Talking Point: What We Want To See From Nintendo's Next Handheld
Posted by Damien McFerran
The 3DS is now more than three years old, which — if tradition is to be followed — places it roughly halfway through its effective life span as Nintendo's main handheld system. It's almost certainly the next piece of hardware that Nintendo will seek to replace, and given the (quickly quashed) rumours of new hardware swirling around this year's E3, it got us thinking about what we want from the next portable console to come out of the company's Kyoto labs.
Nintendo has been a market leader in the handheld sector for decades, kicking off its dominance with the Game & Watch line before unleashing the seminal Game Boy on the unsuspecting masses at the close of the '80s. The Game Boy line has since been retired and its successor — the Nintendo DS — is officially the most commercially successful handheld games console of all time with over 150 million units sold. The 3DS started badly but has since turned into something of a triumph, although it now faces stiff competition from smartphones and tablets which many experts argue have stolen a considerable portion of Nintendo's market share in this sector.
Taking all of this into account, Nintendo's next handheld is going to be a pivotal release in the history of the company. It needs to create a system which proves once and for all that dedicated hardware is the only real option when it comes to playing the best games on the move — smartphones and tablets are not implicitly designed for gaming, despite their amazing level of popularity. It also needs to ensure that any new system builds on the things which have made the 3DS so great: a robust design, the best pocket-sized games money can buy, easily expandable storage and addictive StreetPass connectivity to encourage people to take their consoles with them everywhere.
Below we list the key areas we think Nintendo needs to focus on with any new handheld it produces — please note that none of this is based on inside information or rumours, but instead is just our personal thoughts on the subject.
It's time to ditch the gimmicks
The 3DS was revealed at a time when 3D tech was very much in fashion — 3D televisions were making big waves and 3D movies were giving people a new way to experience entertainment. The console's ability to generate such images without the need for glasses was a revelation (even if Nintendo was found to have "borrowed" the idea from elsewhere) and it was the ideal hook to get new buyers interested.
However, as time has passed 3D has become less and less essential. When used correctly it can make some games look amazing, but the fact that Nintendo has ignored it for some key releases (Pokémon X & Y made little use of the effect) speaks volumes; then there's the release of the 2DS to consider, which is about as close to an admission of failure from Nintendo as you're ever going to get. Auto-stereoscopic 3D is a neat trick, but we can't see it being included in the next Nintendo handheld, even if backwards compatibility with 3DS software is included. As the 2DS has illustrated, the effect simply isn't required to enjoy 3DS games.
Physical media = RIP
We're not sure about you, but here at Nintendo Life we're beginning to grow tired of having to carry around multiple 3DS game cards, despite them being tiny and perfectly pocket-sized. Nintendo has given the 3DS eShop a real push of late and the fact that you can easily (and cheaply) upgrade the console's SD card means that it's possible to download plenty of titles and access them without having to fumble for physical cartridges. It's the ideal situation for portable players.
Taking this into account — as well as the digital revolution that has occurred on smartphones and tablets — there's a very good chance that Nintendo's next handheld system will abandon physical media entirely. Think of it logically; game cards are a throwback to the days when internal storage and online distribution simply weren't technically feasible — there's no real justification in having to buy physical games on a handheld anymore, especially when it goes against the principles of such a device: mobility and ease of use.
While the collectors among us will no doubt lament the passing of physical games, it's an inevitable future and one that is already happening in the PC and mobile sectors of the gaming market. By removing the need for such media Nintendo will be able to reduce the cost of any new system (no physical delivery method means no need for a cartridge slot) and internal memory is so cheap these days that throwing in 16 or 32GB of internal storage won't break the bank — keeping the SD card slot would also be a fine idea.
Playing the graphical arms race
Nintendo has a history of ignoring the need to create powerful hardware just for the sake of it — both the DS and 3DS have triumphed over technically superior systems, and the original Game Boy was viewed by some as a relic when compared to the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx — both of which boasted illuminated colour displays. As we all know, the Game Boy overcame its limitations to destroy the competition, but there's only so many times that Nintendo can play this particular card.
The 3DS was arguably outgunned in terms of raw specifications the day it was launched, and is aging badly when compared to the latest smartphones and tablets. Realistically, there's no way Nintendo can maintain parity with such challengers — phones and tablets are refreshed on a yearly basis, while handheld consoles have a life cycle which is almost five times longer. However, the rapid nature of hardware development made in the mobile sector could ironically benefit Nintendo with its next portable; the high demand for fast, mobile chipsets has reduced the cost of such components, and companies such as Nvidia and Qualcomm, both of which have honed their talents on a seemingly endless production line of Android phones and slates — would no doubt be more than happy to supply Nintendo with the internals for any new portable system it creates.
Of course, Nintendo using smartphone-style chips won't allow it to avoid being outdated after a year or two, but it will mean that the company can be on level terms to begin with, without having to overcharge for the console on day one (it already made that mistake with the 3DS).
Touch and go
Back when the original DS hit the market, the notion of a gaming touchscreen was a real eye-opener. It changed forever how people interacted with games and arguably paved the way for devices like the iPhone and iPad. However, Nintendo has been left behind in this regard by its insistence on using cheap but primitive resistive screens in its products.
Resistive screens are, as the name suggests, based on the concept of pressure. You have to push a finger or stylus onto the screen to register an input, and the display can only track one point of input at a time. Resistive screens are also prone to damage, given the malleable nature of their surfaces. Over time they lose their accuracy, and if dust or dirt collects around the edges of the screen (a common problem on the DS Lite) then some parts of the display become unresponsive.
Pretty much every other touchscreen device on the face of the planet right now has moved onto the far superior capacitive tech. These screens don't require pressure to function and can detect multiple points of input — which allows for multi-touch gestures, such as the famous "pinch zoom" command you see on many phones and tablets. While many critics will point out that a resistive screen with a stylus is more precise than a capacitive screen with a finger, many hardware makers have produced pens which can be used on such displays — Samsung's Galaxy Note range comes with the popular S-Pen, for example.
Therefore, Nintendo really has no good reason to avoid using capacitive tech in its next system, aside from keeping the price down. In fact, it really should have employed such a panel in the Wii U GamePad — but that's a discussion for another day.
Connection is the key
The success of StreetPass on the 3DS — and the abject failure of Sony's PS Vita rival Near — shows just how well Nintendo understands the habits of gamers. StreetPass is ingenious; it rewards people for carrying their console around with them, and by doing so ensures that when they want to indulge in some gaming on the go, they will pull out their dedicated gaming system instead of playing on their phone.
StreetPass is one element which Nintendo absolutely needs to enhance in its next portable console, and it needs to make the experience even more "sticky" so that people maintain their connection with StreetPass for even longer. Collectable items and puzzles are all well and good — and the additional StreetPass games were a masterstroke — but gamers will expect something more advanced in future hardware.
Connectivity also extends to how Nintendo's future systems interact with the web, as well as the various social media accounts which drive so many people online. Like it or not, portals such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ carry considerable clout with casual technology users, and the ability to share content with these services can make or break new systems — especially mobile ones, which are in your pocket at all times. Games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf and the forthcoming Tomodachi Life understand this to a degree and allow you to share images online, but it's an incredibly cumbersome process which needs some serious streamlining in the future.
Finally, there's the thorny issue of Nintendo Network IDs. Nintendo has taken steps recently to unify accounts so now your eShop credit balance is shared between your 3DS and your Wii U. That still doesn't go far enough for us — there should be a system in place which allows you to migrate your account (along with purchases and other data) to another machine with the minimum of effort. The system transfer as it exists now is all well and good, but it's hardly an elegant solution.
We also want to see an end to the Nintendo's strategy of making its customers pay for the same game several times over. When we've purchased Super Mario Bros. on the Wii and 3DS already, we really shouldn't have to shell out again to play it on the Wii U. It's the same game, and because we're buying it from the same retailer each time (and in the case of the 3DS and Wii U, using the same Nintendo Network ID), a system should be in place which knows we have already bought it and allow us to download it to our other systems free of charge. This notion of "cross buy" already exists on Sony's consoles, and if you have an Android or iOS device you'll be well aware of the fact that you can access your past purchases on any phone or tablet you sign into. This is now the norm, and Nintendo needs to make sure it gets up to speed with its next handheld.
The price needs to be right
The arrival of the iPad has changed the gaming industry, whether we like it or not. It occupies the top end of the price spectrum and is much more expensive than any handheld games console will ever be, but it's still one of the biggest rivals to both Sony and Nintendo. The reason is simple: buyers see an iPad and are sold on the possibilities it offers; it can play games, movies, music, surf the web, show newspapers and magazines, store books, display photos and even function as a PC of sorts. Although the average iPad owner probably uses their device for only a couple of those things, the fact that it offers so much is what tempts them to part with their cash in the first place — and once they've done that, it's harder than ever to convince them that they need another piece of hardware just to play games.
While the 3DS is capable of doing much more than just play games, Nintendo needs to position it's next machine properly in order to fight back against a generation of buyers hooked on their tablets. The pricing of the 3DS was a disaster, forcing the company to quickly reduce the price. Any new device needs to get the cost right from day one; Nintendo's famous reluctance to sell hardware at a loss may have to be put to one side. More so now than ever before, market penetration is all about how many units of hardware you can sell, and Nintendo no longer has the handheld entertainment sector all to itself.
The cost of the machine isn't the only thing that needs to drop. While the vast majority of smartphone and tablet games can't hope to compete with the cream of the 3DS library, the price difference between the two is remarkable. It's little wonder that games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga can become so successful when the barrier to entry is practically non-existent; free-to-play gaming might be frowned upon by most seasoned players, but for throwaway portable gaming, it's a surprisingly successful method of distribution.
Nintendo is obviously aware of this, as its experiments with Steel Diver: Sub Wars and Rusty's Real Deal Baseball attest. If it does take the digital-only method with its next machine, Nintendo will have to look at reducing the cost of software to ensure some degree of parity is maintained with the rest of the market. Premium iPad and iPhone games often sell for prices which aren't far off the cost of top-line eShop downloads, so there's clearly a middle ground that can be hit here. By taking physical distribution out of the equation — and the additional costs which come with it, such as packaging and logistics — Nintendo should be able to achieve this.
Don't go changing
Nintendo may need to do a lot with its next handheld, but there's just as much we'd like to see remain the same. The clamshell design of the DS and 3DS is arguably one of the reasons why such machines have been so incredible popular; there's a physiological advantage to having a console which protects its delicate screens when not in use. Compared to the scratch-prone PSP and PS Vita, Nintendo's handhelds feel like they can cope with anything — and that's an important quality to have in a mobile device. You're more likely to take it out of the house with you if you know it can withstand the often demanding rigours of the road.
We've also grown fond of that iconic dual-screen display over the years, despite the fact that many developers don't use the setup to anywhere near its full potential. Having two screens means you can display more information and consequently makes everything from viewing a map to arranging your inventory much easier. Developers such as Phil Fish may question the need for such a configuration, but we'd like to see Nintendo stick with it.
So that's our thoughts on what Nintendo's next handheld should (and shouldn't) do. What are your hopes for the system? Do you want Nintendo to tear up the rulebook again and come up with something revolutionary, or are you happy with an evolution of the 3DS? Perhaps you think it's time for the company to resurrect the iconic Game Boy line for a new generation? Or perhaps the future lies in a system which unites both the home and portable formats in a single hardware platform? You know what to do — leave a comment to tell us what you think.