The Switch could be an amazing retro console, so why isn’t it?

Nintendo Switch
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Next month, the Nintendo Switch will add eight classic N64 games to its roster. I don’t use the word “classic” here lightly, as the selections include Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Star Fox 64. A few months after that, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Banjo-Kazooie, Paper Mario and four other titles will join the roster. Soon, fans will be able to relive some of the finest games of the N64 generation – which leads me to wonder why the Big N hasn’t taken the same approach with the NES, SNES or Game Boy.

While the Nintendo Switch has a handful of excellent exclusives, one of the system’s big draws is replaying old favorites on the go. This is true for newer games such as Doom (2016), as well as older games such as the Mega Man X series. It’s surprising, then, that Nintendo has been so stingy with its own retro library. It’s even more surprising that the company has made gamers jump through so many hoops to replay some of the best games ever made.

Skimming the surface 

the legend of zelda

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Nintendo is one of the pillars of modern gaming, and has been ever since it singlehandedly saved the industry from a crash back in 1986. As such, it has an enviable back catalog, including some of the best games ever made. The only trouble is that up until recently, you had to tether yourself to a TV to play most of these titles – ideally, a CRT TV with A/V hookups.

The Nintendo Switch, with its relatively powerful hardware and hybrid handheld design, can act as a conduit for the company’s retro hits. Back in 2018, Nintendo introduced the Nintendo Switch Online service, which included a number of retro games for download.

At first, the lineup was small, but it was strong. Players could choose from NES classics, such as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. 3. Over time, Nintendo added Metroid, Zelda II, Kirby’s Adventure, Punch-Out!! and more. In 2019, Nintendo added SNES titles to the library, including The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Mario World and Breath of Fire.

There’s no denying that there are some true classics in the Switch Online library. The only problem is that they don’t represent the bulk of what’s on offer. Ever since Nintendo Switch Online started offering game downloads, fans have been clamoring for beloved titles like Earthbound, Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger. Instead, we’ve gotten historical footnotes, such as Jelly Boy, Prehistorik Man and Wild Guns.

From a preservationist standpoint, Nintendo has arguably done something good here. Gamers already know and love Super Mario RPG; shouldn’t Prehistorik Man get some love, too? (The correct answer is a polite shrug, but the point stands.) The larger issue, though, is that Nintendo clearly has the resources to make a lot of its back catalog available, but chooses not to do so. It drip-feeds a few classics and a lot of forgettable fare once every few months. This is not a viable long-term solution for fulfilling the Switch’s retro potential.

Furthermore, Nintendo has yet to even scratch the surface of Game Boy games. While it would admittedly be hard to replicate the Nintendo DS experience on a single screen, there’s no reason why the Switch couldn’t run Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games at full tilt.

Some third-party publishers have admittedly stepped in to fill the gaps, bringing us ports of classic series like Mega Man, Street Fighter and Castlevania. But we know from experience that Nintendo has the potential to offer a vast library of retro fare, like it did on the Wii and Wii U. For some reason, it has chosen not to do so on the Switch. It’s also chosen to lock the games it does offer behind a cumbersome subscription.

Switch Online + Expansion Pack 

Nintendo Switch Online

(Image credit: Nintendo)

Let’s take another look at the Switch’s upcoming N64 games. On the surface, it seems like Nintendo is doing everything right. These are the games that fans really want to play, and it’s releasing them in big batches – eight games in the first, and seven games in the second. Assuming that this is the beginning of the N64 experiment, and not the sum total, that’s a promising start.

(Nitpickers may point out that we still don’t have Goldeneye or Perfect Dark, but licensing those games may be more difficult than plumbing Nintendo’s own back catalog.)

However, even if Nintendo offered the N64 back catalog in its entirety, it would still suffer from a major problem: its subscription model. Unlike on the Wii and Wii U, where gamers could purchase retro games a la carte, all of Nintendo’s retro offerings on the Switch are through the $20-per-year Nintendo Switch Online service. To access the N64 games, subscribers will need to add an “Expansion Pack” to their subscription, although Nintendo has not yet detailed how much this will cost.

The issue is not so much with the price. Twenty dollars is fair for the amount of games on offer, and I doubt the Expansion Pack will break anyone’s budget, if the current pricing is anything to go by. But “pay a subscription fee, indefinitely, for games that Nintendo can take away at any time” doesn’t have the same appeal as “buy a game and keep it forever.” (This turned out to be incredibly important, especially after Nintendo shut down the Wii Shop. Some downloadable titles live on only in individual console hard drives.)

In other words: Nintendo has the ability to offer a huge retro game catalog and let players buy whatever they want from it. Instead, the company offers a limited retro game catalog, and makes players subscribe to a mixed-quality multiplayer service to access them for as long as Nintendo deems fit. Since Nintendo also makes a habit of shutting down emulation sites left and right, it makes me wonder whether Nintendo even wants players to experience its back catalog. There aren’t many ways left to do it.

N64 games on Switch outlook 

Nintendo Switch

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Still, the promising N64 lineup is at least a step in the right direction. Nintendo seems keenly aware of which N64 games people want to play, and will offer most of them in the near future. I do wonder whether this will be like the NES and SNES libraries on Switch, however, which started off strong, and then petered out.

In the Switch, Nintendo has created a console with incredible potential as a retro machine. In the past three years, it’s fulfilled some of that potential, but much more remains untapped. Ideally, Nintendo should implement a Virtual Console to let fans buy the games they want, and eschew the ones they don’t.

And, failing that, the company could at least give us Super Mario RPG.

Next: Here is why the 10-year-old PlayStation Vita still beats the Nintendo Switch.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.