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Nintendo’s Overlooked Online Innovations

For the last 10 years the narrative has been that Nintendo ‘doesn’t get’ online.

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Mario Kart 8

For the last 10 years the narrative has been that Nintendo ‘doesn’t get’ online.

Certainly, if you compare their endeavours in online multiplayer with those of Sony and Microsoft, there isn’t an argument to counter that assertion. However, there is an argument that in their own peculiar way, Nintendo has often been forward thinking with their use of online. Their efforts haven’t been consistent, elegant, reliable, or well supported, but they have always been interesting.

Despite the assumption that Nintendo has never cared for online connectivity, the truth is that they’ve been dabbling in it for over 25 years. First, with 1988s Famicom Modem – which received news and horoscopes via phone lines – and subsequently, with the Satellaview SNES peripheral.

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Satellaview received information via the St.GIGA satellite service, including games, digital magazines and an early form of DLC. The service was moderately popular, but not a mainstream success. Nonetheless, it does illustrate that Nintendo have always had an eye on connected technologies.

The N64DD and Gamecube

Four years later, in the last days of the Nintendo 64, the N64DD peripheral was released in Japan. This add-on connected to Nintendo’s Randnet service allowing for score swapping, game spectating (take that, Twitch), web browsing and data exchange. Services that we take for granted with today’s consoles. Only nine games were released for the N64DD, and a lukewarm public response consigned it to a short life.

The next milestone for Nintendo was with the release of the GameCube in 2002. By using yet another peripheral (either a Broadband or Modem Adapter) the GameCube could be taken online or connected to a LAN. The first major title to use the adapter was Sega’s Phantasy Star Online, the standard-bearer for online RPGs in the early 00s. The game also supported a rather crazy, Japan-only ASCII Keyboard/Controller combination. Another item for the long list of curious, game specific Nintendo peripherals.

It was with the arrival of the DS and Wii that Nintendo started to take online more seriously at a consumer level. By 2005 titles such as Nintendogs had catapulted the DS from being Nintendo’s ‘third pillar’ to being their top-selling console. At the end of that year they unveiled the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, a service powered by GameSpy Technology that enabled selected games to be played online.

In time, games such as Metroid Prime Hunters, Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land and Star Fox made good use of Nintendo WFC, but it was Mario Kart DS that was the big hit. The Mario Kart series always shines when played against real people, and opening it up to the entire world was an obvious, but thrilling, prospect. The reality didn’t quite match the promise, however. Nintendo WFC sessions could often be fragile, and more than one podium finish was thwarted by a dropped connection. But, it was another step forward.

Nintendo WFC was also supported by a comprehensive website that provided play statistics, leader boards and various other nuggets of data gleaned from participating games. The site certainly felt ahead of its time, the RockStar Social Club of its day.

And then, there were Friend Codes.

Friend Codes

So let’s talk about Friend Codes. They were a mistake, there’s no doubt about it, but they were also created with the best of intentions. Nintendo’s thinking was that they would be used like phone numbers and given personally to, well, your friends. The idea that a player might want to connect with complete strangers seemed alien, an indication perhaps of how cultural attitudes to online relationships differ between east and west. And let’s not forget that Nintendo is very much a family focused company, so providing a safe environment for young players will always be front of mind. In an interview with GameDaily in 2008, Iwata said, “I don’t think the current system we have with friend codes is perfect. However, if it’s an online world where you can get access to anybody without any restrictions, I as a father do not feel like allowing my daughter be engaged in that kind of world.”

Understandable perhaps, but the knock-on effect was that building up a community of players took a lot of hard work. There’s no doubt that Friend Codes held the service back and dogs Nintendo to this day.

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The fundamental difference with Nintendo’s approach was that ‘online’ always felt like an afterthought. A reaction. Whilst Microsoft and Sony ensured their online features were embedded at system level, Nintendo’s initiatives felt haphazard and lacked consistency. Nowhere is this better illustrated than with the Wii.

Nintendo Wii

The Wii was the first Nintendo console designed to be constantly connected. Prior to launch, Iwata described the potential of Wii Connect 24 to Nikkei Business Publications, “Let’s say your Wii is connected to the Internet in a mode that allows activation on a 24-hour basis. This would allow Nintendo to send monthly promotional demos for the DS, during the night, to the Wii consoles in each household. Users would wake up each morning, find the LED lamp on their Wii flashing, and know that Nintendo has sent them something. They would then be able to download the promotional demo from their Wii systems to their Nintendo DS.”

This never really happened. But, that’s not to say that the Wii didn’t include a number interesting online features, many of which were the precursors to the app-based experiences we now consume on smartphones. (In retrospect, it’s funny to see how the layout of the Wii menu predates the iPhone interface.)

Out of the box, the Wii came with pre-installed News and Weather channels. Rather than being traditional web pages they were interactive experiences with neat little Nintendo touches that made them enjoyable to use. And they were great. Truly. The only problem was that the Wii’s lack of oomph made them slow to load and an eternity to update, so therefore almost useless. In another nice touch, the Wii could receive and send email. Handy, if you could remember the overlong, friend code based, email address. (For posterity, mine was [email protected])

During the Wii’s lifetime a number of other quirky channels appeared, often full of promise, but never as good as they should have been. Check Mii Out was a fun Mii creation contest, but the challenges were too vanilla. Being asked to “Create a man who’s had too much to eat!”, hardly got the creative juices flowing. Likewise, The Today and Tomorrow and Everybody Votes channels offered glimpses of excellence, and were wonderful designed, but they too were stifled by a lack of interesting content.

The Nintendo Channel was perhaps the most successful of these experiments, an interactive magazine that featured trailers and Nintendo produced video content. In contrast to the other channels it was frequently updated and was even used to distribute playable Nintendo DS demos. It was only hobbled by an over-elaborate UI that flipped and flopped like a dying fish.

The Wii, despite the lack of HD, also became a successful media box, with the likes of Netflix, Hulu and the BBC iPlayer performing well and proving popular.

It seems the ambition was there, if not the technical infrastructure, to make the Wii genuinely useful on a day-to-day basis. And flawed though these experiments were, you can see the seeds of the future, most notably in what became the Miiverse and Nintendo eShop.

The Wii’s online multiplayer credentials were built around three key games. Animal Crossing: City Folk, Mario Kart Wii, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. And each had differing fortunes. At one end Mario Kart Wii was a solidly robust experience. It was still prone to the usual WFC connection issues, but the community features and the game’s Wii Channel were well implemented. Elsewhere, Nintendo continued to demonstrate their commitment to odd, one-shot peripherals by releasing the Wii Speak microphone along with Animal Crossing. The least said about this device, the better. Using it was like being on a conference call, held on a mountain, in a storm. A peripheral best forgotten. Finally, Super Smash Bros. Brawl represented an admirable attempt to take the chaotic thrills of couch multiplayer online, but yet again, the infrastructure didn’t always seem up to the task.

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In a recent episode of IGN’s Nintendo Voice Chat* podcast, Todd Northcutt, ex-General Manager at GameSpy Technology, revealed that the popularity of these games took them by surprise, holding their own against many of the big titles being played on Xbox 360 and PS3, “Mario Kart on the Wii, Smash Bros., Monster Hunter, those games were toe-to-toe with some of the biggest franchises, like Battlefield, that we supported,” he recalls.

Nintendo’s New Leaf

Nintendo’s path to redemption began with the 3DS. Friend codes remained, but their use was made palatable by being tied to a console, rather than individual games. In addition, StreetPass brought in a brand new method of connectivity that encouraged owners to take their 3DS out of the house. And by the time they unveiled the Wii U, they had progressed from playing around with little apps, to creating their very own social network, the Miiverse.

Miiverse is a wonderfully entertaining network that, in contrast to other social channels, encourages creativity and expression. It’s still a little slow, and the user interface could certainly do with another trip around the design team, but it’s a big leap forward. There have also been significant improvements now that Nintendo control their own online infrastructure. Beginning with Mario Kart 7, playing Nintendo games online became much more satisfying experience.

Personally speaking, it was Animal Crossing: New Leaf that really demonstrated Nintendo progress. The game features a wealth of online (and StreetPass) communication features that enhance the experience in a variety of interesting and delightful ways. Each feature lets you to interact with friend and strangers, directly and indirectly in a way that astutely supplements the main game. And now, with Mario Kart 8, we have the first big Wii U online title. A game that brings 12 player online races, video sharing and custom tournaments to the party.

I doubt that Nintendo consoles will ever be the ‘go to’ place for hardcore online multiplayer gaming, but the company is now striding forward with more than a little confidence. Games such as New Leaf, Mario Kart 8 and the forthcoming Splatoon and Super Smash Bros. show that Nintendo’s future will be increasingly connected. And it will be fascinating to see what path it takes.

*Nintendo Voice Chat: The Story of Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection – 23/5/14 – Link

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Thumbsticks editor, and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Ape Out, Skyrim (again), and Yoshi's Crafted World.