When it was first announced, Nintendo's online app for Switch seemed like a ridiculously, unnecessarily convoluted way of offering party lobbies and voice chat for its slew of online games. It once again smacked of Nintendo either fundamentally misunderstanding the hows and whys of online play, or of so desperately wanting to shield its younger audience from harm that it wasn't even prepared to offer much-requested online features on its own console.
Still though, this is Nintendo we're talking about—a company known to surprise—so I was willing to give its new smartphone voice chat app the benefit of the doubt.
I've now used it and it's...not ideal.
Let's be clear though; on a fundamental level, I've no particular objection to a separate app for online features. It's a fiddly notion, and needlessly so, but I'd be willing to accept it if it worked, and offered a seamless, enjoyable way of interacting with my online games. It doesn't.
To give you some indication of how perverse the whole thing is, here's a quick account of the half hour myself and a friend spent with the app this morning.
First impressions are great. It's slick in that inimitable Nintendo style, with a homepage that offers immediate access to your invites, currently available game lobbies, and game-specific sub-pages.
The Splatoon 2 sub-pages, known as SplatNet 2, offer little to complain about. They're a bit overly fussy in their design, perhaps, but they feature some decently useful information—including your various play stats, and upcoming map rotations—and even let you order special in-game clothing from your phone. It's a good, fun way to complement the core game experience, and other online titles like Arms and Mario Kart 8 would doubtless benefit from a similar approach too.
Moving onto the core online functionality though—the bit we're actually interested in—things start to wobble dramatically.
Keen to give Splatoon 2's voice chat and lobby system a whirl, I summoned the help of a friend. Things actually started pretty positively; while I was clicking my way through the map news that begins each game, both the Switch's internal notification system and my phone alerted me to a party invite. My friend had set up a lobby, my personal invitation to play had gone out, and the app and operating system were communicating with each other. Good work.
Next, I turned my attention to the app, but at this point, there's nothing to see or do. The invite is exactly that: a note to say that you've been invited to a party, and that you should go to Splatoon 2's multiplayer lobby and enter the Online Lounge.
I'll be honest, it's a little disappointing that Nintendo's system can't automatically take you to the relevant game lobby when an invite appears on your Switch screen. Instead of that single, simple step, I'd so far had to converse with my friend on Google Hangouts to confirm that he'd created a lobby, wait for a notification, open the app, enter Splatoon 2, go to the multiplayer hub, and select my friend's lobby—all while continuing to use Hangouts to communicate our progress.
Unexpectedly, there's no way to communicate with anyone on your friends list in the app unless a lobby has been created in-game. Already, I was starting to think that it would have been quicker to simply to use FaceTime or Discord and do all this pre-amble verbally, negating the usefulness of the app's voice chat completely.
Once I'd finally gone through the various steps to enter my friend's lobby though, things were more positive. For starters, the in-app voice chat lobby is presented with typical Nintendo verve. Its user interface is very Arms-like, with a circular representation of your avatar (and those of others in the lobby) drifting lazily around. Whenever you speak, pulses ripple outward on-screen. It's cute.
With both of us present, my friend was finally able to select the parameters for a match (fun fact: one-versus-one games of Splatoon 2 are both thrilling and incredibly eerie in their desolation), and we rattled through a game of Tower Control.
The one thing that almost makes the faff of setting up a lobby worthwhile is the way in which the app is able to conveniently, seamlessly sort and mute voice inputs automatically, so that once a match begins, you're able to share your plans with your teammates alone. In our two-player case though, that meant three minutes of absolute silence with only the occasional sploosh to break up the tension.
That though is about the only real positive with the Nintendo Online service right now. Navigating the app, and switching your focus back and forth between your smartphone and console is as annoying as it is cumbersome. And when I tried to create my own lobby, I quickly discovered that I was unable to invite friends from the app, with no clear feedback why.
Disappointingly too, it seems that it's only possible to create voice chat lobbies for Private Battle at present, and there's no obvious way to team up with a friend and voice chat during a Turf War free-for-all, for instance. The app is, in other words, extraordinarily limited.
Then there's the fact that the app won't run in the background on your mobile device. You'll need to have the screen on, and the app given priority to talk with friends. If you need to swap to a different app—to check game strategies for instance, or to look up a recipe for corn—your voice is immediately muted. You can easily rejoin the lobby on your return, but the whole thing still threatens to be a massive drain on battery life.
Of course, all of this is subject to change given that i) Splatoon 2 isn't released yet and ii) Nintendo has been clear that the app and its online service are a work in progress. With the full service due to commence sometime in 2018, that gives Nintendo ample time to make improvements. However, there's no avoiding the fact that, right now, there are far better, far easier ways of communicating with your friends during a game.
There are definite positives to be found across the Nintendo Online app, from its basic design to the fun, promising game-specific features. But sadly, the app's benefits are massively outweighed by its cumbersome set-up at present, and Nintendo will need to do some mighty big improving if it expects people to pay for this next year.