Nintendo Switch Online is offering access to classic games — in the worst way possible

Banjo-Kazooie game art
(Image credit: Rare/Nintendo)

Last week, Nintendo Switch Online gave subscribers access to collect-a-thon classic Banjo-Kazooie via its Expansion Pack tier. Considering the Nintendo 64 classic is one of my favorite games of all time, its addition should have single-handedly sold me on the subscription service. 

Unfortunately, that’s definitely not been the case. Right now, Nintendo is offering the chance to essentially rent a non-definitive version of the platforming duo's first outing; it's hardly the most enticing offer. This has reinforced my previous assertation that Nintendo Switch Online is a terrible service that is only getting worse with each new update. 

Coincidentally, my current Nintendo Switch Online membership expires this week and I have no plans to re-subscribe any time soon. While I have been enjoying a rekindled romance with my Switch, all too often Nintendo reminds me that when it comes to offering a compelling online service it lags far behind the competition.    

You can touch but you can't have 

Banjo-Kazooie screenshot

(Image credit: Rare)

Since the Nintendo Switch launched in 2017, I’ve been hoping for classic Nintendo 64 games on the system. Primarily because I have plenty of nostalgia for several of the N64's best games, but also because I missed out on a few classics including the console's two mainline Zelda games.  

The announcement that classic Nintendo 64 games would be added to Switch Online’s digital library should have got me very hyped. But the extra $35 for the Expansion Pack needed to access these game was off-putting; combined, Switch Online and the Expansion Pack is $50 a year. For what's arguably a limited and not wholly compelling collection of retro games, that price can sting. 

However, my real disappointment is that these classic games are only accessible as part of the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack and cannot be purchased a la carte. This is bizarre as on older consoles, Nintendo used to give you the option to fully-own retro games outright. 

I don’t particularly want to rent Banjo-Kazooie or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for my Nintendo Switch. I want to buy these games outright so they're available to me whenever I want for years to come; I don't want to suddenly lose access if I let my Switch Online membership lapse. 

Game subscription services have their place, but Switch Online isn't an Xbox Game Pass clone, more just a way to charge for some online services that others offer for free, like a way to backup saves. And I can’t be the only one that would gladly pay $15 per game for some of these classic Nintendo titles. But we’ve not even been given the choice  — it’s a rental or nothing. 

Granted, the initial outlay of having access to a whole library of games via a $50 subscription would be cheaper than buying a handful outright at $15 apiece. But I dislike the idea of having to pay in perpetuity for continued access. Especially as I rarely play my Switch online so have little need to subscribe to its online service indefinitely the way I do with PlayStation Plus and Game Pass.

 Banjo-Kazooie: The Non-Definitive Edition 

Banjo-Kazooie screenshot

(Image credit: Rare)

I could perhaps (begrudgingly) make my peace with only having access to classic N64 games via Switch Online. However, another deal-breaker is that Nintendo is only giving subscribers access to inferior versions of these games. 

In 2008, Banjo-Kazooie was made available to purchase on Xbox 360. This edition of the game (which is now playable on both Xbox One and Xbox Series X) sports a host of subtle graphical upgrades. These include a resolution bump, a locked framerate, improved draw distance and higher resolution textures. None of them are earth-shattering improvements, and the game still retains its N64 roots but these are appreciated tweaks.

Most importantly, however. the 360 version includes a very significant quality-of-life improvement. In Banjo-Kazooie, each level offers 100 music notes to collect. In the Nintendo 64 version, if you died mid-level you’d lose any notes collected. This meant players were required to pick up all the notes in one run. In the 360 version, notes collected carry across lives. This makes achieving 100% completion on each level a much less tedious task. 

As you can probably guess, the version offered as part of Nintendo Switch Online does not include the graphical or gaming upgrade. Gaming historians might claim that the original N64 version is being intentionally preserved here, but I challenge anyone to argue that these small tweaks don’t make for a better overall playing experience. 

the legend of zelda Ocarina of Time screenshot

(Image credit: Nintendo)

This isn’t just an issue with Banjo-Kazooie either. Both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were given a refresh on the Nintendo 3DS in 2011 and 2015 respectively. 

These well-received versions include some graphic polish and a host of small, but very welcome improvements designed to sand down some of the edges that had become rougher with time. 

Ocarina of Time has been available as part of Nintendo Switch Online’s Expansion Pack since launch (Majora's Mask will be added next month). And just like Banjo-Kazooie, it’s a straight emulation of the N64 version with all those 3DS improvements stripped away. 

This decision makes a fairly dated game by all accounts, potentially inaccessible to first-time players who don't have the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia to see them through the bits that haven't quite stood the test of time.   

From my perspective, paying an annual subscription to rent less than definitive versions of classic games is a tough sell. I guess I’ll just have to settle for replaying Banjo-Kazooie on my Xbox for the dozenth time and picking up an old 3DS to experience Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask for the first time. 

What happened to Nintendo Virtual Console?  

Nintendo Switch

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

One of my colleagues has previously bemoaned how the Nintendo Switch could be a fantastic home for retro gaming. It's a sentiment I strongly echo. Bizarrely, Nintendo seems reluctant for the device to fulfill its potential in this area.

The Nintendo Wii, and even the often-maligned Wii U, were deservedly praised for their impressive Virtual Console. This digital storefront offered a wide assortment of classic Nintendo games for purchase, usually at very reasonable prices. Why doesn't the Nintendo Switch have an equivalent?  

It was certainly a vastly superior method of offering classic games than placing them behind a Nintendo Switch Online paywall or bundling games together in overpriced limited-time collections such as Super Mario 3D All-Stars

I would love to see Virtual Console make a comeback on the Nintendo Switch. But it seems that Nintendo would rather lock its deep catalog of classic games behind an online service that simply doesn’t offer value for money; I can but let out a sight of tepid sadness. 

Rory Mellon
Entertainment Editor (UK)

Rory is an Entertainment Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on gaming and streaming. When he’s not reviewing the latest games, searching for hidden gems on Netflix, or writing hot takes on new gaming hardware, TV shows and movies, he can be found attending music festivals and getting far too emotionally invested in his favorite football team.