The lowly tech specs of the 3DS won't be a problem for Nintendo - but replicating the DS' success will be very difficult
If this week's leak of the Nintendo 3DS tech spec is to be believed, the device - for all its innovation in terms of glasses-free stereoscopic 3D - is not going to break with any of the company's well-established philosophies of hardware design.
Ever since the announcement of the 3D display, various commentators have attempted to suggest that this device will see Nintendo bringing the fight to Sony and Apple, creating a world-beating handheld with powerful 3D graphics which will finally combine Nintendo's mass-market appeal with the high-octane graphics which more hardcore gamers crave.
The tech spec leak - assuming it is genuine - casts a rather more sober and realistic light on what the 3DS will actually be. The consensus among those who are familiar with the sort of apples vs. oranges comparisons required in ranking device capabilities alongside one another is that the system is broadly comparable with the original iPhone, albeit sporting a graphics chip which, while low-powered, is focused on providing exactly the kind of features game developers need.
Nintendo makes a point of never releasing official spec sheets for its consoles to the public, allowing the games to speak for themselves instead - and in this case, impressive screenshots of titles such as Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid have muted any outrage which would have resulted from the firm's lower than expected specifications.
However, it makes clear, if any clarification were required, that Nintendo will not be rejoining the technological arms race which Apple and Sony seem most likely to pursue. The 3DS, like its predecessor, will leverage tried and tested technology which can be cheaply mass-produced, pinning its hopes for market appeal on a change to the gaming experience (dual screens and touch interfaces, in the case of the DS; stereoscopic 3D this time around) rather than a major graphical overhaul.
Compared to the power of Apple's present iOS range - most recently seen wowing the gaming world with the graphical prowess of Epic Citadel - and the likely power of Sony's upcoming PSP successor, the 3DS is at least a generation behind. However, this wilful ignoring of the arms race in favour of a headline grabbing change to the experience is a tactic which has reaped rewards for Nintendo twice in a row. Will it succeed a third time?
If the excitement around the 3DS is any indication, then the answer is probably yes. Glasses-free stereoscopic 3D is something a great many consumers - not just early adopters - are keen to try out, and while there are question marks over how valuable mainstream adopters of the Wii found their purchase to be in the long term, no such issues exist with the DS.
A powerful, trusted brand and a genuinely exciting new experience are a combination which should ensure solid market performance for the 3DS. Any pundit predicting doom for the console based on its weak tech specs has clearly not been paying attention to the history of the past six or seven years - either in gaming or in consumer technology trends as a whole.
However, it would be foolish to predict stellar success for the 3DS without first taking into account the fact that market conditions now are very different to those which prevailed when the original DS was launched. Indeed, while I don't doubt the success of the 3DS, I believe that those changed conditions make it highly unlikely that the new console can match the success of its older sibling in the medium to long term.
Three major factors will make life difficult for the 3DS, and slow down sales after the initial rush of early adopters keen to try out the magic new 3D functionality.
The first of those factors is the rise of mobile - as distinct from portable - gaming. The DS launched into a market where mobile phone manufacturers and network operators were very keen to talk about gaming on mobile handsets, but consumers were rather less keen to actually play the things. Apple's iPhone has revolutionised that entire market segment, delivering a relatively consistent platform for developers to work on and, more importantly, a simple and easily understood mechanism for discovering, paying for and downloading games to your handset.
That this poses a significant dampening factor for the 3DS' sales is self-evident. Nintendo's enormous success in pulling in mass-market gamers with the DS has an Achilles' Heel, which is that this is the audience most likely to ask why they need more than one gaming device - unlike hardcore gamers, to whom "gotta catch 'em all" is far more than a Pokemon slogan. Apple's gaming-heavy marketing campaigns will make iOS device owners keenly aware of the gaming potential of their phones or iPods, creating a serious mental barrier to picking up a new gaming device.