With StreetPass Games, Nintendo Quietly Plies the Cutting Edge

With StreetPass Games, Nintendo Quietly Plies the Cutting Edge

They may be simple and corny, but in many ways the 3DS's built-in games show Nintendo at its most forward-thinking.

Nintendo recently published a major update to its StreetPass Games collection, the first in nearly two years, and the second so far in the 3DS's life. While the most obvious changes with this revision come in the form of two new paid minigames — Battlefield Z and Ultimate Angler — the update's numerous under-the-hood tweaks continue to position StreetPass Games as the most sophisticated and forward-thinking project Nintendo has going.

That may seem a strange or unlikely claim, given the simplicity of StreetPass Games. But even more than its big core franchises, StreetPass Games demonstrates a great concept that Nintendo has continued to develop and improve over time, evolving not only into a collection of light diversions that masterfully take advantage of the 3DS platform's very nature but also an almost irresistible revenue stream. Everyone made a big deal about Nintendo dabbling in free-to-play distribution models when Rusty's Real Deal Baseball and Steel Diver: Sub Wars debuted in August 2013, but the company had already entered that arena with the first major StreetPass update.

No one really noticed, though. That's because StreetPass is Nintendo at its most Nintendo-like. Nintendo's best game design is like great localization: When it's on, it's so good and so subtle you don't even think about it.

StreetPass Games actually debuted at the 3DS's launch with a pair of minigames that could be termed "brief distractions" at best: Puzzle Swap and Find Mii. The core premise of both essentially boiled down to giving players something to do with the Play Coins that built up over time as they carried around their systems and registered steps on the 3DS pedometer. And, of course, it was a means to show off the system's StreetPass function.

It's important to realize the games are a lot more appealing than the ads.

StreetPass in and of itself stood as a great example Nintendo's iterative design in action. The entire concept came about as a burst of inspiration for Nintendogs, whose "Bark Mode" amounted to a hack of the DS's wi-fi functionality, taking a somewhat incomplete feature to its logical extreme: Keeping local wi-fi active while the system sat in sleep mode, queuing up pings from passersby who had put their own systems into Bark Mode for an asynchronous data exchange. That same feature, despite its incredible inconvenience, became the killer feature for DS's killer app, Dragon Quest IX, at least in Japan. When the DS's successor came around, Nintendo's designers made sure to build Bark Mode/Surechigai Tsuuchin functionality into the console at the system level, allowing players to swap data for up to a dozen games at a time while in sleep mode, and all without having to go through the cumbersome steps required on DS.

The first StreetPass Games really felt like a secondary consideration to the central feature of 3DS StreetPassing, the Mii Plaza. That, too, was an adaptation of an existing idea: The Wii's Mii Plaza, which allowed players to collect custom Miis set to "wander" over the Internet by people on their friends lists, and friends of friends. While cute, it never amounted to more than a novelty — most Mii parades consisted of an endless procession of "hilarious" Miis resembling Jesus, Hitler, and penises — and could actually bog down a Wii's basic functionality after it reached a certain size.

The modern-day meet-cute.

The Mii Plaza made more sense when Nintendo transplanted it to 3DS. There, it had nothing to do with the increasingly archaic Friends List system and instead represented people you actually "met" while carrying your system about. At its most primal level, the StreetPass software served as a reminder that Nintendo designed 3DS to spend its idle time in sleep mode with wi-fi on (although the dicey battery life of the original 3DS model worked against this); Puzzle Swap and Find Mii simply saw Nintendo reverting to its inherent toymaker mode by turning a tech feature into a game. In fact, Puzzle Swap was less game than advertisement; as players traded puzzle pieces to assemble pictures, they were essentially constructing dioramas to advertise the latest 3DS and Wii U releases.

Find Mii, however, saw Nintendo making an early foray into F2P design. Clearly inspired by Dragon Quest IX's success, it allowed players to turn the Miis of people they met through StreetPass into party members embarking on a simple RPG adventure. Working their way through different routes of a map, players would have to overcome monsters encountered along the way through combat or spell-casting. While simple, it added some nuance by granting monsters certain show-stopping abilities that could only be surmounted by finding Miis with the proper innate skills — those skills being determined by that person's favorite color designation. The more times you'd StreetPassed with a given Mii, the more powerful their skills in combat. Completing certain nodes of the map would unlock special hats with which to customize your own Mii and activate system-level achievements.

Where games like Monster Manor differ from most F2P games is in the emphasis on skill, strategy, and consistent systemic mechanics. It's startlingly good for a fluffy time-waster.

Each session of Find Mii could only run as long as a player's Mii queue lasted. Once you had run through your current set of StreetPasses (which max out at 10), the game came to an end for the day until you could "recharge" by meeting more people. And, to further increase the F2P parallels, StreetPass allowed you to "pay" to continue playing by exchanging pedometer-based Play Coins for temporary heroes — you could summon as many as 10 at a time for a cost of 20 coins total, twice the maximum Play Coins you could earn in a day.

With goofy characters and simple play design, it was easy to write off Find Mii as one of the numerous forgettable apps that clogged up the 3DS's menu at launch (does anyone actually still play Face Raiders or AR Games?). This was especially true outside Japan, where once again the lack of urban density or reliance on public transit made StreetPass something with little value outside of a few major cities or a handful of gaming conventions like PAX and Comic-Con.

But something unusual happened: Rather than treating StreetPass and Find Mii with their typical fire-and-forget approach to tinkering with tech, Nintendo continued to develop them. Find Mii is the same game that it was four years ago at launch, but now it's no longer alone. Nintendo has released two batches of new StreetPass Games (sold through the app itself), giving Find Mii and Puzzle Swap a total of six companion games. Puzzle Swap has evolved, too, with the simple dioramas of the early days giving way to elaborate animated 3D mini-movies of popular games.

It's like a level-based zombie Diablo.

More than that, though, the entire StreetPass Plaza has grown and improved over time. The first StreetPass Games introduced a reward system wherein players could earn tickets to exchange for further Mii avatar customizations by achieving certain in-game goals. The latest update allows you to summon 10 helper characters for games with a single command rather than slogging through each hire one by one. You can deactivate completed or unwanted games, too, archiving them away for the future.

Most fascinatingly, the add-on games demonstrate Nintendo operating a little way ahead of the curve. While the games themselves are nothing terribly complex — they range from a flower-growing Punnett square exercise to a simple shoot-em-up to a zombie action game — they all operate around the same principles as Find Mii did. You meet people and collect their Miis, which then help you in various ways according to the color of their avatar body; in the newest games, Mii colors determine the type of bait you receive for fishing and the weapons you're granted for zombie-slaying.

The thing is, Nintendo didn't create these games themselves. Each one has been produced by a different external partner, including Grezzo (Secret of Mana designer Koichi Ishii's studio, responsible for the 3DS Zelda remakes), Spike Chunsoft, and Sonic creator Yuji Naka's Prope. StreetPass Games have become a platform of sorts, where different creators come together to create unique experiences sharing a common aesthetic. Disney recently announced a similar tactic for Infinity 3.0, bringing together a variety of creators (including DmC developer Ninja Theory and racing gods Sumo Digital) to break from their standard styles and bring their skills to bear under the aegis and visual design of Infinity; but Nintendo's been there for years and hardly anyone noticed.

That's a lot of forward-thinking design for something that might initially seem like mere throwaway space-filler app. Despite its unassuming appearance and simple play choices, StreetPass appears to have become a sort of test bed for Nintendo: A built-in social feature that continues to grow and evolve along with the platform itself. As big Nintendo titles like Mario Kart and Smash Bros. develop longer legs through content updates, I wouldn't be surprised to see more elements of 3DS's StreetPass Games show up in those contexts. I also wouldn't be surprised to see StreetPass Games themselves develop even further before the 3DS enters retirement, potentially gaining Amiibo integration... or perhaps simply making a significant evolutionary leap when the mysterious NX platform comes around.

Of course Prope developed Ultimate Angler. The one time I interviewed Yuji Naka he just wanted to talk about fishing...

Admittedly, my own enthusiasm for StreetPass Games has cooled, but that's not really a reflection on the games. Between my moving away from the dense, nerd-populated San Francisco and losing my twice-completed Monster Mansion and near-mastered Warrior's Way data to a bunged New 3DS data transfer, the older games have suffered too much of a setback. But I still check for Puzzle Swap pieces when I travel... or when I pass one of Nintendo's official wi-fi relay points at retailers like Starbucks, an on-the-fly solution they implemented to help bolster the viability of StreetPass in the U.S. And I admit, I couldn't resist the siren song of the two new games for long. So if you're at E3 next month and see a middle-aged guy lurking behind Nintendo's booth and clearing out his StreetPasses, say hello. I'm just trying to get a sense of Nintendo's future. Oh, and trying to mop up those last few pink puzzle pieces, too.

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