It was June 2006 when I registered my first ever item, a silver Nintendo DS bundled with Mario Kart DS, on a loyalty program that was then known as ‘Nintendo VIP 24:7’. It may seem surprising to some, but back then I had only probably been gaming for a year or two at most, so the idea of suddenly being a member of Nintendo’s exclusive club and, what likely felt to a young me as suddenly being a part of Nintendo itself, was quite significant.
All of a sudden my loyalty to the brand was being rewarded; all of those carefully picked GBA and DS titles I’d rushed down to buy at Woolworths (for those that are uninformed, is a now defunct British retail chain where I’m sure many fellow Brits bought their games up until its closure) were suddenly reimbursing me with much more than just unforgettable gameplay experiences; imagine, a kid having not even lived for a decade, yet suddenly wielding the power of his very own virtual currency, and one that could be exchanged for Super Smash Bros. Melee wallpapers at that.
I remember the old Nintendo of Europe website being a lot more exciting. Whilst the current one quite accurately represents the sleek, white ‘house style’ taken on by the Wii and its successors, the old one was a true representation of the pre-silver logo days of the big N. It was jam-packed with the thing that really mattered, games, and was a real visual treat for a young, Nintendo-obsessed mind. I remember spending many happy hours trawling through the huge database of what seemed to be almost every game released on a Nintendo platform in Europe up to that point, including a library of first party classics that I swore to myself that I would one day play (I distinctly remember looking at imageless descriptions of the likes of Ice Climber and Balloon Fight and getting pretty excited). It was the go-to for creating wish-lists for Birthdays and Christmas and most importantly, a place where I could go to to dream about what it must be like to own a GameCube (which in the mind of someone who was only allowed a GBA, was probably something equivalent to being royalty).
One of my most vivid memories of the site was scrolling down every day to check the latest news (not to brag, but I was the go-to source for Nintendo news on the playground), and to click on a link to the Smash Bros. Dojo, which I must’ve checked religiously during Super Smash Bros. Brawl‘s development (no joke, I think I actually checked it every single day as soon as I got up). On October 9th 2007, I would scroll down the NOE homepage to see the silhouette of Sonic confirming his announcement for Brawl. Part of me was mad that I hadn’t seen it on the Dojo first, straight from Sakurai’s mouth, but in retrospect I don’t think I understood how massive it was that this was happening. Perhaps if I’d grown up during the console wars, eh?
For members of the VIP 24:7 service, it had everything you’d imagine an ‘exclusive’ club would have to offer (including many things that the re-invented Club Nintendo we are more familiar with was strangely lacking), such as forums, exclusive features and of course, the ‘Stars Catalogue’, where members would go to exchange their hard earned stars for amazing prizes.
I think back in the day, I probably thought the prizes were more amazing than they actually were. Looking back at my purchases list (or my list of ‘Treasures’, as Nintendo describes them in a charming Nintendo fashion) is like a portal into the mid-2000s; Real Tone format ringtones of your favourite tunes (I distinctly remember having a really short loop of the Mushroom Kingdom theme from Super Mario RPG as a ringtone for many years), wallpapers featuring the likes of Pac-Man, Advance Wars and Excitebike and screen-savers only compatible with Mac OS9.
One of the strangest items in my collection of ‘Treasures’ is something listed as ‘Nintendo VIP Den – Aquarium’. I remember excitedly purchasing it only to find it didn’t run on my computer, and there were other ‘Den’ items available in the catalogue at the time, but beyond the name I have absolutely no idea about what it did. Unfortunately it, along with all of the other digital items I purchased, are now no longer available for re-download, so perhaps I will never be able to experience it for myself, but a bit of digging through forum posts from 2006 suggests that the ‘VIP Den’ was some kind of flash-based active desktop program featuring a bunch of poorly drawn rooms that was supposed to serve as some kind of ‘crib’ (which I imagine were all the rage back in the mid-2000s). Maybe I wasn’t missing out after all…
Come the time of the Wii, things started to stir up in the clubhouse. I think I remember losing about 9000 ‘stars’ when VIP 24:7 made the switchover to the brand new Club Nintendo, which back then didn’t bother me too much, but in retrospect was pretty frustrating! I remember once Wii Shop Channel points cards were added to the catalogue, I frantically phoned up my relatives begging for Club Nintendo codes from their copies of Brain Training and Big Brain Academy so I could get a 1000 Shop Channel points code to exchange for copy of F-Zero X!
It’s undeniable that there were quite a few drought periods where the rewards in the catalogue were nothing to write home about, but every so often a physical reward would come along that was simply too good to pass up. Notable examples include a literal Game & Watch (pictured above left), a replica SNES controller that functioned as a Classic Controller for the Wii (pictured above right, image from my own personal collection. I didn’t have enough stars to get one from the catalogue at the time, so I opted to import the Super Famicom variant that had been available on the Japanese Club Nintendo!), along with various other miscellaneous physical goods ranging from Japanese Sensu fans to a huge golden statue of Link riding Epona that cost so many stars, I still wonder if anyone was ever able to afford it.
Because I’m mostly writing from my own experiences, this feature is focused on the European wing of Club Nintendo. From what I’ve read, experiences with its US counterpart have been less than perfect, but it’s clear to see that the Japanese version has hit it out of the park with now rare rewards such as gorgeous storage boxes for the GBA Famicom Mini series, a set of Mario-themed GameCube controller designs and even exclusive games (an unnatural amount of which feature Tingle…). Along with these premium items, the Japanese catalogue has also carried what feel like better-executed takes on items we have seen in the Western reward catalogues, such as beautifully packaged game soundtracks, stylish fashion items and other gaming accessories that hold a true feeling of Nintendo quality about them.
Over the last few weeks, Club Nintendo in Europe received its final two items; a CD-book combo featuring a selection of Ending and Credits themes from Nintendo games across several platforms, and a commemorative silver-plated coin featuring a cheery-looking pair of plumbers waving off the Club one final time. Club Nintendo was never perfect, but it truly did feel like Nintendo’s way of celebrating and rewarding its biggest fans, and for that, it must be commended. Only time will tell whether its promised successor will live up to its legacy, but for now, all we can do is say thank you for what Club Nintendo set out to do.