Nintendo Letter Box, also known by the catchier title of Swapnote in North America, filled a notable gap in the 3DS’ functionality when it was launched in late December last year. When the handheld launched various features were bare-bone or missing, and one frustrating omission was the lack of any meaningful way to communicate with other 3DS owners. Apart from painfully short status messages on the friends list or on StreetPass Mii, owners of the console existed in an isolated bubble from online friends; unless they used any of the numerous social networking options, of course. It seemed strange that in an age of Facebook, Twitter, online forums and chat rooms, Nintendo offered no means of genuine communication on a device that, supposedly, represented a step forward for the company’s online networks.

When Swapnote arrived just in time for Christmas you could almost smell the whiff of 21st century communications coming from Nintendo HQ. Then we actually explored the app and realised that Nintendo had somehow managed to take a modern idea and make it retro: messages were actually notes/letters, with virtual pieces or paper carried to their destinations by winged envelopes, while typing in a featureless font was disregarded in favour of handwritten notes. For those who have grown up communicating almost exclusively through email, SMS text and social networks, it may have been a strange proposition to hold a stylus and write a message by hand, with a handful of cute templates and the ability to include photos or sound clips being the only nods to modern technology.

Although still in its infancy, the unique composition of Swapnote has already inspired a few notable ideas in 3DS owners and Nintendo themselves, using the service to convey messages that could seem impersonal or less effective through another medium.

Creating new game experiences

An impressive example of this app becoming a game in its own right is Swapnote RPG, an adaptation of a tradition paper-based RPG by game design student Ben Gray. Replacing paper with Swapnote letters and following the standard rule of a dungeon master co-ordinating the game, which is by nature based on trust between participants, it’s possible to play a Dungeons and Dragons-style game with almost no limits. For fans of these games who can’t meet up directly with friends, Swapnote provides a unique opportunity to recreate the experience. Check out the video below for an introduction to the concept.

Say it with a letter

We’ve already spoken about the personal touch that a handwritten note can have over a typed message. While it’s possible to spruce up letters with some nice templates and images, it’s the scruffy, almost illegible handwriting that shows the recipient that a fellow human-being has made the effort to communicate. Here at Nintendo Life we’ve sent and received charming messages with friends and family that express support, reassurances of awesomeness or even some playful rebukes. Sometimes people just like to write about what games they’re playing or looking forward to the most, often sharing their thoughts with improvised illustrations.

The best example of a meaningful, personal letter that we’ve seen so far was the marriage proposal that we reported on recently. The utterly charming and heart-melting video is below.

Tell me about it, Satoru

Before the recent Nintendo Direct broadcast, Satoru Iwata and Reggie Fils-Aime sent Swapnote letters advertising their respective broadcasts, giving Nintendo enthusiasts a welcome opportunity to marvel at their handwriting in the process. In the case of Nintendo of America head honcho Fils-Aime, he either has an assistant with scrawly writing or, like many of us, he’s a mere mortal with a slightly messy writing style. Not only were the messages an effective way of raising awareness of Nintendo Direct, but it served to humanise two of the most important people within Nintendo.

Eiji Aonuma, producer of The Legend of Zelda series, has also joined in on the act. He sent a letter – including a rather pleasant Zelda template – to thank fans for support of the series’ anniversary, closing the message by saying ‘I hope you're looking forward to new Legend of Zelda games’. Not only did this message provide new content in the app, but it showed that Swapnote could become a charming communication tool for Nintendo, with messages and details about upcoming games a very real possibility.

Time for more deliveries

These examples show that Swapnote can be used to communicate in a number of ways. None of these methods are so unique that they’re not replicated in a number of ways online, but they do show that this app has a distinctive flavour or its own. There’s potential for further messages from Nintendo to keep gamers informed, but also for the functionality to be used in different ways.

For example, Nintendo ran a Zelda flipnote competition only last year, utilising the DSi app, and in many respects Swapnote is better equipped for contests such as these due to its SpotPass connectivity. Competitions to submit drawings, poems, photos or audio clips are all possibilities, and prizes could simply be download codes for eShop titles or even store funds. Running regular competitions of this nature would not only encourage 3DS owners to use the app and take the handheld online, but also help to develop a stronger sense of community around the device. This service could become a valuable means of communication for Nintendo, and not just a basic marketing tool.

The examples of user creativity that we’ve provided also show that 3DS gamers will also play their part in making Swapnote an integral part of the handheld’s appeal. Looking at the way it’s been used reminds us that this is an app that is so typically Nintendo: internet communication combined with old-fashioned, handwritten letters. By taking away regimented type and standardised emoticons, Swapnote reminds us that writing a note ourselves is a more intimate means of communication. No matter how illegible our writing or how primitive our drawings, we're reminded that we are all individuals, communicating in our own unique ways.