The New Nintendo 3DS arrives this week, which is exciting news for eager portable games for a number of reasons. It's very much 3DS version 1.5, so the upgrade is down to the accumulation of a variety of relatively small improvements as opposed to a generational leap. It's standard Nintendo practice to release an updated iteration of portable hardware in the latter half of a generation's lifespan, after all, so it's hardly a surprising progression..
What does help distinguish the New models from previous revisions and upgrades - even the DSi in the last generation - is the degree to which it brings Nintendo's home console and portable lines closer together. There are technological reasons behind the fact that the New 3DS and Wii U are still miles apart, but its very concept shows that Nintendo's got an eye on increasing integration between its systems, and it's perhaps a pointer towards what could come in future hardware generations.
First of all, the key functionality and control inputs of the New Nintendo 3DS bring it largely in line with the Wii U and GamePad. The C-Stick brings a degree of second analogue control, albeit of a different nature from a standard Circle Pad or analogue stick. We also have extra shoulder buttons to bring the full contingent of buttons - even if they're hardly used at this stage - and also NFC. The ability to scan amiibo on the touch screen gives that range a load of new possibilities and compatible games, and it's not hard to see the identical logo design for amiibo and the New 3DS hardware.
The quicker CPU plays its part, too - it speeds up the general interface and downloads from the eShop, improves performance in a small number of titles, and no doubt keeps busy running the face-tracking stable 3D effect. It's also, lest we forget, made one New Nintendo 3DS exclusive possible to date - Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. A huge RPG that proved popular on Wii and arriving ahead of Xenoblade Chronicles X on Wii U, it's certainly a home console level of game coming to the small screen, despite the 3DS - and its many predecessors - forging a notable part of their identity on unique portable experiences. In terms of sheer scale, a Nintendo portable won't have seen many more sizeable games.
Of course, in some form all but the improved CPU and 3D are available on the original 3DS systems, either with a Circle Pad Pro or - in the future - an amiibo scanning accessory. When you factor in the combined Nintendo Network IDs, eShop funds and Miiverse access across 3DS and Wii U we start to have a more cohesive relationship across our Nintendo hardware. This is further evident in the striking similarities - in terms of character animations and mechanics - across both Super Smash Bros., releases, and some occasional instances of cross-platform games: Mario vs Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars will follow the lead set by some indie developers in being a cross-buy title. Let's not forget cross-platform multiplayer with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, too, all of which demonstrates that - slowly but surely - the lines are blurring.
Behind the scenes this has clearly been a priority for some time, too, with Nintendo building a new HQ and merging its portable and home console development teams over the past few years. These comments from Satoru Iwata in early 2014 also highlight some of Nintendo's thinking in relation to easing the challenges of developing games for diverse systems.
I am not sure if the form factor (the size and configuration of the hardware) will be integrated. In contrast, the number of form factors might increase. Currently, we can only provide two form factors because if we had three or four different architectures, we would face serious shortages of software on every platform. To cite a specific case, Apple is able to release smart devices with various form factors one after another because there is one way of programming adopted by all platforms. Apple has a common platform called iOS. Another example is Android. Though there are various models, Android does not face software shortages because there is one common way of programming on the Android platform that works with various models.
The point is, Nintendo platforms should be like those two examples. Whether we will ultimately need just one device will be determined by what consumers demand in the future, and that is not something we know at the moment. However, we are hoping to change and correct the situation in which we develop games for different platforms individually and sometimes disappoint consumers with game shortages as we attempt to move from one platform to another, and we believe that we will be able to deliver tangible results in the future.
All of these circumstances prompt speculation, naturally, but it's certainly reasonable to consider a next generation of hardware that shapes up rather differently from any we've seen before. Prior to the 3DS / Wii U we had occasional but very limited interactions between Nintendo's portable and home consoles, but the market and technology have evolved a great deal since those bygone eras.
With the Wii U's struggles to truly latch onto the market, and the 3DS being extended through the New models for - let's guess here - around 18-24 months, there's potential overlap for new hardware to have an unparalleled level of integration. When we've chatted amongst ourselves in Nintendo Life HQ we've often wondered whether a dual screen portable of pretty reasonable power could match up with a separate TV-based console, with the portable and home console naturally syncing and sharing data and, in plenty of cases, games and save progress.
We certainly expect that Nintendo is strongly considering a hardware future with a number of shared games, utilising graphical engines - and similar architectures in portable and home hardware - to scale games so that they run on both systems. We've cited a few examples where - arguably against the odds - this has already happened, and it's something that's been seen in the Indie scene (particularly) between the Vita / PS3 / PS4. If Nintendo's going to stick to its own approach and stay out of the graphical arms race, and hope to attract third-parties with innovation and a hit product rather than through systems with oodles of available RAM or cores in the processor, then it could be a viable way forward.
Whether Nintendo fully merges hardware so that the idea of a portable and home console as separate entities is finished is far more debatable - as Satoru Iwata himself has made clear - but there's an inevitability to Nintendo simplifying its systems and removing roadblocks in game development for itself and partners. The demands of producing two distinct ranges of games in disparate hardware have evidently been particularly challenge for Nintendo, and while that may be considered a positive by enthusiastic fans - more diversity across the platforms - its increasingly less sustainable for the company. Despite the 3DS having a strong 3.5 or so years (after a poor launch window) the company has recorded a number of financial losses courtesy of the Wii U's struggles, among other factors. Streamlining its development requirements would arguably allow Nintendo to produce more games with less drain in terms of cost, time and resources.
As the 3DS platform has evolved - culminating in the New Nintendo 3DS - and as the Nintendo Network ID has taken shape, we're seeing early, tentative steps in taking away boundaries between our portable and home console gaming. We'll control games the same way, potentially, we already share eShop funds, and we'll also use amiibo on both systems.
If Nintendo reduces or removes the gulf in technology in future generations, it'll be able to build on the stepping stones that the 3DS, Wii U and New Nintendo 3DS have laid down. It'll be fascinating to see what it does next.