Nintendo, at least, does allow you to interact with your friends by trading screen shots, game replays, and custom-designed stages. That doesn't apply to the With Anyone mode, though. When you're assigned to a match, you don't see anyone else's name, text messages are disabled (in order to block foul language from strangers), and there's no record of your wins and losses. And forget about more advanced features like wide-scale tournaments or the ability to add someone as a friend after playing a match together.
Nintendo has stated that it has a three-part goal for online gaming: "[M]ake it free, make it easy, make it safe." There's no doubt the company deserves high marks for the first two. Its desire to keep players safe, though, is ridiculous overkill. In trying to keep kids from talking with unsavory characters, Nintendo removes any trace of human contact. The Wii's With Anyone mode is designed to be so anonymous that if one player's Internet connection fails, the computer will take over and none of the other players will notice. Brawl's official Web site cheerfully describes this as a special feature. If the goal is to play against an army of automatons, why bother having an online mode at all?
Nintendo's overpolicing even extends to protecting players' self-esteem. In an online interview, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata explained that the Wii's online service doesn't have a leader board because he didn't want less-skilled players to feel bad: "Those in the top five might feel pretty good about themselves, but what happens if you're number 15,398 in the rankings?" My guess: You'd try to move up to 15,397, and you certainly wouldn't unplug your Wii and run away crying.
It's legitimate to ask whether the Wii needs an online service as rich and powerful as Xbox Live. (I'll ignore the question of whether any system needs features as obsessive as having your friends' high scores sent to your cell phone.) Much of the Wii's charm comes in watching your friends and family make fools out of themselves by swinging the remote like a baseball bat; that sort of amusement would be lost online. But it's important to note that many of the Wii's games (including Brawl) don't require physical exercise and are similar to the games on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. And while Nintendo could be forgiven for designing a more streamlined network than Live in order to appeal to casual gamers, the one they've given Wii owners makes it difficult to do even the most basic things, like interact with your friends. If it isn't feasible to re-create a living room online, Nintendo could at least give gamers the feeling they're playing against actual people.
What Smash Bros. Brawl and the Wii are missing is a sense of community. It's telling that one of the unique features of the Wii's online service is the Everybody Votes channel, which allows users to send in answers to simple questions—"If you had a time machine, would you go to the past or the future?"—and then check in and see how others voted. It's an amusing time-waster, but strip away the sight of your Mii avatar standing in a crowd of other people, and you've got a simplistic two-question survey that doesn't even tell you how your friends voted.
Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's legendary game designer, likes to compare his games to miniature gardens. For Miyamoto, it's important that players have the freedom to explore on their own and test the rules of their environment. Nintendo's online philosophy, on the other hand, demands that players act in a rigidly circumscribed way and interact only within a strict set of rules. Nintendo deserves credit for making video games more accessible to the masses, but the truth is that playing the Wii online makes gaming feel lonelier than ever.
Special thanks to Anthony Leong and Geoff Dorshimer for helping test Super Smash Bros. Brawl's online modes.