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The enduring appeal of Nintendo's StreetPass

3DS' smartest feature, four years on.

Four years on and I'm still carrying around my 3DS. It sits in my bag each day as I walk to the office and it travels with me when I journey elsewhere. True, the amount of time I spend on Nintendo's dinky dual-screen has dropped over time, despite the introduction of its beefier XL and shinier New 3DS models. But it's still my go-to place for bite-sized gaming sessions.

I still check in on my Animal Crossing town, usually to apologise for my absence and make sure my favourite villagers haven't completely given up on me. Or I load up a Virtual Console game, usually one from Nintendo's generous Ambassador collection, and give that a go. Or, shamefully, I go and use up my free gameplay time on Pokémon Shuffle (and yes, I know, I initially said I hated it).

But it is Nintendo's little StreetPass app that has kept the handheld in my pocket, with its seemingly throwaway mini-games that task you with simplistic dungeon-crawling or collectable-grabbing. Pre-loaded onto every 3DS, their inclusion has been a masterstroke that rewards players simply for carrying the console around. And by encouraging you to have your 3DS to hand, it ensures it's played with more often. You don't even need to open the handheld to know when something is waiting for you - a quick glance at its glowing green notification light and you know you have a StreetPass to check.

The StreetPass in-app shop is staffed by this rabbit, because Nintendo.

Obviously it's good for Nintendo if you go out to lunch carrying a 3DS in your bag and come home to find you have passed a bunch of other players on the way - and it's no accident each little Mii you collect tells you what its owner has been playing (and sometimes even prods you in the direction of the eShop to try it yourself). But it works both ways, and there's a sense of reward for users even in this passive level of interaction. It's the same sort of feeling you get when you load up your friends list on a console or Steam. More often than not, you don't actually interact with the people on there, but being able to see what your buddies are playing fosters a sense of connection with them.

But while StreetPass is about interacting with strangers, it has helped cultivate the feeling of a virtual community for connected Nintendo fans. True, on the surface its appeal are the rewards each mini-game brings (so many hats). But the way it shows you where your StreetPassed folk are from, the short messages of greeting you can send and receive - all of it builds a shared sense of fandom for Nintendo's characters and worlds. Miis you collect form an army of fellow players adorned in Mario caps, woolly Kirby hats or dressed up as Link. Even the mini-games themselves involve amassing teams of Nintendo-playing allies to help you beat objectives together or that can contribute to your own progress in some way.

Nintendo knows its brand power is at its peak when the company brings large numbers of its most faithful fans together. It's why Nintendo has sought to replicate its annual E3 conference "hype train" at more regular intervals with Nintendo Direct broadcasts. The popularity of StreetPass is a smaller, more local version of this. Take your 3DS to a gaming-focused event like EGX, or last month's wonderful Legend of Zelda symphony concert in London, and you'll see Nintendo fandom in full force.

I went to the Zelda concert, and on the "actual train" there, the green light on my 3DS had lit up long before I saw my first green-hatted Link cosplayer or pair of plastic pointy ears. Sat with a friend and fellow Zelda fan in the seats of Wembley Arena, each of us had filled our 10-Mii StreetPass limit multiple times before the lights dimmed, the faces of those around us also lit up by their 3DS screens. There were quite a few StreetPasses to get through, I can tell you.

StreetPass lights not shown.

It was the third London visit for Nintendo's officially-licensed concert tour. The first - back in 2011 - was a testing of waters for the format, held to commemorate the series' 25th anniversary and blessed with guest appearances by series director Eiji Aonuma, superfan Zelda Williams and legendary Nintendo composer Koji Kondo. Now the tour has played in countless cities around the globe and become something of a well-oiled machine, each two-year concert cycle integrating new music into its programme as fresh Zelda games are released. So even though I had heard much of its music before and the appearances from Nintendo's top-brass now came pre-recorded, it was still a chance to see some of that virtual Nintendo community in real-world force.

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has spoken in the past about his vision for social connectivity. Specifically, he described Miiverse, the Wii U's answer to virtual fan interaction, as being designed less like a social network and more an "empathy network" to connect Nintendo fans worldwide. Miiverse was designed to foster that same sense of community among people who played the same games - the same Nintendo games - and then had shared experiences that they could relate to others with.

There are few better real-world examples of this than the Zelda concerts - events for Nintendo fans crazy enough to pay up and hear their favourite series' many musical themes performed live. That's not to say these people were there because of StreetPass or Miiverse, simply these things have all helped reinforce Nintendo's ambition of bringing its fans together - and so they can then spread the good word further.

New StreetPass games discussed.Watch on YouTube

Sitting there watching gameplay highlights of the role-playing series on the big screen and listening to orchestrated versions of its score, it was easy to feel the shared sense of gaming heritage and community in the room. The audience - full of guy and girl Link cosplayers, a number of Zeldas and even a Marin from Link's Awakening - loudly cheered when their favourite characters appeared on screen (Makar! Medli! Midna! Tingle?) and one particularly enthusiastic fan howled when he saw Twilight Princess' Wolf Link.

Such real-life experiences will only become more important as Nintendo attempts to recapture a larger audience. Last year, Iwata announced a plan to lean more heavily on the company's roster of famous characters than ever before. Since then, Nintendo has launched its toys-to-life Amiibo range, announced plans to let its franchises appear on smartphone platforms and yesterday signed a deal that will see it join forces with Universal to create Nintendo theme park worlds.

So as Nintendo seeks to expand the wider reach of its brands and regain the kind of ubiquity it won in the days of the Wii, it will do so from its roots, with the hardcore audience once again sustaining the company through another patch of less-profitable-than-normal years. StreetPass continues to be an important of this and has been regularly updated with new games, features and rewards. Just last month, Nintendo released another two mini-games and a premium version of the StreetPass Mii Plaza app - suggesting that there is money to be made from what was once thought a mere distraction.

StreetPass is just one way Nintendo has helped nurture a sense of community among its most ardent followers, but on a day-to-day basis its impact is the most important. StreetPass' little green light has been a beacon for fans as the company weathers its difficult Wii U years. It's unlikely Nintendo realised how important StreetPass would be when it dreamt up the concept half a decade ago. But its effects will be felt for years to come.

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