Now that the 3DS is one-year old in most territories – its Australian anniversary hasn’t quite arrived yet – it’s safe to say that Nintendo can look at the handheld’s progress and be reasonably happy. It’s unlikely to be ecstatic and popping open the champagne, however, as the road to the current good times has been full of pot-holes and diversions. We’ll be presenting a happier retrospective feature tomorrow, but today we’re going to look at the mistakes Nintendo made with the 3DS launch, a timely warning as Wii U approaches.

The system wasn’t ready

If a consumer picks up a 3DS today, what they’ll have, once all updates are in place, is a handheld with a solid and varied feature-set. There’s a quirky messaging system, the ability to jump into online multiplayer with friends, video recording and a digital store with some enticing, affordable download games. Though there are inevitable improvements and additional updates on the way, it’s a system with plenty to offer on top of a basic gaming machine.

When 3DS launched, however, none of those features were included. While early-adopters could mess around with AR games, 3D photos and StreetPass, it didn’t take long for the rather limited capabilities to be worn out. The lack of meaningful communication or online integration was bad enough, but the absence of the eShop was perhaps the biggest issue, especially for those who wanted to access the expansive DSiWare catalogue. Even the ability to transfer software from an old DSi wasn’t active, with gamers simply having to hold onto outdated systems.

Plenty of reasoning and explanations can be given, but the fact is that the console simply wasn’t ready for launch, with Nintendo scrambling to improve functionality retrospectively. With Wii U, the infrastructure and features that gamers of all types expect simply have to be there, on day one.

It’s how much?

Over a period of three months Nintendo sold fewer than one million consoles worldwide, returning some truly abysmal figures.

The spectacular success of the DS ‘family’ of consoles meant that Nintendo came at the 3DS launch from a position of strength, the dominant force in handheld gaming. The decision to retail the 3DS at $249.99 in the U.S., or around £230 in the UK, was possibly based on an assumption that the brand would sell, and that consumers would willingly pay a reasonably high price for Nintendo gaming on the go.

The strategy worked with enthusiastic and dedicated Nintendo gamers. Nearly four million consoles flew off the shelves worldwide in the first few days, but it’s what happened next that showed that the product, in the eyes of many, simply wasn’t worth that price. Over a period of three months Nintendo sold fewer than one million consoles worldwide, returning some truly abysmal figures. It prompted a crisis at the company, recording its first ever loss and implementing a drastic price cut to save the day.

There are a number of reasons why that price point was all wrong. On the one hand, the demographic of less experienced or ‘casual’ gamers was no longer enthralled by Nintendo alone, as they had been by the DS. Smartphones and tablets now offer quick, disposable gaming experiences for a small amount of money. For those who love Angry Birds and similar titles, the 3DS would only appeal at a more affordable price. The drip-feed of apps and features also meant that some will have looked at the 3DS in its early days and concluded that it didn’t have enough software and functionality to justify the expense. Also missing, in the eyes of both serious gamers and smartphone enthusiasts, were blockbuster games.

Where are the games?

We’d suggest that, perhaps, the 3DS launch library was harshly judged. There were some good, solid gaming experiences on offer that barely got any attention from the wider public. Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition was dismissed by some as a basic port, though it did make decent use of StreetPass and a new 3D-boosting camera angle, and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars 3D was a strategy title that truly deserved a bigger audience. Nintendo’s big launch day titles – released worldwide – were Pilotwings Resort and Nintendogs + Cats.

A typical description of those two titles could be, ‘they’re alright’. The launch line-up lacked a killer app to truly grab attention. While The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D may have served the purpose if it had arrived a few months earlier than it did, a game with Mario in the title would have truly flown off the shelves. Either Super Mario 3D Land or Mario Kart 7 would have done the trick, but like the system itself, they weren’t ready.

Advertising that missed the point

We’ll keep this short: the 3DS advertisements in the UK didn’t get the message right. In North America there were relatively creative adverts, such as the man playing Street Fighter IV 3D Edition with two characters duking it out in a 3D space. UK adverts, prior to launch, showed a variety of people walking into a 3DS booth and saying ‘wow’ a lot. The camera focused on the people’s expressions of amazement, with the audience treated to a view of the back of the console. Though trying to emphasise the impressive effects of the 3D display, consumers who didn't know better would potentially struggle to understand what 3DS was. Is it just another DS iteration with some 3D gimmickry?

Later in the year, and to coincide with the price cut, this mistake was remedied. UK adverts for the console now showed a lot of game footage, with the phrase "this isn’t just DS, it’s 3DS" and making it clear that the graphics were a major step-up on the console. The message was clear, at last.

Eye-strain and the curse of sloppy journalism

The final issue with this launch wasn’t Nintendo’s fault, with the blame being directed squarely at sensationalist and innacurate journalism. Despite it being clear that 3D effects were only for children above six years old, gaming sessions should have a break after 30 minutes and that the device has a slider (as well as parental controls) to disable the effect, one British tabloid deemed that insufficient.

Most gamers experience some discomfort the first few times they use the 3D screen, in some cases even a headache. These symptoms, in the majority of cases, cease once your eyes adjust to the effect. In an infamous article, a British newspaper had a journalist provide a first-hand account of the effects of 3D, with a doctor on hand. Reporting sickness, dizziness and headaches, particularly while trying to use the screen in the process of walking down the street, the article did a good job of making the problem seem much, much worse than it is. A follow-up story, no doubt an attempt to justify this test’s ‘results’, claimed that 3DS systems were being returned to retailers en-masse by angry consumers. Retailers said that was absolute nonsense, but the damage to the perceptions of that paper’s readers, and others who didn’t see the various denials and factual statements, was already done.

Lessons learned, mistakes fixed

While the 3DS had a rocky start, the actions of Nintendo in the past six to eight months have shown that it’s learned important lessons. With assurances that Wii U won’t repeat the same mistakes, there’s cause for optimism. Considering the issues experienced in the early days of the handheld, its current successes show that we should never write Nintendo off.