When the 3DS was launched, it didn't even have an eShop to enjoy, and even after the online store arrived the pack-in 2GB SD card seemed perfectly adequate. With a mix of Game Boy Virtual Console titles, the odd 3D Classic and the first flashes of download-only titles from third parties, the number of blocks offered up by the included storage was enough for even the most enthusiastic of early adopters.
And then download-only games started to get a little heftier as developers started to realise that the 3DS goes well beyond the capabilities of the DSi; Mighty Switch Force seemed big at 1801 blocks, with some starting to eye up SDHC (high capacity) cards to handle the burgeoning eShop library of must-have games.
In mid-2012, however, the space-hungry 3DS took it up a notch. The 3DS XL was released with an included 4GB SD card, twice as much as afforded to standard systems, and New Super Mario Bros. 2 became the first retail download offering from Nintendo, promptly followed by every subsequent first-party release and a number from before the initiative began. The list of retail downloads — including those from third parties — continues to grow.
We've considered Nintendo's retail download offerings — including their pros and cons — elsewhere, but we're certainly seeing a generation of 3DS owners more than happy to go the download route for some of the biggest releases. Whether it's a choice for the convenience of not swapping out game cards, or simply a preference for staying away from physical media, a number of people are opting for downloads rather than a trip to an online retailer or the shops — though download codes are now also available from GAME in Europe, and a North American option surely isn't far behind. The simple truth is that anyone opting for download software, however, will have in all likelihood already upgraded their SD card.
And no wonder, as retail downloads are getting bigger. New Super Mario Bros. 2 was only 2950 blocks (368MB), yet recently we've had Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate at 14,275 blocks (1.74 GB) and, as we revealed yesterday, the upcoming Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is a beastly 17,693 blocks (2.16GB). Even that can't touch Resident Evil Revelations, which with its impressive visuals and lengthy pre-rendered cutscenes comes in at a horrifying 25,795 blocks (3.15GB).
Of course, these hulking examples aren't quite the norm yet, with a good number of 3DS titles coming in at comfortably under 1GB in size. And yet, the existing bundled SD cards — especially in the older model — won't get download consumers far if they opt for retail titles, especially if they want one of the larger games that we've seen in recent times. Of course, download retail games are all about providing choice, and consumers can quite easily pick up a larger card up to 64GB — the official advice is to stick to the SDHC standard for the 3DS.
An important thing with SDHC cards is that, with a brief bit of research online, they're available at thoroughly modest prices. They come in different classes, with the most expensive class 10 options having the quickest performance, but the lower grade options arguably function well enough. It reflects a key advantage that the 3DS has over Sony's Vita, with Nintendo's rival — foolishly, in our view — opting to use a proprietary memory card that's still a substantial expense for gamers. By utilising a common storage solution Nintendo has ensured that memory expansion is becoming increasingly inexpensive and accessible.
But we think Nintendo can go further. Not only is it giving the "option" of download retail games, but it's becoming increasingly active in directing 3DS gamers towards the eShop. We've now had two promotions in Europe — one so far in North America — where registering a system or a series of games makes you eligible for a free retail download. We've also had consistent messaging from Nintendo, particularly in response to stock shortages of major releases, saying that even if stores don't have a game it's always accessible from the eShop. Yet as games get bigger it's becoming increasingly likely that no sooner does someone buy a system, they're already getting drawn in by all of the downloads on offer — an SD card upgrade is becoming almost mandatory.
As a way of continuing to represent a better value proposition than Vita, and to genuinely line-up the 3DS as a device with smartphone-style convenience — where all major games can be downloaded — it seems logical to boost the pack-in storage; perhaps 16GB for the standard model and 32GB for the XL systems. While that may seem like a hefty upgrade, we should bear in mind not only the continuing decrease in SD card prices, but also that Nintendo would be able to secure a mass-purchase deal with manufacturers such as Sandisk or Samsung; we also suspect that 3DS manufacturing costs will continue to decrease. Not only would that kind of move bring positive press and look alluring on packaging, but it'd emphasize to new owners that this is a system equipped for the convenient downloading of content, with concerns over storage space being far less relevant.
As this year progresses we feel the timing would be right for a move such as this, accommodating the ever-expanding eShop with an improved offering on a two-and-a-half-year old system. We've seen changes like this in the home console space with a variety of options for PS3 and Xbox 360 models, so a hard drive initiative would also suit the Wii U in future years.
But for 3DS, this would be the simplest of initiatives for Nintendo to implement. It doesn't need to concern itself with any adjustments to the built-in components — as a Wii U hard drive change would necessitate — but simply place a different SD card into models before they're shipped. If you offer customers even more bang for their buck — costing the business relatively little in exchange — while also promoting a valuable source of revenue, then everyone potentially wins.
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