Nintendo is known for a lot of things: great first-party games, gimmicky consoles that leave lasting impressions, and its less than ideal online environment. Despite an array of first-party titles touting online play, these experiences are often held back by poor netcode. With so many gamers turning to online due to COVID-19, Nintendo needs to turn their focus on improving their online landscape.
Nintendo’s Current Online Situation
Many of Nintendo’s online games operate using the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) system. This means whenever gamers boot their systems for online play, the consoles directly connect with one another. During online sessions, one user’s Switch will act as the “host” of a given match and is usually the one keeping track of online calculations. Nintendo does not have dedicated servers.
To say Nintendo does not have ANY servers is inaccurate. Nintendo servers technically exist. Their sole function is to perform matchmaking and connect players with one another. Once that’s accomplished, Nintendo’s servers no longer play any role in-game.
As such, connections largely depend on the player with the least stable internet in addition to the match’s host. Online experiences can vary drastically over the course of several matches, ranging from “so-so” to “alright” to “absolutely rage-inducing.” Even if a player’s own internet is stable, these issues can still occur.
The debate of P2P versus client servers is not the issue. Each system has its strengths and weaknesses, with P2P being more suited for fighting games while client servers favor shooters. Instead, the main focus of ire is the netcode of Nintendo’s games, and no game suffers more from this than their flagship title Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
The Netcode that Keeps Giving (Problems)
Smash Ultimate’s online landscape is less than ideal. The internet is awash with countless articles, videos, and essays of disappointed fans clamoring for Nintendo to do something. Among these outcries, the term netcode is thrown around a lot.
In simplified terms, “netcode” refers to the code that relays the state of a game from one player to another during online play. There are two basic netcode categories: delay-based and rollback. Smash Ultimate uses the former.
As explained on wiki.shoryuken.com, delay-based netcode requires both players to wait for the other input before the game state can be advanced, implementing delays to ensure that player inputs arrive. These usually result in those horrendously long waiting times mid-match, whereby fighters freeze mid-animation. While the dramatic slowdown appears cinematic on paper, it is frustrating to deal with and can ruin a match’s flow if encountered enough. These issues are exacerbated the farther players are geographically from one another.
Rollback, on the other hand, doesn’t wait for users’ inputs. Players both run simulations of the game state simultaneously with inputs being marked on a timeline when they occurred. The game will then “roll back” to when these inputs occurred and resimulate everything back to the present real-time to determine the game state.
With rollback, matches do not slow down during lag like they do in delay-based netcode. Characters may teleport around and landed hits may be undone due to rollback discrepancies but the overall timing of the game and its pacing is left intact, allowing players to unleash their combos. In games where timing and minute movements are pivotal, the importance of unbroken flow cannot be overstated.
This is where Smash Ultimate fails spectacularly.
With the cancellation of public events, massive game tournaments were no exception, the most prominent being EVO 2020.
To compensate for the event’s loss —as well as eager fans and participants, the tournament has moved to an online setting. Many other gaming leagues have followed suit as well.
EVO’s hallmark is the sheer amount of fighting games present, bringing in a wealth of communities to participate in the fight to be crowned champion. Smash Ultimate is among the titles present in the ring.
Online tournaments aren’t new to Smash Ultimate. Many events, like “The Box” or the “Super Smash Bros. Quarantine Series” were spearheaded to make up for the loss of public gatherings. Many professional Ultimate players flocked to these digital events to flex their skills and dominate… not.
MkLeo is one of the best current players in the Ultimate competitive scene, dominating sets with his oppressive Joker playstyle and strong secondary characters. He is the latest among top players to quit online tournaments entirely.
His most recent online tourney had him place 33rd in the losers’ bracket. Offline, he consistently placed in the top 2 across almost all tournaments he’s participated in.
In his tweet on May 9, he stated how “stressful and boring” online became to deal with before quitting online events outright (except for random character tournaments).
Other players before him—Samsora, ZeRo, and more—have all called for Nintendo to fix the Smash Ultimate’s online, giving rise to the “FixUltimateOnline” hashtag on Twitter. The problems the online environment currently has detract from many tournaments’ competitive legitimacy. No one wants to compete in a game in which the biggest opponent is delay.
With EVO’s online events coming soon, Smash matches are looking grim.
Nintendo’s Next Moves
In the latest Nintendo Annual Financial Briefing Q&A, the report stated a focus on enhancing Switch Online to make it more enjoyable. What this specifically means isn’t clear.
The translated statement reads:
“Nintendo will continue to add more features and mechanics to Nintendo Switch Online to make software more enjoyable and convenient.”
There aren’t direct references to particular software. Games like Smash Ultimate or Splatoon may never be fixed. However, the statement does show that Nintendo is cognizant of the online environment it has placed itself and its customers in.
They’re more than aware of the Switch’s financial success. In its fiscal year, the company announced the Switch sold over 21 million units worldwide, shooting past its projected forecast of 20 million. The Switch beat out the PS4’s 20 million and rests only behind the Wii and PS2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons contributed to a lot of the console’s sales between February and March.
It’s now on Nintendo to capitalize on this popularity and use it towards addressing its console’s pressing concerns–especially online.