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Is 2012 the year Nintendo sort out their online game?

You don't invent friend codes without making a few enemies...

The new issue of Nintendo Gamer is on sale now.

Can we hear an echo? Nintendo kick off every year with the same routine: an investor meeting at which president Satoru Iwata promises to unveil a revolutionary new framework for online play. And every year they follow with baby-steps, half measures and comedy trombone sound effects. Wii Speak in Animal Crossing? Facebook integration for DSi photos? Online lobbies for Mario Kart Wii? Iwata is confusing 'revolutionary' for 'been around for years-ary'. But in 2012, this all changes. Honest.

Iwata has unveiled the Nintendo Network, a new service to replace the current Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection (WFC). And not a day too soon. Since 2005 WFC has been a flimsy umbrella 'brand' for Wii and DS's online offerings, a wild frontier of multiplayer gaming where only strong Nintendo games survive. Under WFC, each game is treated as a self-contained entity, explaining the use of irksome friend codes. Nintendo Network brings the law to the WFC badlands, proposing a unified platform on which both first- and third-party can thrive.

It'll be a platform to rival 360's Xbox Live and PlayStation's freshly named Sony Entertainment Network. For a taste of this future, look to 3DS. Single, system-wide friend codes act as gamer IDs, albeit rather humourless ones compared to the self-penned nicknames of Xbox Live and SEN (unless your nickname really is 1348-4637-6685). Mario Kart 7 already uses the Nintendo Network moniker, its handy 'communities' feature flying the flag for forward-thinking online play. No wonder 3DS is surfing a wave of blue shells and obscene Letter Box notes to a 60% online connectivity rate - Nintendo's personal best.


High profile

The real magic waits on Wii U, where a "personal account system" finally gives us the persistent online profiles lacking from past hardware. As much as Iwata dresses it in harmless familial patter - accounts increase the "ease of using hardware shared by multiple family members" - solo profiles are clearly aimed at 'core' gamers weaned on 360/PS3. They appeal to third parties, too. EA Sports bigwig Peter Moore gushed about "extensive" capabilities, echoed in Iwata's promise to "actively attempt to achieve compatibility" with third-party games. Keep them sweet and the Battlefields, CODs and Assassins Creeds will follow.

This is all good news for murderers-in-training, but what about the rest of us? Those lacking a competitive streak can enjoy Nintendo Network's myriad pleasures, with "competitions and communication among users, as well as the sale of digital content." *Does cartoon double take* D-d-d-digital content?! After years of resisting paid DLC, Nintendo have buckled. Tobidasu Pricla Kiradeco Revolution, Atlus' girly eStore app, received a batch of buyable stickers and glittery add-ons in January. A sugary confection to help executive downloadophobes swallow the bitter pill, perhaps?


Pay the price

Paid DLC has huge implications. Iwata spoke at length about Nintendo's need for 'evergreen' software - games selling way beyond launch day - and how DLC could lengthen lifespan. He gives the example of "supplying new stages to Super Mario users who want to play more, but have lost interest in the existing stages." Sell extra-hard levels and everything rises: eShop profits, software sales and blood pressure. Wii Fit add-ons would cure the latter; as Iwata says, on Nintendo Network, something like Wii Fit Plus wouldn't have to be sold on a disc.

While your mind buzzes with the potential, remember that this is still Nintendo. There are certain principles the company refuse to compromise, particularly in relation to microtransactions - the drip feed of payments associated with 'freemium' games like Farmville. Iwata has always championed fully featured software, insisting that punters "can enjoy playing the software they purchased just as it is." It's good to know that Beedle's Shop won't be fleecing us for £20 next time Link needs his deku nuts refilled. And imagine the damage Tom Nook could do. Terrifying...

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