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Nintendo in the Internet Age

When it comes to modern online experiences, Nintendo soars one moment and then stumbles the next.

Like any dutiful Wii U owner (or, for that matter, any Wii U owner at all), I’ve been playing a lot of Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U lately. Both games have significant online components, which has me reviewing Nintendo’s approach to the modern video game landscape. To be fair, the Wii was a connected console, but its adventures on the Internet were quite shallow compared to its successor. Seeing some marquee Nintendo games embrace current expectations around multiplayer and social content is exciting, but there are still plenty of oddities and ambiguities to resolve.

When did this pond get so big?

If you feel like you’re getting good at a video game, the chances are you probably haven’t played enough people. In years past, my competency in Mario Kart and Smash were measured relative to a small handful of people. If I could beat my friends on Rainbow Road and knock them off of Final Destination, I was a pretty good player. Today, I know exactly where I stand on a global scale (hint: bush league, at best).

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I can still play locally against people my speed and it does let me find people that will force me to improve my skills. It does change the historically clannish feel of many Nintendo games, though. My friends and I developed our own subcultures, traditions, and strategies because we were largely living in isolation from other players. As has happened with most human culture today, Nintendo communities have been impacted by globalization. Not only are we all playing in the same games, we’re also browsing the same forums, using the same terminology, and exposed to the same conventional wisdom Within hours of a game’s release, video tutorials spring up and dozens of sub-reddits pick apart and categorize the optimal techniques for Smash match ups. The mystery and competition of our own little fiefdoms has been diminished in the face of this expansive global nation.

Share this. Now Take it Down.

Simply competing against other players is only part of a modern on-line experience; customization options and sharing content are driving game communities. Nintendo has made some impressive strides with MK 8 and Smash, but their triumphs are balanced out by puzzling missteps.

Mario Kart 8 has an excellent, feature-rich online experience. Races have been reliable, easy to get into, and are customizable. Controlling the types of items, karts, racing speed, control style, and stage selection means that most people can find the type of race they want. The replay system and dynamic camera system automatically saves your recent races, lets you do some light editing on them, and then allows you to export them to YouTube. It’s one of the most slick, modern-feeling features I’ve ever experienced in a Nintendo game.

For some reason, this philosophy didn’t spread to Smash. The game has some cool hooks. Watching replays filtered by character, betting on players while spectating matches, and participating in meta tournaments with others who are picking the same character are neat bonuses, but they don’t make up for some fundamental limitations around the main event.

The matches have been laggy so far (a cardinal sin in online games, especially for fighting games). There aren’t any ways to customize rules. “For Fun” only lets you play timed battles, and playing stock battles forces you into 1 on 1, 2-stock matches with no item options. There is no ability to choose stages, no way to filter out people who are playing with specific controller setups, and no way to effectively search replays, share your own, or post your own custom stages. In a game so rich with local multiplayer options, the on-line mode feels barren.

There is also the issue of Nintendo’s overall technological and corporate ineptitude. As far as I know, the YouTube upload feature in Mario Kart 8 has been broken for several weeks (since the first DLC update went out). Even worse is the fact that I’ve received Content ID warnings from Nintendo on Mario Kart 8 videos that I’ve uploaded directly from the game onto a YouTube channel that is in no way monetized.

This has also happened with fair-use videos that I’ve made with Jorge Albor in which we discuss and critique a game as we play. I guess if Nintendo wants to squelch what essentially amounts to free advertising in exchange for a few pennies from ad-running YouTubers, that’s their business. They would do well to note that the kids these days aren’t wearing Mario shirts while watching the Mario Cartoon. They’re wearing Minecraft shirts while broadcasting their creations on YouTube.

Pikachu is evolving... and being patched.

Nintendo games have traditionally been frozen in time. Once a cartridge or disc is finished, the data housed within is never modified, and it is up to players to mine for secrets and new techniques. This dynamic gives rise to amazing speed runs and in-depth, decade-long analyses of player innovation in games like Melee.

Now when I boot up MK 8, I see I’m playing “ver. 3.0.” Smash for Wii U is already on version 1.01, while the 3DS has gotten up to 1.04 Balance tweaks and gameplay adjustments aren’t inherently a bad thing, but they do fundamentally change the nature of the game. The meta-game of understanding how other players approach the game is now inextricably linked to the real possibility that the game will substantially change over time. Nintendo has so far made things even more complicated by being vague about what the patches are actually changing, which means players are now required to meticulously dig into the game to stay aware of its shifting mechanics.

Miyamoto famously said that "A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad", but that is no longer true. For better or worse, Nintendo has finally joined the rest of the industry in this respect. If we’re very unlucky, the patching dynamic could mean that a game like Melee never happens again. Instead of players having to refine and improve their techniques to counter strong characters, they can just complain that Fox’s back air is too strong, and the game will get patched. Imperfections can be addressed and rough edges worn down, but that might also erode some of the unique character that Nintendo games have possessed. I guarantee you it will lead to shipping games earlier with more known bugs (as it has for every other studio out there).

Then again, sometimes this will be great (a few menu design changes have made Mario Kart 8 even smoother), and games will be saved from unexpected issues. Theoretically, Miyamoto’s law could be a thing of the past. Of course, I could also become a world champion Smash tournament player -- theoretically. I don’t see that happening, though.

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