A year later, Nintendo's loyalty program is still a disappointment - but it doesn't have to be

It's best to just come right out and say it: in its current incarnation, My Nintendo sucks. If you buy Nintendo products with any regularity, you're probably familiar with its most recent loyalty program, which rewards you with coins for completing various tasks - like playing Nintendo's slowly growing library of mobile games - or for purchasing Nintendo products. If you're like me, though, you probably have thousands of coins burning a hole in your pocket as you wait for something - anything - to show up on the store worth buying. And it's been like this for nearly a year.

To put it in perspective for people unaware of how bad it is right now, loyal Nintendo customers can spend their hard-earned coins on a digital wallpaper (as in, just a JPEG) you can find just about anywhere, e-strategy guides that are half a decade old, or 30% off Mario Kart 8. Not Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which just came out on Nintendo Switch - Mario Kart 8, the three-year-old Wii U version without any of the DLC attached. That coupon costs 140 Gold Coins, which roughly amounts to spending $140 in digital games to buy a discount for an outdated game on a system Nintendo has effectively abandoned.

The current iteration of My Nintendo is a slap in the face to fans, but it wasn't always this way. Nintendo could easily improve this service to make it worthwhile, offering value to returning customers while still making money. All it has to do is look to its own history, and learn from what other companies are doing.

What was My Nintendo like before?

My Nintendo was originally introduced in 2002 as a way to easily register purchases with the publisher, but was transformed into a proper reward program in 2008 when it changed its name to Club Nintendo (not to be confused with the Nintendo Fun Club). Hardcore North American Nintendo fans will be the first to tell you that it wasn't perfect - especially compared to the Club Nintendo rewards found in Japan (or even Europe) - but it was way better than what we have now. Buying new games would get you a code; entering the code would unlock a survey; taking the survey would get you coins; spending coins would net you special rewards.

Yeah, it was a bit convoluted (and I often filled out the surveys by entering "Mother 3 please" in every text box), but once you've amassed a decent cache of coins, you could buy some pretty neat stuff. Physical rewards like tote bags, Hanafuda playing cards (modeled after the ones Nintendo made over a hundred years ago), and limited edition golden Wii nunchucks rounded out a variety of free and exclusive digital games. There was a special version of Punch-Out!! starring the game's trainer, Doc Louis, or a digital version of the Ultra Hand toy originally created by Game Boy designer Gunpei Yokoi. Once you bought all those, you could spend your coins on a rolling catalog of smaller, independent games and Virtual Console titles. It didn't always have the best selection, but if you held out long enough, you could eventually find something that caught your eye. 

What is My Nintendo like now?

All of those goodies disappeared in 2015 when Club Nintendo was discontinued, as Nintendo intended to replace it with a program that would, according to late CEO Satoru Iwata, "create a connection between Nintendo and each individual consumer regardless of the device the consumer uses". My Nintendo arrived in March 2016 along with Miitomo, and rewards users with Platinum Coins for logging into Miiverse or playing one of Nintendo's new or upcoming mobile apps; alternatively, you can earn Gold Coins for purchasing games from the 3DS, Wii U, or Switch eShop.

When My Nintendo first arrived, there weren't a lot of rewards to unlock, but the service showed immense promise. You could spend a handful of Platinum Coins on t-shirts to wear in Miitomo, or you could save up 1000 of them and buy a special, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess-themed version of the excellent Nintendo puzzle game Picross. There was even an exclusive download for WarioWare: Touched on 3DS - the first and only time a retail DS game has been made available digitally on the Nintendo 3DS eShop. Because of this, I played Miitomo for months - well after the point when everyone else in the world had deleted it from their phones - in order to rack up enough Platinum Coins to buy them both.

I kept hoping for additional rewards as interesting as these to pop up on My Nintendo, but once WarioWare disappeared from the service in fall of last year, nothing nearly as cool took its place. There are a handful of digital tchotchkes - like downloadable mp3s, 3DS themes, or some short animated Kid Icarus videos - coupons, digital strategy guides, desktop wallpapers, and consumable rewards for Nintendo's mobile games. One of the only substantial digital rewards to show up since its inception is a redeemable code for Mario Kart 8 DLC Pack 2 for Wii U; strangely, the first pack isn't available.

A quick glance around the My Nintendo subreddit shows that many fans are either upset at being forced to jump through the same kinds of hoops as before but getting far less return as a result... 

...or have simply resigned themselves to disappointment. 

A grayed-out box for Nintendo Switch rewards hints at more to come, but considering the absolutely paltry selection thus far and with zero hints from Nintendo about, well, anything, it's best to not get your hopes up. Oh, and coins expire if you don't use them within a year. So good luck on waiting it out.

There's a better way to do this

While a lot of this amounts to grousing about free stuff, Nintendo's approach to its reward program shows a surprising lack of care or attention - as if the whole thing is an afterthought that ultimately causes more damage to Nintendo's reputation than if the program didn't exist at all. Nintendo can still make it worthwhile, though, even if its rewards remain digital-only - and it can look to its competitors for inspiration.

Both Xbox and PlayStation offer rewards for digital purchases, though the way they handle them is a bit different. Xbox Live Rewards rolls out a variety of themed categories each month - like superheroes, pre-orders, or free-to-play games - and making purchases in each category will earn you points that you can redeem for money that gets deposited directly into your Xbox account, allowing you to spend it on anything from brand new releases to backwards-compatible Xbox 360 games. Sony Rewards lets you connect your PSN account to its company-wide program, and will give you points for each dollar spent in the store. Earn enough points, and you can pick up PlayStation 4 controllers, subscription cards for PlayStation Plus, brand new games like Persona 5, and even Sony-branded electronics. Or if none of those appealed to you, you could just redeem your points for PSN credit that you could use to pre-order Destiny 2, or pick up one of the thousands of other games available on the store. These programs aren't perfect, but their rewards are far more tangible.

Simply offering credit or free digital games would go a long way towards making people feel like engaging with My Nintendo is worth the trouble. But even if Nintendo wanted to keep using coupons, it should allow you to save money on brand new games, on top of the more vintage titles. You've already spent hundreds of dollars on the eShop; why shouldn't 140 Gold Coins allow you to save 30% off the brand new Switch version of Mario Kart 8? Nintendo's still making money, it's a digital copy that can't be resold (so the money stays with Nintendo), and you get to feel good about the little perk for being a returning customer. 

It makes no sense that Amazon can offer you a 20% discount for a new, physical copy of a game while Nintendo offers only the most trifling of price cuts on digital games that are months (if not years) old. Nintendo could be using its loyalty program to actually reward people who engage with its digital storefront, while simultaneously undercutting retailers and pocketing all of the money itself. Instead, Nintendo drip-feeds meager handouts on a monthly basis, which only serves as a bitter reminder of what Club Nintendo once was.

As I've said before, it's still relatively early days with My Nintendo, and it's entirely possible Nintendo could turn the program into one worth investing in. But unless Nintendo starts putting up some worthwhile prizes, it'll continue to feel like a middle finger flipped at the people who love Nintendo the most.