The 3DS has had to have a price cut because it’s been selling badly, which has led people to wonder whether Nintendo can continue to make a success of dedicated portable gaming hardware in a world of shiny smartphones. The thing is, it’s not quite as simple as smartphones rendering proper portable consoles obsolete.
Smartphones have certainly changed the world of portable gaming – people now have a new alternative, and cheap, way of gaming on the go. But smartphones can’t claim to have a monopoly on portable gaming yet – they’ve just increased the amount of competition that portable consoles like the 3DS face. And that’s where the problem lies: Nintendo simply have not raised their game to face this new threat.
Let’s start with the 3DS’s main selling point, the screen. It gives people headaches and it can kill small children dead if they catch the slightest glance of it. It’s like a greedy attention-hogging pig – it snatches all the attention away, leaving none for the other features like the improved graphical capabilities and accelerometers. And it’s not that big. In fact it’s suspiciously smartphone-sized. Nintendo’s probably used the same type of screen as a 3D smartphone, and it does make you wonder how Nintendo can successfully compete against smartphones when the main feature of their new console basically just reuses an existing smartphone component.
Moving from output to input, one of the main advantages of dedicated gaming hardware is buttons. Portable consoles have d-pads, shoulder buttons, face buttons and analogue thingamabobs, and they all help to provide experiences that simply aren’t possible on smartphones. In the past Nintendo have been the king of the buttons – the DSi XL features wonderfully clicky buttons and a super-duper d-pad, it’s only flaw a lack of analogue control. And you’d think that with buttons being the great differentiator between smartphones and dedicated portables, Nintendo would have placed a big priority on making sure that the 3DS’s buttons were the best darn buttons in the whole of Super Button Land. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. The buttons are one of the greatest disappointments of the 3DS (the build quality is generally a bit mediocre), with an uncomfortable floppy d-pad and a dreadful selection of buttons placed awkwardly below the bottom screen. Pausing a game has rarely been so horribly awkward. It really feels like Nintendo have missed an open goal – they’re good with buttons, they have patents that allow them to make the best d-pads. How could they have got it so wrong with such an important product?
It’s not just the hardware that’s been problematic, it’s the software too. The quality software just isn’t there. Look at the all-time list of 3DS software on Metacritic and you’ll see a head of green topping of a pint of yellow (with some red sediment at the bottom). Nintendo have been moaning about cheap gaming apps on smartphones reducing the perceived value of portable games, but then release slight experiences like Pilotwings Resort and expect people to pay £30+ for them. Instead of responding to a new trend of low-content, low-price titles by packing their games with content to justify the asking price, Nintendo have been releasing games with perhaps the lowest levels of content they’ve ever provided with the highest prices they’ve ever asked for portable titles. It’s just not a recipe for success.
Finally, there’s a general issue with the 3DS – with its build quality and design it feels like a first draft, an original model that will inevitably be replaced by new and better ones. It feels like Nintendo have gone back to the days of 2004 and the original DS, rather than creating a console that can compete with the new exciting devices of 2011. It’s hard to shake the feeling Nintendo held back, rather than creating the best console they could. Perhaps higher-quality hardware would have cost more to produce, but then maybe the console could have held on to its high initial price-point if it had been a better product. The 3DS doesn’t feel like an exciting new device for 2011, in some respects it comes across as a throwback to a bygone era.
Smartphones have certainly made things more difficult for Nintendo, but some of the things that have prevented the 3DS from being a success have come from within Nintendo, not just from without. Nintendo could still make a success of the 3DS, but with smartphones showing no signs of waning and Sony’s Vita on the horizon they’ll have to raise their game to thrive in the new, more competitive, portable gaming environment of 2011.