Sticking true to the spirit of The Simpsons' Mrs Lovejoy ("won't somebody think of the children!?"), Nintendo have this morning removed the online SpotPass functionality of its Letterbox messaging program for the 3DS, due to the service apparently being used to send inappropriate content.
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Letterbox was introduced fairly early on in the 3DS' life, and provided a quirky way for 3DS owners to communicate with friends over the internet by sending and receiving handwritten notes, complete with drawings and photos. The service also allowed Nintendo to send special announcement messages direct to players' consoles, with details of upcoming games, or special events like E3. But thanks to the actions of a small number of users, including children, that'll all now be coming to an end.
While the Letterbox won't let you message strangers (you have to exchange friend codes (a unique string of number that identifies you) with someone before you can message them), the problem appears to be that people have shared their friend codes on internet message boards, and have then been receiving inappropriate messages from people who've added them. Nintendo's not going in to details about the content of the messages involved, but we're sure you can imagine the kind of thing we're dealing with.
Nintendo's long had a strong commitment to keeping its players, particularly children, safe when using their online services. In fact, some think they've been a little too cautious in the past: the use of friend codes to link up players online has been a source of much irritation for adult players, as it's quite restrictive when compared to other companies' solutions, which let you add friends based on a simple, easy to remember username rather than an obscure string of numbers. Sharing photos, offensive or otherwise, is extremely easy for children to do on their smartphones too, so it's nothing really specific to the 3DS or Letter Box. With this in mind, it could be argued that Nintendo's solution is overly harsh, effectively punishing the majority of responsible users for the actions of a minority of bad apples. Following the release of the kid-focused 2DS though (which comes with Letter Box installed), Nintendo wants to make sure that parents know that they won't stand for any abuse of their online services, and that this issue has been dealt with swiftly, as the service was being 'actively misused'.
Of course, perhaps fairer solution would have been to add the option to disable the Letterbox in parental controls, or even to simply ban those who've been using it appropriately, thus leaving those who used the service responsibly free to continue, but it's not hard to see why Nintendo have acted as they have. It's worth pointing out that Letter Box itself is still usable, but only in a limited capacity. You can still write notes and send them to people on your friends list, but only over StreetPass, the 3DS' local wireless communication method (i.e. not over the internet). This means that you'll have to be within range of the recipient for the message to send - which does also make it much less useful.
While we're sad that there'll be no more special letters from Nintendo - in the past we've had Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto trying to scare us with a Luigi's Mansion 2 letter, and Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma's Mii reminding us of new games on the horizon - it's the notes from our little six year old cousin we'll miss the most. Thanks to the actions of a few bad apples, she won't be able to send us letters proclaiming her love for Kirby, or ask if we've finished Luigi's Mansion 2 yet. That said, there is still hope on the horizon, as we're counting down the weeks and months until Miiverse makes the jump from Wii U to 3DS this year, opening up online communication between Nintendo fans in a much more up to date and easily moderated way then before. Nintendo says they'll be working to ensure that consumers are aware of their Parental Control options in the future - so now all that's left is to wait for Miiverse to make its 3DS debut.