For many Nintendo gamers, we suspect, the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2 looms large as the highlight of the next gaming month. Even if the game doesn’t innovate the plumber’s series in any major way, the purchasing options do just that. For 3DS owners it’ll no longer be a case of simply picking up a boxed game cart from a retailer, but there’ll be buying options with download codes or a direct download from the 3DS eShop. The latter option will be an important first for the eShop, and its front page will show a full retail option alongside cheaper downloads for the first time.

It’s another sign of progress for the online store, which has undergone a redesign and a number of small but notable improvements since launch. It’s also seen an expanding and increasingly impressive library of titles, even if there is the usual glut of mediocre disposable titles included. Nintendo, of course, has been at the vanguard, introducing quality titles and new IPs in the process: Pullblox – Pushmo in North America, Dillon’s Rolling Western and Freakyforms: Your Creations, Alive! have all arrived and currently occupy top 10 places on the eShop 3DS Download chart, with the latter now prompting a retail follow-up. That’s undoubtedly positive, and with some excellent third-party offerings — as well as the DSiWare library – the eShop is in relatively strong health.

In light of Nintendo’s competition in the handheld space, however, a decent performance for the eShop is the bare minimum requirement. 3DS may be enjoying reasonable sales at the moment – exceptional in Japan, if not elsewhere – but it faces a continuing challenge to convince gamers of all types, not just loyal and dedicated fans, that the system offers unique, must-have entertainment. Retail games will continue to play an important role in that, as Nintendo sticks with a business model that works best for its consoles — despite naysayers who believe otherwise — but perhaps even more can be done to drive 3DS owners into the eShop, boosting their play-time and enjoyment of the handheld while making the store an indispensable and a big attraction for developers.

Two iOS/Android smash hits and a Mario spin-off are the top DSiWare titles, which gives an indication of what gamers want from the service.

The obvious answer is to bring Nintendo’s big-guns to the platform. If you look at the top three best selling DSiWare titles – according to the eShop chart – then you’ll find Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! in third place, trailing behind multi-platform behemoths Cut the Rope and Plants vs Zombies (which is 10th in the overall eShop chart), the first and last on that list also released, in some form, as a DS retail game. Two iOS/Android smash hits and a Mario spin-off are the top DSiWare titles, which gives an indication of what gamers want from the service: quick and fun games often found on smartphones and tablets, and a title featuring Nintendo’s most famous mascot.

The eShop and 3DS capabilities means that Nintendo can now provide a broad range of content on the service, even moving beyond the conventional standalone games we've seen so far; taking lessons from DSiWare but expanding into new possibilities. With Mario's latest soon to arrive as the most expensive and substantial game on eShop, perhaps Nintendo should prepare two types of future DLC. We already know that it plans to bring us more ‘Coin Rush’ levels as DLC, but what if the same young team of developers behind the title also produced a couple of additional worlds, or about 16 levels? These two worlds could be available as retail add-ons, but also as a stand-alone download for around £6/$8. Similar content could be devised for other titles such as Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, with extra levels and courses that could be downloaded either as updates or standalone games. As more retail titles, both first and third party, arrive on eShop, these smaller games can attract gamers to take the full-priced plunge.

Of course, the danger of that idea is that we see unscrupulous DLC business practices, with developers giving less and less content with a full game only to release extras for more money at a later date. An alternative answer is that we see more spin-off or retro-themed titles of major franchises at an affordable download price. Long neglected franchises could make a comeback as download titles, lowering the development cost and giving desperate fans a much-needed fix. F-Zero and Star Fox spring to mind, as both have been absent for long spells or wheeled out as a Nintendo 64 remake. Perhaps an old-school side-scrolling Metroid Fusion, or frankly any handheld title in that series, could also make an appearance, and the success of Mighty Switch Force! and Mutant Mudds shows that gamers have an appetite for stereoscopic pixel-based 2D titles. If Nintendo is unsure about whether either would make a splash as a full-blown retail title, there’s a chance to test the waters, give more of its developers big-name experience and promote the eShop as a high-quality platform.

How likely is it that we’ll see these ideas come to fruition? We’d argue that they’re all possible, especially if Nintendo is as keen as it says to maximise profits through download software and the eShop: while the first-party games would hog attention, gamers simply being in the eShop regularly boosts all developers. Hard-nosed business aside, we suspect many Nintendo fans would rather see smaller, bite sized downloads of much loved franchises than nothing at all, as the pressures of retail development only get harder. When New Super Mario Bros. 2 appeared in the Japanese eShop Nintendo’s servers struggled with demand: we’re sure that if Mario and friends appeared on the digital store at less than $10, new servers would definitely be needed.