The New Nintendo 3DS is approaching its one year anniversary, yet today's financial results and official sales figures brought home a cold reality - the system is struggling. That, frankly, shouldn't be particularly surprising, and we'll take a look at the figures behind that claim along with our assessment of how the portable - which we still maintain is a lovely piece of gaming kit - has been stripped of its potential.
First, the figures - below is a summary that first highlights the current state of affairs, and then how it compares to recent years. All figures applicable up to 31st December 2015.
3DS 'family' Hardware Sales (old and New) - a downward trend
1st April to 31st December 2015 - 5.88 million units (4.23 million 'New 3DS' units)
Target for end of year (31st March 2016) - 7.6 million units
1st April to 31st December 2014 - 7.08 million units
End of year (31st March 2015) - 8.73 million units
For comparison: end of year (31st March 2014) - 12.24 million units
3DS Software Sales
1st April to 31st December 2015 - 38.87 million units
1st April to 31st December 2014 - 53.04 million units
New 3DS Hardware Sales
New Nintendo 3DS to date - 1.71 million units
New Nintendo 3DS XL to date - 5.79 million units
New Nintendo 3DS 'family' total sales - 7.5 million sales
New Nintendo 3DS to date - 990,000 units
New Nintendo 3DS XL to date - 2.74 million units
New Nintendo 3DS 'family' total sales - 3.73 million units
New Nintendo 3DS to date - 50,000 units
New Nintendo 3DS XL to date - 1.91 million units
New Nintendo 3DS 'family' total sales - 1.96 million units
New Nintendo 3DS to date - 670,000 units
New Nintendo 3DS XL to date - 1.14 million units
New Nintendo 3DS 'family' total sales - 1.81 million units
For further reference, sales of the 2DS - which was heavily promoted with bundles in the Holiday season - for 1st April to 31st December 2015 were 920,000 units in the Americas and Europe; the unit will only arrive in Japan for the first time with Pokémon bundles on 27th February.
While our goal is to tackle this major year for Nintendo with optimism, there's no escaping the problems the 3DS family now has, making Nintendo's claims that it's a long-term product ring a little hollow. From averaging 12-13 million sales a year in its pomp, the decline last year was bad enough, and now this current financial year sees a tough ask just to hit a target that's already a continuation of that downward trend. Hardware sales for the portable have been sliding quickly, and perhaps only a bump from Pokémon nostalgia with its gen-1 Virtual Console releases can push it up to its modest targets.
Yet the New Nintendo 3DS hasn't had much of a chance. It's a topic we covered recently - and we'll re-run some of those points - and it's a concerning situation. For example, let's take those geographical figures - the New 3DS has been reliant upon Japan to hit its modest figures (by 3DS family standards), with combined sales for the rest of the world just about keeping up with Nintendo's homeland. We admire the Media Create Japanese charts every week as the New 3DS LL (XL) runs riot and leads the way; it's just as well, as performance in the West is distinctly underwhelming.
It's not just hardware that's the issue either, as the software sales stat should be a stark warning - sales of 38.87 million 3DS games between 1st April and 31st December 2015 fall well short of the equivalent figures from the previous year, down a whopping 14.17 million game sales. The target (which isn't a guaranteed hit) for the end-of-year figure is 56 million units, which would be a fall from 62.74 million units in 2014/2015.
What's frustrating is that the New 3DS, in our view, simply hasn't had enough of an opportunity to spark the portable family back into life. For starters there was the odd situation of Nintendo of America only releasing the XL model at launch. In Japan the smaller model shifts about a third of the XL, while in PAL territories more than half of New 3DS purchases have been the smaller model. Nintendo of America would no doubt love to have a similar take up to bump its sales, but the pitiful 50,000 units are from a limited edition run, a trend that repeats soon with a Pokémon bundle. Not only are standard un-bundled models yet to arrive in North America, but Nintendo is losing other potential revenues from the models through cover plate sales. They're likely modest numbers for those accessories, perhaps, but it all helps.
Then we have the issue of incentivising people to pick up a New 3DS. The amiibo range was used as an initial temptation, which undoubtedly helped with some early adopters, but now the older models have the NFC portal. We were told of the faster CPU and how it boosted experiences, yet you could count on one hand (two at a stretch) how many games have used the extra power for improved performance. You could also count on one hand how many New 3DS-exclusive games there are - two: Xenoblade Chronicles 3D and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth.
Stable 3D, meanwhile, is fantastic in practice, but unfortunately the top screen's effect has always had a limited impact in promoting the hardware. Even download game fans have had to wait too long for benefits; Unity support for the system is only just rolling out to all developers, with some select studios having advance access. We're excited to see what Unity-developed games come to the eShop, but a year after the system's release is rather late in terms of working as much of a selling point, especially with momentum being low.
On top of the limited incentives to upgrade, the software line-up for the 3DS family as a whole simply hasn't cut it over the last 12 months in terms of commercial success. There have been some top-notch experiences, and some mediocre ones, but the software sales number highlighted above is a grim example of the lack of smash hits. As we've argued pretty much since E3 2015 there are some terrific recent releases and games still to come, yet the issue is finding one that'll achieve mainstream success. Fire Emblem Fates may emulate the success of its predecessor but doesn't even have a European release date at the time of writing; we're intrigued by Metroid Prime: Federation Force, but that's unlikely to soar either. Then there are a range of attractive RPG releases and also Hyrule Warriors Legends; yes, all exciting for dedicated fans, but there's a lack of a blockbuster there.
As an illustration of the struggle for Nintendo's 3DS games to make a global impact in 2015, the list of million sellers is notable - out of five portable titles in the list three were released in 2014 or earlier, and all sold less than Splatoon and Super Mario Maker despite the advantage of a userbase nearly five times bigger. Of course, surprises are sure to come for 2016's 3DS line-up, and a Pokémon main series entry would help, but the niggling sense is that Game Freak's next hit may be a project for Nintendo's next generation of hardware. Time will tell on that.
So what of the New Nintendo 3DS? As fans of the system it's disappointing to see the continuing slide in 3DS sales; a new hardware release has failed to stop the decline. In our aforementioned December article we asked what the role of the New 3DS was supposed to be. Is it there to extend the generation, or is it merely a stopgap? It's helped solidify the 3DS brand in Japan - if not quite lift it to previous heights - but it's struggled in the West. Its rarely being utilised and pushed in Nintendo's marketing, even when a title like Hyrule Warriors Legends looks to have a shoddy framerate on older models; couldn't that have been New 3DS exclusive?
The sad thing is that, if the current downward momentum isn't halted, by April 2017 the 3DS as a 'family' could be well down on momentum, especially if - and it's a big 'if' - the NX hardware has a portable aspect to potentially 'replace' it. As a result the New 3DS may be regarded in years to come less as an exciting extension of a generation - as the smaller DSi achieved - but rather more like the DSi XL - late to the party and superfluous. With the features it offers, the excellent ergonomic design and its overall capabilities, the New 3DS deserves a better fate than that.
It's not beyond Nintendo to reverse the trends and give the New 3DS a leg up in the West, through unannounced games and enticing bundles, but time is running out. The question is whether that revival is even on the cards, or whether a lovely system will scrape sales together for another 12 months and become a minor footnote in the company's illustrious handheld history.