7 things you need to know about Nintendo Switch Online

UPDATED: It's live! Here are all the essential details

Nintendo has always had an unconventional approach to online play and interactions. Actually, "unconventional" is kind – usually it's kind of a mess.

Case in point: the Nintendo Switch had been out for a year and a half still didn't have a fully-featured online network. But that's just changed now that Nintendo Switch Online is live. It's a subscription-based service like PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold that brings access to free games, along with online play and other features.

Wondering whether you should subscribe? Here are the seven key things you need to know about Nintendo Switch Online.

1) Online play isn't free anymore

There aren't a ton of Switch games with online multiplayer at the moment, but the ones you'd actually want to play – like Splatoon 2 (shown), Mario Kart 8 DeluxeRocket LeagueMario Tennis Aces, and Arms – were all freely playable without a subscription fee. That's not the case anymore now that Nintendo Switch Online is live.

You'll have to pay the subscription fee to play online and use the iOS or Android smartphone app for voice chat and other features. Accessing the eShop and things like online leaderboards are free, but actual live interactions are for members only.

Well, that's mostly true: free-to-play games, including the enormously popular Fortnite, are exempt from this rule. You can still play those without the subscription.

2) It includes upgraded NES games

One intriguing perk of Nintendo Switch Online is the availability of complementary NES games from way back in the day. But these aren't just ports: they've also been upgraded with online play and voice chat support for competitive and cooperative games.

The launch selection includes 20 NES classics: Balloon Fight, BaseballDonkey KongDouble DragonDr. Mario, ExcitebikeGhosts'n GoblinsGradiusIce ClimberIce HockeyThe Legend of Zelda, Mario BrosPro WrestlingRiver City RansomSoccer, Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros. 3, Tecmo Bowl, Tennis, and Yoshi.

And as the trailer screenshot above shows, there are more NES games on the way...

3) There are exclusive NES controllers

Sure, you can play the NES games with the Switch's Joy-Con controllers or the Pro Controller, but why settle for anything but the real deal? Nintendo will release a two-pack of replica NES controllers for the Switch, which look and seemingly feel like the real deal.

They're wireless and can slot right onto the sides of the Switch screen to charge, just like the Joy-Cons, but it doesn't look like you'll be able to use them while attached and charging. The two-pack sells for US$59.99 (no word on UK pricing yet) and are available exclusively to Switch Online subscribers.

Pre-orders are rolling out right about now with the service launch, although the controllers won't ship until December.

4) There's no Virtual Console

Nintendo giveth and Nintendo taketh away. When the Switch launched without a Virtual Console – that is, a store full of classic games across various retro systems – we were perplexed, but we figured it was being saved for the full service launch.

Nope. The company confirmed to Kotaku earlier this year that there are currently no plans to launch a Virtual Console on the Switch. Maybe they're cooking up something else, or plan to expand beyond just NES titles for Nintendo Switch Online, or maybe those older games will just be released to the eShop without the Virtual Console branding. But for now, that's disappointing to hear.

5) Cloud saves have arrived

Did you know that if your Nintendo Switch was lost, stolen, or irreparably broken, there was no way to reclaim your save data? It's true, frustratingly enough: before Nintendo Switch Online, you couldn't back up your saves to the cloud or even locally to an SD card and access them from another Switch console. It's one of the practical oversights that fans have been raging about since the Switch's launch.

Luckily, cloud saves are finally here with Nintendo Switch Online. Saves are automatically backed up to the cloud for most games (but not FIFA 19 or  Pokémon: Let’s Go, for some reason), which means they'll be accessible in case of loss or disaster. However, note that if you subscription lapses, your cloud saves apparently disappear.

6) You'll use the smartphone app for chat

One thing that Nintendo Switch Online doesn't have built into the console experience is voice chat. Instead, you'll access that by using the companion smartphone app, which has actually been available since last year.

You can use it to connect in rooms for games like Splatoon 2 and Mario Tennis Aces, plus there are game-specific in-app experiences for games like Splatoon 2. The voice chat experience was seriously clunky at launch last year, but it seems to have been smoothed out a bit. Hopefully it's a relatively painless experience for connecting with pals while playing together.

7) Here's what you'll pay

How much does Nintendo Switch Online cost? Your best bet is to pay annually, which seems pretty reasonable at just £17.99 per year.

Quarterly is £6.99 and monthly is £3.49, and all of those options include access to online play, cloud saves, and free upgraded NES games. There's also a family plan for £31.49 annually, in case you need two accounts for your household.

In any case, that's a lot less money than Sony and Microsoft charge for their premium online subscriptions, but on the other hand, there are few online Switch games right now and fewer perks in the mix. So it makes sense.