Nintendo released new hardware in 2015. Yes, it really did. It can seem so long ago now, but the New Nintendo 3DS arrived in the West in February, having made its début in Japan and Australia in late 2014. We were rather excited about it here at Nintendo Life, too, landing as it did with both The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate alongside it in stores. Sure, both of those games work just fine on standard models, but were nevertheless enhanced by a quicker CPU, C-Stick and stable 3D viewing.
Though Xenoblade Chronicles 3D would arrive shortly after the hardware's release, it remains the only retail New 3DS exclusive. Though the range of 3DS games utilising amiibo has continued to grow relatively quickly, too, it's also true that the NFC portal brings older models up to speed.
Some games can point to improved framerates or control options on the New 3DS, but the numbers are modest, and it increasingly seems like Nintendo hasn't whole-heartedly pursued a long-term future for the New 3DS. Less a generation extending iteration, more a stopgap.
So what is the role of the New 3DS? As a concept it's perhaps been useful for Nintendo - it incorporates dual analogue controls (sort of), four shoulder buttons and integrated amiibo support. It has all of the the functionality of the Wii U GamePad and more besides, as a result being the first portable Nintendo system with such a substantial control- and feature-set. It's almost as if it's a warm up / test run for a portable component of NX, and we'll believe that's the case until Nintendo reveals the next generation in 2016.
Yet while Nintendo talks of the 3DS generation going strong and being around for 'years to come', it feels as if the system is on its home stretch, with anything between 12 and 24 months left as a big player at retail. Part of this relates to the capabilities of the portable family, most notably the ageing technology of the original systems. It's difficult to tell how much the New 3DS CPU can do due to the limited range of games that use it - Xenoblade Chronicles 3D was impressive, some games run at 60fps on New while being 30fps on original models, and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a rare eShop exclusive on the latest hardware.
So there's a clear boost, but any major upcoming release you'd care to name is coming to all models, so as a result the lumbering technology of the 2011 hardware is still being accommodated. We've said before that the 3DS was relatively weak, in terms of processing power, even at launch - its concept and fantastic library have masked that. Yet here at the end of 2015 that technology has aged even more, with developers having to work hard on art design to make titles pop; some recent 3DS games such as SteamWorld Heist and Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam (released in Europe) do look great, but we're simply reflecting on the realities of a world in which smartphones and tablets offer their own style of portable gaming with flashy visuals.
Nintendo, for its part, has been rather conservative in its approach with the New 3DS, even beyond the lack of exclusive titles. Though over five million units of the systems have been sold worldwide at last count, the latest models don't feel like they've been given a notable marketing push in the most recent Holiday season. They've been promoted, of course, but so have the older models.
Beyond that, we had the bizarre decision by Nintendo of America to only launch with the New 3DS XL in the territory, shunning the smaller model until it partially recanted and released an Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer bundle in the Fall season. There's no denying that the XL model is the bigger seller globally and in individual markets, yet not giving North American fans the choice still seems like a strange decision; even with that delayed NA release, 1.22 million smaller models have still been sold globally, with the more prominent XL selling 3.91 million units.
There's a lingering sense that the boat simply hasn't been pushed out with the New models. Xenoblade Chronicles 3D had fans dreaming of more Wii and GameCube remasters on the go, there's the C-Stick that goes largely ignored, and a stronger CPU that is rarely taxed. One area that has been utilised is the NFC scanner in the touch screen, as Nintendo takes every opportunity to promote the range of figures. At times it's almost counter-intuitive, as most will be unlikely to have amiibo with them on the road to scan for a power-up in Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, as one example. Nevertheless, when playing in the comfort of home there are a decent range of 3DS games using amiibo, with Happy Home Designer being notable for even pioneering a new range.
Heading into 2016, though, how big a role does New 3DS have to play? As a shiny piece of kit to take the 3DS generation into its home stretch it's arguably doing its job, yet the confirmed line-up of retail games are all compatible across systems old and new. We're still expecting the first batch of Unity-supported downloads to be announced relatively soon, however, so there should be some downloads to at least put the newer portable through its paces.
Ultimately, some eShop exclusives may be the only distinguishing content for the New Nintendo 3DS this year. We think that the added bells and whistles, along with improved 3D, make it one of Nintendo's finest portables in its illustrious history. It's just not been a game changer.