Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
It’s one of those shruggingly accepted facets of modern gaming that online multiplayer isn’t free. Whether you’re playing Fortnite on your PS4, or jamming out some Fortnite on XBox One, or just diving deep into a quick Fortnite sesh on the Nintendo Switch, you’ll need a subscription to some sort of carefully marketed “Gold” or “Plus” service if you want to take your public humiliation by teenagers online. [Correction: As noted in the comments, free-to-play games like Fortnite do not require a Plus subscription on the PS4.] The big three console companies all try to take the sting out of these costs with a little bread and circuses, bribing subscribers with extra “free” games to keep them from going into open revolt every time PC players—with their fancy, free dedicated servers—cruise on by. For Microsoft and Sony, this process is simple: Dig through the sale bins, find a handful of games each month priced at a point where a decent percentage of players will be happy to see them show up for free, and call it a day. Nintendo’s approach to this system is weirder, though, because Nintendo is always weirder—and smarter, at least some of the time.
Much has already been made of the initially lackluster set of offerings available through the Switch’s online-mandatory Nintendo Entertainment System app, the company’s nostalgic sop to its online subscribers. Although it’s hard to fault the company for making the most of its legendary back catalog, it’s also impossible to deny that 13 years of Virtual Console releases and adorable little mini-consoles have taken some of the shine off of playing Super Mario Bros. 3 or Zelda II for the billionth time. (River City Ransom with online co-op is still pretty cool, though.) But there’s a weird little secret lurking under all these obvious hits: With its focus on Nintendo’s earliest releases (and a handful of licensed favorites), the Switch has quietly become the best little sports gaming console around.
Of the 31 NES titles currently available through the app, eight are multiplayer sports games, mostly culled from the console’s earliest years. (Baseball, Tennis, and Soccer all pre-date Super Mario Bros., hailing from that era when NES box covers all had that minimalist, starry-background look that produces the kind of ’80s nostalgia against which the rational mind has no logical defense.) They range in sophistication all the way up to 1992’s NES Open Tournament Golf, but it’s the earlier releases—those games created when designers were still trying to figure out how to translate one directional pad and four face buttons into workable simulations of the complexity of real-world sports—where the mad genius of the era shines, and where the Switch’s online app shows its real strengths.
These are weird, buggy, obtuse games, designed for kids who’d inevitably master their quirks over long summers of playing the same thing over and over again. Baseball—designed by Nintendo mascot/mascot creator Shigeru Miyamoto—lets you steal home with infuriating ease. Ice Hockey (and the inferior Soccer) task you with controlling your defenders and your goalie at the same time, with the same button presses, which is absolutely bizarre. Pro Wrestling is less a wrestling game, and more a simulator for making muscular men slam face-first into each other as they bounce gleefully off the ropes.
There were better NES sports games than the ones currently on offer here. Bases Loaded is undeniably a better baseball game than Baseball, and even Tecmo Bowl—which remains an amazingly good attempt at doing football on exceptionally limited resources—was surpassed on the system by its own sequel a few years later. But in a world where Madden gets a little closer to “real” football every year, it’s fascinating to look back at the games these early designers made out of other, more complicated games, paring down strategy, nuance, and complexity into pure arcade joy. It’s not a nostalgic exercise either: Sit down with a buddy for a half hour of Ice Hockey and see if you don’t end up having as much fun as you would with a sports game that doesn’t break down its entire player roster into “fat guy, skinny guy, regular, repeat.”