Nintendo’s online blows. This is not uncommon knowledge among anyone who’s spent even a little bit of time with their consoles and games. They are woefully behind the curve in almost every single way, and never quite seem to implement obvious and well established solutions. However, very often, the discussion kind of stops there. People throw their hands up, go “oh, those old fashioned Japanese corporations!” and the conversation just ends, like it’s just some inherent quality to the company we don’t need to understand further. I could not disagree more. If we’re going to talk about game and hardware design, it’s extremely important to understand online functionality as intentional design choices that we need to be able to critique and speak up about. Not for the fact that I think it’s going to influence a massive corporation, as the odds of that are minuscule. What really matters is specifically being able to discuss what the issues are among ourselves, so people can know what they might be getting into if they’re interested in the console or some games. So, seriously: what is wrong with Nintendo’s online?
The most pressing issue is the design of the console itself, and the kinds of connections it facilitates. I’m not talking about how it handles WiFi: I’ve heard it can be less stable than other WiFi devices, but I’m no expert. What I do know for a fact is that there is no ethernet port on the console anywhere, not at all. Wanna go online? If you just got the console, and have only what’s on hand in your house, well, sorry, your ethernet cable is not enough, you’re gonna need to buy an adapter for that (and only docked, though it is unreasonable to expect a wired solution portably)!. … As you can imagine, this is not ideal, because WiFi is pretty much always inherently inferior for games. It can get the job done under many circumstances, but it is unfortunately much more unstable, prone to fluctuation and delays, and generally will provide many more lag spikes in an online game. For the most part, this knowledge is common, and the use of ethernet is also common when it’s easy to simply plug in. But when you can’t simply plug in the best solution for internet usage, well, that pushes people onto WiFi, and that sucks! It kneecaps many genres that require stable connections: fighting games might as well be DOA on the switch in terms of online modes. It also just makes the experience of games with a bit more internet leeway worse when most people are likely to use the worse solution. I have played many online games, and I can confidently say Splatoon 2 had me encountering the most lag from other players I have ever encountered in an online game, frustratingly so. To be clear, this is not any of the individual user’s fault for using WiFi, as most of them probably don’t want to buy a peripheral for one console’s online. It’s a collective behavioural problem stemming from the console’s very design, forcing people into using the worst solution because they don’t feel like going out and spending more money just to use their console online. Seriously: wired connections are objectively the best to use for online games, and every hardware manufacturer should be making it as painless as possible to plug that wire in. Nintendo’s refusal seriously degrades the quality of online.
Beyond the hardware issues, Nintendo’s software also continually falls behind the curve. Let’s get the obvious out of the way: you have to pay for the online, that sucks and is terrible. Not much elaboration needed, frankly. Paying for online is just an awful practice that consoles in the industry have sadly embraced, made especially awful because Nintendo themselves makes games that practically require online like Splatoon or Mario Maker 2. It’s an extra cost for no reason, I hope this practice dies someday. Besides that, however, the system functions that facilitate online interaction and grouping are also horribly behind the times as well. Now, I’m not saying we need to social network up a game platform, that’d annoy me too. What I am saying is that software functions can do a lot to ensure people can have a very smooth experience getting together to play games. Steam has many problems, but it makes it easy to do a lot with friends. It shows you what game they’re playing, what mode, often integrates for easy joining capabilities, has convenient game lists to check what you have in common, and a handy little built in chat feature if you need to sort anything out. I think a lot of Steam’s general social network stuff is obnoxious, but I can’t deny these sorts of tools do a lot to make playing games with people you know easier, and the Switch lacks any of these tools. You have to input friend codes still (ew), there’s no way to easily invite somebody, you can’t check what owned games you have in common, and of course there’s no way to talk to people on the system. The switch does not need a whole social network: I’d prefer that stay to the actual social networks. But it does absolutely nothing to grease the wheels of social interactions and playing games, and it introduces so much more frustration in the face of trying to have a fun night with friends. The fact that this is something you’re supposed to pay for on top of all that is just an insult, quite frankly: at least the other two platforms have some functions that help! This is a design problem that should realistically have been fixed long ago. If Nintendo wants minimalism, fine, that’s cool, but minimalism only works to the point where it doesn’t get in the way, and it is very much getting in the way. If Nintendo wants their system to be unobtrusive to the point where it’s a pain to get together with friends to play their games, then at that point they have failed.
And, the games… this has been a continual problem with first party Nintendo games too. To be blunt, many of these games make baffling game and update design choices that just make them worse for no good reason. This is just a continual choice being made across so many of their development teams, to an honestly concerning degree. Let’s say you want to play some Splatoon 2, by yourself, nothing wild. You start the game, and figure you’re in the mood for some of the PVE mode, salmon run. You go to it, and oops!!!! Because for some bizarre reason the game wants it to have “realistic” shifts, the mode is just flat out locked off on random days because “no shifts are happening” in universe. I mean… just… what? This is just an arbitrary limitation that adds nothing besides just not letting you play a huge chunk of the game sometimes. Or how about Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which has consistently caught flak for how clunky and frustrating playing with friends is. The menus are incredibly nested and require so much time to get through, and on top of that, you have to watch a long cutscene or loading screen whenever a friend enters or leaves. It’s just so much time wasters stacked on time wasters, which other games have long ago managed to work around and work better with. Smash Bros. too, for some baffling reason, has a minimum 11 frames of input delay whenever you play online for a variety of reasons. If you don’t know what that means, it means that every input you make will come out 11 frames later, making the game feel clunky, unresponsive, and generally miserable to play. This makes online Smash borderline unplayable, just a ridiculously frustrating thing. Nintendo continually makes design choices in their games that make absolutely no sense when it comes to being friendly with the online user experience.
And finally, we come to the frustrating reality of Nintendo attempting live service games. Their plan is consistent in presentation: release a game that’s a bit thin on content, then quickly and continually release more and more at a pace that wouldn’t be possible unless they held some stuff back. This practice has some advantages, like not overwhelming players, and I get why many dev teams try it. It’s worked well too! Splatoon and later Splatoon 2 both did wonderfully with these models, always having something new to check out and not letting up on the new stuff. But here’s the thing… it’s like Nintendo keeps, uh, forgetting to actually do the updates. Mario Maker 2 completely dropped off in terms of adding new stuff way faster than anyone expected. Mario Tennis only got a couple of new characters added and literally nothing else. Animal Crossing launched with much less content than older games, got one substantial updates, and now has been left to languish with only some new clothes and furniture. This isn’t technically about online, but games as a service is very much tied into the more online age of games, and Nintendo’s refusal to consistently commit to it is just awful. It leaves many of their releases in a content-bare, half finished state, and it makes it hard to want to invest in what seems like a cool experience if you can’t trust that it’ll actually make itself into a well-rounded experience. This is a choice that Nintendo makes over and over again, to cut off support after seemingly setting a game up for it, and it is just another choice in a sea of terrible choices they keep making.
That’s what I mean here: we need to treat these as conscious design choices that are continually hindering many of the cool games the development teams are making. There is far too much online discussion where the end of the discussion is “oh, they’re an old Japanese company, of course they’re like this”, and like, no! Not at all! Other companies in the same area and of a similar age in the industry can and have done better, and it doesn’t help us at all to just shrug our shoulders and assume Nintendo is always widely bad at online. There are specific design failures at every turn, and people should be able to know what they’re getting into when they’re interested in the console or a game. Nintendo’s bad online experience is not some mysterious, unknown quantity that the company somehow manages to imbue into their software and hardware. It is a series of conscious choices being made at many different turns that we can identify, and should identify. We need to be specific about how these systems are falling behind and what the issues are, not just so we can critique them properly, but so that everyone is aware of what these failings are. It helps nobody to just say bad online, and it’s so important to be clear and direct about how bad online is designed. In an age where this company holds the rights to so many interesting ideas and characters than can be used in an online setting, their failure to properly design for any aspect of that is just horribly disappointing and unacceptable. Nintendo’s online does blow, like I said at the start. It’s vital to really understand how and why this keeps happening. Otherwise we just leave the discussion hazy, unfinished, and hard to really discuss. There’s not too much we can do, besides point out the failures and to be specific, clear, and precise about it going forward, alongside just hoping that maybe one day it won’t be a massive pain to play Mario online.
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