Let's think back, for a moment, to the DSi. The remixed version of the hugely successful DS Lite — which itself replaced the 'phat' model — included an online download store, which was a big deal at the time. It also had primitive technical capabilities while the DSi Shop, like its Wii equivalent, was a representation of troubled early days in the relationship between download developers and major platform holders; it had a mediocre layout, file size limitations and an inflexible pricing policy. That said, the DS family of systems — including the DSi — was an outrageous success, the second highest-selling platform of all time and number one in the handheld space, helped by an outstanding library of games and its Touch Generation concept that transformed the potential audience for portable gaming.
The 3DS has never had a hope of matching the DS in raw sales, as it arrived after the landscape for on-the-go gaming had changed irreversibly. In fact, its mere survival borders on extraordinary, as there are hundreds of millions of smartphones and tablet devices in the world, grabbing much of that Touch Generation and programming the expectations of consumers to expect quick five-minute diversions for free or for the cost of a candy bar. The DS faced none of that while it made hay in particularly bright sunshine.
It's also easy for us all, as dedicated and enthusiastic gamers, to expect a great deal and overlook some of the innovations that the 3DS has brought us. When considering generational leaps in hardware, the 3DS did provide a jump in graphics, yes, but it's in every other area that we take for granted that the little system was and still is a huge leap in portable Nintendo systems. Considering its predecessors were DS and Wii, which were both overly-simple in multiple ways, and that Wii U was still on the way, we should remember just how significant these changes were.
Changing how we interact with Nintendo hardware
Of course, the 3DS took time to gather steam. In fact, it was a bit of a bare shell at launch, which somewhat typified what was a problematic early life for the system. The launch line-up delivered some nice experiences — with titles such as Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition showing graphical grunt — but not even the 3DS eShop was there on day one. One of the new ideas to play with was AR (augmented reality) which, in truth, has proven to be fairly gimmicky and underused. Face Raiders was a fun launch app as well, and at least showed off the motion controls on the system that, while not used a great deal, can be neat under limited circumstances.
It's enlightening to think back to those days and look at the modern-day system. The first 6-9 months were a painful run of abysmal sales and an underwhelming eShop, but let's just consider the features we have (from day one and through its evolution) that were inconceivable or excessively limited on DS.
Glasses-free 3D — In an early draft of this article we didn't even mention glasses-free autostereoscopic visuals. Representative of the dark early days of poor sales, the feature didn't capture the public imagination, and we certainly know plenty of gamers that don't even use the effect. This writer plays everything in 3D all of the time, and let's not forget the wow-factor and black-magic wonder that the top screen prompted for many when the system launched. It's rad, just not vital to the system.
StreetPass — This was a day one innovation, allowing those that pass in the street to exchange puzzle pieces, play mini-games and exchange game data. There are dozens of regional groups that meet regularly under the guise of this feature, bringing gamers together, while optional paid extras add even more depth.
SpotPass — Not extensively used by Nintendo, but still a neat feature that allows information to be shared and extras to be sent via the web.
Miiverse — A recent addition, along with Nintendo Network IDs, that brings Nintendo's bespoke social network to the portable. It's possible to post messages and screenshots and follow others.
eShop — This is the most notable area of substantial improvement over its predecessor, which also laid the groundwork for the Wii U's store. The quality and diversity of download titles on the store includes some light experiences, for which DSiWare was best known, but also far more involved, detailed games.
The eShop has changed the game in multiple ways, however, in combination with the solid Nintendo Network infrastructure. August 2012 brought us New Super Mario Bros. 2 as a retail download, a new venture for Nintendo that has now become standard for all first-party games and a number of third-party publications. Although the system-based account system isn't optimal, cheap memory expansion through SD cards has made digital retail gamers of some. That first retail download title also included paid-DLC, an idea that's since expanded in subsequent releases as Nintendo gradually ups-the-ante in that area.
The eShop has also made demos a little more common, but its most significant enhancement over the DSi Shop is its dynamism. Sales and discounts are now common, videos and trailers are regularly uploaded, and Nintendo has started to explore free-to-play ideas just recently through Steel Diver: Sub Wars.
Finally, let's not forget the Virtual Console. It should be better, and some will wonder why Game Boy Advance is coming to the Wii U but not 3DS at present. Yet gamers have enjoyed a variety of titles from Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Gear and NES on the go, without resorting to ROMs and iffy touch screen controls. The 3DS has brought us the first handheld Virtual Console, and so deserves kudos.
Proving the ongoing value of portable-only games
The greatest achievement of the 3DS to date is achieving over 40 million sales and convincing those consumers that a smartphone alone is simply not enough. We may have one free-to-play game available with tentative further steps on the way, but Nintendo, retail publishers and download developers have nevertheless sold impressive quantities of games.
While the DS, over its many years on the market, accumulated an impressive collection of retail games, the 3DS has certainly begun to developer a core of exceptional titles of its own. Committed gamers may well point to titles such as Fire Emblem: Awakening as standouts, though Nintendo has arguably defied the odds in releasing a number of games that have enraptured a sizeable, mainstream audience, persuading millions to invest in full price games. Examples such as Mario Kart 7, Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Pokémon X & Y have sold millions each and succeeded in gaining the praise of dedicated gamers and those that are less experienced. X & Y was no surprise, but New Leaf demonstrated that Nintendo can still create premium experiences to generate buzz in this social media era, with image sharing tools contributing to that success. We're barely scratching the surface, with The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds the latest award winning title to achieve impressive sales and critical acclaim.
Outside of retail, the eShop has also maintained a certain sense of value to its download-only offerings. An era of games being free or costing pennies / cents hasn't arrived, and the steady stream of new releases show that developers have found it a worthwhile platform. The pricing flexibility outlined above has also helped developers, and it's clear that it's been a platform with greater accessibility and options for small businesses.
Winning a market share against the odds
As we celebrate three years of the 3DS, and consider some of its advancements and features to date, we should conclude by simply reiterating that its mere survival is an achievement. It's taken multiple models — the XL and 2DS joining the original — and a drastic year one price cut to help, but the system has thrived in a market area some said no longer existed in 2011. The troubles of the PS Vita, and recent efforts by Sony to ally it with the strong-selling PS4, show how difficult it is to launch a dedicated portable gaming machine and survive when the vast majority of people have such a device in their pocket all of the time. There was certainly credence to those that predicted doom in 2011, with arguments that physical buttons and retail prices wouldn't work in an era of Angry Birds.
Yet here we are, with the 3DS and its exceptional games topping multiple charts in 2013. Its challenges will only become tougher this year and beyond, but there's a sizeable userbase that have invested already. Nintendo, with its 3DS / 2DS family, has carved its own space in the market; we all benefit as a result.