A small start for the big new 3DS won't hurt Nintendo
The near-future of Nintendo's handheld looks bright, whatever size screens you're playing on, writes Johnny Minkley
One year, four months and four days after the launch of the tiny original, Nintendo's 3DS XL arrived in the UK on Saturday. It was, as Chart-Track pointed out for trivia nerds, only the second weekend console launch to take place on these shores, the other being N64, which hit on March 1st 1997.
But 15 years on from pioneering 3D gameplay in Mario 64, Nintendo's promised glasses-free 3D revolution has fallen so flat even its president now refers to it as a "minor" feature.
"The XL shifted a figure a little shy of five figures, outselling the original 3DS last week (whose total is based on seven days' data) by a factor of just over 2:1"
XL, then, comes at a critical time in the young platform's life, its momentum in the West faltering again - it's been "weak" this year, acknowledges Iwata - following an earlier revival propelled by last summer's emergency price cut.
How did it do? With only one day for the hardware revision to leave its mark in the weekly sales report (although some retailers were selling it from Friday), and a nation's eyeballs glued to the Olympics, making a splash was always a big ask.
Chart-Track doesn't give out hardware numbers, but I understand XL shifted a figure a little shy of five figures, outselling the original 3DS last week (whose total is based on seven days' data) by a factor of just over 2:1. At the same time, old 3DS was down slightly on its previous week.
As for software, sales were up 11 per cent for the week overall (following a 31 percent leap the previous week, probably inspired by the launch of Kingdom Hearts 3D). For specific titles, Mario Kart 7 jumped by 45 per cent, up to 13th in the all-formats chart, with Super Mario 3D Land up 37 per cent to 20th and Mario & Sonic's London Olympics caper predictably up 25 per cent into the bronze medal position.
In other words, it was a positive bump, but if there were empty seats across Olympic venues it's unlikely it was due to Nintendo fans leaving them to take part in the virtual version on its new handheld instead.
Given the sporting distractions and the short window, we'll get a clearer picture of early interest in XL next week. But bigger hopes are rightly pinned two and a half weeks hence on the arrival of a certain New Super Mario Bros. 2.
It's hard to overstate the importance of this release in timing and legacy. And it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of Nintendo's current position. Big first-party IP is the backbone of any Nintendo console, of course, but the stature of the company's tentpole releases on Wii and DS is nevertheless astonishing - as is its reliance on them.
"The platform hasn't seen a single big-impact, platform-exclusive launch in the first seven months of the year"
Consider this: of the eight biggest-selling individual format titles in UK chart history, only one is not from Nintendo: Rockstar's GTA: San Andreas at number five. The original New Super Mario Bros. on DS is the seventh best-selling single-format title of all-time - its global total now in excess of 26m copies - out-performed on the handheld only by Brain Training.
Slashing a third off the price of the console within five months of launch and turning the marketing campaign on its head were dramatic examples of Nintendo's efforts last year to inject life back into the struggling platform.
But Iwata put it best himself, addressing analysts recently, when he said: "In order for dedicated video game hardware to be needed continuously, it is necessary to provide games with fun elements unique to a certain video game system which cannot be realised on smartphone devices. We would like to introduce such games one after another."
Well, the only time "one after another" has happened on 3DS was last Christmas, when the rushed-forward release of Mario Kart 7 joined Super Mario 3D Land and sales duly soared. To date, both titles are the top-sellers on the platform by a country mile in the UK, each selling over twice as much as the next nearest, the 3D remake of Ocarina of Time.
If momentum has subsequently waned, then, it's hardly surprising when you consider the striking lack of big releases and must-buy games. Nintendo's biggest in 2012 thus far, Kid Icarus and Mario Tennis Open, flopped at launch, Square's Kingdom Hearts 3D's modest opening weekend tally notably bigger than either managed.
Overall 3DS UK software sales last week were double that of the same week in 2011, which you'd expect with a significantly larger installed base. But the platform hasn't seen a single big-impact, platform-exclusive launch in the first seven months of the year. And collective game sales, it's worth noting, are still some way short of what ageing DS software is doing on a weekly basis.
Nintendo's troubles were ostensibly underlined in April when the company posted its first ever annual loss after a year that saw Iwata take fierce criticism on the chin and a 50 per cent pay cut in the wallet following the 3DS pricing fiasco.
Despite all this, plus XL's apparently underwhelming debut and a lingering air of negativity around Nintendo's handheld strategy and its forthcoming home console launch, 3DS looks in a much better place today than it did one year ago.
In XL it has delivered hardware that offers a markedly improved user experience for anyone who doesn't possess child's hands. Considering the abject lack of major releases, the disastrous near total-focus on 3D at launch, the tabloid-concocted health scares and the panic-fuelled price-cutting, Nintendo has still managed to shift over 19 million 3DS systems worldwide in 16 months. What Sony would give to be in a similar position with Vita this time next year.
"Nintendo has managed to shift over 19 million 3DS systems worldwide in 16 months. What Sony would give to be in a similar position with Vita this time next year"
In handheld-loving Japan the console has already found its groove and, as of July 25th, Nintendo is no longer selling the system at a loss. Meanwhile, the software the system so desperately needs is coming: New Super Mario Bros. 2, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, more Brain Training, more Pokémon. More of the same, sure, but more of the same in one franchise beloved of the hardcore and three of the biggest, most reliable series on the planet. It could be worse.
Iwata looked to precedent to allay the fears of analysts: "Nintendo DS gained momentum within a year in Japan; however, it took more than two years in the US and in the end the total sales of the Nintendo DS exceeded the Wii there."
That ignores the rather large and pressing fact that DS launched into a world without smartphones. But the sheer enduring strength and popularity of Nintendo's core franchises means that, for all the digital doubts (e.g. the painfully high price of downloadable back catalogue titles and, staggeringly, only now with the arrival of New Super Mario Bros. 2, a first toe in the water of paid-for DLC), the company can look to the near-future at least with confidence.
Which is to say, with another major hardware launch coming later this year, Nintendo has bigger things to worry about than 3DS. Even XL-sized.