Nintendo DS has region-locked online play :(

Sometimes, you discover things that realy make you blood boil – especially if apparently motivated by thoughtlessness rather than by design…

Take, for example, the Nintendo DS: an excellent handheld games console (and web browser 😉 ). At first glance, it has an excellent pair of screens, it has lots of innovative an interesting games, and it really has hearts and minds behind it. In addition, the battery life is just incredible. The coup de grâce is that the console is not region-locked, so imported games (which are invariably released months sooner than UK games) can be played without problems… or so it seemed.

What’s not so good? It’d be nice to see some games enable in-game voice-chat via the built-in microphone… but if it’s technically possible within the limitations of the hardware, I’m sure it’ll appear soon (Update: Apparently Metroid Prime: Hunters does allow this). No, the only thing (although it’s a complete stinker) that spoils this otherwise excellent console is Nintendo’s totally wrong-headed online gaming implemenation:

It seems that if games want to offer on-line features, they have to do so via Nintendo’s godawful Friend Code system (although again Metroid Prime: Hunters seems to have taken a more enlightened approach) – which is identical to Nintendo’s Wii online strategy, which is drawing much flak. In any case, since the console itself has no game-addressable persistent storage, games simply use a unique ID from the console to generate a 12-digit “friend code” which is then stored on the cartridge. Fine… until you think about what this actually means.

Want a quick blast on Mario Kart with a friend? Not until you’ve both registered the games with a wireless network to generate a friend-code and then accurately exchanged 24 digits. Want to quickly borrow someone else’s console? You can’t for online play. What if your console is damaged or needs replacing? You’ll have to generate a whole new code, and then let everyone you’ve exchanged codes with know. Most games don’t even allow nicknames to be entered, so you are forced to identify your friends solely by a 12 digit random number.

Worst of all, though, is that the Friend Codes generated are region-specific based on the game! So I, as a European, simply cannot possibly play any online game requiring a Friend Code with any of my friends in America. Even though we both have UK consoles, I cannot exchange messages in Final Fantasy III with my brother, because I have a US game cartridge. As with the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove, what’s the point of region-locking if you don’t tell anybody about it?

Nintendo have never understood online gaming: Compare the genius of Xbox LIVE and the Gamertags system with the Wii’s (admittedly, unified) Friend Code and the difficulty of connecting to your friends, never mind random online people for a quick game.

People need to shout from the rooftops about the DS’ broken online capability, and the Friend Code system on the Wii needs to die quickly – or else the goodwill built up recently by Nintendo will evaporate as the world becomes ever more connected, and expect similar innovations from their gaming systems.