Today (6th June) brings a notable landmark for fans of download games - the 3DS eShop has turned five years old. Five years with hundreds of game releases, most of them by CIRCLE Entertainment and EnjoyUp Games - we're joking, of course, but both of those publishers and more deserve a hat tip of appreciation. Five years in which the store brought Nintendo kicking and screaming into the free-to-play arena, and gave Nintendo fans legal ways to buy downloads for its classic portable titles. Five years that have included some truly wonderful games.
It's odd to look back on it now, but the eShop drifted onto the 3DS 2-3 months after the hardware arrived on the market. In what seemed like a rush to get launch sales into its annual financial results, Nintendo released the 3DS in late February (Japan) and late March (North America, PAL territories) without its download game store. It seemed strange at the time, especially for those that had become regulars on the Wii and DSiWare stores, as we twiddled our thumbs and awaited the major update that would deliver the eShop, which at that time was a shiny new brand.
Early days gave little clue to how prolific a platform it would become, either. There was understandable buzz as a number of Game Boy classics arrived on the portable's Virtual Console at launch, while Nintendo and a few partners also charmed us silly with some stylish early 3D Classics. As nice as these releases often were, however, there was the lingering sense that new games were desired, ideally some that weren't actually DSiWare releases that happened to also reside on the eShop.
Indie games - which later earned the name 'Nindie' - were very slow coming. Free apps like Pokédex 3D at least showed what the system could do, before Gameloft's Let's Golf! 3D seized the honour of being the first new eShop game on 28th July; it was alright, but not a hole-in-one. It would then be three months before the next download-only arrival from a third-party with Enjoy Gaming's Pyramids. As an indication of how peculiar these early months were the gap between those two Nindie releases brought us various VC and 3D Classics titles that included - and it still boggles the mind that it exists - 3D Classics: Urban Champion.
This ponderous beginning was likely due to Nintendo being rather slow to get development kits out to smaller studios, meaning that we had to wait while companies got to grips with the hardware. It would be late 2011 when the floodgates started to slowly open, with games like Zen Pinball 3D, Mighty Switch Force! and the Nintendo -published Pullblox / Pushmo. From then on a number of publishers and developers - old and new to Nintendo hardware - began to make their presence felt.
The game library began to rapidly expand with some terrific games (we'll be celebrating some of the best in the coming week), and the eShop has evolved a notable amount since those early days. The Virtual Console has expanded while still confusing some fans - technical issues probably explain why NES games are on the 3DS eShop, but not Game Boy Advance releases (these are on Wii U). The latest major change has been Super Nintendo games on the New Nintendo 3DS, giving owners of the latest models a slightly broader choice.
A lot of the improvements on the 3DS eShop are also easy to overlook now, but were vital when compared to its predecessors on Wii and DSi. The Nintendo Points system was ditched in favour of cash payments, meaning the time of bulk-buying points and having leftover credit became a thing of the past for those with a debit card. Pricing is also far more dynamic, and has evolved a little more since. WiiWare and DSiWare had prices that were effectively locked down and tiered, but the 3DS store gives publishers the opportunity to run temporary and permanent price-drops, and even offer games at very low prices.
DLC has also, gradually, become a bigger factor, though on the 3DS it's termed as 'add-on content' and uses a rather complex system; developers cannot add any new 'programming code' in add-on content, but only assets and resources - Image & Form explained this to us recently. As a result the 3DS eShop brought DLC into the fray, but in a typically weird way.
Free-to-play is also a factor that the 3DS eShop has embraced with enthusiasm, most tellingly in Nintendo-published titles but also in occasional third-party efforts such as IRONFALL Invasion. Baby steps, again, but important. The 3DS store was also eventually brought together - sort of - with the younger and flashier Wii U eShop, with one Nintendo Network ID able to share funds across both storefronts. There have even been a few notable cases of cross-buy support, with Mutant Mudds Super Challenge being a relatively recent beneficiary.
These all represent, in the broader scheme of things, small steps. It's worth acknowledging, however, how important it's been for Nintendo to slowly step back and open up its platform to small developers; the 3DS eShop was integral to starting that process. New policies were drawn up for the 3DS era, such as developers no longer requiring a 'secure office' address, in addition to far more forgiving file-size limitations, which had been troublesome factors on Wii and DSi. Nintendo had seen the sea-change in which independent developers held more power and choice in their platforms, and duly courted them with a more flexible, welcoming store.
By the time the Wii U eShop arrived in November 2012, the 3DS equivalent had established the foundations and successfully indicated to a number of small developers that Nintendo was open for business. Though the Wii U version - partly thanks to its more powerful hardware, more conventional approach to DLC and support for Unity - has a setup that's more modern and flexible, the portable store has had updates to enable it to stay relevant. It's also been a hotbed of experimentation in game styles and in areas such as the aforementioned free-to-play - or free-to-start - areas.
Though developer support is seemingly slowing down a little on the portable as it ages, it's attracted some lovely gaming experiences, from short-but-sweet budget titles to longer, more engrossing experiences. In some cases it's given small studios their first big hit, launching careers and making names of some incredibly talented individuals and teams. At times, through both new and Virtual Console games, the 3DS eShop has provided the purest essence of what it is to enjoy Nintendo games. After all, portables are so integral to the company's ongoing success and identity, and the eShop has given it an increasingly broad library.
We'll have more on the 3DS eShop, including celebrations of its finest games, in the days to come. But for now we'll end with a metaphorical raised glass - here's to the 3DS eShop, a pioneering platform that's given us five years of wonderful gaming.