Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack’s new retro game offerings are off to a good start

The Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack releases today for a cost of £34.99 a year; if you’re already a Nintendo Switch Online subscriber, you can get a discount according to how long you had left on your subscription that works out to about 4p per day. At present, you can only pay for the Expansion Pack subscription annually — the standard subscription can be paid monthly or in 3-month blocks.

Alongside the release of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack, the Nintendo 64 and Sega Mega Drive Nintendo Switch Online apps have also been released with their initial lineup of games. And they’re both off to a strong start, featuring an interesting selection of titles to explore, some solid emulation performance plus the excellent rewind and save state features we’ve come to expect from Nintendo’s emulation offerings.

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Nintendo 64 Mario Tennis

The pricing has attracted some discontent, but look at it like this. If you pay monthly for Nintendo Switch Online — which, for many players, is likely to be a practical option — it costs £3.49 a month, which works out to £41.88 a year. Yes, you can get a year’s subscription for £17.99 which is obviously cheaper than Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack’s £34.99 for the same period, but in a practical sense, £34.99 equates to a little under three quid per month.

If you set aside that three quid a month to pay for your next year’s Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack subscription, you’re actually better off than if you were just paying monthly for the base subscription. Weird, huh?

Okay, that may be a convoluted way of looking at it, for sure — but practically speaking, if you’re currently paying monthly for Nintendo Switch Online, it’s a worthwhile upgrade. For those paying annually, it may seem like a more bitter pill to swallow — but what you do get is very good. So let’s take a brief look at both.

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Mega Drive

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Mega Drive Streets of Rage 2

If you told a ’90s gamer that one day some of the biggest hits from a Sega console would one day be on a Nintendo platform, they’d have almost certainly laughed in your face. But here we are in 2021, staring down a collection of some of the Mega Drive’s very finest — including a few titles that tend not to get included in the various “Mega Drive Collection” releases we’ve enjoyed over the course of the last few console generations.

The full lineup of games for the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack’s Mega Drive app at launch includes Golden Axe, Strider, MUSHA, Shining Force, Sonic 2, Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, Streets of Rage 2, Shinobi III, Ecco the Dolphin, Gunstar Heroes, Phantasy Star IV, Castlevania Bloodlines, Contra Hard Corps and Ristar.

That’s a good lineup by anyone’s definition, and while you can get many of these games in other places — Sonic 2 has an excellent Sega Ages version on Switch, for example, while Castlevania Bloodlines is part of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection and many of the Sega-published titles can be found in the Sega Mega Drive Classics compilation for Switch — it’s nice to have them all in one place with a unified interface. Particularly when that interface has integrated online play and rewind functionality.

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Mega Drive MUSHA

Performance is very good indeed; play something like MUSHA and pay attention to the scrolling and you’ll see that it’s flawlessly silky-smooth; you can also see that the frame rate is rock solid if you look at something like the “flickering” Chaos Emeralds at the end of Special Stages in Sonic 2. If the frame rate wasn’t a steady 60, these would look like they were shimmering unevenly, but it’s a perfect “fake transparency” effect here.

You can’t remap the controls, which is a bit of a shame, as the diamond-shaped button arrangement of Switch controllers isn’t a precise match to the row of three buttons the original Mega Drive pad had — but the collection does use the conventional “Y for A, B for B, A for C” arrangement that other compilations use by default. This button mapping most closely corresponds to how the buttons were laid out on the original Mega Drive pad — and, of course, the official Mega Drive pad will be available for order soon, too.

Probably the most noteworthy inclusion in the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack bundle is MUSHA, which is part of Compile’s Aleste series we’ve previously looked at in the Blissful Death column. This is a really solid and well-regarded shoot ’em up that didn’t review all that well on its 1990 original release — largely due to a sense of “shooter fatigue” that many reviewers were suffering at the time. In more recent years, meanwhile, the game has been rightly celebrated for being an excellent vertical scroller and a top-notch showcase of the Mega Drive’s capabilities.

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Nintendo 64

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Nintendo 64 Star Fox 64/Lylat Wars

Some sort of Nintendo 64 emulation solution for the Switch has been highly requested for a long time, as the platform plays host to some of Nintendo’s most iconic games. Not only that, it’s the birthplace of a lot of modern Nintendo conventions such as the 3D platformer and a focus on “party game” multiplayer.

The initial lineup of games for the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack Nintendo 64 app includes Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, Lylat Wars (aka Star Fox 64), Yoshi’s Story, Sin and Punishment, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Dr Mario 64, Mario Tennis and Operation Winback. While not as numerous as the titles available for the Mega Drive app at launch, this is a consistently top-notch selection that includes some of Nintendo’s biggest hitters, plus a couple of excellent curiosities.

The Nintendo 64 controller actually maps quite nicely to the Switch controller — though for those accustomed to navigating menus with the D-pad it may be a bit of an adjustment to using the analogue stick for almost everything. “A” and “B” on the N64 controller correspond directly to “A” and “B” on the Switch controller, meaning in-game button prompts will be correct, while L and R are assigned to their respective bumpers, and the Z-trigger lives on ZL, meaning you can squeeze it with the left hand, just like the original N64 controller.

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Nintendo 64 Mario Kart 64

ZR, meanwhile, is used as a sort of “shift” key; by holding it down, you can use the four face buttons on the controller as the C buttons on the N64 controller; you can also use the right analogue stick by itself to simulate the C buttons, but the button option is there for those games that require greater accuracy than the stick might afford you. (It’s also your only option if you’re playing using a single Joy-Con.)

Pleasingly, the analogue stick feels authentically “twitchy” and sensitive, particularly in games like Mario Kart; for those unfamiliar with the original Nintendo 64 hardware, the analogue stick, as one of the first examples of its kind on consoles, had quite a different feel to the ones we enjoy on today’s controllers. While it’s impossible for the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack Nintendo 64 app to change the physical feel of a Joy-Con or Pro Controller analogue stick, it does a great job of simulating that somewhat “flappy” feeling through in-game response.

Performance is good, and this can be particularly seen in titles like Mario Kart and Lylat Wars, which both run beautifully. 3D graphics are upscaled, which means they look nice and sharp, though textures retain their authentic “N64 blur” about them; the Nintendo 64 was the first home console to do texture filtering and it could be a little overenthusiastic about this at times.

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Nintendo 64 Mario Kart
Notice the visible “seam” underneath Wario’s eyes.

2D visuals are a bit of a mixed bag, by comparison. Sometimes they’re unfiltered and pin-sharp, and this is when they look their best. At others, they’re filtered with the same fuzz that is applied to 3D object textures, and while they’re still legible and recognisable when in this form, they look noticeably worse than the visual elements that have been left deliberately unfiltered — in some cases they actually look as if they’re a bit “wrong”.

This is most clearly seen in Mario Kart 64’s 2D interface elements; if you look at the character portraits and track previews, you can see odd “seams” on the 2D art — perhaps because this “2D art” is actually being handled more like a 3D texture. These little graphical flaws were likely always there on the original art, but the inherent softness of the CRTs we would have played these games on back in the day would have made them unnoticeable. Today, they’re not exactly a game-breaking issue, but they are still noticeable as flaws.

For many people, the Nintendo 64 era was when people first started becoming really aware of the speed difference between 50Hz PAL consoles and 60Hz NTSC consoles; the UK’s official Nintendo Magazine, for example, used to publish separate time trial leaderboards for both the PAL and NTSC versions of Mario Kart, since you could actually achieve faster times in the latter!

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Nintendo 64 Dr Mario

The Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack Nintendo 64 app actually provides the option to play certain games in either PAL or NTSC format; practically speaking, there’s very little reason to bother with the PAL versions, but if for whatever reason you are nostalgic for your games running slightly worse than their American counterparts, the option is indeed there.

Like the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack Mega Drive collection, there are a couple of interesting inclusions in the library here — this time in the form of Treasure’s excellent former Japan-exclusive rail shooter Sin and Punishment (whose equally enjoyable Wii sequel did get a European release) as well as Koei and Omega Force’s Operation Winback.

The latter is especially noteworthy, because it’s the game that essentially invented the modern third-person shooter and its cover mechanics. It hasn’t had a lot of love over the years — at least partly because subsequent games refined the things it pioneered somewhat — but it’s an enjoyable game in its own right. Plus it’s interesting to see what Omega Force was up to before they became “the Musou people”.

Hopes for the future of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack

Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack: Mega Drive Strider

There’s a lot of potential here in both libraries. Obviously it’d be great to see as many first-party Sega and Nintendo titles in both apps as possible — but the way both apps have kicked things off along with how Nintendo has handled its NES and SNES apps to date indicates that we’re also likely to see plenty of interesting obscurities along the way, too.

While these more obscure releases often attract the ire of the shallower side of the Internet, it’s always more interesting and noteworthy to see games that haven’t had a rerelease for years get a second chance at success, or the opportunity to be introduced to a new audience. Both the Nintendo 64 and Mega Drive have vast libraries of excellent games, many of which have become rare, hard to find or expensive in their original formats — so with any luck we’ll see a nice blend of the predictable all-time classics with a pleasingly endearing selection of weirdness to explore.

Price-wise, it would be nice for Nintendo to perhaps offer a cheaper or pay-monthly option for the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack subscription. I don’t play Animal Crossing, for example, so I’d be happy to pay, say, a fiver less per year for an Expansion Pack subscription that doesn’t include the Animal Crossing DLC. I don’t see this happening, unfortunately, though a suspect a pay-monthly option may well show up at some point.

For now, though, the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack is off to a decent start. While there’s no denying it’s significantly more expensive for an annual subscription than the standard Nintendo Switch Online package, you do get a lot of value here; both the Nintendo 64 and Mega Drive collections include a number of games that will potentially keep you busy for a very long time indeed as well as some more short-form fun. And things will only improve over time!

Find out more about the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack membership here, and subscribe from your console or the Nintendo website.

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Pete Davison
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