What Will Become of the Mii?

Last week saw the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe‘s Course Booster Pack, bringing revamped tracks from older titles to the still hugely popular racing game. Of these, the closest to my heart is Coconut Mall, a course from Mario Kart Wii that sees drivers jumping over fountains, racing up escalators, and dodging cars in a parking lot. But something is different about the new version of this track. In Mario Kart Wii, the parking lot was populated by Mii characters, drawn from the system’s library. Now, those cars are occupied by Shy Guys, Nintendo’s designated stand-in characters. I don’t miss the way the cars moved back and forth in the original, turning the last leg of the course into an exercise in frustration, but the change did get me wondering why Nintendo has seemingly been trying to ditch the once-omnipresent Mii characters.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that Nintendo has quietly sidelined the little guys. While Miis are shown as playable in the trailer for Nintendo Switch Sports, the main characters in that title look like the Inklings from Splatoon — if they were granted a wish to become human by a genie whose only exposure to the concept of humanity had been Cocomelon cartoons. Previously, the Sports series was the unquestioned domain of the Miis. Now, in this followup to Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort, they seem to have been demoted to guest characters, putting them on the same level as their appearance in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe.

It’s as if Nintendo is suddenly ashamed of their little avatars that could, these rudimentary caricatures of people who were once a selling point of their consoles. Back in 2006, the idea of creating a little version of yourself to use in Wii Sports was kind of a big deal. You could even save a Mii to your Wii Remote to bring it over to a friend’s house, though I don’t know anyone who ever used this functionality. Miis were a sort of constant throughline in the Wii’s library, being playable characters not just in Nintendo titles, but in many third party games as well.

Possibly, the historically online-averse company realized they’d miscalculated in giving the public the tools to create everything from Peter Griffin to Adolf Hitler and then share them online and is trying to walk that mistake back. But I think it’s more likely that Nintendo is simply trying to distance itself from its 2000s-era brand, its “blue ocean” strategy it took with the Wii and DS in a effort to reach out to wider markets. That effort was, on the whole, successful, but it also produced a lot of oddities. At one point, the Wii was full of channels like “Check Mii Out,” strange little diversions that invited users to compete in creating the best Miis according to a prompt or simply vote on which of two foodstuffs was superior. Little things like this seemed silly and superfluous even at the time, but they were associated with a spirit of experimentation and whimsy that produced results with outsized cultural impact, like the Wii Shop music.

Even the concept of channels, introduced before Apple had crystallized the concept of the “app” in the public imagination, was a fun — if not organizationally ideal — way to interact with the Wii console. Miis had an entire channel dedicated to them, whereas creating a Mii on the Switch requires navigating to the plain gear-shaped “System Settings” menu, scrolling down to “Mii,” and selecting the uninspiring “Create/Edit a Mii.” There is, of course, no charming little music during the creation process.

On its own, the deprecation of the Mii wouldn’t be such a big deal. But as a part of a broader pattern of taking back control from users, it’s depressing. Five years out from its release, the Switch doesn’t have a feature as simple as custom themes, which were present on the 3DS. In the place of the Virtual Console, an array of — admittedly overpriced — ROMs for a range of consoles, from classics to historical curiosities, we now have the Switch Online service, a curated selection of games tied to a subscription model, many of which don’t even run that well. We are asked to accept timed, barebones releases of games that deserve better. Nintendo has always been somewhat paternalistic — especially in their approach to online play — but the trend overwhelmingly seems to be moving in the direction of “Mario knows best,” whether that means stripping back customizability or making their back catalogs unavailable.

It’s hard to say that I’ll miss the Mii, but what I will and already do miss is the spirit of deranged maximalism that these minimalistic little characters ironically represented — the spirit that seemingly said yes to every bizarre idea anyone had, from sticking a microphone and a touch screen on a handheld, to putting TurboGrafx-16 games on the Virtual Console, to making a channel for the Wii dedicated solely to telling you the weather. For all its virtues, and it has many, the Switch represents the death of this spirit. The funeral, of course, will not feature any music whatsoever.