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3D or not 3D - Nintendo's handhelds power forward

Dropping the 3D from the 3DS makes perfect sense when you consider Nintendo's goals - the best possible sales of Pokemon this Christmas

Say what you like about Nintendo (most people do, so you may as well join the fray), the company certainly still retains the ability to surprise. Nobody predicted the Nintendo 2DS, an ungainly looking slab that acts as a slightly-crippled younger brother to the 3DS and will almost certainly be the best selling games hardware of this Christmas. After years of promoting the wonders of the 3D display on the 3DS, Nintendo has stripped it out entirely - a move that's unsurprisingly attracted its fair share of derision.

That derision mostly takes the form of "I-told-you-so" smugness from people who have spent years arguing that the 3D tech in the handheld range was a gimmick. Granted, nobody should waste much time listening to the kind of blowhard who thinks that his incredibly cutting and insightful observation that a 3D display in a gaming handheld might be a "gimmick" makes him into some kind of crystal-ball-gazing mystic seer, and Nintendo is unlikely to lose much sleep over the opprobrium of such people. Of course it's a gimmick; the purpose of the 3D display is to make games look nicer and a bit more unique, not to feed the hungry or heal the sick.

"3D display has actually been a remarkably good use of the limited hardware resources Nintendo could pour into a mass-market handheld"

Equally, though, it's a very nice gimmick - with certain caveats. As long as you're sitting in a stable position (cars, buses and trains in motion don't work so well) that lets you hold the 3DS optimally, and as long as you're not one of the small but significant number of people who get awful headaches from artificial 3D effects, 3DS games do look lovely. The illusion of depth gives them a unique appeal that can't be replicated by any other device and makes even relatively simple characters and environments look polished and attractive. For all the caveats and the criticism, 3D display has actually been a remarkably good use of the limited hardware resources Nintendo could pour into a mass-market handheld - while other handheld devices are leapfrogged by technological progress every ten minutes, 3DS software still looks great now largely due to the 3D effect.

The 2DS dispenses summarily with all of that - which is a shame, in some regards, but is also a very good business move. Nintendo may carve its own path, but it's also responsive to the market - and more importantly, it's responsive to the demands of its own software. I've argued many times that Nintendo crafts its hardware strategy around the needs of its software franchises, while its platform holder rivals take exactly the opposite approach. Halo serves the needs of the Xbox platform, but platforms like the Wii and the 3DS serve the needs of Mario and Zelda. In this specific instance, the 2DS exists to serve the needs of what may be Nintendo's most valuable franchise - Pokemon.

Of course, the observation that the Nintendo 2DS' arrival will coincide with the arrival of Pokemon X & Y doesn't make me into a crystal-ball-gazing mystic seer either, since it's perfectly obvious for everyone to see. However, a lot of the comments I've read about this launch strategy talk about Pokemon X & Y being an important title to support the 2/3DS - which isn't a false statement, but is a significantly less useful way of looking at the strategy than the approach which says that the 2DS exists to support the launch of Pokemon X & Y, not vice versa.

"In order to be the optimal platform for the Pokemon franchise, the 3DS needed to be cheaper"

Nintendo's logic works like this - Pokemon, the company's most valuable franchise of recent years, is arriving on the 3DS. Sure, that's going to be great for the 3DS, but the larger question is about how to make it great for Pokemon - ask not what Pokemon can do for your game platform, but what your game platform can do for Pokemon. In order to be the optimal platform for the Pokemon franchise, the 3DS needed to be cheaper, it needed to inspire a bit more confidence in parent purchasers by being more durable and, crucially, it needed to drop the 3D effect in order to assuage the bad press which has dogged the notion of kids playing games with 3D effects has received, at least in North America and Europe. It doesn't matter that this was a USP for the console - what Pokemon needs, Pokemon gets. The 2DS will be a successful launch and drive lots of software sales, but it exists for one reason - to ensure that Pokemon X & Y get into the hands of as many kids as possible in Western markets this Christmas, and beyond.

The single-mindedness of this strategy does result in a number of rather odd issues with Nintendo's handheld line-up. For a start, the original 3DS is really just muddying the waters now - it's perfectly clear that the 3DS XL is the console of choice among the clamshell models, and the existence of three hardware models at three price points doesn't help Nintendo's case with consumers at all. More worryingly, the company still hasn't overcome the key branding cock-up which it made at the launch of this platform. Over 30 million hardware units later, I still talk to consumers (and the occasional utterly misguided industry professional) who think that the 3DS is a new model of the DS with a 3D screen - resulting in several comments over the past few days suggesting that the 2DS is "just a DS". In its anxiousness to tap into the positive branding of the DS, Nintendo has still failed to communicate to many people that this is an entirely new and much more powerful console (and it's repeating the same dumb mistake with the Wii U right now).

"the 2DS and the fantastic slate of software leading up to Christmas guarantee a solid holiday season for Nintendo's handheld"

2DS is going to compound that error, and I expect that the "isn't that just a DS then?" questions will be widespread as Christmas approaches - not least because the "3DS" branding on games, which was designed to put some clear blue water between the old platform and the new, is now about to be subverted by a 3DS console that isn't actually called "3DS". This is a platform which will be bought heavily by not particularly tech-savvy parents and grandparents for young Pokemon fans - would it really have been so much to ask that the company stick with the same branding that's printed on all its games, in order to avoid utter confusion about which games can be played on which consoles?

Regardless, the 2DS and the fantastic slate of software leading up to Christmas guarantee a solid holiday season for Nintendo's handheld - which looks set to continue confounding soi-disant mystics everywhere throughout 2014, as it continues to resist the supposedly inexorable rise of smartphone and tablet gaming. The Wii U, which received a price drop this week and will soon have the option of being bundled with Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker rather than Nintendo Land, is in a tougher position. Iwata is right on this; the price isn't all that important, but the software is vital. Both of these minor moves will help to keep the console alive, but until the company can start to get high-quality software onto the platform and build a portfolio worth playing, it's going to be on life support, at best.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.