It's no secret that the 3DS sold far below expectations, even after Nintendo wowed us at E3 and promised to clean up its online act. Many are going as far as to suggest that the Ambassador programme and slashed pricing is as good as a death knell, while investors argue that Ninty should do something it's never dreamed of – create third party software for iOS devices as stocks reach their lowest level in six years. But the Big N recovered from the Virtual Boy before, many developers and publishers are quite excited about the Wii U and 3DS sales should pick up after this holiday season's releases of Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land. And just recently, sales in Japan rose dramatically.

But what if this really was the beginning of the end? Heck, we never thought that Mario and Sonic would face off at the Olympics together, but here we are. We at Nintendo Life, however, are not given to idle, ill-thought out speculation and doomsday-portending. We do, however, have big imaginations and think about what the future could potentially have in store. Take our collective hand, then, if you're brave enough, and journey with us to a world where the Big N is not so big anymore, where extra Mario Kart tracks are downloadable at the PlayStation Store and where Master Chief is a character in Super Smash Bros. 360, Come with us as we ask: what if Nintendo were a third party?

Of course, that doesn't mean that it couldn't exist as a first party as well. Let's say that Nintendo began creating software for smartphones tomorrow, continuing to make new games on its current and future platforms all the while. It's been said before that most iOS software is quite shallow, and that Angry Birds is a great example of when someone gets it right. It turns out that a lot of the software on Nintendo's own DSiWare Shop fits the same bill, some 200 Point offerings offering quite thin and shallow experiences with others mastering the art of simple-but-fun.

What makes Nintendo so incommensurable with smartphone software, though, is the scope of its franchise titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. If it released a few smaller iOS titles – something like Pokédex 3D, a simplified Pikmin, a few Mario Party-esque minigames here or WarioWare microgames there – it likely would not cut into 3DS sales, because it just wouldn't match the scale that gamers look for in a first-party Nintendo product. Buying a 99 cent iPhone app starring Mario would not make someone want to buy Super Mario 3D Land any less – it might make someone want to buy it even more, in fact. In all likelihood it would raise awareness of Nintendo properties for a new consumer base, make smartphone owners happy to have new software and make gamers more inclined to buy an iPad. Everyone wins. If Nintendo really doesn't see this market as a threat, perhaps it should embrace it as an alternative form of entertainment while continuing to develop its 3DS, Wii and Wii U software in new directions untouchable by the smartphone markets and prove that there really is such a divide.

But let's take it one step further. Let's say that the sales hike in Japan is a fluke and that the 3DS never achieves the success that Nintendo predicted. Let's also say that the Wii U flops. Nintendo is forced to stop making hardware and focus on software development. On the plus side, it would no longer have to worry about understanding digital media and instead work within others' schemes, the same schemes that Nintendo's currently trying to catch up with. Nintendo could focus on what it's good at – making great games and trying to innovate from within. The playing field would become more even, and companies that had not worked with Nintendo in the past because of loyalties to Sony or Microsoft could now do so.

But as good as the competition is, what fun would it be without Nintendo to throw a wrench in the system every once in a while? If the Wii U changes gaming as much as some studios are predicting, then it'll be like a brand new analogue stick – all of a sudden, we won't be able to think of gaming without it. And that's what Nintendo is good at, as well as making great games – innovating the playing field.

It's no secret, though, that once that playing field is changed, Nintendo has a hard time running on it with the rest of the big guns. For every analogue stick there's a DualShock controller; for every Wii Remote, there's a more accurate Move. The competition will have an answer to the Wii U as well. Perhaps Nintendo will have a way to win the day with firmware updates and great software, though, and maybe it really will pull out in front this time. The future's not ours to see.

But let's say that Nintendo, if no longer a first party, was still allowed a place in Sony or Microsoft's hardware development room. If the company was given enough creative freedom and the immediate hardware knowhow of its competitors, the possibilities are endless. Then again, Rare has shown us what can happen when one company must work within another's guidelines, and it's not always pretty.

Do you think that Nintendo has hope in the hardware race yet, that it really will become formidable in its weaker areas with the Wii U and the future of the 3DS? Should Nintendo embrace the smartphone market and find a way for its first-party software to coexist with it? Is the Big N really in trouble, or is now just a time when it must think on its feet? Voice your thoughts below!