…is a sorry state indeed. But there is hope.
I want to start off with some rhetorical (and not at all bitter) questions for Nintendo.
Let's back up for a second. Clearly, the Wii is a great system and already a big success for Nintendo. I'm enthusiastic about many upcoming games, both casual and hardcore. For that matter, there are a lot of things Nintendo has done right with the Wii's online features. Virtual Console is an excellent service that's only going to get better over time. The browser, forecast channel, and especially news channel are all really cool features that we are getting for free. And so far, Nintendo has made good use of the online function to update the system firmware as needed, with the potential for even more improvements in the future.
On the DS front, Nintendo has delivered on the promise of a totally free online matchmaking service, and although there aren't a lot of games that support Nintendo WiFi Connection, a few of them are truly great online multiplayer games. The friend code system is annoying, but you should be able to find plenty of random opponents in most WFC games.
Clearly, Nintendo has come a long way from having no online service whatsoever before November 2004. Nintendo DS isn't an online powerhouse, but you can do some fun things with it. On the other hand, Wii is unmistakably an online platform right out of the box. That status is mostly earned by the Virtual Console service. What Wii still can't do is let me play any games online with other people. You'd think a year of experience with the DS would give Nintendo some kind of head start on making online Wii games, but there's still nothing three months after launch. (My hat is tipped to Konami for the online feature in Elebits, but you're not actually playing the game online.)
What's much worse is that Nintendo hasn't firmly announced any upcoming online games, except for a vague promise that Super Smash Bros. Brawl will go online in some unknown way, either in late 2007 or even the next year if the game is delayed. Pokemon Battle Revolution features online matches and is already out in Japan, but it's going to be at least several months before the game is released elsewhere, due to the heavily delayed launch of the companion DS titles. Plus, Pokemon requires friend codes separate from the Wii system code, although this is supposedly due to the DS link-up. Aside from those two far-off games, we got vague promises of online gameplay when Battalion Wars II and Mario Strikers: Charged were shown last year, but there were no details at the time, and those games haven't been heard from in months. This reticence on Nintendo's part is not only thwarting Wii owners who want to play Nintendo's games online, but it's hurting third-party publishers and developers who are still not getting any support from Nintendo to implement online features.
The system/friend code requirement is a major restriction to certain types of games, particularly anything massively multiplayer online (MMO). Midway's Ed Boon said in a recent Game Informer interview that he wanted to put online gameplay in the Wii version of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, but that Nintendo's development tools for the WiiConnect24 service are still not being made available to other studios.
GI: Are you supporting online at all?
Boon: I wish. Right now, there’s not an infrastructure that’s set up for us to go online with the lobbies and all that. I’m hoping future Wii games will have that stuff set up and we’ll be ready to do that.
I hope so too, Ed, but the question is WHEN? When will Nintendo get its act together on this issue? When will we be able to play Wii games against our friends and family far away? When will we finally learn just what the heck WiiConnect24 is supposed to do with that always-on connection? When will online DS games get out of the Stone Age and start offering the communication and matchmaking features that we already know are possible on the system?
Answers to at least some of these questions (okay…maybe one or two at most) may be nigh. With Shigeru Miyamoto addressing thousands of game developers at GDC next month, Nintendo has a golden opportunity to finally show that they are serious about these online services and want to make them about more than just random, desperate DS matchmaking and downloading old games onto the Wii. Miyamoto has the perfect forum to showcase amazing new games which take advantage of online functionality in ways that we have never seen before. It all makes such perfect sense that, typically, Nintendo will probably squander the chance and continue to be doggedly mysterious about the online potential for Wii and DS. But they'd better not wait too long, because without full support from third-party developers as well as convincing support from internal teams, the online potential of these systems could remain just that: potential.