The curious case of the 3DS, the device too successful for Nintendo to kill
New Nintendo 2DS XL, out Friday, is the latest 3DS device not to have 3D
In retrospect, it probably wasn't the best idea for Nintendo to name its new flagship handheld device after its least important feature.
When the venerable Japanese gaming company unveiled the 3DS, the successor to its wildly popular DS handheld, in 2010, it retained the physical aesthetic of the DS — dual screens (one with touch functionality) in an attractive clamshell design — while adding more processing power.
But the marquee new feature was stereoscopic 3D, which lets characters such as Mario and Pikachu leap off the screen — without 3D glasses.
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At the time, 3D televisions were the next big thing in consumer electronics. At Nintendo's E3 industry event press conference that year, press marvelled at the idea of playing games in 3D without having to wear dorky glasses.
Since then, consumers' infatuation with 3D — in theatres, on TV and in games — has faded.
Despite that, and Nintendo's focus on its newest console, the Switch, the popularity of 3DS has curiously endured.
Early flop, then price drop
When the 3DS first hit stores, gamers balked at its $249 Cdn price point. They saw little reason to upgrade from the DS, which already had a wide library of great games. In fact, the 3DS ended up being the weakest console launch for Nintendo since 1995's Virtual Boy (coincidentally, an earlier attempt at 3D gaming).
Less than six months later, Nintendo dropped the 3DS price by a staggering $80, to $169. Sales gradually picked up, bolstered by new games in fan-favourite series such as Pokemon, Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing.
Since then, only a handful of games use 3D in ways that changed how you played it. 3D stopped being the system's selling point.
The launch of the Nintendo 2DS in 2013 seemed to be the final admission of this. It's a lower-end model that plays all 3DS games, just not in 3D.
Will the Switch replace 3DS?
To casual observers, the death knell for what Nintendo now calls "the 3DS family of devices" might have come with the release of the Switch this past March, a home console that can also be played on the go.
The idea of Nintendo supporting a single platform for all of its games might sound too attractive to resist.
"Nintendo can give fans an amazing gift by slowly killing the 3DS," wrote Polygon's Ben Kuchera. "Imagine just going into the store and picking up the Switch in this situation. You're getting a console and a portable and you know that you'll have access to Nintendo's biggest releases moving forward. The purchasing decision will be made much simpler, inventory will be easier to manage and the Switch will be even more attractive to enthusiasts and casual players."
But Nintendo isn't there yet. The Switch sells for $399. Ranging from $110 to $240, the 3DS devices currently in production offer low- and mid-range alternatives. They also have more battery life on the go, and are easier to carry thanks to their smaller size.
What's more, they just keep selling. In its last earnings report, Nintendo said it has sold more than 67 million 3DSs (including 2DSs). They've consistently sold more than their previous home console, the Wii U, and even the Switch — despite the fact that the hardware is seven years old. That's an eternity when it comes to consumer tech products.
In April, rather than signal a hard pivot away from the 3DS to the Switch, Nintendo announced the refined, mid-priced New 2DS XL ($199).
Save for a minor cosmetic nip and tuck, the New 2DS XL is identical to its higher-end cousin, the New 3DS XL. It plays all 3DS games and runs the same software — just not in 3D.
More than anything else, the New 2DS XL's existence reiterates Nintendo's commitment to its dedicated handheld market, which it effectively has a monopoly over, as portable gaming has migrated mainly to smartphones. Plus, the closest competitor, Sony's Vita, has all but faded into oblivion.
Given its continued success, it's probably a long way off before the 3DS and 2DS ride off into the gaming sunset. But the seeds may have already been planted.
Nintendo announced earlier this year that the next major instalment in the Pokemon series is being developed for the Switch, and the next games in the series for the 2DS and 3DS, Pokemon Ultra Sun and Moon, are merely upgraded versions of last year's releases.
If anything marks the impending doom of a Nintendo handheld, it's the absence of a new Pokemon game. When it reaches the Switch some time next year, it's a fair bet that millions of 3DS and 2DS owners will be inclined to follow.
2DS vs. New 2DS XL vs. New 3DS XL: Confused, yet?
The 3DS line of devices includes multiple models with various hardware revisions since 2010, so it can be confusing at first glance. Here are the key differences.
The Nintendo 2DS, New Nintendo 2DS XL and New Nintendo 3DS XL can all play 3DS games, as well as games from the older DS handheld.
Only the New 3DS XL can output 3DS games in 3D. It doesn't play DS games in 3D.
The 2DS and New 2DS XL can play 3DS games, but don't support 3D.
The "New" prefix on the New 3DS XL and New 2DS XL means they have greater processing power than the standard 2DS (and the older, out-of-production standard 3DS models). They also have two extra shoulder buttons and a nub-like "C-stick" for extra camera controls. A small handful of games require these extra features, and cannot be played on the 2DS.