It wasn’t the greatest of starts, frankly. When early adopters stumped up the best part of £230 for a brand new Nintendo 3DS back in 2011, only to see the price slashed by around 40 percent just a few months later, the olive branch of a few downloadable games from the eShop and an ‘Ambassador Certificate’ were a pretty meagre consolation.
But then, a cloud of confusion hung over the 3DS as soon as it was announced; that it closely resembled the already hugely popular Nintendo DS, by then on the market for almost seven years, led some to believe that it was simply the same handheld system with an added stereoscopic screen and a few other quality-of-life improvements.
The 3DS’s launch was a precursor to what happened not long afterwards with the Wii U, whose name was so similar to its predecessor, the Wii, that less clued-up sections of the media wrongly assumed it was some kind of minor update rather than an entirely new console. Ah, 2010s Nintendo – marketing wasn’t exactly your strong point.
From the vantage point of the year 2020, the 3DS looks like a product of its time. The system was announced a little over a year after James Cameron’s 2009 event movie Avatar convinced Hollywood that 3D films really were the future this time, and not the passing fad they were in previous decades.
But where moviegoers and even TV watchers had to wear glasses of some sort to enjoy their 3D, Nintendo’s big selling point for the 3DS was its in-screen stereo effect, which made cunning use of something called a parallax barrier to create the illusion of depth. On the 3DS’s better launch titles, the 3D worked surprisingly well, and later models of the handheld – which employed head-tracking technology – improved the effect further still.
A headline-catching selling point though the 3D was, it only served to distract from the handheld’s other innovations – which were, if anything, of more lasting importance. The circle pad provided support for analogue controls while retaining the slim, clam-shell form factor of the DS; the improved processor meant that the 3DS could render 3D polygonal games far more convincingly than its forebear; and while it wasn’t perfect, the eShop integration made purchasing and downloading games a relatively pleasant process.
Not everything about the 3DS was perfect right out of the box, though: its case design was angular, its glossy finish easy to scratch, and its face buttons were tiny and awkward to press. Then there were its more experimental ideas, such as its twin cameras, AR mode, and StreetPass.
Nintendo may have begun to regret its use of 3D as a selling point, too, when industry watchdogs began to note just how slow the handheld was to take off when it arrived in February and March 2011. The 3DS was projected to sell 4 million units in its first month; instead, it sold 3.61 million – that might not sound like much of a difference, but it was enough to spook Nintendo.
“It is clear from our market research that many people feel that they ‘want’ and ‘want to buy’ Nintendo 3DS,” said Nintendo’s then-president, Satoru Iwata. “But on the other hand, there is a big proposition that not many people believe ‘Now is the time to buy it!’. The penetration will not gain speed without overcoming this challenge.”
It didn’t help that Nintendo had much to contend with at this point: its Japanese launch in February 2011 came just weeks before the devastating Tōhoku earthquake which rocked the country to its foundations. Meanwhile, gaming on mobile phones was really taking off, bolstered by the Angry Birds phenomenon; and as a proper, grown-up handheld device, the sleek and powerful PlayStation Vita, which launched in December 2011 in Japan, looked like a serious competitor – particularly as its $249.99 retail price put it in the same bracket as the 3DS.
One somewhat embarrassing price cut later, though, and things began to get moving for the 3DS; by the end of its launch year, the system was amassing a stronger line-up of games, and sales finally began to soar, eclipsing even the DS’s first twelve months on the market. It was certainly a far cry from the 3DS’s launch, where the likes of Super Monkey Ball 3D and Pilotwings Resort did little to capture the public’s imagination.
Tellingly, Nintendo began moving away from the 3D-as-selling-point approach not long into the 3DS’s lifespan; the ultra-cheap 2DS did away with the clamshell form factor and 3D entirely, and the revised New 2DS, which reintroduced the hinged screens but still ignored the stereoscopy, provided a fine balance of comfort and affordability. The ‘3DS family’ was bumped up even further with the 3DS XL and later the New 3DS XL, which provided larger screens and another more rounded, comfortable case design; by 2015, the boxy first iteration had been left far behind.
By 2017, Nintendo had launched the Switch – its nimble hybrid of handheld and under-the-telly console. The marketing wobbles of the early 2010s were a distant memory, and if Nintendo was keen to stress that the 3DS line wasn’t going anywhere, it was pretty clear that the Switch represented a consolidation of sorts, between the two disparate strands of the Big N’s hardware business. Sure enough, Nintendo announced in September 2020 that the 3DS’s production was coming to an end, its gap in the market now filled by the Switch and its cut-down, handheld-only Switch Lite.
The 3DS’s nine-year history has been something of a mixed bag for Nintendo, then. Its launch was calamitous, yet it ended its first year on a high note. Its initial releases were thin and somewhat uninspiring, but first-party games, such as Super Mario 3D Land, and the remaster of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time made a stronger case for the handheld’s 3D effect, while third-party developers blessed its library with such cracking titles as Resident Evil: Revelations and Bravely Default.
In terms of cold, hard figures, the 3DS ended its life as Nintendo’s least successful handheld, its sales far eclipsed by the original Game Boy (circa 118 million units sold), the Game Boy Advance (circa 85 million), and the absurdly popular DS (154 million). But still, the 3DS shifted just shy of 76 million units in its various guises – a number which, given the shifting tides of handheld gaming in the 2010s, was still pretty impressive.
The stereoscopic craze has well and truly faded in 2020, and at present, it doesn’t look as though Nintendo is keen to dabble in that arena again. But while the 3DS saw mixed fortunes, it still stands as a unique and fascinating system, with a respectable library of games that couldn’t be experienced the same way on any other handheld. There’s also something else to bear in mind: at the time of writing, James Cameron’s Avatar 2 is still a distant dot on the horizon. The Hollywood director has suggested in interviews that it’ll once again change cinema, this time with glasses-free 3D.
If that’s the case, then maybe – just maybe – Nintendo will decide to revive the 3DS line. Probably best not to hold your breath, though.