You don't really associate the day-glo world of Splatoon with a sense of melancholy, so it's been strange these past few days walking around Splatoon 2's lobby and seeing the cloud of gloom that's recently hung over Inkopolis. There, in little sketches that hang over players heads like thought bubbles, were scruffy laments for the imminent end of free online, and the launch of Nintendo's paid service. Last night, as I walked the lobby one last time before paying up the £17.99 for a year's subscription, those thought bubbles were absent - another feature, it transpires, that's now behind a paywall.
We've known this day was coming for a while, of course, even if the details have been frustratingly slim in the run-up to its launch. It turns out that's mostly because the Nintendo Online service, now it's out in the wild, is slim - and often frustratingly so. It's still reliant on the accompanying mobile app for basic features such as voice chat, and comes with a selection of caveats and typically curious decisions - how your save data can now be backed up in the cloud, but the feature is absent from games such as Splatoon 2 and the forthcoming Dark Souls Remastered and FIFA 19, while the online backup will be lost when your subscription expires. Elsewhere, the NES emulator is hamstrung by the bizarre restriction that has you having to log-in online every seven days to maintain access.
It's strange, and a slight against what's otherwise a fantastic way to play older games, and an excellent foundation for Nintendo to build upon as it expands the service with new games and - with any luck - new console emulators. The front-end is snappy and sharp (and allows you to re-arrange the games on the home screen as you see fit, something which is like a satisfying mini-game in itself and displays the kind of functionality that's sadly missing elsewhere on the Switch's own front-end), while the selection of games is generous and varied.
Yes, you might not be overly excited at the prospect of playing Super Mario Bros for the umpteenth time, but really I think you can never have enough ways to play Super Mario Bros 3, Gradius or Balloon Fight, and they're handsomely presented here. The filter options are a little on the slim side - there's one CRT filter which seems to slightly stretch the image, and two other options to play with a sharper image - and there's also the problem of not having a d-pad on the Joy-Cons, a situation that can be remedied by laying out £49.99 for the forthcoming NES controllers which your subscription so kindly gives you the option to pre-order. Put that aside for a moment, though, and this part of Nintendo's online service could blossom into something truly spectacular.
They work remarkably well online too, even if play is restricted between friends only at the moment, and it does promise some delightful possibilities in the future. Two-player SNES Mario Kart online with a friend? Yes please. Back to the here and now, though, the Nintendo Online app has been expanded to include the likes of Arms, Mario Tennis Aces and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe - and there's the novelty of now hearing strangers chat over lobbies in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Well, strangers who've gone to the effort of setting up the somewhat ludicrous combination of devices you need in order to get this most basic of features working.
Such shortcomings still stick in the craw, and while it might be easy to excuse them by pointing to the relatively slim price point of £17.99 for a year's membership to Nintendo Online - a mere fraction of the cost of Sony and Microsoft's online console services, and when you take into account the family membership option on the Switch it looks more generous still - there's still the feeling that this is the bare minimum. After such a long wait, Nintendo Online feels merely functional, to put it politely. This is the bare minimum you'd expect of an online service in this day and age, and nothing more.
Is that necessarily a problem? Maybe not, but there's a distinct lack of the Nintendo difference (unless you count the gall to present those £49.99 NES controllers - which only work with the NES app and not with other games - as a privilege, something that Sony or Microsoft would surely never have the gall to attempt). Going back to Splatoon 2, where those messages penned by players are restored now that I'm a paid-up Nintendo Online subscriber, I begin to wonder what's been lost across the last generation of the company. Those messages are vestigial remains of the Miiverse, the wonderful and sadly terminated endeavour that came about last time Nintendo tried to forge an online system back on the Wii U. Mad and absolutely magical, it was a masterpiece of lateral thinking that somehow managed to drain the toxicity that's so often associated with online gaming and instead crafted a playful, inviting space.
There are still glimpses of that magic in Nintendo Online - the way you can interact with friends when playing together on NES games, using a pointer to draw attention to secrets or, even better, applaud - but they're part of an otherwise unremarkable, frequently disappointing whole. It will get better over time, and perhaps most importantly it just works. After 18 months of waiting for it to arrive, though, and following a history of playful subversion, you'd be forgiven for wanting a little more than that.