The Nintendo 3DS, 10 Years Later

The Nintendo 3DS was born in March of 2011. Its last major game, Persona Q2, was released in June of 2019. That means the system had a good long life of 8 years. I still play my 3DS, so I don’t consider it dead yet, but I’ve realized that I’ve never made a post solely dedicated to it. It’s time to change that, and what better time than its 10-Year Anniversary?

The 3DS is Nintendo’s unsung hero — it carried their finances through most of the 2010s once Wii U sales collapsed. This was a vital position for it to hold, and yet it doesn’t carry the same renown as its predecessor or its successor. The DS is the highest-selling handheld of all time and the Switch is on its way to matching that. In fact, the Switch has officially outsold the 3DS and it’s only 4 years old. It’s safe to assume that for many people, Nintendo simply didn’t exist during the 3DS’s time in the spotlight, from 2011 to 2017.

That would’ve been me, too, if it weren’t for Pokemon X. The allure of a Pokemon game entirely in 3D was too much to resist, and so for several years the system was a machine my wife and I shared for playing Animal Crossing: New Leaf and the various Pokemon games. The more I played, the more I realized that the 3DS’s Circle Pad was, in fact, its most important feature. This little hockey puck of an analog stick actually fixed several problems I had with the original DS. The DS’s touchscreen certainly provided a novel control scheme, and for some games such as The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, the swiping and tapping managed to become second nature. However, the lack of any traditional analog controls held the DS back in other ways. The 3D games that did appear on the system such as Metroid Prime: Hunters and Super Mario 64 DS just never felt intuitive to control. I’ve concluded that the DS’s touchscreen, while novel, doesn’t outweigh the lack of analog controls and the problems that that presents.

The Circle Pad, on the other hand, was comfortable and effortless to control. It provided the opportunity to truly play 3D “console” games on the go, an important leap forward that the Switch would later deliver on a larger scale. Obviously the 3DS’s various ports from the N64, GameCube, PS2, and Wii delivered on that possibility, but Nintendo developed several original games that gave the same feeling. Mario Kart 7 and Super Smash Bros for 3DS felt exactly like portable versions of their Wii U counterparts. Ever Oasis was basically an original 3D Zelda game made by the developers of the Zelda remakes. Kid Icarus Uprising went back to more traditional DS controls, and that ended up with divisive results among reviewers. It appears that touch controls lost their luster for other people as well. Most 3DS games, though, relegated the touchscreen to inventory and maps, and to be perfectly honest… I preferred this less-invasive control scheme.

Nintendo was a master at hiding the 3DS’s limitations, using stylish art directions, streamlined game design, and outright technical wizardry. I have no idea how they got the cartoony charm of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon to work as well as it did, nor those dynamic animations found inside Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Few 3rd Party games looked as good as Nintendo’s, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the amount of support the system got with ports and original games that didn’t sacrifice much on performance.

The stereoscopic 3D effect, the feature behind the 3DS’s name, was surprisingly controversial. For some people it gave them headaches, and for others added little to the experience. For me, the stereoscopic 3D completely overhauled a game’s visuals. It smoothed out the sharp polygons and pixelated edges. The depth of field immersed me in these moving miniature dioramas. I preferred the 3DS ports of Star Fox 64 and Luigi’s Mansion for that very reason. Even games set on a 2D plane such as Kirby: Planet Robobot and Metroid: Samus Returns contained a rich atmosphere and a strong sense of setting thanks to that 3D effect.

However, the one place where the 3D feature truly shined was in a 3D Platformer. Players could accurately gauge the gaps and heights of obstacles and not need to guess based on shadows or the camera angle, like in a traditional display. I never missed a single jump in Super Mario 3D Land. Sadly, it was the only game of its kind on the system. I’m disappointed that there was never a renaissance of 3D Platformers on the 3DS. So much missed potential.

What did flourish on the 3DS, though, were JRPGs. Obviously the Pokemon games were massive blockbusters, but we also saw the resurrection of the Fire Emblem series, and the Mario & Luigi games were underrated gems. The 3rd Party support was robust in this genre from giants like Square Enix, Level-5, and Atlus. The JRPG library was stuffed with ports of old games like Dragon Quest VIII as well as new experiences like Bravely Default. Atlus’s games, such as Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology and Persona Q2 were not only my favorite JRPGs on the system, but some of my favorite JRPGs ever. I can’t wait to play their other hard-to-find masterpieces like Shin Megami Tensei IV and Etrian Odyssey V.

Speaking of underappreciated experiences, I never realized how fun StreetPass was until the Switch launched without it. If you left your 3DS in sleep mode and it got in range of another 3DS, the systems would swap information that you could access in the StreetPass Mii Plaza app. You met other players’ Mii avatars and they helped you play several different minigames. It was the perfect social experience for a handheld system. We took the 3DS everywhere while we traveled because it was so much fun to get a bunch of StreetPasses at the end of the day. Simply walking around became its own game. Nowadays I rarely get any StreetPasses (though that’s also partially because I’ve rarely traveled this past year); however, when I eventually go to Japan or PAX or GDC, you bet your bottom puzzle piece that I’ll be taking my 3DS with me.

The 3DS is in this strange era where physical production has ended and no new games are coming out, but the eShop is still running and games still have online support. That won’t last forever, but I will enjoy that digital support while it lasts. A few more 3DS games may get ported over to the Switch like Miitopia, but I expect most of them to remain on the 3DS. For that reason, I bought myself a refurbished New 3DS XL from Nintendo’s official website just so that I could have a backup. I know it’s a bit superfluous, but I love this system so much that I want to enjoy my library for quite a while. Happy 10th Anniversary, Nintendo 3DS. You were Nintendo’s workhorse for several years, and we will likely never have a handheld like you ever again.

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