I'll kick off this article with an admission that will cause some to snort in derision and dismiss anything I ever say about Nintendo in the future; those that have seen my occasional forum posts or followed our Reddit AMA last year may already have an inkling into what's coming. The DSi was my first dedicated gaming handheld.
I've been a gamer my whole life, or about 25-26 out of 30 years of it, but until I was in my twenties (yikes!) they were all games on the TV or a monitor - my household always had a current gen home console in my formative years, but also a rocking PC; a top of the range PC cost a lot of money in the early to late '90s, too. My parents spent crazy amounts of money - when I look back now - on ZX Spectrum games, then Mega Drive / Genesis games, and certainly on PC games and hardware. There was lots of gaming, but portables were a luxury I never had. Then my brother bought a Nintendo 64 with the first pay cheque from his first job. Games mattered in the household.
Nevertheless, by all means break out the pitch forks, open that petition to have me sacked as editor of Nintendo Life, do what you need to do. I've spent the past 6-7 years playing catch up and tackling as many older portable experiences as I can, but I was particularly late to the party.
Yet my gaming life has changed since I discovered the joys of Nintendo portables, and with the New Nintendo 3DS my sentiment and devotion to handheld gaming is only getting stronger. I currently have (and enjoy) a Wii U, PS4 and a pretty powerful PC set up, accumulated both to scratch gaming itches and in an attempt to keep up with trends and the evolving gaming scene, but much of my spare time is still spent on the 3DS. I couldn't wait to buy the Ambassador 3DS in the UK when I was lucky enough to be included, just because I'd always wanted the smaller white model since the Japanese reveal and it meant I could have it early - I could have probably waited and traded in my red XL for a New model at a retailer, yet I can't bear to part with the older system. It's tucked away safely, in storage not out of neglect, but because I love the thing too much to give it away. It's the same feeling of dedication I remember having towards my favourite toys as a kid.
It's not just about hardware design, but there's a special connection, I feel, when you play a truly great game on a portable. I'm currently playing through The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D, and have earmarked Shantae and the Pirate's Curse as my next game. I could get WayForward's release on Wii U, but why on Earth would I do that? I much prefer playing games like that on my 3DS, and though I bought Shovel Knight for both Nintendo systems it's all about the portable version, with my save sitting incomplete on the HD console. If anything Yacht Club Games' brilliant title should be easier to play on a big screen, but the experience - to me - is more satisfying on a portable. There are occasions, to be balanced, where I'd rather play a certain game on Wii U - Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is brilliant, but if it was on the HD system with a better camera and online voice chat, it could well have been a 10 rather than a 9 in my review; market realities (especially in Japan) made that a portable game just like most of its predecessors; not, I suspect, a design choice.
Portable gaming, though, is still unique. I have family members that weren't big gamers absolutely fall in love with the DS and then 3DS, and it's Nintendo's design and expertise that helps deliver this. Everything feels geared towards fun gaming with its portables, and the titles served up are so often such a lovely match for the hardware. Every portable Nintendo's ever released has been comprised of technology that was out-of-date on arrival - in terms of power - yet the package works as a whole. It's frankly miraculous that the 3DS family has passed 50 million units in this climate, and that 9 million sales in a year is deemed a major disappointment - it may end as Nintendo's lowest-selling portable to date, but considering the odds it's been a triumph.
With the New model it's taken me no time at all to become enamoured with it, to carefully keep it clean and safely enclosed in its case on the go, and it's often my go-to system when weary and in need of a diversion. It's hardware that I've connected to, and it means something to me, even down to simple pleasures such as clearing out StreetPass hits. With home consoles and PC I don't really care one jot about the individual boxes I own, just the content on the hard drive - if those systems met an accident my only concern would be retrieving my download content, and I'd shed no tears over the box itself. The only exception is the Wind Waker GamePad I have, but it still doesn't command the same affection as my portable systems - if I broke or lost one of my portables it'd feel like a far greater loss.
Why is this? I think part of it is simply down to tactility and the personal nature of portable gaming. When you play a game on a TV or monitor it's open to the room, it's entertainment that's shared with anyone else in the vicinity. When you're playing a portable, 9 times out of 10 - aside from occasional local multiplayer - it's just you and the game, with the controls and screens perfectly in sync and drawing you in. The screens are smaller, headphones are often in, and it simply dominates our attention. A device like the 3DS is different from a phone, too, in that it's not receiving calls, flashing email notifications or any other form of distraction - it's just you and your game. Oh, and 3DS games are just downright better than smartphone titles - in my opinion - on the whole.
It's not just about integrated controls - like with my consoles, I have a lesser sense of attachment or loyalty to any of my console pads, retro or new. It's that inevitable intimacy of portable gaming that draws me in.
I know some of my fellow Nintendo Life writers have similar feelings, and also others that would say I'm talking utter nonsense. My instinct, though, is that millions of gamers have similar feelings about portable gaming, specifically Nintendo handhelds. They don't always know why, but a dedicated portable from Nintendo has that irresistible allure; it's that which gives me confidence for Nintendo's future in the portable space. Not only is it the biggest market in Japan, making the sector's role in the company's plans inevitable, but it seems to be the one area that never lets Nintendo down. Ignoring the Virtual Boy, every single Nintendo portable - helped by its power to iterate and sell new models within a generation - has outsold its equivalent big N home consoles; the numbers speak for themselves.
I'll end with a recent anecdote. My parents told me that they headed over to their local GAME here in the UK at midnight on 13th February for my Mum to pick up a New system, to try each out as they were still undecided on which model to get - lucky that they did, as stock (outside of pre-orders) was so low they'd have missed out later in the day. Another man was there, probably mid-20s, also eyeing up the New Nintendo 3DS without a pre-order. For the past number of years, he said, he'd mainly played games on Xbox 360 and PS3, and hadn't owned a Nintendo portable for a decade. Yet he simply felt the need to go back, to play 'fun' games on a Nintendo handheld; that's an audience that the big N can continue to win over again and again.
After a gap of a decade he went to a midnight launch and walked out with a New Nintendo 3DS XL and a copy of Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. That, I suggest, is the almost undefinable allure of Nintendo portable gaming.