Feature: Launching a Console Without Mario

No mascot on day one

The Launch of 3DS — Thomas Whitehead

In some respects the launch of 3DS shares some of the trends of GameCube, in that its initial sales were impressive. It’s easy to forget that it broke launch day sales records in a number of territories: it became the fastest selling Nintendo handheld on launch day in the US, and broke the equivalent weekend sales record in Europe. By 31st March, just over a month after its release in Japan and barely a full week worldwide, Nintendo had sold around 3.6 million units: an impressive figure, undermined only by Nintendo’s well publicised expectations of four million sales.

Those launch numbers didn’t tell the whole story, however, and as you’ll have guessed from the title for this feature, Nintendo’s iconic plumber was nowhere to be seen in the launch catalogue. That clearly had no impact on the eager early adopters, but rumblings seemed to develop in online gaming communities that the launch line-up was disappointing and not up to scratch. Was that fair? It’s a perspective with some merit, though when we compiled our 3DS launch game buyer's guide it seemed that there were a number of solid experiences, with a couple of pleasant surprises, but little to truly seize the day. Faith was put in titles such as Nintendogs + Cats and Pilotwings Resort, with Nintendo also handing the limelight the 3rd party developers, but the end result arguably lacked a ‘killer app’.

3DS then had a rather grim fall from grace, enduring a period with total worldwide sales of just 710,000 units between 1st April and 30th June. Some accused naysayers of overplaying this drop in sales, but Nintendo’s reaction surely provided all of the evidence that these were dismal figures. Senior board members took major pay cuts, the company reported financial losses, and a severe price cut was confirmed for 3DS. Some fingers were pointed at the line-up of game titles to date and many said that Nintendo failed to deliver a substantial hit on day one. You could argue that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D would have helped but, if you want to focus on the franchise that really sells in big numbers, you have to talk about Mario.

Mario is important to systems, absolutely, but the problems with 3DS in its early months wouldn’t have been simply resolved with the appearance of Super Mario 3D Land or Mario Kart 7.

So Mario wasn’t there on day one, but was that the reason for the drastic loss of interest beyond eager day one buyers? Much like with the GameCube, it’s not that simple. Mario is important to systems, absolutely, but the problems with 3DS in its early months wouldn’t have been simply resolved with the appearance of Super Mario 3D Land or Mario Kart 7. The fact is that the pricing of the system was too high on day one. If Nintendo hadn’t come to that realisation, then surely it would have held firm at the original price point until Mario bounded and hopped to the rescue. Even Mario has his limits, however, as Nintendo realised that the level and nature of competition was different; improvements to the systems capabilities, a library of digital games and a competitive price were some factors that various consumers needed to take the plunge.

If Mario had been there on day one, would he have been able to avoid the slump between April and June? We’d suggest he would have helped the situation, but not completely resolved it, as Nintendo would have still been faced with consumers asking whether they need to pay $250 for a dedicated handheld when their iPhone or Android smartphone has lots of cheap games. Nintendo’s handheld does offer something different from smartphones and tablets, of course, but without a price that feels right on the market, perhaps many would decide that even Mario wasn’t worth the cost.

With the recent news that the system will become profitable, per unit, by the end of August, we’d like to go as far as to say that the delay with Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 actually benefited Nintendo in the long haul. Rather than land as part of an expensive new system lacking functionality, both titles arrived alongside an attractively priced system packed full of new functions courtesy of system updates. In fact, November 2011 arguably became the true launch, in terms of long-terms prospects, for 3DS: let’s not forget that this pre-Holiday period is also the traditional time to launch a new system. The price drop had come earlier in the year, but the combination of two high profile titles and a Holiday season helped to produce some serious sales. Let’s consider that, as of 31st March 2012, Ocarina of Time had sold around 2.61 million copies, yet the two Mario titles had already each sold more than double that amount in less time: in November last year the 3DS clicked into gear.

The challenge for 3DS is maintaining momentum, making sure that sales continue at a steady rate ahead of an expected bump once New Super Mario Bros. 2 arrives. To address the key question about the absence of Mario affecting the system’s launch, then yes it probably contributed to a tough summer period. However, unlike the image issues that arguably blighted GameCube, the 3DS is now making progress, admittedly with plenty of room for improvement in Europe and North America. Perhaps November was the point where the system truly launched to the mainstream, grabbing the attention of those who’d potentially ignored it until that point.

Mario arrived at just the right time for 3DS, but only because Nintendo had learned its lessons and dealt with early mistakes. The famous mascot wasn’t weighed down by a high price-tag or underwhelming features, but joined the party when it was really getting started. He showed up fashionably late, and has helped the system move towards a more optimistic future.