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Looking Back to 2011 and the Nintendo 3DS: when the gimmicks gave way to the games


My reasons for buying a Nintendo 3DS on launch, way back on March 25th, 2011, were rubbish. I wanted a Nintendo 3DS at launch because a) no one else I knew was getting one, b) I was never able to do Magic Eyes, and – by some twist of fate – I had some disposable cash and c) I had never bought a console on launch before. 

A grown adult shouldn’t be spending £219.99 on a console for any of those reasons, let it be said. But they each highlight something bizarre and niche about the Nintendo 3DS that would lead to an incredibly turbulent launch, one that led to a formal apology, twenty free games via the eShop and a significant price drop only six-months after launch.

Nintendo 3DS

Let’s dive into a) ‘no one else was getting one’. In 2011, I didn’t know a single soul who planned to buy the Nintendo 3DS on launch. Of course, the reason for the lack of take-up was the games. Nintendo 3DS’s launch titles were arse. We like to complain about the lack of big-hitters on the Xbox Series X|S or PlayStation 5, but, honestly, what would you pick from Pilotwings Resort, Nintendogs, Steel Diver, Super Monkey Ball 3D, Sims 3, Ridge Racer 3D and Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition? As it turns out, my answer was a mix of ‘none of them’ and – we’re cheating here – Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. It was an appropriately stealthy release from Julian Gollop, creator of X-Com, that no-one was hyped about, and still no-one remembers, but remains one of the system’s roughest diamonds. Without it, the launch games were a buffet of stale ports, rushed 3D cash-ins, kid-friendly sims and, well, Pilotwings. Not exactly appetising. 

The Nintendo 3DS wasn’t really being sold on the promise of its games, though. It was being sold on other things – the 3D, mostly – but that meant sheathing their greatest weapon and, without it, there was no reason for the common punter to get interested. 

It makes sense, then, that Nintendo regained the upper hand with the 3DS through its games. When Nintendo acknowledged the shortcomings of their console’s launch, they apologetically thrust ten NES games and ten Gameboy Advance games into early-adopters’ hands in the form of the Ambassador Program. As one of the early adopters, it was a bizarre deluge that I was happy to accept. I was stupid to buy up the console early, and I put that fault on myself, yet suddenly I was getting a Fire Emblem, Mario Kart and Legend of Zelda that I’d never got round to playing originally. It was a bit of a “yeah, sure, thanks!” moment. 

Nintendo 3DS XL

But the real turnaround was through the full retail releases. We forget the rocky road in those first six months, because the end of 2011 was bordering on the ridiculous: Mario Kart 7, the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time remaster, Super Mario 3D Land and Star Fox 64 3D (remasters were cooler back then). Plus a Layton, Cave Story 3D and Pokemon Rumble Blast. Shigeru may have said that “a delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever”, but the same was clearly not true of a console launch: Nintendo could have saved its launch until these heavy-hitters were ready, but the early-release really didn’t damage the 3DS, at least in the long term. 

My second reason for buying the 3DS, “I’d never been able to do a Magic Eye”, was of course centred on the stereoscopic 3D. At the time, it felt like an urban myth. Previews kept rolling out claiming that it was revolutionary, but how could they possibly be correct? The absurd gimmick at the centre of the 3DS trapped me; I wanted to see if it would work on me, but no-one I knew was buying one. Dang it, I was going to have to pioneer. 

I remember people coming over to my desk to try out the stereoscoping, but I could only apologetically offer them a go on Bust-a-Move. This was my glorious new console, a vision of the future, and I was showing them some multi-coloured bubbles and bulging versions of Bub and Bob. Needless to say, I didn’t market the Nintendo 3DS particularly well. 

Ocarina of Time 3DS

Still, at the time, the 3D was a minor miracle: hold the console in a specific way, with your eyes focused in a certain manner, and the 3D would work. Then there was the AR stuff that, to be honest, I completely forgot about, where you could treat your desk like a working level through the power of cardboard. Both the 3D and AR were momentarily exciting. The 3D would make me a little cross-eyed; the positioning was annoyingly precise; and the AR stuff got packed away into the box and tucked into the attic. 

They may have been reasons for buying the 3DS in the first place, but it was only by ignoring them that Nintendo were able to salvage the 3DS. You could argue that games continued to support 3D, including Kid Icarus, among others, and many eShop titles prided themselves on their 3D capability. But in the first-party titles and, eventually, the third-party titles, the Nintendo 3DS slowly departed from its own gimmick, until the final nail in the coffin – the Nintendo 2DS – showed Nintendo’s hand, and made 3D-centric gaming unviable. Once again, it was the games, not the gimmicks, that guided the path of the 3DS.

The final reason that I bought the stupid teal console, consigned to my shelf for six months and then whipped out when things got good, was that I’d never bought a launch console before. Honestly, it was a nice feeling. I felt like Tony Stark, tinkering with new tech off the production line, and mates would pop by to coo over it. For a week, at least, and then they stopped. £219.99 wasn’t a ridiculous sum, but as a Bust-a-Move machine it was on the steep side. 

Credit to Nintendo and their reversal on that price. There was an outcry at the time: the Nintendo 2DS (sorry, DS) was RRP £89.99 in 2011, and had an infinite back catalogue. Most people were reverting back to playing DS games on their 3DS anyway. It took a £50 price drop, announced apologetically alongside a freeze on Nintendo executives’ pay and bonuses, for the 3DS to look at-all appetising. It was a fantastic Punchout!-style one-two hit with the release of Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda and Starfox titles. The Nintendo 3DS was saved.

3DS Family

From a personal perspective, it’s fascinating to see that every reason that I had for buying the 3DS, way back in March of 2011, was something that Nintendo completely u-turned away from. Yet, by abandoning them, the Nintendo 3DS found its feet and became a system that has sold 75.71 million units at the point of writing. It was a system that arrived with a fanfare of gimmicks and no games, which gained success by abandoning the gimmicks and making it all about the games. Honestly, I was happy to be proven wrong.

Making a console about the games and not the gimmicks: it sounds incredibly simple, and a mistake that no one could possibly ever make again.

The Xbox One launch in November 2013 enters the chat…

What are your memories of the Nintendo 3DS? Did you buy one on launch? Do you remember those six months where you scavenged for a good game, any good game at all? Jot something down in the comments below!

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