Obituaries were already being filed for the Wii U soon after its release in 2012, so now that its days have properly been numbered by Nintendo with the Switch’s impending release there’s been little fanfare around its imminent demise. A shame really, for although there were mistakes – a derivative name put it in the Wii’s shadow from the off, and Nintendo’s inability to market the GamePad ensured it lacked a gimmick to make up for the perceived lack of horsepower – it’s been a fine console, allowing Nintendo to refocus on the core and ensuring a string of delightfully esoteric releases. The sales might have been underwhelming, but those who fell into its weird niche tended to be perfectly happy with that they got. Far too few will mourn one of the greatest cult consoles since the Dreamcast, sadly.
The other side of Nintendo’s current hardware set-up might well be mourned by many more, though you’d hardly know it’s on its way out. Shelves have been emptied of 3DS units on both sides of the Atlantic – thanks, of course, to the release of Pokmon Sun and Moon, which amounted to Nintendo’s biggest ever launch in the UK – and in the run-up to Christmas and well after it’s impossible to get your hands on a handheld that was first launched well over five years ago. I know from first-hand experience – despite having already owned three 3DSs, I’m always toying with the idea of grabbing another, whether for the delicious face plates and coloured buttons of the vanilla New 3DS or the extra screen estate of the XL. I really can’t get enough of this machine.
Such is its success, it’s easy to overlook how strange the 3DS is. First there’s the dual screen set-up, inherited from its immediate predecessor but also cutely calling back to Gunpei Yokoi’s original Game & Watch handhelds. Back at the DS’s announcement in 2004, the set-up felt so unwieldy and, in the original DS model at least, unsightly. It’s only after six years in which the DS established itself as a success that those twin-screens began to feel normal, and not quite so odd. By the time the 3DS was announced in 2010, we’d all got used to the set-up. So Nintendo had to do something else to give it the shock of the new.
And what a shock it was. Even now, six years on, I still can’t get over it. Glassless 3D!. Born from the brief period when 3D really looked like it would be the future – or, at least, when cinemas and hardware manufacturers were pushing it hardest – Nintendo embraced the zeitgeist in its own peculiar way, utilising a parallax barrier for an effect that remains impressive to this day. It was hardly perfect, especially up to the point the 3DS hardware was refined with the New models that allowed for head tracking, but its pluses far outweigh the minuses. Once you hit the sweet spots – Hyrule Field rolling to the horizon, shiny golden coins popping up from the Mushroom Kingdom – there’s nothing quite like it.
I doubt there’ll be anything like it again, either, and there’s a certain amount of eccentricity to the 3DS that’s unlikely to be replicated anytime soon. Considering how quiet a year it’s been for big new releases from Nintendo, the past 12 months have seen some seismic changes for the Kyoto company. Its push for mobile began in earnest with March’s Miitomo before the full onslaught of Super Mario Run at the tail-end of the year, while with the announcement of the Switch it made a move towards consolidating its home console and handheld business. They’re significant shifts, marking the end of a hardware model Nintendo’s stayed true to since the late 80s, and ending a long resistance to the lure of mobile, but for all the changes could prove momentous, there’s another thing that binds them together. They’re both awfully sensible decisions.
And sensible is fine. After a few years in the relative wilderness, why wouldn’t Nintendo do the obvious thing, courting the millions on Apple’s devices and making sure its software houses are no longer split between two of its own pieces of hardware? The thing is, I love crazy Nintendo, and sometimes those moments of madness find resonance with a much larger crowd. The Wii’s attempted revolution in its attempt to oust the traditional controller chimed with millions, and yet the 3DS succeeded despite its odd gimmick rather than because of it. For much of its life it’s been an appendage that’s at times flat out ignored by games – as is the case with its biggest title, Pokmon Sun and Moon.
When the 3DS hits its apogee, though, the effect can be close to sublime. Super Mario 3D Land did an outrageously good job of exploiting that added depth, while there’s magic in revisiting the worlds of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask with the benefit of a new dimension. Some of the successes have been more left field: M2’s classics collection has proven that Yu Suzuki’s 80s masterworks look outstanding in 3D, and such is the artistry and attention to detail in the 3DS ports that its versions of OutRun, Space Harrier and Afterburner 2 can lay claim to being the definitive editions of each game. All of that, just sitting there in your pocket. It’s enough to make you swoon.
These are experiences that will be difficult to emulate in the future, thanks to the eccentricities of the 3DS – it’s hard to imagine any Virtual Console release doing them justice, anyway – so the 3DS will remain the only way to play such games. Thanks to its incredible and diverse library, it’s also something of a necessity for anyone with a love of Japanese esoterica. Where else to play the brilliant Kaz Ayabe’s Attack of the Friday Monsters, Hiroshi Iuchi’s Kokuga or Yasumi Matsuno’s Crimson Shroud?
The more recent success of the 3DS will ensure it has a life beyond the Switch’s launch in March, though the production line of games will soon trickle to a halt. One of the guiding principles of the Switch, after all, is having Nintendo’s software houses working on just one of its own machines so that the game droughts that plighted the Wii U at various points of its lifespan are no longer. If that means we get a software line-up that’s half as imaginative, outlandish or interesting as that which has graced the 3DS then that’s great news, but I can’t help be sad this odd little console is entering its final stretch.