3DS: One Year On

Notes from the Mushroom Kingdom

It’s hard to believe it but the 3DS is one year old. 12 months have passed since Nintendo’s successor to the immensely popular DS line of systems hit store shelves, but you would be forgiven for thinking that the time frame was very different. For day one adopters the system probably feels like an old friend by now – we know what it does and what makes it so special. Yet for anyone who bought the system around 6 months ago, I can only imagine the time has flown by, with countless great titles hitting stores throughout the second half of 2011.

It’s easy to think of the 3DS now as a fantastic system and one that continues to answer critics and prove that 3D was the right way for Nintendo to go, and let’s face it, it is, but for day one adopters the console’s impressive abilities weren’t realised for some time after launch, and many will remember months on end where the 3DS just sat and gathered dust as games appeared to just abandon the system. Ultimately we will look back on the rise of the 3DS is an important chapter in Nintendo’s recent history as it gives a big warning for the future: do not underestimate the importance of games.

Of course the system started its life as another one of Nintendo’s flashes of brilliance, and it’s unveiling at E3 2010 captures this feeling perfectly. The initial speculation regarding the system was that it was simply just another DS with a 3D gimmick thrown on, but early demos showed that the system performed far beyond that and actually had some unique traits. These would remain mostly hidden until launch, but despite many people’s reservations, the new additions worked brilliantly, with the gyro perhaps surprisingly being the most useful new feature of them all.

The launch of the new system was greeted with typical Nintendo fanfare, with huge demand for the system on day one. Generally speaking the reports were good from early adopters, and despite some misrepresentation in the media, the system appeared to be going from strength to strength. The first month sales suggested that Nintendo had perhaps over-priced the system a little as they missed their 5 million worldwide sales target, but with a strong games line-up en route, many were confident that sales would pick up. Only they didn’t.

A weak launch line-up, which notably did not feature any of Nintendo’s major IPs, coupled with almost two months of minor releases sent 3DS sales into a nosedive, almost entirely eradicating Nintendo’s great foundation work that had been laid a couple of months early. Rather than talking about the fantastic 3D effect or the AR cards, fans were discussing the lack of software and how the 3DS had sat in its cradle for a month. Face Raiders can only amuse you for so long it seems.

The problem wasn’t all down to software though; rather it was a cumulative effect of the system simply not being ready for its early launch. Along with a lack of quality software, the system itself was simply not ready – none of the online infrastructure was in place meaning early adopters not only had a lack of retail games to buy, but they also had no downloadable titles either. Or even a web browser. It is very hard to recommend a system with no software, and with nothing to show off the impressive power of the system, word of mouth began to falter.

There was also the economic viability of the 3DS itself, which was positioned at a somewhat expensive price-point. Five years ago it wouldn’t have been so bad, but in the current economic climate, the high price point sealed the 3DS’s early fate – no games and an expensive system ultimately mean poor sales, and the following month saw less than a million sales of the 3DS. Nintendo appeared to be in trouble.

While Satoru Iwata has many detractors thanks to his blue ocean strategy, he must be respected for the swift and decisive action he took with the 3DS. As soon as the scope of the problem became clear, Nintendo immediately took the decision to knock a big percentage off the 3DS’s price point, bringing it in line with the upper-end of the outgoing DS line, while appeasing early adopters with a very generous Ambassador Program. The change happened almost overnight. 3DS sales suddenly began to increase, and along with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, finally began to approach a stable rate.

Despite all this though, the software problem remained. While the time leading up to the price cut did allow Nintendo to finally get the online infrastructure in place, later bolstered by Letter Box (a.k.a. SwapNote) amongst others, the 3DS still had a fundamental lack of quality titles, with many big titles having been pushed back to 2012. Third parties did a good job to fill the void with Dead or Alive: Dimensions and Sonic Generations proving to be fun titles, but the 3DS still needed a system seller. And in November the answer to all the 3DS’s problems arrived.

It is often said of Nintendo that they rely too much on their franchises to sell systems, but quite frankly, it is a business model that works. The release and subsequent disappearance of Pilotwings Resort speaks volumes for this philosophy, as this relatively minor IP simply failed to sell systems. In November, Super Mario 3D Land hit stores and the 3DS suddenly became hard to find. It’s a simple fact of Nintendo’s business – Mario sells systems.

Paired with Mario Kart 7 just two weeks later, Super Mario 3D Land proved to be the adrenaline shot the 3DS needed, sending its sales higher than they had ever been before. Games that had been available for months suddenly saw their sales increase too, and armed with an ever growing library of both retail and downloadable titles, the 3DS finally surpassed the original DS. Advertising also played its part here, with Nintendo distinguishing clearly that this was a new system, not just a new DS – ironically this is something that will need to be established with the Wii U too.

2012 has seen the continued rise of the 3DS, and while the Christmas rush has gone, the system is still selling at a rapid rate. At one point last year many saw the PSVita as the nail in the 3DS’s already sealed coffin, but today it is fast becoming a footnote in the shadow of the 3DS’s success. Some of the big titles that were promised back in 2010 have also finally come good, with Metal Gear Solid 3D and perhaps most importantly of all, Kid Icarus: Uprising finally hitting stores. Kid Icarus: Uprising if nothing else is a fine example of why the 3DS is a worthwhile purchase for any gamer – it’s classic Nintendo creativity and scope in a handheld title.

It’s clear then that the past year has been rough for Nintendo and the 3DS. The initial surge failed to sustain a system that was simply released too early, but thanks to swift and decisive action from Nintendo, the system has since gone from strength to strength. A year ago everyone was talking about the lack of features and software on the 3DS and how the system was doomed to failure. Just twelve months on we have a very complete feature-set and a wide selection of software available, each making use of certain unique features of the 3DS.

But what of the next 12 months? The following year is arguably more important than the first, as Nintendo need to consolidate the fanbase and continue pushing out great games to the system. The issue here is of course Wii U, which could take a lot of the wind out of the 3DS’s sails. For that reason alone it is important for the system to have a good start to its second year, and in Kid Icarus: Uprising it has got just that. There are also a handful of confirmed titles on the radar, with Mario Tennis Open and Luigi’s Mansion 2 both still to come. And of course there’s the software on the 3DS itself – StreetPass continues to be a unique and addictive feature, and the AR software is beginning to receive some deserved attention to name just two.

As we have learnt this year though, big software titles are the key to the success of the 3DS, and while the immediate future is secure, the big question will come at E3 – does the 3DS have a killer line-up for the coming year ahead? We’ll get the answer in June.

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