Talking Point: Nintendo's Focus on the 3DS eShop

Gaming on a budget

This week’s European Nintendo Direct prompted the usual range of predictions before the event, ranging from optimistic but unlikely hopes to pessimism and predictability. What Nintendo of Europe boss Satoru Shibata gave us, surprisingly, was a broadcast heavy with eShop exclusives, some new and surprising and others with long-awaited release confirmations. The retail scene was relatively modest, with no real surprises, but there was more than enough download content on offer to get 3DS gamers talking.

Some of the titles were already on the radar, though various release details for this year were more than welcome. Hana Samurai: Art of the Sword, known as Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword in North America, had been on plenty of wish-lists for a fair amount of time, though a release in next week’s update will satisfy that itch. The Denpa Men: They Came by Wave is perhaps a surprise critical hit that cleverly uses AR – augmented reality – while Hydroventure: Spin Cycle and Nano Assault EX are sequels with good credentials behind them. All arriving by the end of the year, their confirmation was reassuring in the sense that eShop enthusiasts could look at a solid line-up on the way.

As is often the case with Nintendo Direct, however, the delights are often unexpected. Pullblox/Pushmo only arrived in Europe and North America in December 2011, yet its sequel will arrive in November, prompting many to re-double efforts to conquer the original’s fiendish later levels. Fallblox, which will be known as Crashmo in North America, takes the original concept, already a top-notch game, and adds in greater depth and new puzzle elements. It’ll be possible to make mistakes and remove support from higher blocks, causing them to crash downwards, and Nintendo’s already laid the ground for switches and floating boxes to shake things up, along with the added depth and ability to switch the view to the back of the blocks. Pullblox was amongst the first truly accomplished eShop games, so hopes are unsurprisingly high.

An announcement with less mass-appeal, but nevertheless a pleasant surprise for experienced gamers, was confirmation that three of the four Guild01 titles are coming to eShop, with SUDA51’s Liberation Maiden already available in Europe as a post-broadcast treat. Originally a boxed retail release in Japan, with each of the four titles led by a famous industry figure, rumours of a Western arrival had already surfaced earlier in the year. It says a great deal for Nintendo’s increasing commitment to the eShop that these games, which can probably be regarded as fairly niche in appeal, have been provided in digital form. It’s also ideal for gamers, as rather than pay full price for a bundle we can pick and choose from Liberation Maiden, Aero Porter and Crimson Shroud by the end of the year.

This line-up of releases, which applies to both Europe and North America – though Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword and The Denpa Men: They Came by Wave are already available in the latter territory – shows that Nintendo isn’t allowing the eShop to lose momentum in its second year. Like any download service it’s had quiet spells, and the Virtual Console schedule continues to frustrate many, but new download exclusives full of promise are continuing to flow.

Perhaps most importantly, the eShop seems to be establishing its own distinct presence on the system, utilising the capabilities of the hardware and thankfully easing the punishing file size restrictions that damaged DSiWare and WiiWare to such a degree. Nano Assault EX and the Guild01 trilogy are perfect examples of titles that would previously arrive as retail releases, and in all likelihood struggle for attention and not necessarily be widely stocked by retailers: the original Nano Assault didn’t even get published in Europe. There are certainly examples of games in the eShop that could conceivably, in the past, be reduced-price retail titles — £19.99 or $24.99 – that are now arriving for a lower cost on the digital store. There are low price options in the $1.99 range, of course, but the eShop is starting to produce titles that, not so long ago, would be snapped up at a higher price at retail by a small but dedicated group of gamers.

A greater focus on the eShop also makes perfect business sense for Nintendo and other developers. While we’ll save the debate about retail downloads and their pricing for another day, there’s little doubt that the 3DS online store is giving developers an opportunity to work on relatively ambitious projects with genuine depth and replayability, yet with a lower financial risk. The 3DS technology is thoroughly decent, but without the financial horrors of HD development, while the eShop makes worries about distribution a thing of the past. Level-5, in the current climate, would be slightly foolish to release Guild01 as a boxed physical retail title, but sticking the code for each individual game on the download store is far less of a risk. Our other example from earlier also shows this, with Shin’en Multimedia abandoning retail to re-release an improved version on the eShop, as well as Nano Assault Neo on Wii U’s online store.

It’s telling that the biggest stories out of Nintendo of Europe’s Nintendo Direct weren’t release dates for titles such as Paper Mario: Sticker Star, but the various downloads due to arrive before 2013. These releases are often new IPs, or sequels and progressions of franchises born on the 3DS eShop; it’s a new breed of games that are, slowly and surely, earning fan loyalty. What the announcements showed us was that the eShop is going to continue producing varied, potentially high-quality games in the next few months, all at arguably reasonable prices.

It’s inevitable that comparisons will be made with equivalent download games on tablets and phones, with debates about whether they’re gaming devices, but for its part Nintendo is continuing to support and strengthen its download exclusives, which is good for gamers and developers.

What do you think? Did the announcements for the eShop excite you for the weeks and months ahead, or do you feel that the platform is still not delivering the games or prices that you want? Let us know in the comments below.

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