Nintendo and The Internets: The Story So Far (in a nutshell)

With E3 2012 beginning in less than a week, anticipation is building regarding The Video Game Big Three (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) and their respective presentations. The video game industry is a little like college football, in that momentum is a big part of the game (and that mascots are important). And E3 gives the companies a chance to gain, or lose, that momentum. A great showing can generate hype and excitement. A poor showing can generate apathy and internet 'memes.'

Nintendo has a lot riding on this year's show. With the Wii U scheduled to launch sometime before Christmas, and the 3DS doing well but, as with any platform, in need of quality software just on the horizon, it's important that they 'bring the momentum.' One area where they are, perhaps surprisingly, poised to do just that is with on-line features.

I say "surprisingly" because for some time Nintendo has been known as the slow adopter when it comes to on-line. The reputation has some legitimacy, but in my experience is usually way overblown. It's true, when Microsoft gave the world XBox Live on the original XBox, Nintendo's on-line offering on the Gamecube was.....nothing. But, the PS2 had no on-line system either (though a few games had limited on-line features). When Sony got into the game on the PS3 with PSN (and Microsoft continued giving the world XBox Live on the XBox 360), Nintendo did as well with the Virtual Console and WiiWare services (united in the Wii Shop Channel) on the Wii. On the handheld side, the original DS had no unified on-line service (though some games had on-line functionality). Two years later the PSP got the PSN. Two years after that Nintendo released the DSi, which boasted, among other things, a downloadable service known as DSiWare. And most recently, Nintendo released the 3DS in March of 2011with it's downloadable service, the Nintendo eShop, rolling out three months later.

Of course, timing isn't everything. There's also the issue of quality. And it's here that the criticisms of Nintendo have a bit more teeth, as they say.

On the Wii, the story is mixed.

The Virtual Console service launched almost simultaneously with the system, offering software emulated (hence, "virtual") titles from consoles of the past (hence, "console"). The original selection was small, but grew over time. Perhaps one of the most mind blowing aspects of the service, especially for children of the 80's and 90's such as myself, was that the consoles of the past weren't limited to Nintendo consoles. Games from systems such as the Turbografx 16 (gasp) and SEGA Genesis (super gasp) would also be available. Oh to be able to travel back in time and tell the pre-teen version of myself that in the future I'd be able to, on a single Nintendo console, play Mario games, Bonk games, and Sonic games. Mind. Blown. As of this writing the Virtual Console service offers games from ten seperate systems (including arcade games), with new titles still being added. On the whole, aside from those disappointed that the selection isn't larger, the VC on the Wii has done well.

Then there's WiiWare. Announced June 2007, WiiWare was designed to fill a gap left by the VC. The Virtual Console was, as the name clearly indicated, a service exclusively for playing old games. WiiWare, on the other hand, would offer new downloadable titles in a wide range of genres from a wide range of developers. Excitement was in the air, and eleven months later the service launched. Now, don't let people mislead you through hyperbole. WiiWare has not been anywhere close to a disaster. Many quality titles have been released through it, and many gaming companies have made money off it. But two major problems prevented the service from reaching it's potential: 1) a 40mb file-size limitation (imposed presumably because of the Wii's small amount of internal storage, and download time concerns), and 2) a lack of promotion (this includes not only advertising, but promotion and ease of use within the WiiShop Channel itself).

A word should also be said about the lack of a unified on-line system outside of the various channels. Unlike XBox Live, on-line components of games are essentially self-contained within the games themselves. Each game had its own friending system and friends list (both using the much loved "friend codes"), as well as "who's on-line" monitoring system. So if I'm on my Wii playing Mario Kart, and Josh is on his playing Call of Duty, there's no way for me to know (aside from calling him up and saying, "Hey man, what are you doing?").

DSiWare is perhaps Nintendo's most disappointing chapter in the world of on-line. The idea was solid: inexpensive downloadable titles for a handheld. The problem has been in the execution, particularly with promotion/distribution. Much like WiiWare, the games themselves haven't been an issue. There are some lower quality titles, sure (as with any platform). But there are also some outstanding high-quality enjoyable ones also. The trick is learning about them, and then finding them in the DSi Shop. The limited memory of the DSi means the Shop Channel is a no-frills hurry-up-and-wait-for-the-next-screen-to-load affair. A splash page with icons for a few games is about all you get in terms of promoting titles. Nintendo has a website that tries to make up for this. And while the site is very useful, some DSi owner just won't be dedicated enough to find and use it.

But times they are a changin'. Enter the 3DS and its eShop channel. Launched three months after the 3DS itself, the eShop is, by most people's reckoning, a huge step in the right direction. No severe file size limitations like WiiWare, a mix of virtual console titles (from handheld consoles, of course) and new original games and applications, the availability of all DSiWare titles, and an excellent virtual store front. Titles are grouped together into different categories (games with Mario, applications, new releases, top sellers, etc.). After clicking on a title one can read more information about it, see what other players have rated the game, and in most cases see screenshots and videos. Purchasing titles is quick and painless, and the actual downloading can happen immediately or later when the system is in stand-by mode.

The 3DS also has a more robust on-line system. Friend codes still exist, but they are tied to the system itself now and not individual games. There's also the ability to see which friends are on-line and what they are playing.

But this is only the beginning. Recently Nintendo has announced that the majority of upcoming 3DS and Wii U retail games (as opposed to 'downloadable games') will be available both as physical cards/discs and downloads. The consumer will be able to choose the distribution method he/she prefers. Also of note, even the download option will be available at retail stores (like Wal-Mart, Target, etc.).

Word on the street is that the on-line aspect of the Wii U will be Nintendo's best (this word provided by people like EA CEO John Riccitello). Details aren't available yet, of course. So who knows what all this entails.

And that brings us to now, less than a week before Nintendo's E3 presentation. The Wii U has much to prove. Recapturing the 'core' after apparently losing it in the days of the N64 (it seems to me it was really the Gamecube era that saw this happen). Showing the new tablet controller isn't just a gimmick (I'm already convinced it isn't). Appeasing (or not) the folks who are anxious to see a Nintendo system with cutting edge graphics again. And generally, demonstrating that the Wii U is a system worth shelling out money for. On-line will be a part of that. And I'm very curious as to how that will play out.

 - Nic

Posted on May 29, 2012 .