The Nintendo Wii brings people together. Fun, easy-to-learn games like Wii Sports have taught the joys of gaming to a wide variety of would-be players: women, little tykes, grandparents, even the Queen of England. There's one place, however, where Nintendo actively discourages its fans from enjoying each other's company. Hop online to play along with your Wii-owning friends, and you're guaranteed to be disappointed.
The current gold standard of online gaming services is Microsoft's Xbox Live. Xbox owners can download classics like Paperboy and Street Fighter II, games that include the option to compete against other players online or compare high scores. It's easy to keep track of your friends via their "gamertags," online identities that include a profile photo and a list of game-related achievements. The Xbox 360 also has a wireless headset that lets players communicate before, during, and after every online match.
Nothing can replace playing against someone on the same couch, but Xbox Live comes close. Log onto a Halo 3 match, and the TrueSkill ranking system will select opponents that are deemed to be your equals. Annoyed by another gamer who keeps shouting obscenities over the voice chat? The mute button lets you silence him. Find yourself trading South Park jokes with the gunner who's watching your back? Send a friend request, and you can keep in touch later.
The Wii, by comparison, doesn't have a consistent online network, forcing each developer to devise its own solutions. A game created by a third-party company like Electronic Arts, for example, might use an entirely different login system than the one designed by Nintendo for online play. What the Wii's online games all have in common is that they're shamefully primitive. While Xbox Live makes it easy to set up a match with a friend, most of the games on the Wii (including every title made by Nintendo rather than a third party) require you to trade 12-digit Friend Codes before launching a multiplayer game. Even worse, you have to swap codes again if you want to play the same friend in a different game. Since the Wii doesn't have a microphone peripheral, you can only talk to your friends by text message, if at all. (Some games don't even allow text messaging.) This functionality is roughly equivalent to what you could achieve in 1998 by connecting to someone else's computer via modem.
In fairness, you must invest in a premium membership, at a cost of $50 a year, to use Xbox Live's online multiplayer functionality. All of the Wii's online services, by comparison, are free. But the Wii's threadbare online system is terrible even taking into account that it costs nothing.
This month, Nintendo had the chance to change that. Two weeks ago, the company released Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a multiplayer game that sold 1.4 million copies in its first week, making it the fastest-selling title in Nintendo's history. The Smash Bros. series is one of Nintendo's oddest franchises, a collection of fighting games in which beloved mascots like Super Mario and Donkey Kong beat the stuffing out of each other with baseball bats and land mines. Although these games might look like standard-issue, button-mashing beat-'em-ups, Smash Bros. distinguishes itself with two trademarks of Nintendo's game design: It's easy to learn but surprisingly complex, and it's an ideal party game because up to four people can play at once. Brawl doesn't involve the same sort of gymnastics as other popular Wii games—it's played sitting down, with a controller firmly in hand. Nevertheless, this massively popular title could have boosted the Wii's online service, helping to bring to the virtual world the sense of living-room camaraderie that has made the system the world's top-selling console.
Unfortunately, Brawl's online features are just as shallow as those for Nintendo's other games. Smash Bros. has two basic online modes: With Friends, which matches you against anyone you've exchanged Friend Codes with, and With Anyone, which sets you up against randomly selected opponents. The first thing you'll notice when you choose a With Friends match is that without a microphone, you can't talk to the other players. While the game isn't so complex as to require communication between teammates, trash talk is a major part of the fun. Nintendo does allow players to prerecord four short (20-character-or-fewer) text messages for your character to spout. Brawl's official Web site lists "Want more?" as an example—I'm guessing most messages will be far more profane. Four-letter words or not, a pop-up text message is a poor substitute for shouting in someone's face when a well-timed Bob-omb sends him flying off-screen.
The lack of communication has other side effects. Since you can't talk things over with your friends, the game uses a voting system to set the rules—which arena to play on, which items to use, etc. Once the votes are in, the computer then makes a selection based on the votes cast. It's not a terrible compromise, but wouldn't discussing the options make a lot more sense?
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.