The New Nintendo 3DS now has a release date for both North America and Europe, with 13th February no doubt circled on a number of calendars. It continues Nintendo's trend of sprucing up and revitalising a portable generation with a refreshed system, and there's certainly evidence and buzz to suggest that a good number of 3DS gamers are contemplating the upgrade.
As a piece of hardware it certainly delivers enough to justify the change - the stable 3D delivers an effect many would have loved since day one, the C-Stick makes the Circle Pad Pro a thing of the past, and we can expect amiibo and built-in NFC to be a focus. From Nintendo's perspective it's clever; it's a faster, more feature-rich and improved machine, but in terms of the manufacturing costs per unit we can't envisage any of the improved tech greatly reducing profit margins. It's no generational leap - which is fair enough, it's not branded as such - so should help Nintendo's financial reports look a little healthier come April.
Its timing, in terms of within this generation, also makes sense. We're now approaching the fourth year of the 3DS, and considering the fact that it wasn't technically cutting edge at release - though glasses-free 3D was relatively fresh - it's certainly been creaking a little. That's not to say Nintendo and notable third-parties aren't making games that both play well and are easy on the eyes, but a lot of the extras added since March 2011 have seen the system struggling to keep pace.
It now deals with Miiverse, HOME Themes and a few examples of titles utilising free-to-play or heavier online components; none of these are necessarily a big deal in themselves, but they add up. Games such as Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate are straining the hardware - Smash players can't go onto Miiverse while running the game, while both titles effectively reboot the console when they're closed. The quicker CPU on the new model not only contributes to making stable 3D a reality, but speeds up the general interface, eShop downloads and more. It's slicker and more satisfying to use, and one of those devices that - when tried out - makes it hard to go back to the originals.
That's all good stuff, but there have been aspects about this that have been frustrating. Let's start with the staggered release. It's possible that finalised design came too late for Nintendo to manufacture enough units for a worldwide roll-out, so this complaint should be taken with that potential proviso in mind. That aside, its arrival in Japan last October - then shortly afterwards in Australia / New Zealand - was naturally bemoaned in the West, especially as it meant an obvious Holiday treat was never even offered in Europe and North America. As it was announced in a Japan-only Nintendo Direct the company also adopted the play-it-dumb approach, plugging some 3DS XL bundles and new options for the Holiday season when, for those that follow the big N or actually look at the internet, it was obvious that waiting a few months for a New models would make more sense.
Did this affect hardware sales? It's hard to tell, though the existing models clearly didn't fly off shelves in the US, at least, with the latest NPD press release focusing on software sales - which were excellent - and ignoring hardware numbers and percentages entirely.
Some may point out that a similar release schedule happened with the DSi, which is completely fair. It's an apples and oranges comparison, however - the DS Lite was the runaway success of that generation, contribution nearly two thirds of the entire DS family's sales. Sales in general were higher, as the 3DS can rightfully be regarded as a success but, with the market being so different, can't hope to match the sales of the DS era. Also, Nintendo Direct broadcasts didn't exist in that time, while social networks and awareness of Nintendo ins-and-outs is arguably greater in the fanbase than in 2008 / 2009. This is the information age, so announcing a product in Japanese doesn't stop fans knowing about it.
So, the release split wasn't, in our view, ideal, but the biggest mis-step - and one we're still trying to figure out - is with the XL-only policy in North America. The standard New Nintendo 3DS is a rather different product to the XL, in that it offers an alternative design from its predecessor - the New XL feels very similar in the hand to the original XL - and has the extra allure of cover plates. As amiibo has shown, if you give Nintendo fans a chance to collect neat extras to enhance their systems they will - quite literally - empty store shelves. The 'kisekae' plates in Japan are dizzying in variety, with over a dozen on the way to Europe, and the option to change the look of your system at a low cost is rather attractive. It's simple - customise yourself with the smaller model, while there'll no doubt be a whole load of special edition XL options; we already have two special New XLs at launch. Within our UK office most of us are down-sizing to the smaller model, as it's a lovely design.
Statistically, the XL will likely outsell the smaller model in Europe as it has in Japan; that's fair enough. But the option matters, especially when there's easy money to be made on cover plate accessories. We're still baffled by Nintendo of America's decision, and can only hope - optimistically - that it's a stock issue, and that the smaller models will arrive Stateside in the coming months. Even that viewpoint is flawed, as surely Nintendo wouldn't delay such a product for one of its most valuable, vital markets.
If the decision was taken based on focus groups or sales data for the original smaller model then, again, we'd argued that's flawed thinking. The original 3DS carried a stigma of being a flop, as it was at launch - it was famously revived in Fall 2011 by a hefty price cut and some vital game releases in that year's Holiday season. The XL's arrival in 2012 truly took off, though, and it's been the dominant model; the small original is barely relevant at retail, with the XL running the show. The original 3DS was associated with failure and, certainly in this writer's opinion, was a bad design. Angular, uncomfortable to hold, the XL was a beacon of comfort and superior build quality; it was a no-brainer. The standard New Nintendo 3DS is an entirely different proposition, and deserves its chance to sit alongside the XL despite the larger model inevitably selling more units.
Unfortunately, this decision by Nintendo of America detracted somewhat from this week's release date announcement. It was left-field, and it's not often that such a big market will say "no thanks" to a product as attractive and full of sales potential as the smaller New 3DS. It'll baffle us until the end.
And so it's been a mixed route to the West for the New Nintendo 3DS. We're excited about it, and its arrival with The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate will generate a lot of buzz. Ultimately, all said and done, we're pretty hopeful that the allure of the New systems will lead to significant sales, providing the 3DS family with the boost it needs to extend its generation for another couple of years. Once they land we'll likely care less about these mishaps, in any case.
With the absence of the standard New Nintendo 3DS in North America, I asked our long-term reviewer and dedicated portable gamer in the US - Ron DelVillano - to contribute to this article. Below he gives his own reaction and sense of disappointment, but also his perspective of the reactions he saw on social media.
I've been a Nintendo fan my whole life. More than that, I grew up almost exclusively playing video games on portable Nintendo consoles. I don't know if it was the regular family road trips or the fact that I wasn't restricted to only playing games in one room of the house, but I've always been drawn to handhelds. As I grew older and was spending less time at home, portability became much more important to me. I would bring my consoles to work to squeeze in a few minutes of Minish Cap on my Game Boy Micro and I nearly failed out of more than one college course because I was preoccupied with planting the perfect crop layout in Harvest Moon DS. I've always been an early adopter of portable hardware and it should come as no surprise that I have been eagerly anticipating the release of the New 3DS in my territory.
Then the Nintendo Direct aired.
Nintendo of America made the announcement that it has decided to release the New Nintendo 3DS XL in North America, but there was absolutely no mention of the standard model. No mention of the model that provided extra portability and customizable faceplates. No mention of the model that is, for all intents and purpose, a handheld gamer's dream. NoA didn't confirm that I would never see the standard model, but the lack of a mention was alarming. In a word, I was heartbroken.
I'm not generally one to complain too publicly or too loudly, but Nintendo – a company that I have supported for as long as I can remember – really let me down. I couldn't imagine why the company would decide to release a console worldwide, then block North Americans access from enjoying the entire lineup. There was something that I wanted, but instead I was offered something else entirely. I spent a good amount of time on Wednesday stewing in frustration until it occurred to me: Nintendo doesn't owe me anything and I don't deserve anything from the company just for being a customer.
I have, without any semblance of a doubt, been a loyal fan of Nintendo. I own all of the consoles, I purchase most of the major first-party releases, and I have achieved Platinum status on Club Nintendo every year that the program has been available. I even write for a Nintendo-centric website, but none of that means that I deserve what I don't already have.
Don't get me wrong; I think it's fair to be frustrated and bothered by corporate decisions that ultimately affect what you can and cannot purchase, but don't think it's fair to act belittled or betrayed. This was obviously a strategic decision that Nintendo had to come to and I'm sure it wasn't an easy one to make. That being said, if you are living in North America and you do not want the New 3DS XL, then I encourage you not to purchase one. Show the company what you do and do not want through your support of their products, not by lashing out with petty attacks on social media. If I change my mind at some point and decide that I want a New 3DS XL then I'm going to buy one, but until that day, I'm one with the masses.