It wasn't that long ago that we had a rather encouraging 3DS Nintendo Direct, even if the short term memory of some means it may as well have been a decade ago. The reaction to it was generally positive, a reward for the fact that Nintendo revealed some genuine surprises, including two ports of Wii U games and a new Pikmin game. We shared the opinion that the Direct established the role of the 3DS for 2017, catering to a userbase in the tens of millions and, potentially, winning over a decent number of late adopters.
Though most seemed pleased with Nintendo's efforts, two prevailing threads of comments were also common. There were the usual 'where is NX / reveal NX / we only care about NX' thoughts shared online, but frankly we're not getting into that right now. Some, rather reasonably, were also sharing the view that the 3DS Direct served as a death-knell for the Wii U. That's this writer's instinct too, though to be blunt the Wii U was largely dropped by Nintendo a good while ago, as we see in the limited number of big N games still coming to the system, and the fact it's projected to ship less than a million units this financial year.
Naturally there's an inclination to ask why Nintendo continues to invest effort into extending the 3DS lifespan while seemingly letting the Wii U quietly drift away; the answer's easy. It's all about the numbers.
First of all we have sales. The 3DS 'family' had hit 59.79 million sales as of 30th June, with five million being the latest estimate for units shipped this financial year. Granted, that's well short of the record-breaking DS, but it's still been Nintendo's success story in this generation and a vital product for scraping together modest profits. The Wii U has only managed 13.02 million units since November 2012, and is expected to ship 800,000 units this financial year. As a result, sadly, the Wii U simply doesn't have a userbase to drive substantial software sales - Mario Kart 8 leads on the home console with 7.7 million units sold (impressively well over half of the console's sales) which would only get it 8th place in the 3DS list. Granted the 3DS has had over 18 months extra time on the market, but by any metric its been far more successful than the Wii U.
Another factor is that the 3DS is still a relevant product at retail, with enough of a userbase and interest from the public to still have a decent presence in stores. The system's New 3DS XL model continues to lead in Japan, while 3DS titles still appear regularly in the UK charts, as one example in Europe.
Also of interest is that the handheld is enjoying a renaissance in the US, with factors such as a 2DS price drop and Pokémon GO buzz helping it along. It was the best-selling hardware in the country in July (with Monster Hunter Generations also doing quite well), and though it didn't hold top spot in August it maintained its positive momentum. Software sales for the likes of Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire were up year-on-year, and even Wii U software was 30% up. The 3DS hardware was the story, though - the family of systems was up 83% over the August 2015 figures, with the 2DS seeing a jump of 500%. A mix of new Nintendo Selects offerings (which may have also helped those Wii U sales), Pokémon hype, hardware bundles and the affordable 2DS (dropped to $79.99 in the US) have the portable gaining momentum in some territories, or doing reasonably well elsewhere.
It's pleasing to see, and also shows how games and capturing an audience are more important than a system's technological prowess or power. In a recent talking point we wrote about Nintendo battling for gamer time as well as loyalty, and one way it can win that battle is through unique game libraries aligned to affordable, popular systems. The 3DS is proof of this - its games may pump out modest visuals, but they're often unique to the portable, high in gameplay quality and entertaining.
Another set of numbers that have likely encouraged Nintendo to keep the 3DS ticking into 2017 - and perhaps a little beyond - relate to development costs. The 3DS architecture is somewhat quirky and challenging, which helps to explain why (outside of a handful of Unity games on New 3DS) the portable's eShop is flooded with less 'Nindie' games than the Wii U on a weekly basis. Yet that's not a major issue for Nintendo and studios familiar with the handheld's infrastructure (obviously), and it doesn't pose the challenges of HD development that plagued the big N in the early Wii U days, for example. We've seen some excellent games turned around using established engines and resources, with same-gen sequels such as Fire Emblem Fates and Kirby: Planet Robobot. We'd also bet good money that bashing out a 2D Pikmin for 3DS is far less resource-intensive than the process was for producing Pikmin 3. Add in a couple of Wii U ports with Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS and Poochy and Yoshi's Woolly World, and Nintendo is finding quick wins.
Of course, the expectation is that Pokémon Sun and Moon will be a big hit in November and into 2017, while some further localisations (with Nintendo perhaps pitching in and helping with publishing) could bring some key third-party games to the West next year - examples could include Dragon Ball: Fusions, Lady Layton and Monster Hunter Stories. Beyond games, Nintendo also has some new limited editions and bundles out recently or on the way to tempt buyers in; there's still time for more of these to be announced, too.
Keeping the 3DS alive deep into 2017 makes sense from a broader business perspective, ultimately. The systems should be cheaper than ever to manufacture, the New 3DS and 2DS models can all be pitched as budget gaming devices at their own respective levels, and an audience that may not leap on NX on day one can be kept interested.
Overall, it's clear that the 3DS has life in it yet. It may be rocking ageing technology and lack the freshness it once had, but it's still evidently an important part of Nintendo's short to medium term future. As long term fans and defenders of the handheld, we're rather pleased that's the case.