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Opinion: Voice Chat on Nintendo Switch is Messy, But Not a Deal Breaker

Long-suffering Nintendo fans know how to take the bad with the good. We have to. My friends and I had a blast playing Mario Kart Wii online back in 2008, but only after fussing with friend codes. Some of the best Mario levels I've ever played were designed by plucky kids who got their first taste of game design thanks to Super Mario Maker, only for Nintendo to delete their levels later on because they failed to catch on with popular streamers, whose opinions weighed heavily on the game's curation.

Nintendo's announcement of Nintendo Switch Online, the portable console's analogue to Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus, is the most recent in an interminable series of one-step-forward-two-steps-back decisions. On the bright side, the service will cost $20 a year, a third of Sony's and Microsoft's equivalents. Even better, Nintendo rethought its original plan to give and then take away one free classic game per month, instead offering constant access to a library of classic titles. That good news was muted somewhat by the reminder that voice chat, a feature you'll have to pay to use, is available through a smartphone app instead of the Switch.

Even as a fervent Nintendo apologist, I won't deny that voice chat on Switch is (or rather, will be, since Nintendo pushed back its rollout to sometime next year) messy and backwards. That said, I don't see its implementation as a big deal. Although I plan to subscribe to NSO, I probably won't use voice chat, and those players who wish to will be able to partake using simple and readily available workarounds that have been at their fingertips for years.

PlayStation 4's and Xbox One's built-in voice chat is both a blessing and a curse. Most public games are wastelands emitting a steady stream of noise pollution that sears my brain as much as my ears. Cursing, homophobic and racist slurs, and misogyny are disturbingly frequent. They're also just the tip of the iceberg. Not all players wear noise-cancelling headphones, subjecting everyone else to background commotion like barking dogs, screeching children, phone calls, and doorbells that make it difficult to think, let alone enjoy playing.

If you've got one of these, you probably already talk on it.

Nintendo solved that problem years ago by offering canned dialogue in multiplayer lobbies for games such as Mario Kart 8. Chat is disabled during play, the void filled by a game's soundtrack and sound effects. That solution works because chatter, while fun, adds nothing to games like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros., so nothing is lost. (And if you're prone to the sorts of appalling outbursts I am while playing Mario Kart, you're sparing everyone your base level of discourse, not just the tender young ears Nintendo had in mind when they decided to exclude voice chat from its online-enabled consoles years ago.)

If you're playing with friends, there are plenty of other, non-proprietary means of chatting during play. My wife and I played through Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2 on PS3. Since our consoles are set up in different rooms, we talked over our smartphones. When a friend joined us in Dark Souls 2, we piled into Skype calls or Popcorn lobbies, a third-party solution that took just a few minutes to decide on and enact.

Be honest: As convenient as a proprietary solution for voice chat on Switch would be, you likely keep your phone within arm's reach, if not even closer. What's the difference between fishing your phone out of your pocket to check social media or send texts in between matches, and syncing earbuds or a headset to your phone and jabber-jawing through a Switch app during the next round of a game such as Payday 2, which does often call for teammates to communicate to carry out tactics?

You could label Nintendo behind the times for its proposed implementation for voice chat, and you wouldn't be wrong. I'll also grant you that third-party solutions such as headsets from Japanese manufacturer Hori look absurdly complex to set up. That doesn't change the fact that you don't need to bother with such complicated solutions if you want or need to chat with others over Nintendo Switch Online. You already use your smartphone for almost everything else in your life. Why not use it for talking—rumor has it phones were invented for just that operation—in multiplayer games, too?

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