tool for experiencing the past. Nintendo bills the NES games as just one part of its online service, but in reality, they are the main attraction. And at only $20 a year, it’s a lot cheaper than hunting down old cartridges.