Technology

Nintendo 3DS, 2011-2020: Its strange life, quiet death, and the potential end of a mobile gaming dynasty

Nintendo confirmed this week that it has discontinued production on all current models of the 3DS family of portable gaming systems, which ends the platform’s life cycle after nine years.

The 3DS is going out with a whimper. Nintendo has made no official announcements on the subject at time of writing; instead, Nintendo quietly adjusted its Japanese website at some point to note that all current models of the 3DS were no longer available. Nobody noticed the change until a few days ago, when the news broke via Japanese gaming Twitter. Nintendo of America, headquartered in Redmond, Wash., subsequently revised its website to remove all mention of the 3DS, aside from some support documentation. It’s all just gone now.

It’s a strange end to a strange ride for the 3DS, the latest and possibly last of Nintendo’s dedicated handheld gaming devices. Nintendo’s portable systems have been a cornerstone of the games industry for just over 30 years; of the top 10 best-selling consoles of all time, as of 2020, 2 of the top 3 are Nintendo portables. Several of Nintendo’s biggest franchises, such as Pokemon and Fire Emblem, either began on the portables or made a name for themselves there.

Starting in 1989, with the release of the original “gray brick” Game Boy, Nintendo had a nearly unbreakable hammerlock on the handheld gaming space. A few companies have tried to break into that end of the market over the years, but most of those competing systems, such as the Wonderswan or Neo Geo Pocket Color, are now historical footnotes.

Sega managed to pose a challenge to Nintendo in the 1990s with the Game Gear, a more powerful system that offered a full-color backlit screen, which homed in on one of the original Game Boy’s most notorious weak spots. The Game Gear’s short battery life and limited software library proved to be sticking points, but it was still a modest success. Its successor, the 16-bit Nomad, was doomed at debut by the infamously poor decision-making that was a Sega hallmark in the ’90s, as well as the North American debut of Pokemon Red and Blue on the Game Boy. It’s since developed a fanbase in the retro-gaming community, and is a prized find among collectors.

The strongest competitor Nintendo ever had was Sony’s PlayStation Portable, a flexible device that could play its own trademark optical discs. It premiered in 2004, and while its initial MSRP of $249.99 proved to be a stumbling block, it was immediately attractive to a tech-enthusiast crowd. Sony seemed to want to use the PSP to open a new front in film distribution, and offered an entire line of movies on Universal Media Disc (UMD) for play on the system. Gadget fiends also liked the PSP for the ease with which it could be hacked, which let players install custom firmware and use PSPs as portable, high-storage emulation or media platforms. The PSP would eventually be retired in 2014 after a successful run, selling 80 million units across its life cycle; its successor, the 2012 PlayStation Vita, attracted a small fervent fanbase, but couldn’t compete with the then-mature mobile gaming market and sold a fraction of what the PSP had.

Even when Nintendo seemed like it was totally adrift with its home consoles—for example, see the GameCube’s slow release schedule, or the consistent sales failure of all major third-party titles on the Wii—it always had its handhelds to keep the lights on. For a lot of its customers, Nintendo simply is handheld gaming… or rather, it was at one point.

The rise, further rise, sudden fall, and slow climb back up

What eventually began to chip away at Nintendo’s dominance wasn’t any one particular mistake by the company, but instead, was just the march of technology. As smartphones began to become a viable gaming platform in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it became less attractive to consumers to carry a second gadget with them just for the purpose of entertainment.

Even so, the Nintendo DS was still a massive hit in the 2000s. It had a unique dual-screen design—hence the acronymic name—with one typical monitor and one touchscreen with a stylus. There wasn’t anything else quite like it on the market, and it had a bumper crop of games that took advantage of the DS’s features to deliver experiences that weren’t available anywhere else.

Whether it was Nintendo’s own first-party titles, like Mario Kart DS and Pokemon Black and White, or strong third-party offerings such as Phoenix Wright and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, it was worth any enthusiast’s time to have a DS in the house.

The DS also saw the start of the Brain Age series from Nintendo, a collection of minigames that were designed by a Japanese neuroscientist to combat the effects of aging on the human brain. As with the Wii, this got a lot of DS systems into the hands of people who ordinarily wouldn’t have owned a gaming system at all.

Another strong casual hit was Shigeru Miyamoto’s Nintendogs, a simulator aimed at Japanese players who didn’t have the living space for their own pets, which offered the ability to name, walk, groom and play with a virtual puppy. The project arose from Miyamoto’s own experiences as a new pet owner, and also led to a new official Nintendo policy where Miyamoto wasn’t allowed to talk in public about his new hobbies anymore.

Nintendo had made a lot of good moves with the DS, and it had paid off, with a peak of around 31.1 million DS units sold in 2009. (You can make an argument that Nintendo’s constant, incremental hardware upgrades do fluff its sales numbers–there will always be some madmen who own four iterations of the same console, just to have them–but 31 million is 31 million.)

Naturally, that meant Nintendo would eventually release a follow-up to the DS, and did so in March of 2011 with the 3DS. It kept the same dual-screen design, while adding a digital storefront (which the DS didn’t have until its third model, the DSi), a ton of bonus apps, full backwards compatibility with DS games, and most crucially, the ability to display 3D effects on its top screen without the need for the player to wear special glasses. On paper, the 3DS was a slam dunk.

It promptly bombed.

There were several factors that went into that. The most discussed among them was the 3DS’s MSRP at launch, US$250, which was the highest price that the company had ever attached to a handheld system. Many consumers balked at the cost, particularly when the same money could be used to buy several dozen mobile games for devices that many consumers already had lying around. The launch model of the hardware was also weirdly small, which made it uncomfortable for adults to play for long periods of time without suffering hand cramps.

The stereoscopic 3D effect was heralded as an impressive piece of technology, albeit one that caused eye fatigue much faster than typical 2D images do. Nintendo went so far as to attach a warning to all 3DS products that children under six years of age shouldn’t play the 3DS at all, since their eyes are still developing. That took a major part of Nintendo’s target demographic—young children and their parents—off the table for its product launch.

Finally, the 3DS initially shipped with a notoriously weak launch lineup, with none of Nintendo’s trademark franchises to be found. In fact, the highest-profile game of the lot was a port of Capcom’s year-old Super Street Fighter IV. It was a perfect storm of unrelated, unforced errors.

Crawling from the wreckage

In July of 2011, Nintendo tried to stem the bleeding with a price cut, lowering the 3DS’s initial MSRP from $250 to $170 in North America. It didn’t quite work, and the 3DS continued to sell below expectations. This was coupled with slow sales for Nintendo’s Wii-U console, which launched in 2012 with a weak launch lineup and notoriously poor marketing. This led to Nintendo suffering a downturn that would last for the next couple of years, until the launch of Satoru Iwata’s popular Amiibo project—a series of collectible toys, which could be digitally connected to Nintendo titles to unlock in-game bonuses—pulled the company out of its overall doldrums.

The 3DS XL went a long way towards fixing issues with the 3DS’s notoriously flawed launch version, featuring what what was then the largest screen on any Nintendo portable system. (trailer screenshot)

Meanwhile, the 3DS made incremental but steady improvements. The launch model was quickly updated with the 2012 launch of the Nintendo 3DS XL, which was still expensive at $200, but was a distinct ergonomic improvement. Nintendo also began to embrace the digital games market, with both first- and third-party games becoming digitally available in the 3DS’s eShop by late 2012. This ended up including a wide variety of Nintendo’s past classics, including a 3D remake of its classic game The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Over the next few years, Nintendo would use the 3DS to showcase its back catalogue, introducing a new generation of players to many of the games that put Nintendo on the map in the first place, including Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

The system also gradually acquired a respectable library of original first- and third-party games. Nintendo brought out Mario Kart 7 by December of 2011, which rapidly became the single best-selling title on the system; it also brought new Pokemon games to the 3DS in 2013, 2014, and 2016, each of which sold well over 12 million copies. 2012 saw the release of the much-anticipated Kid Icarus: Uprising, an ambitious third-person shooter that sold over a million copies, as well as Animal Crossing: New Leaf, a portable installment in the then-new, notoriously addictive life simulation series.

Combat in 2012’s Fire Emblem Awakening, the 3DS game that saved its series. (Official Nintendo screenshot)

The 3DS also gave the Fire Emblem series a new lease on life. The strategy franchise had been running since 1990, but was rarely localized for release in territories outside of Japan. The games were notoriously difficult and unforgiving, which limited their audience to a small core of fanatics, and Nintendo was on the verge of canceling Fire Emblem entirely. 2012’s Fire Emblem Awakening on the 3DS was a hail-Mary by its developers, which adjusted the series’s difficulty downwards in an attempt to draw in a more casual audience, and it paid off, to decent sales and high critical acclaim. If Awakening hadn’t succeeded, it would’ve killed its franchise; instead, Fire Emblem is now one of Nintendo’s tentpole series, with the 2019 follow-up on Switch, Three Houses, moving almost 3 million units.

A big third-party success for the 3DS came courtesy of Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise, which is more or less exactly what it sounds like it should be; the games feature cooperative-play hunting expeditions, where players work together to bring down fantasy creatures and harvest them for meat, hides, and crafting materials. While Monster Hunter had been successful on the PlayStation 2 and Wii, it was a phenomenon on the 3DS, selling roughly 12.5 million copies across three games. Thanks to that hype, Capcom’s 2017 follow-up Monster Hunter World was a smash hit, rapidly becoming the single best-selling game in the company’s lengthy history.

By 2017, Nintendo had managed to evolve the 3DS into a modest success. As its games library and base hardware improved, the market responded, with high overall sales in the years following its debut. It hit its overall peak in 2013, with almost 14 million units sold worldwide, although its momentum slowed back down thereafter. It wasn’t as monstrously popular as the DS had been at roughly the same spot in its life cycle, but the DS also hadn’t been competing against an intensifying mobile games market.

However, the Nintendo Switch also came out in 2017, and in the long run, doomed the 3DS. Nintendo seemed initially happy to try to maintain both systems at once, particularly in the early days of the Switch when it didn’t have many killer apps to speak of. In fact, the 3DS’s sales spiked slightly in 2017.

An inevitable demise

By 2019, however, the writing was on the wall. The 3DS was eight years old at that point, which is antediluvian for any gaming console, and its sales had dropped by almost 50% year to year. Industry analysts noted that the 3DS’s release schedule had also unceremoniously slowed to a crawl. The Switch, which worked as both a home and portable console, couldn’t help but occupy some of the 3DS’s territory, and most developers chose to make games for the newer, more powerful, higher-profile system.

Nintendo itself had quietly dialed back its support for the 3DS well before the industry noticed that the 3DS was flailing. The last original first-party title for the platform was the 2018 minigame collection WarioWare Gold, and everything Nintendo published after that had been an enhanced rerelease of an older game. A few die-hard third-party developers like Atlus kept plugging away at the 3DS—one can consider Atlus’s 2019 dungeon crawler Persona Q2 to be the 3DS’s swan song—but most of them were long gone by the time Nintendo officially pulled the plug.

With the 3DS out of the picture, this is the first time in more than 30 years that Nintendo hasn’t had multiple lines of hardware on the market. Its eggs are now officially all in one basket, although the Switch’s hybrid handheld means that it’s effectively still servicing both of its previous audiences. The Switch is a very strong seller in its own right, having already moved 61 million units in the three years it’s been available; this makes it Nintendo’s second best-selling system of all time, behind the Wii, and reportedly the fastest-selling system in its hardware generation. Nintendo is already looking ahead to what’s coming next, with a new “integrated hardware-software next gaming system” in development; this may be the long-rumored “4K Switch,” capable of producing high-resolution graphics on par with the PS5 and XSX, or a wholly new thing.

Nintendo has also begun a new chapter of its existence as a mobile developer, following the runaway success of phone-based games like GungHo’s Puzzle & Dragons. While Nintendo’s traditional approach has always been to use its franchises’ exclusivity as a selling point for its systems, it nonetheless yielded to market pressure and released games featuring its trademark characters for mobile devices. 2017’s Fire Emblem Heroes and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp have both been highly profitable for the company, and 2019’s Mario Kart Tour quickly broke records to become the most-downloaded game on launch in mobile history.

All in all, the market, as well as Nintendo itself, just passed the 3DS by. Its time was done. Even so, the end of the 3DS is bittersweet. As with its predecessor, the DS, the 3DS’s unique design led to some big, creative decisions by software developers, along with two generations of games that cannot be adequately ported to later systems.

You can play some of the big DS/3DS success stories on other platforms at time of writing, like the Phoenix Wright series, but there’s nothing on the current market that plays like the original hardware did. DS and 3DS games could be deeply weird in unique ways, and while the Switch has its own strengths, it can’t recapture the same experimental strangeness as the dual-screen setup could.

It’s likely that the end of the 3DS’s operational lifespan will eventually lead to a few big sales, as shopkeepers opt to liquidate their remaining inventory and make space for whatever comes next. It’s a good time to go out and pick one up, so you can hold a unique piece of video game history, and to raid the Nintendo eShop for all the strange little 3DS exclusives that, once Nintendo pulls support, will be gone forever. The 3DS is history now, and we’ve officially entered the period in which archivists and collectors can begin to treat it that way.

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