PLAYTOGETHER

"Can you play with your friends online?" you ask. Odd question, but... erm, well no. Because that would introduce a conflict of interest with the game’s online leaderboards, you see. – Nintendo, 2019

After making a design decision that had many a journalist double and triple checking sources, Nintendo confirmed this week that it is not possible to play with or against friends online in Super Mario Maker 2. As with so many aspects of the modern world, it seems that with every step forward, the Kyoto company takes two steps back. Or maybe its head is moving too fast for its body. Or perhaps the body is dragging the head along behind it...

Whatever analogy you care to employ, Nintendo’s slightly baffled replies to seemingly obvious questions used to play as charming, in a way. In the past you could brush off quirky implementations of industry-standard features with a smile. “Oh Nintendo!” you’d laugh, before diving into some incredible Mario game and forgetting about whatever it was that the company had borked this time round.

If you’re being generous, you could argue that there’s a childlike naivety to its thinking and it’s this that leads to the company’s unique ideas. There's arguably no better example of 'the Nintendo difference' than the original Wii. We remember looking that TV remote controller and feeling perplexed. What is this thing, strange and yet reassuringly familiar? How is two GameCubes duct taped together supposed to topple the might of Sony and Microsoft's offerings? Fortunately, Nintendo had clear and coherent answers to those questions and ended up reframing how people - gamers and non-gamers alike - viewed console gaming, expanding the definition to be more inclusive. Lovely.

Remember this? Probably best forgotten...
Remember this? Probably best forgotten...

Other times the company fails to answer even the most basic questions to anybody's satisfaction. Take Wii Speak, the room-wide microphone peripheral from 2008 that sat next to your telly and let everyone in the room converse with everyone in another room over the internet. Years after the wider console gaming community got comfortable with headsets, Wii Speak seemed like an anachronism to everybody but Nintendo. The inclusive philosophy was quaint - admirable, even - but to the majority of gamers the company sounded like your gramps recalling the first time he encountered telephony. “Look! You speak and the soundwaves travel across the world wide web as if you’re somewhere else!” Yep, got it.

The inclusive philosophy was quaint - admirable, even - but to the majority of gamers the company sounded like your gramps recalling the first time he encountered telephony.

We can forgive the developers the odd ill-conceived peripheral and chuckle at 'crazy ol' Nintendo'. Remember the Vitality Sensor? Ha! Only Nintendo, am I right?! It gets harder to chuckle heartily when it comes to key components and core services, though.

Remember the launch of the Wii U when we were all intrigued with the GamePad and the potential it brought? Nintendo fans the world over were dreaming of brilliant ways to interact with each other and the games using this new input method. What about two-player? Can you use a second GamePad to play golf with a mate? What about as a simple touch pad with party games?

These were obvious questions to people seeing the concept for the first time, but Nintendo’s response made it seem liked two GamePads had never been considered. The questions sent reps scrambling for senior team members. “Two of them? Yeah, seems plausible - there's only one in the box. Let me just check that for you…” Confusion went on to characterise that entire console cycle.

Two? That would just be silly.
Two? That would just be silly.

It’s getting harder for fans to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt, too. Super Mario Maker for 3DS didn’t allow players to upload creations online, instead opting only for local sharing and cutting the legs off one of the brilliant original’s core concepts. Rather than find a solution to protect younger games, it seems features are simply cut out and then glossed over with a bit of marketing speak.

For every golden idea to come from 'the Nintendo difference’, nowadays there seems to some backwards piece of thinking to negate it.

For every golden idea to come from 'the Nintendo difference’, nowadays there seems to some backwards piece of thinking to negate it. The odd disconnect between simple solutions and Nintendo’s reluctance to follow the crowd creates a space which, on one hand enables the company to think outside the box and solve problems in new ways. Splatoon 2 reimagines the squad-based shooter, with ‘the Nintendo difference’ enabling even rubbish players to be useful to their team by inking the terrain.

Conversely, we all remember the comically convoluted spaghetti mess of cables of the officially licenced Splatoon 2 voice chat headset. Developers have taken it upon themselves to remove the cumbersome Nintendo Switch Online voice app from the equation, and other companies are ready to provide assistance, yet Nintendo’s app-based solution is the one it’s doggedly ploughing ahead with. We say 'doggedly' because we can't imagine the developers are oblivious to other solutions - this is a choice.

All in the name of protecting the kids, eh? What about the ones who died tangled in this mess?
All in the name of protecting the kids, eh? What about the ones who died tangled in this mess?

So, again, ‘the Nintendo difference’ becomes a negative. Where it once referred to the overall polish of a game or some genius spin on a mechanic that we’d never seen or even thought of before, it’s increasingly synonymous with some inexplicable decision or ungainly solution to a problem that’s already been solved.

The ‘problems’ introduced through playing with friends across the internet in Mario Maker 2 are easily remedied. Add an unranked option, for example, or allow for a team mode. Why is the co-op mode affected when that doesn't even have leaderboards? These are choices. In the past you could imagine that the company simply didn’t consider the option, blundering down a path once the design doc was finished, but that isn’t believable anymore. It comes across as wilful ignorance and refusal to embrace the way we actually play games in the 21st century.

Yes, the local experience is usually optimal, but for some it’s simply not practical to go to a friend's house, or meet up in the park with your Switch.

Yes, the local experience is usually optimal, but for some it’s simply not practical to go to a friend's house, or meet up in the park with your Switch. What if you live miles away? What if you live in a dangerous neighbourhood? What if it’s raining? What if your friend isn’t allowed out past a certain time?

The internet has brought gamers together for decades now. Sure, there are grimy parts – and the mute button is a godsend – but if we’re already dealing with the cumbersome Friends list set-up Nintendo seems married to, it’s unthinkable that we can’t use it to, you know, play with friends.

None of this would be quite so perplexing or galling if Nintendo wasn’t now charging for its online service. Even at its lower price compared to online services on other consoles, paying for it raises expectations. Nintendo’s ineffectiveness in the online space might be expected given the company’s history, but it’s incredible that it seems content for “Oh, Nintendo is rubbish with online” to be a common refrain with even die-hard fans.

I don't know any of these people.
I don't know any of these people.

Not supporting amiibo is one thing, but being able to play with your friends online should be a given in 2019. This isn’t blind, childlike naivety or a unique vision – this was a decision made and it was obviously the wrong one. Obvious, that is, to everyone except Nintendo, it would seem. We can hope for a patch, and we’re sure Super Mario Maker 2 will have plenty to make us smile, but it’s a shame that these fundamental mistakes take the sheen off what is otherwise shaping up to be a glistening jewel in Switch’s crown.

What does 'The Nintendo Difference' mean to you these days? Are you content with Nintendo's approach to online gaming? Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions below.