Nintendo adds GameBoy games to Switch Online — but there's a big problem

Nintendo Switch
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Nintendo has just announced that GameBoy and GameBoy Advance games will be coming to Nintendo Switch Online — allowing subscribers to play a growing selection of classic Nintendo handheld games. Obviously this news is likely to prove controversial, and it may stir up some mixed feelings in a good number of people. Myself included.

The main issue is that classic Nintendo games are exclusive to Switch Online and the Expansion Pass add-on. There’s no option to buy these games as standalone titles like you can with Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Plus. Certainly not if you want to play them on Switch, and your options to play them elsewhere are quickly diminishing.

Nintendo is shutting down the Wii U and 3DS digital storefronts on March 27 2023, and previously shut down the DSi and Wii stores in 2017 and 2019, respectively. While physical copies of many older games are still available, their price tags only ever seem to increase — and that’s assuming you still have a functional GameBoy or GameBoy Advance lying around.

One of the GameBoy games coming to Switch is Link’s Awakening DX, a classic that even got the remake treatment a few years back. The cheapest copy I could find on eBay in English was $30, plus $7 shipping from Canada, while others were in the $40 to $50 range. More if you want to pick up a cartridge with the original box or instructions.

I'm not saying all-access gaming subscriptions are bad. They all cut you off if you stop paying, which is kind of the whole point — it’s just Nintendo isn’t giving you any other official option.

Meanwhile, the same game is just $6 on the 3DS eShop, while other GameBoy games announced for Switch Online are at similarly-low prices. Metroid II and Gargoyle’s Quest are $4 each, Warioland 3 is $5, and so on. 

Alone in the Dark: A new Nightmare doesn't seem to be available on 3DS, though it is a third-party game and can be purchased on Steam for $7. The original Tetris is also absent, but there's certainly no shortage of ways to play that.

Buying digitally obviously doesn’t come with the same perils of buying from the second-hand market either. You know that the game is going to work correctly, and you don’t run the risk of buying an elaborate fake. In my experience old Pokémon games can be particularly bad for this.

There's an argument to be made that Nintendo doesn't have an obligation to make these games available on new platforms. It certainly wouldn't be the first time a publisher has abandoned classic games when they became functionally obsolete. The company definitely deserves some credit for putting the effort into ensuring these games can continue to be played, long after their original release.

On a related note, it’s worth mentioning that the majority of GameBoy Advance games announced for the Switch Online Expansion Pack don’t seem to be available on 3DS. The only one that is available is the 3DS port of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, which was bundled with Bowser’s Minions back in 2017. The original GBA version still appears absent.

So when games like this are made available on a new platform, especially for the very first time, it’s not unreasonable for Nintendo to ask you to pay for them. Especially since there is work involved in bringing those games to the Switch. It’s just that the current system seems particularly unfair, given the lack of choice involved.

The retro gaming system on Switch Online is essentially a rental service, one that you pay $20 a year for, or $50 if you opt for the Expansion Pack tier. And, like any all-access gaming subscription, the minute you let your subscription lapse you are locked out of whatever games you had been playing.

That’s not to say that all-access gaming subscriptions are bad. They all cut you off if you stop paying, which is kind of the whole point — it’s just Nintendo isn’t giving you any other official option. Nintendo won’t let purchase those games on Switch, as it did on previous consoles, and means sourcing a working physical copy is your only legal alternative. More so once the 3DS and Wii U eShops shut down for good next month.

Unfortunately, it has been over four years since Nintendo launched the first batch of retro games on Switch Online, and there’s no sign of the company changing course anytime soon. We can hope, but I certainly won't be holding my breath.

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Tom Pritchard
UK Phones Editor

Tom is the Tom's Guide's UK Phones Editor, tackling the latest smartphone news and vocally expressing his opinions about upcoming features or changes. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining about how terrible his Smart TV is.