I was disappointed to learn about Nintendo switching off online play on the Wii and DS; at the time I was on a short break spending some time with my family and, funnily enough, getting ready for some memory-jogging multiplayer gaming with my older brother. Growing up playing games in co-op or hotly-contested competitive multiplayer — not really, when I was young my brother mostly won! — remains a treasured memory, and playing games with others is an important part of getting the most from this hobby of ours.
Of course in the '90s it was all offline play, with the internet an expensive extravagance that, by modern standards, was outrageously slow and unreliable. To our younger readers I'd suggest you may not have an appreciation for how different times were, simply because you weren't there; hardly your fault, of course. Smartphones didn't exist, and if you wanted to know something you wouldn't Google it, but ask people face to face, or go to a library, or find an old magazine, or just not know the release date of that particularly obscure Japanese beat 'em up.
I won't say they were 'better' times, but they sure were simpler. If you bought a game on a cartridge the content was all right there, you'd shove it into the system and play it; I'm aware this has been said before, and you may be picturing me with a pipe and slippers at this point. I also reckon that if Nintendo had a time machine — possibly phase two of the QOL platform, but probably not — it'd go back to that era when all it had to do was make a game, release it to obliging high street retailers and not worry about all this online malarkey.
Of course, my rose-tinted memories of playing games with my older brother and parents — yes, they were cool and played games with us — aren't applicable to everyone, and in fact without online multiplayer I'd rarely play games with others right now; you can play the world's smallest violin for me if you like. In recent months I've played Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate with fellow NLifers, took part in the Mario Kart 7 community night and a few months ago even played Splinter Cell: Blacklist(!) online co-op with a friend in Germany. I don't play many shootey-shootey-bang-bang games competitively online because I'm a)rubbish and would be called a noob and more offensive things and b)I don't want to.
Yet still, playing online is becoming an increasingly indispensable part of gaming, in some ways a wonderful thing albeit with the downsides of trolling and cyber bullying that can creep into some experiences. What we all need to remember, though, is that we're not in control of online gaming — that's in the hands of publishers and their partners, as the Wii and DS situation demonstrates. Perhaps the upcoming shutdown on 20th May is due to external issues with the providers, or it's entirely possible that it's a strategic choice by Nintendo, but either way it's disappointing. In truth games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl had lag-fests online in any case, but the loss of online multiplayer in both Mario Kart entries may sting more. While a decent number of us have long since upgraded to 3DS and Wii U and left last-gen games behind for just the occasional visit, there are some for whom they'll still be a valuable source of entertainment — the upcoming absence of online kart racing will be noticed.
Of course, those games have local multiplayer alternatives, and perhaps this Wii / DS shutdown — whether it affects us much or not — provides a reminder that we should be cautious of 'progress' towards an all-online world. The web and connectivity are fantastic tools for bringing people together, but they're finite in ways that physical goods often aren't. Our old cartridges and systems may stop working as they age, but that's a natural process, whereas online play can be switched off at any time by third-parties. Nintendo gamers have been relatively sheltered from this, but it's common with annual franchises that online services are taken offline after a few years, ultimately to push you into buying new products. That may be part of Nintendo's thinking, for all we know — Mario Kart 8 lands shortly after the switch off — and it was clearly Capcom's masterplan when it took Monster Hunter Tri's online Wii play away.
With Nintendo games at the moment we often have both local and online multiplayer or often, as with the riotous fun in Super Mario 3D World, local only. When local multiplayer is an option then the loss of online servers is lessened, but we are sleepwalking into a world where online-only will be a reality — look no further than upcoming FPS Titanfall on Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC. It'll have no single player mode (story elements will apparently be in the online component) and there'll be no local multiplayer. It's online or nothing, and it's reportedly already cancelled in South Africa due to poor connectivity in the country.
So what? It's simple, in 3-5 years, when new titles in that series have arrived and numbers are dwindling, the servers may be shut down. Titanfall owners could be left with an utterly worthless piece of software, unless the developers are benevolent enough to provide a patch that allows offline play against bots, but we wouldn't hold our breath.
Nintendo gets teased for its focus on local multiplayer, some say it's in the stone age, but we'll still be playing Super Mario 3D World in 20 years, and we may even bust out our 'retro' 3DS' years from now for a bit of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate or current favourite Steel Diver: Sub Wars for a bit of multiplayer — all while sitting on the same couch. That's assuming our download copies of Sub Wars haven't been remotely locked from our devices to force us to buy a newer version, as downloads are essentially 'licensed' rather than owned; let's hope that sort of cynical apocalypse never comes to pass.
Game companies, including Nintendo, aren't necessarily cartoon villains with no arguments in their favour — servers cost money, and when that investment isn't worthwhile they're entitled to pull the plug. It feels too early and all-encompassing in the case of the Wii and DS, however, and the only thing stopping it causing an enormous uproar is that so few games on those systems actually have notable online play. It'll be something else altogether should similar moves happen with the Nintendo Network on Wii U and 3DS in future, while war bunkers may be required for Sony and Microsoft executives should they ever apply a wholesale online shutdown of Xbox 360 and PS3. We doubt saying "the PS Store / Xbox Arcade are still available" would do them any favours.
I enjoy playing games online, and I think Nintendo should do more of it. But don't take away local multiplayer, and we should enjoy the supposedly antiquated feature — when I have the option to play in the same room with others I'll take it every time. You can't nudge someone's arm online, you can't (easily) call them questionable names for them to get the joke and laugh with you, and you can't share that almost indescribable bond that can only happen when you can hear each other's frantic button mashing. Even if I could play Super Mario 3D World online, or Streets of Rage 2 with my family a few hundred miles away, I'd rather be in the same room. It's not always an option, but it's worth the wait.
Besides, video game companies give us online play and they take it away. We have zero control over it. We can, however, control whether we find like-minded people with whom to share a couch.
Image 3 credit: Gamespot