Last week’s exciting Nintendo Switch announcement gave video-game fans a lot to look forward to. A system that bridges the divide between portable and home consoles, a new Zelda game, collaborative cow-milking simulations. But as Nintendo giveth, it also taketh away. Last Friday, VentureBeat reported that the Miiverse, Nintendo’s kooky attempt at a social network, would not carry over to the impending system.
The Miiverse was, by any standard criteria, not a good social network. In many ways it was legitimately bad. To understand it, we must first look at Nintendo’s history of online services — a history full of half-steps, quarter-steps, and abject failures. With its all-ages aesthetic, Nintendo has always been wary of internet connectivity, resulting in a number of baffling design decisions that appear to have been made by people who understand that the internet exists, and is very popular, but who never actually use it.
This is why, for example, playing online with friends on the original Nintendo DS and Wii systems required players to enter unique 12-digit Friend Codes on a per-game basis. There was no continuity of user identity at the platform level. This meant that you had to create a new, discrete friends list for each game that you played. The system was more trouble than it was worth. The company eventually capitulated to market demands and introduced a platform-wide identity, but the move always felt like it was done more out of obligation than want.
(The Nintendo Switch is not immune to the company’s broader online futziness: Multiplayer voice chat will be handled not by the console itself but by a smartphone app.)
“Miis,” introduced on the Wii, were the cutesy simplistic avatars tied to users’ profiles. There wasn’t much to do with them on the system other than use them to go bowling and … vote in polls? On the Wii U and 3DS, Nintendo allowed users to tie Miis to their platform-wide account and created a home for them on the Miiverse.
The Miiverse is, at the most basic level, an online forum. One that is filled with children, heavily moderated, and bizarrely constructed. Users can post text messages and screenshots or use the consoles’ touchscreens to draw pictures to post. The action we know as the “like” or “fav” is known, on the Miiverse, as a “Yeah!”
All of this has a very My First Social Network feel to it. The cute avatars, the childish touchscreen scribblings, the multiple instances of preteen boys naïvely “looking for a gf.” There is a strong mist of pathos hovering around the Miiverse’s social graph.
The system is also designed so that every piece of software gets its own section of the Miiverse. That includes video services like Hulu and Netflix and mediocre games that few people actually boot up. It’s how games like Funky Barn — a Wii U launch title about farm management — briefly became memes. When it awarded Funky Barn the title of Best Miiverse Community in 2012, Giant Bomb wrote:
Considering there are plenty of Wii U executables that don’t necessarily need a community of their own, you might think that the sections for smaller games and apps would be barren wastelands. But no. This is where the true magic of Miiverse lies.
The Funky Barn community is the best example of this because the game carries an extremely evocative name, leading to a lot of fan art (well, “fan” art) of sheep with gigantic afros positioned next to disco balls. And since you can easily see at a glance if a poster has played the game in question or not, it’s easy to see that no one on this board is actually playing Funky Barn.
The Miiverse was a perfect storm. Its user base was composed of young users unfamiliar with more popular social networks, misanthropic gamers who were in on the Miiverse’s overarching joke (that it kinda sucked), and amateur anime fan artists. It was also difficult to access outside of Nintendo’s walled garden, making it mostly troll-proof.
The Miiverse was not dissimilar to niche networks like Vine and Tumblr — goofy, absurdist, slightly surreal, and hyperaware of its own ridiculousness. It had a culture and tone all its own. It was nihilist, with a PG-13 lewdness, and a childlike sense of curiosity. A culture that pontificated on whether Sonic, Link, and Mario were capable of being pregnant more often than you might think. The Miiverse was a truly odd, hilarious, and often confusing experiment in online community building. It wasn’t a huge success, but there was nothing else like it. There never will be again.