Until mid-December, the only online communication built into the 3DS was a 16-character status message on your friends list. Even by Nintendo standards, that's extremely constrictive. Now we all have the chance to download Nintendo Letter Box — aka Swapnote — for free.
The first thing to note about Nintendo Letter Box is it is not an "instant messenger" or chat-type application: it's not Pictochat Online. Instead, it fits in with the 3DS ethos of using your console daily, rather than checking it minute-by-minute like a phone, Twitter or email account.
Like Flipnote Studio, Letter Box takes something tactile and makes it digital; Flipnote was flipbook animation, but Letter Box uses postcards as its inspiration. You can write, draw, add photos and sound clips before sending them to multiple friends; with up to four pages in each note the creative potential is way beyond the 16 characters we're used to.
Being able to write or draw in three dimensions — or more accurately two planes, one behind the other — is quite a revelatory experience that creative minds will relish. When opening a note the lines animate themselves as if being drawn in front of you, a small touch but one with a little magic to it.
It's not just one-on-one conversation: you can send a note to multiple people on your Friends List, and they can choose to send a one-page reply just to you or, more dangerously, to all recipients. Think Reply All, then multiply the irritating possibilities by a third dimension. You can't slate the app for how people use it, but better conversation control would be much appreciated in any future updates.
There's stationery to purchase with Play Coins and you can add a five second sound clip or photo to your note, though frustratingly you can't use the camera or microphone directly — you have to head to the Home Menu and open up Nintendo 3DS Camera or Sound to record your audio or visual accompaniment. It's a small gripe but one that hampers the app's easy enjoyment.
There's room for improvement in other areas too: ink is only black, you can't see what you've sent to whom, and it's similarly impossible to tell whom a letter is from until you've opened it, an annoying inconvenience if someone likes to spam your inbox with questions about what you had for dinner or photos of their pet. You can delete someone from your Friends List if things get really bad of course, but there are better options that should have been included.
The other major problem is the time it takes to send and receive messages; WiiConnect24 was criticised for its slow delivery times and SpotPass suffers a similar fate, with messages not appearing until hours or even days after they were sent. Whether this is due to increased server load over Christmas is yet to be seen, but at the moment it's a little on the slow side.
Letter Box is charming and huge fun, and a proposition that wouldn't be possible on any other format. The ability to send 3D photos and messages around the world is a tremendous power, but there's ample room for improvement too, both in terms of speed and better organisation of incoming and outgoing messages.