Talking Point: Should Nintendo Have Made the 3DS Download-only?

By sticking with physical media as the primary form of software delivery, Nintendo may have handicapped its new handheld challenger

Earlier this year, Sony finally closed the book on the PSPgo, the company's ill-fated attempt at releasing a console based entirely on the concept of digital media.

Although Sony's failure was the subject of much mirth within the industry, it's quite possible that the PSPgo will prove to be a machine that was ahead of its time. Indeed, there are many that think that Nintendo made a big mistake in making the 3DS a predominately cartridge-based system.

When you think about it, the notion of a portable device needing physical media is as outdated as an MP3 player stipulating that you carry around a bag full of CDs at all times. Cartridges are a throwback to the days of old, when 16 megabits was considered to be a massive amount of memory and there were no practical means of storing software other than on bulky, expensive carts. In terms of a portable device, the very idea of carrying around these chunks of plastic — no matter how small — is an undeniable inconvenience.

Although many will point at the aforementioned PSPgo as proof that physical media still has a place in this world, the astonishing success of the iPhone and iPod Touch says otherwise.

Apple's devices have created a generation of gamers that no longer believe that they should pay high prices for their software, and see the idea of purchasing physical carts as something of an anachronism. Although Nintendo is typically keen to stress that the 3DS is offering something that the iPhone cannot (and the company has a point), it's clear that the two formats are in direct competition with one another.

Before you misunderstand our stance, let it be known that we at Nintendo Life love the humble cartridge: many of our staffers are hardcore collectors of coveted retro gaming relics, and few things in the gaming world can approach the sheer beauty of a boxed Japanese Mega Drive game or a freshly-opened SNES title. Human nature encourages us to collect and hoard physical items, and we can assure you that here at Nintendo Life we horde with the best of them; Corbie's retro collection alone is worth more than the gross national product of many Eastern European countries.

However, it's impossible to ignore that the industry is slowly but surely abandoning physical media in favour of digital downloads. Every major console — be it domestic or portable — now boasts its own download service, and in the case of the DS, we've already seen some amazing titles on the DSiWare portal — titles that offer just as much enjoyment and entertainment as their physical counterparts.

As well as being a far more convenient way of playing games on the go (no carts means nothing to carry around and potentially lose), downloadable games tend to be priced better.

While no one wants to see the 'rush to the bottom' that has occurred with iPhone game pricing, downloadable games on a portable device could be sold for much less than physical ones. With no packaging to produce and no distribution channel to maintain, developers and publishers can pass on the savings to the customer. Rather than harming the industry, that would actually aid it — cheaper games means people simply buy more of them.

Of course, the 3DS has the ability to play downloadable content via its forthcoming 3DSWare channel, which means the console effectively offers the best of both worlds — digital and physical. However, if the puny 2GB SD card that comes bundled with the 3DS is anything to go by, Nintendo's aspirations for its digital download service would appear to remain at a similar level to DSiWare: in a word, modest. The file size of games will surely continue to be limited by Nintendo, and in an era when some iOS and Android titles can clock in at well over 300MB, such a policy seems counter-productive.

Physical media will continue to be Nintendo's bedrock for this generation, at least. Whether or not that will prove to be a smart move remains to be seen, but we can't help but feel that a chance has been missed to halt Apple's advancement and win back a generation of players that have discarded their DS consoles for iPod Touches. Just like the CD, cartridges are running on borrowed time.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Is a game better purely because it comes on a cartridge? Do you think that games are better when they come packaged with artwork and instructions, or would you rather have cheaper titles and be able to buy more of them? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.