Waiting on the 3DS

Article

posted 3/30/2012 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
Platforms: 3DS
When the Nintendo 3DS was unveiled at E3 2010, I was ecstatic. Here it was, the triumphant successor to the monumentally successful DS, poised to pick up the torch and carry portable gaming into a bright new future. I immediately set aside a reserve of cash and vowed to purchase the 3DS as soon as it launched.

The 3DS’s launch date of March 27th 2011 came and went. Over a year later, I still don’t have one. Am I a Nintendo apostate? Other members of the Gaming Nexus staff have taken the plunge, so why not me? Well after years of Nintendo portables I’ve developed an instinct of sorts about these things. I’ve fallen prey to Nintendo’s constant iteration of their handhelds before. While some like the Game Boy Micro were stylish gimmicks that I am admittedly glad I ended up purchasing, others like the DSi and its super-sized brother the DSi XL were more like experimental tests beds, crammed with half-working features and ideas. I didn’t bite when they cast the DSi into the water, and tempting as it was, I’ve stayed strong against the 3DS too. Even when my friends flaunt their 25th anniversary Zelda models in my face, I can’t help but suspect that something better is right around the corner.

So what’s wrong with the 3DS? Its potential? Undeniable. Its graphical power? Impressive. Its versatility? Strong, but not overwhelming and self-detrimental like the Playstation Vita. However, what about the price? Prohibitive. The hardware? Significantly flawed in a couple of major areas. The online service? It could use some serious work. Nintendo has helped the 3DS recover from a rough first year and a serious downward spiral but they’ve only treated the symptoms, not fixed the underlying problems. Nintendo needs to get back to the drawing board, especially with stiff competition coming from an increasingly cheap and pedestrian mobile market that is winning through sheer overwhelming quantity as opposed to singular quality.


The future of portable gaming as a dedicated hobby is in serious doubt, as the mobile market, with Apple leading the charge, continues to drag handheld games into the bottomless black hole of cheap exploitative shovelware that the Wii mired console gaming in for the better part of five years. For the first time ever, Nintendo’s position as king of the portable landscape is in serious jeopardy, and in a case of poetic irony the competition was kick-started by the casual craze that Nintendo itself started with the original DS. This time the threat isn’t coming from a cumbersome, technologically overloaded juggernaut like the Game Gear, Lynx, N-Gage, PSP or Vita—it’s from gaming on phones, endless churned out minigames that are convincing the general public that portable gaming is meant to be cheap, shallow and disposable. It is a bleak, depressing but highly profitable future for handheld gaming, and one big question remains: does a dedicated handheld gaming device like the 3DS have any reason to exist anymore?

Nintendo needs to reply with a clear and loud “YES!” to that question. I may not be buying a 3DS until a better version comes out, but what about the millions of customers who aren’t planning on buying one period? Nintendo has learned some hard lessons from the disappointing release of the 3DS, and now they need a strong rebirth for the portable that fixes its problems, sustains its growing software library and re-launches the 3DS as a sleek, reliable, versatile and stylish nexus of handheld gaming.

Below are my reasons for waiting on that improved 3DS, as well as why I think Nintendo is hard at work on just such a 3DS refit, and a few of my ideas on other ways they can make the 3DS better. First up…
Price Cuts and Bundles

It’s no secret that Nintendo starts to candy-color their hardware to drive up sales and flush inventory. They’ve done it with nearly every handheld, home console and extraneous gadget that I can remember since I became a Nintendo fan in the early 90s. It started with the rainbow of Game Boy and later Game Boy pocket colors, then those oh-so-Funtastic N64 varieties, and then continued with the GBA and right on into the DS era. You probably remember the red, blue, teal and pink DS models they released during holiday ’05 shortly before the DS Lite was announced; my sister still has a teal one kicking around somewhere.

The funny thing is, recoloring the hardware just works. When coupled with a significant price cut, new colors boost sales and move units like clockwork, so it’s no surprise Nintendo is doing exactly the same thing with the 3DS. It’s just happening sooner, because let’s be honest, eight months ago the 3DS wasn’t doing so hot. The lack of compelling games and a choke-inducing $250 price were a toxic combination for sales, and I have a feeling Nintendo was sitting on a surplus of units for at least a little while.

So, we got a huge price cut in August that knocked the MSRP down to $170, and three new 3DS colors to go with it—pink, white and red, included in bundles and release-staggered through February 2012. Not only that, Nintendo released a 25th anniversary Zelda 3DS bundle as well, including a specially styled version of the handheld and a copy of Ocarina of Time 3D.


The kicker is that all of this happened leading up to or during last year’s holiday season—just like the lead-up to the DS Lite back in 2005. Silk-screening a Hylian crest onto a standard black 3DS might get the fanboys to open their wallets in droves, but to me it says that Nintendo needs to move inventory and fast. They always do this, moving out the surplus of the old in preparation for rolling out the new. Nintendo knew that they needed a better version of the hardware and sooner than usual, but they had to boost sales for what they already had in stock and on store shelves. And since price cuts and new colors always, always worked for them in the past, that’s just what they did with the 3DS, just on an accelerated basis. That of course leads us to…

Release Schedules

One of the main reasons I still haven’t picked up a 3DS is because I’ve learned a hard lesson over a decade and change of buying Nintendo handhelds: they always have a better one just around the corner and you typically don’t need to wait very long before they release it. A little patience goes a long way; wait for a year or so and like clockwork you’ll get a new and improved model with a smaller price tag and a healthy lineup of games, whereas early adopters paid big bank and were stuck with a weak handful of launch games and had to wait months or even a year for better software.
Let’s get the dry stuff out of the way first. If we follow Nintendo’s trend of portable revisions and re-releases, it stands to reason that we’ll be seeing a new, improved model of the 3DS sooner than later.

Let’s start with the Game Boy Advance. The original GBA was released on March 21st 2001 in Japan and then on June 11th 2001 in America. The much improved model, the GBA SP, showed up February 14th and March 23rd 2003 in Japan and America, respectively. That’s a little less than 2 years between the original release and the revision, but that gap gets smaller once the DS shows up. As you’ll see, Nintendo also has a tendency to release its portables in March or June.


The original model DS was a bit of an anomaly and released in America first, during the holiday season on November 21st 2004, with the Japanese release following quickly on December 2nd. We didn’t have to wait as long for the DS Lite, which debuted in Japan on March 2nd 2006 and June 1st of that year in America. With the DS, the span between hardware iterations drops to about 16 to 18 months as opposed to two years.

Discounting the third and fourth iterations that happen late in a portable’s lifespan to boost flagging sales, like the Game Boy Micro and DSi, Nintendo has established a pattern of releasing an improved, updated version of their original portable hardware about every 18 months. March 27th of this year marks the 3DS’s one year anniversary, which puts the release of a better model at mid-summer or early holiday season, if we follow Nintendo’s past release trends. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo announces the new 3DS soon to steal the thunder of the Playstation Vita. After all, Vita recently launched in America on February 22nd—just four days before the one year anniversary of the 3DS’s Japanese release of February 26th 2011. Nintendo is probably waiting to see how well the Vita sells—essentially, how much of a threat it is—before they make any big announcements.

Improve the Online Store and its Content

It’s no secret that Nintendo has what can charitably be called “issues” in creating and maintaining a pleasant online service. Their various online schemes and stores have been a jumbled, fragmented mess from the beginning, including at any given time up to three online stores to buy digital content from: the Wii Shop Channel, DSiWare and most recently the 3DS’s eShop. The eShop has taken considerable flack from the gaming community and press for not only launching two months after the 3DS, but being entirely too obtuse and disorganized when compared to other current online stores. Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade aptly described the eShop as “the nightmare an actual online store would have.”

Thankfully, Nintendo has finally admitted that they need a unified online service across all of their platforms, and recently announced the Nintendo Network. This service will be a unilateral, account-based online system for both the 3DS and the upcoming Wii U console, and we can only hope that the eShop is rolled into the Nintendo Network and seriously overhauled in the process.


While I’ll leave the specifics of improving the online store to Nintendo (here’s a hint: copy Steam top to bottom) there is a simple, easy way to vastly improve the 3DS’s online service: make mountains and mountains of digital content available quickly, easily and inexpensively.

Nintendo is abruptly coming to the rude awakening that the portable market changed overnight. Consumers now expect dozens and hundreds of apps instantly and for next to nothing on their phones or tablets. Whatever is slow-moving, fiscally conservative Nintendo to do? Well, it’s a good thing they own the rights to dozens and hundreds of games they can host and port to the 3DS for next to nothing and then make a killing off of.

You see, Nintendo has the advantage of experience and history. While startups and cell phone companies crank out scores of literally crappy apps like Bathroom Racer and Urinals the Game (I wish I was kidding) everyday, these quick-for-a-buck games are almost universally terrible and someone somewhere had to recently expend some amount of time and money making them. Meanwhile Nintendo is sitting on over 25 years’ worth of games and game licenses, most of them good to great.

Nintendo has a veritable army of “apps” waiting in the wings just itching to dominate the digital market. Nintendo just needs to let that army off the chain. When the inevitable new model 3DS launches, the Nintendo Network should be ready day and date, and so should a huge back catalog of classic software. The Wii and 3DS Virtual Console is the perfect marketplace for this, but Nintendo needs to pour some rocket fuel into that machine; no more meager once-a-month releases. Nintendo does not have the luxury of time anymore and they can’t afford to be coy and release downloadable titles at a pathetic trickle.


The enemy is at the gates, the market has changed and whether Nintendo likes it or not, consumers now expect a LOT of downloadable games for a couple bucks apiece, or less. The 3DS Virtual Console has been one of the few bright spots in the messy eShop but it’s time to throw it into gear and release more than a handful of Game Boy games every month, and Nintendo can’t realistically charge 5+ dollars a whack for digital games anymore.

But what if they run out of Game Boy titles? Easy, put the GBA catalog on there. We already know Nintendo can do it and the 3DS is capable—they released 10 GBA games for the 3DS Ambassador Program, the incentive that rewarded early adopters after the 3DS price cut last year. Nintendo shouldn’t stop with those 10, not by a long shot. The GBA has one of the richest, most expansive game libraries in history, with classics like Metroid Zero Mission, Zelda Minish Cap, Castlevania Aria of Sorrow and the excellent Sonic Advance series, not to mention several RPGs from Atlus and Square Enix. The original cartridges are quickly becoming rare collector’s items, and while collector nerds like me still keep a GBA handy for that very reason, most consumers don’t. The GBA catalog offers a wealth of amazing games. Nintendo should embrace that and put them all on the 3DS digital store.

But they don’t even have to stop there. The Ambassador Program also included 10 classic NES games, including the original Super Mario Bros and Legend of Zelda. The only problem is that, with only a few exceptions, the Ambassador games are still only available to early adopters. In other words, if you bought your 3DS after the price cut, you can’t just fire up the eShop and buy the ambassador games on your own. The NES ambassador titles are very slowly becoming publicly available for individual purchase but at a disappointing $5 a game, and the GBA games are still ambassador exclusives. I can understand that Nintendo wants to emphasize how much they appreciate the early adopters and give them something exclusive, but staying competitive is more important at this point.

So why not put the whole NES Virtual Console catalog on there? Heck, why not put the entire Virtual Console back catalog on the 3DS? Everything—NES, SNES, N64, Genesis, Neo Geo, TruboGrafx 16—the 3DS is fully capable of handling all of them, both in terms of its control layout and its processing power. Wii owners have had access to the full Virtual Console for years, so why can’t 3DS owners have the same benefit?

Nintendo needs only to open the floodgates and let the deluge pour through. When priced competitively, these games would give Nintendo a huge edge over mobile games. Many of these classic games were masterpieces in their day, slaved over for months or years by full development teams; these aren’t 99 cent apps slapped together in some cell phone company’s dusty back room mobile gaming division. Come on Nintendo, it’s time to show these kids that there is more to portable gaming than Angry Birds and Farmville.

Hardware upgrades—obvious and speculative

As I said earlier, I’ve been fooled before by Nintendo handhelds. They always, always release a newer better version a year or so down the road and while I kind of dug the sleek little Game Boy Micro and was happy to upgrade to the DS Lite, I checked out of the early adopter thing with the DSi. It just seemed too shaky of an upgrade; it had a bunch of features I knew would be much better implemented in the next model, which turned out to be the 3DS. Well the 3DS has been here for a year and I’m still not buying, for the same reason I didn’t shell out for the DSi: the hardware just isn’t solid enough yet.

For the most part it’s just another case of Nintendo pushing antiquated hardware as far as it’ll go and in this case pushing too far. Nintendo does this a lot—“lateral thinking of withered technology” as their late engineering genius Gunpei Yokoi put it. Nintendo put the GBA SP’s dim, muddy screen technology in the original DS before finally giving us true backlight with the DS Lite, they’ve been pushing standard-def graphics and two-generation-old processors with the Wii for years, it’s just what they do. Nintendo is a thrifty business and they often put off upgrading to newer, more expensive tech as long as humanly possible and in cases like the 3DS, sometimes they’re a little too stubborn for their own good.

The good news is that when they do finally upgrade, it’s always a big improvement. The 3DS’s biggest problem, its paltry 3 to 5 hour battery life, is probably the first thing they’ll fix. The solution is pretty straightforward: just give the next 3DS a much higher capacity battery, one that uses newer, more efficient technology. In this case the tablet and smart phone boom might be an advantage to the 3DS, as portable, rechargeable batteries have seen a lot of improving in the last year alone. I’d gladly pay a little extra for reliable battery life, and I wouldn’t even mind too much if a bigger battery increased the size of the 3DS, as long as it isn’t by much. The 3DS is already a pretty small device, so I could live with an extra quarter inch or so of thickness on the portable.

As far as the processing power of the machine, I’m actually rather satisfied. We’re getting amazing looking games early in the 3DS’s lifespan, games like Resident Evil Revelations, Super Mario 3D Land and Metal Gear Solid 3D. The 3DS’s “Wii graphics but slightly better” seem to get the job done pretty well, and if they already look this good I can’t wait to see how they’ll improve a couple years from now. One obvious thing a lot of Nintendo’s competitors never understood is that handheld gaming is about portability and playability first, and graphics a distant second.

Mobile gaming has taken that maxim and run with it; I hate to say it but Angry Birds is a perfect example here. Uncharted it isn’t, but Angry Birds is addictive and its immediately recognizable art style has spawned a frankly nauseating quantity of tie-in merchandise. An overdeveloped HD boondoggle like the PS Vita can certainly output stunning visuals that squash both the 3DS and most mobile games, but its battery life is even more pitiful than the 3DS, and its price tag is just as bad as what the 3DS originally launched at. The 3DS finds a happy medium, and when it is used well the 3D effect negates the need for turbocharged graphics.

As to the rest of the hardware…well the 3DS is an interesting mix of old and new. The glasses-free 3D screen is still pretty groundbreaking a year on and while we’ve seen some phones use the tech, the 3DS is still the only device to really gear it toward gaming, and hopefully we’ll see more developers take advantage of the 3D soon. That said the 3DS still has some backwards-looking problems: the aforementioned mess of an online service and Nintendo’s stubborn refusal to get with the times and give the handheld two analog sticks. So what can Nintendo do to fix these issues?

In terms of the analog stick they already have addressed the problem—kind of. Late last year, a series of interesting events led to the 3DS getting a second analog stick, albeit in a very clunky, awkward way, and it involved Monster Hunter. You see, Capcom’s Monster Hunter series never really caught on here in America but it is an absolute phenomenon in Japan, possibly the biggest thing since Final Fantasy. Capcom started development on Monster Hunter 3G for the 3DS, but they really wanted another analog stick on the console to make the game play well. I like to think the conversation went something like this:

Capcom: “We’re porting Monster Hunter Tri to the 3DS!”

Nintendo: “That’s great! We’ll make a mint off of that!”

Capcom: “There’s just one problem. To make it even remotely playable on your weird little handheld, we need another analog stick on that puppy.”

Nintendo: “Absolutely not! It’s too expensive. Maybe in a year when we make a better one. But for now we’ll do nothing of the sort.”

Capcom: “Oh yes you will, because Monster Hunter sells like hotcakes in a hotcake addicted neighborhood during a hotcake shortage and you damn well know it. Also we need it by Christmas.”

Nintendo: “Fine…dammit.”


Nintendo’s solution was the Circle Pad Pro, possibly the most rushed, cumbersome console add-on since the Sega 32X. It’s a chunky, lopsided shell that the 3DS fits snugly into, gaining not only a second analog circle pad but also two more shoulder buttons. I had to stifle a laugh the first time I saw the thing—it obliterates the 3DS’s form factor, places the second analog pad to the side of the face buttons, communicates with the 3DS through its infrared port of all things, and even requires a triple A battery as its own power supply. You can’t even swap out games without taking your 3DS out of the Circle Pad Pro.

While it is undeniably hideous and laughably ham-fisted, the Circle Pad Pro, by many accounts, is acceptably comfortable to use and adds some much needed control functionality to games like Resident Evil Revelations and MGS 3D. This peripheral might actually do its job well but it’s an obvious stopgap—Capcom needed Monster Hunter out by holiday 2011 and Nintendo had no choice but to accommodate them. The Circle Pad Pro’s existence all but proves that Nintendo has a new model 3DS far in development, just not quite ready, and something forced their hand to release a few of the updated features early as a chunky add-on.

What it implies, however, is even more intriguing. If a proper new model 3DS has two more shoulder buttons and a second analog pad built in, and the circle pad is placed above the face buttons instead of off to the side, its control layout is identical to the Wii U controller. Since the Wii U’s controller is effectively a tablet, Nintendo is worried that buying a complete set of them could be prohibitively expensive.

Shigeru Miyamoto has commented that it would be possible for gamers to simply take their own Wii U controller over to a friend’s house for local multiplayer, but he also mentioned it’s just as feasible for the 3DS to function as a Wii U controller as well. With a second analog pad and extra shoulder buttons, either from a refit model or the Circle Pad Pro, the 3DS would essentially become a Wii U controller—all it would need is a firmware update to get it talking to the Wii U.

The communication could also be a two-way street. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo let the 3DS stream portable data through the Wii U, letting you play handheld games on the big screen. They’ve certainly tried it before with the old SNES Super Game Boy and the Game Boy Player for the GameCube. They’ve also half-heartedly worked on portable-home console communication for years, but never with any significant results; remember the sadly neglected GBA-to-Cube connector cable and the DS-to-Wii wireless communication that you almost never used? If Nintendo finally gets this concept to work after so many years of minor dabbling and false starts, the line between home and portable gaming could get pretty damn blurry.

The potential Wii U connections don’t end there. Nintendo recently announced that the Wii U would use Near Field Communication, or NFC. NFC is a wireless technology that lets two devices communicate simply through touch or close proximity. It also lets a device talk to anything with an imbedded RFID chip, such as an action figure, game piece or playing card. The technology is in full use with Activision’s popular Skylanders series, which saw a release on the 3DS already. I have to admit, the prospect of scanning items, minigames and new data into the 3DS intrigues the fanboy in me. Nintendo has been toying with this idea ever since the GBA E-Reader, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Nintendo it’s that they keep fiddling with a concept until the technology and experience is there to make it work.

If the 3DS ends up doubling as a Wii U tablet, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the 3DS itself will also include full NFC. Nintendo has already been dabbling in NFC with the 3DS’s Street Pass and augmented reality features, so going full steam ahead with the tantalizing new wireless tech seems like a perfect addition to a shiny re-invented 3DS.


Conclusion

If you’ve been keeping up with gaming news, you’ve probably heard that the 3DS’s downward spiral is over and things are looking up for the handheld. It is true that 3DS sales are up and breaking records no less, in no small part to the surge in quality games, but the real question is for how long? In this day and age, with gas more expensive than ever and the economy getting worse by the day, people expect entertainment to be instantaneous and cheap. The 3DS might have gotten less expensive, but its online service is a draggy mess and its software, both digital and retail, is several times more expensive than cell phone games.

At this early stage in the race quality doesn’t matter to customers—the novelty of having hundreds of games, no matter how terrible, at their fingertips for mere dollars apiece, has yet to wear off. Buying an extra, dedicated gaming machine in addition to a cell phone, particularly a gaming machine with spotty hardware like the 3DS, is a questionable prospect at best.

Nintendo needs to make their case here and now. Cheaper games, in the form of a dozen generations of portable and console classics, is the first half of that case. The second half is a better version of the 3DS, which is inevitably coming but in my opinion, needs to get here soon. The future of portable gaming is up in the air and I fear that the 3DS and what it stands for is living on bought time. Nintendo can turn this all around—they already managed to save the 3DS from a tragic, Dreamcast-esque early demise—but can they do it in time? I know I’ll be holding out for the rebirth of the 3DS, but unless Nintendo acts quickly and decisively, will anyone else be waiting there with me?




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