End of the Handheld Era: The 3DS’s Death Creates a New Video Game Industry

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This year at E3, Nintendo revealed a lot of exciting information. A new Animal Crossing! A Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sequel! and a couple of new Mana series releases out of nowhere! But one of their biggest announcements was one they left completely unspoken. For the first time, Nintendo discussed zero new Nintendo 3DS titles. Since 2011, the 3DS has been the market leader in the handheld gaming space. Its closest competitor (not counting mobile phones) was the PlayStation Vita, a system that sold only a fraction of the units despite having a huge power advantage. While the Switch doubles as a handheld and a traditional console, the lack of new Nintendo 3DS software does suggest a shift in the gaming landscape.

The last major Nintendo 3DS title was Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth, which hit store shelves on June 4. A thorough perusal of upcoming game release dates shows nary a 3DS game in sight. Not only has Nintendo said goodnight to their most powerful standalone handheld device, so have third parties.

In honor of what could be Nintendo’s last dedicated handheld console, here’s a look back on the 3DS’s long and interesting history.

The 3D That Never Should Have Been

2011 was a strange time. 3D was coming back, and the powers that be wanted us to think it was some new and exciting technology. In fact, 3D has been around since 1922, and while we’ve made several improvements to the tech, it is still fundamentally the same. The 3DS took a different approach than its contemporaries in the 3D space, however. Instead of requiring players to don awkward and/or uncomfortable glasses, the 3DS’s top screen would display stereoscopic 3D by itself. In truth, the technology is pretty cool. Using a depth slider, players could set the “level” of three-dimensionality, making it easier for people with more delicate constitutions to game without getting sick. And the 3D effect itself was pretty darn cool.

Unfortunately, it was a solution in search of a problem. Most games for the 3DS did very little to take advantage of the 3DS (one notable exception being Super Mario 3D Land, which used the third dimension to help players jump from platform to platform with an ease that 3D games typically have a hard time with). As such, the 3DS’s defining feature became little more than a gimmick. Not only was it rarely used, but the screen was very finicky. If players moved their heads even a little bit, the 3D illusion would be broken and the image would become horribly distorted.

Nintendo fixed the latter problem with the release of the New Nintendo 3DS system, a slightly updated 3DS with a faster processor and a 3D screen that adjusted on the fly to accommodate for head movement. But it couldn’t do anything about the main problem, which was that most games simply didn’t use the feature well at all. In fact, Nintendo soon recognized that 3D didn’t matter to the vast majority of its users, and it released the Nintendo 2DS and, eventually, the New Nintendo 2DS XL, which were versions of the 3DS that completely abandoned the 3D feature.

The Games

Putting aside the who-cares 3D feature, the Nintendo 3DS had some excellent games. Nintendo’s handhelds have never been slackers in the games department, and the 3DS continued the tradition with some fantastic first-party titles, like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Super Mario 3D Land. The 3DS was the home to Nintendo’s powerhouse Pokemon series, a title which held until Pokemon: Let’s Go Eevee and Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu hit the Switch earlier this year. Nintendo even remade some of its older classics with 3D capabilities, such as Star Fox 64 3D, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Metroid: Samus Returns, and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D. Nintendo even create some sequels to series previously thought abandoned, like Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon and Kid Icarus Uprising.

Third parties got in on the fun, too, not only releasing 3D remakes of their beloved titles — like Xenoblade Chronicles 3D and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater 3D — but a ton of highly rated originals. Monster Hunter 4 and Monster Hunter Generations brought the MH franchise to a whole new group of players, and Resident Evil Revelations created a parallel to the main RE series that was high on action and looked great on the handheld. RPG fans had a lot to love here, too, with classics like Bravely Default and Bravely Second, Fire Emblem Fates, and Shin Megami Tensei IV.

It’s an amazing lineup, and even now, as classic 3DS game series make their way to the Switch, it’s cool to look back at where all these great games got their start.

The Price (and the Ambassadors program)

When the 3DS hit store shelves, it cost $250. At the time, it seemed like quite a lot of money for a handheld gaming machine. What made matters worse was the timing: this was the dawn of the free-to-play mobile game era, and even “expensive” games on phones only cost a few dollars. Everyone already had a phone, so what need did they have for an expensive machine that only played games and was harder to carry around than an iPhone?

Nintendo realized its mistake and tried to course correct, dropping the price to $180 only six months after launch. A lot of early adopters were understandably irritated by this move, but Nintendo took steps to keep the faithful in their court. They announced that everyone who had purchased the 3DS for the original $250 price would receive ten NES virtual console games and ten Gameboy Advance games for free. To sweeten the deal, the Gameboy Advance games would not be released to the general public — only Nintendo’s “Ambassadors,” as they came to be known, could get them.

After this small snafu, Nintendo managed to turn the tide in its favor, and the 3DS continued to rise in the sales ranks. It never quite hit its predecessor, the Nintendo DS’s level, though. Speaking of which…

Backwards Compatibility

As many great games as there are for the 3DS, the original Nintendo DS had an even deeper catalog. And nearly every single one of those games was compatible with the 3DS hardware. If you’re an RPG lover, for example, you can place great examples of the genre like Sands of Destruction, The World Ends With You, and Dragon Quest IV, V, and VI alongside your Bravely Defaults and your Shin Megami Tenseis. Platformer lovers had access to New Super Mario Bros., Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, and Super Princess Peach. Puzzle game fans could throw in their copies of Tetris DS or Professor Layton and the Curious Village.

It seems obvious, but adding backwards compatibility to new hardware is a fantastic way to encourage fans to adopt the new system. Most systems that have been around for a while develop at least a fairly robust catalog, and making those available to play on new hardware might mean the difference between an early adopter and someone who takes a wait-and-see approach.

Farewell, Dedicated Handhelds

I suppose I could be proven wrong in a few years, if, say, Sony decides to take one more crack at the handheld market. But it’s not likely. The Switch has proven that handheld is doable, but it’s more palatable if a docked, TV version of the same experience is readily available. For now, we say goodbye to not just the Nintendo 3DS, which had a heck of a run over the last eight years, but goodbye as well to dedicated handheld consoles. Thanks for keeping us entertained in waiting rooms and on flights for generations. Rest in peace.