Recent weeks have seen some positive news for Nintendo and 3DS: a truly abysmal launch period has been forgotten by many, as a major price drop and some heavy-hitting titles have resuscitated the device. It’s now exuding respectability after a difficult summer in 2011 when it looked like a flawed idea and, possibly, a major step-back for the company.

When we refer to major titles, we’re really talking about the two Holiday period blockbusters, Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, though Monster Hunter 3 G has also been a major seller in Japan. For many, however, buying a 3DS either as a gift or for personal use has probably meant buying one or both of these releases. After all, it’s a Nintendo console and those games have Mario in the title, so why on earth would you need anything else?

Of course, not all gamers, particularly those that are enthusiastic and regularly visit websites such as this one, necessarily think that way. The range of interesting titles on 3DS expands well beyond the moustachioed plumber’s appearances for these consumers, but it’s fair to say that gamers of this ilk are actually the minority of Nintendo’s customer base. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but it seems that Nintendo is becoming increasingly reliant on a broader demographic for sales success, and that in turn could impact 3DS in a similar way to Wii: Nintendo games sell, third-party titles — apart from admittedly fun dancing experiences — don’t.

We’ve made a couple of bold statements, but recent news does support them and raise concerns for future game development on 3DS. Despite much pre-launch talk — not to mention the launch-day software list — reinforcing the idea that Nintendo was hoping for third-parties to shine, the top five biggest selling 3DS titles in the UK in 2011 featured four first-party offerings: Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and Nintendogs + Cats. Only Rayman 3D, which has been heavily discounted for extended periods by British retailers, was able to sneak in at number 5. 2011 may not have been a golden year for third-party titles on 3DS, but there were some solid, high-quality titles on offer than failed to achieve notable sales success.

From a UK perspective, that trend is continuing into 2012, with Resident Evil Revelations going from a positive opening week in sixth place in the all-format charts, to disappearing from the top 40 altogether two weeks later: notably this has happened during a generally quiet period in the release schedule. We’d speculate that initial interest from dedicated gamers will have contributed to an initial burst, but that this minority group of gamers couldn’t sustain sales over a longer period. Reliable sales data for North America is harder to come by, but it’s not inconceivable that results will be similar. In Japan, meanwhile, Revelations is still performing well, but the market and Nintendo user-base is very different in that region.

Major, multi-million selling titles across the HD consoles have little impact on Nintendo systems, with 3DS and Wii owners buying games that offer different experiences.

It’s that user-base that is, perhaps, the most important reason for this third-party lethargy. A glance at all-format charts shows where the money is for major developers that aren’t called Nintendo. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, FIFA 12 and Battlefield 3 were the top three titles in the UK on all formats in 2011, and also featured in the top five lists for both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. None of those titles features in the Wii top five, and although these are home console examples, it demonstrates that Nintendo is operating on a different sphere to its Sony and Microsoft competitors. Major, multi-million selling titles across the HD consoles have little impact on Nintendo systems, with 3DS and Wii owners buying games that offer different experiences.

To return to 3DS specifically, the case can be made that it’s a positive that the handheld isn’t home to ports of third-party blockbusters, but offers gaming experiences unavailable anywhere else. For many Nintendo gamers, whether experienced veterans or those new to gaming, Nintendo continues to offer its own unique blend of creativity and accessibility, often wrapped in an inoffensive, family friendly exterior. For some, the fact that the three biggest selling 3DS titles of 2011 consisted of two Mario titles and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D is something to celebrate, a definitive demonstration of what makes Nintendo different from its competitors.

The other perspective, however, is that the continuing dominance of first-party titles, and the struggles of high-quality third-party releases, will lead to developers and publishers walking away from 3DS, just as they eventually did from Wii. The problem for Nintendo is that it’s under continual pressure to pick up the slack, churning out a high volume of titles developed in-house or by development partners. Even looking ahead, the 2012 schedule shows plenty of first-party titles in the pipeline, with anticipated releases such as Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D and the as yet un-dated Monster Hunter 3 G offering some respite.

As if to further reinforce the point that first-party software rules on 3DS, Digital analysis firm FADE LLC has recently provided eShop revenue figures for 2011. Although this analysis is not necessarily fully accurate, it nevertheless showed that $7.34 out of $11 million of those takings were on Nintendo titles, around two-thirds of the total sales. Even on a digital platform where smaller developers and publishers have an opportunity to grab attention, 3DS owners still appear to gravitate to Nintendo’s games. More developers have potentially top-class titles on the way to the eShop in 2012, but will they fare better in attracting a large proportion of consumers?

In one sense, the early reliance of 3DS on first-party titles is a demonstration of quality, with Nintendo’s software studios and development teams continuing to provide first-class games worthy of the iconic brands. It’s a sign of success, after all, that a fledgling handheld sells not just on the basis of its technological capabilities for gaming, but also because it boasts exclusive games, often featuring a chubby plumber. The concern, however, is that third-party developers will be discouraged from releasing AAA titles on the handheld, and will revert to either lazy ports and cash-ins or, potentially, abandoning the platform completely. There may have been rumours in recent days of Japanese developers moving from Vita to 3DS, but without some major commercial success for third-parties, that kind of support may be short-lived. Nintendo and its various development partners are currently working on a lot of titles and a new home console: without support even Mario’s standards could slip.

What do you think? Is 3DS over-reliant on first-party titles, or do you think other developers will be able to succeed on the handheld? Let us know in the comments below.