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Looking back at the 3DS: Nintendo's pillar in the early 2010s

Nintendo made it official that the Nintendo 3DS was no longer in production in September of this year, marking the end of an era for the company. These days, Nintendo mostly lives off of the huge success of the Nintendo Switch, but it's impossible to overlook the fact that the 3DS was Nintendo's only pillar for a lot of the 2010s, as the Wii U home console failed to gain any meaningful traction.

The Nintendo 3DS wasn't the first console I owned, but it was the system that truly got me into gaming, when I started being passionate about games and franchises. It was when I started actively following gaming news and game launches, and it introduced me to what would become my favorite videogame series, The Legend of Zelda.

While it was Nintendo's least-successful handheld sales-wise, the Nintendo 3DS's legacy is undeniable. So, as we bid the console farewell, it's also time to take a look at its life and the kind of experiences Nintendo brought to the table with it. I'll also be interpolating some of my personal experiences with the console.

2010: A bad name and promised games

Nintendo formally introduced the successor to the Nintendo DS family in March 2010 through a simple press release. The Nintendo 3DS name was referred to as a temporary name at the time, but ended up being the final name, which some blamed for the console's initial lack of success. The console was revealed to feature 3D visuals without the need for special glasses, which was its headlining feature for the first few years of its life. It was also said that the console would be released by the end of March 2011, and feature backwards compatibility with Nintendo DS games.

The company would then go on to show off the console at E3, sporting a near final design, but many of the color options shown at the time ended up not happening. The 3DS model at the event also had a Circle Pad that matched the color of the console itself, while the final design would use a grey Circle Pad across the entire lineup.

Image credit: Maxvid Channel (YouTube)

E3 2010 also revealed an array of games coming to the system at some point, with a new Mario Kart, Paper Mario, a remake of Star Fox 64, Nintendogs + Cats, and more. Third-party support was also strong at the event, with games like Assassin's Creed: Lost Legacy, Resident Evil: Revelations, Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D being teased alongside many others. Many of the games announced by third parties ended up being cancelled, but not all of them.

The Nintendo 3DS was later revealed to be launching on February 26, 2011 in Japan, March 25 in Europe, and March 27 in North America, with an initial price of $249.99/€249.99.

2011: A slow start and the big comeback

As promised, the Nintendo 3DS launched in March 2011 in Western markets, but the console lacked a lot of appealing titles at launch. Its initial lineup consisted mostly of ports and remakes of older games, including Super Street Fighter IV 3D, Rayman 3D, and a handful of other third-party games. Nintendo itself didn't bring out any heavy-hitting titles, headlining the launch with Pilotwings Resort, Steel Diver, and Star Fox 64 3D, a remake of the Nintendo 64 classic.

Still, seeing the autostereoscopic 3D graphics at the store was a spectacle to behold, so I bought an Aqua Blue 3DS on April 28, 2011, and I actually didn't buy any games for it at the time. For the first few months, I played some Nintendo DS games and had fun with built-in software such as Face Raiders and the augmented reality games.

At E3 2011, Nintendo introduced the Nintendo eShop, the 3DS's digital marketplace that would be used to sell digital-only games; Virtual Console titles - games from older consoles re-released digitally; 3D Classics, a series of classic games recreated to use the console's 3D effects; and digital versions of retail games, a first for Nintendo at the time. The 3DS eShop would also offer the entire DSiWare library (minus 10 titles), which were digital-only games originally released for the Nintendo DSi and DSi XL through the DSi Shop.

Later that summer, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, a remake of the Nintendo 64 game that many considered to be one of the best games of all time. I got the game as a gift, and it was my first 3DS game ever. It also got me into the Zelda series, which would later become my favorite videogame franchise.

Despite that release, the Nintendo 3DS was still struggling a lot in the summer of 2011. In addition to the lack of heavy-hitting titles, some pointed out that relying on a very similar brand identity to the DS family hurt the new console, as customers assumed it was a revision of that console. Because of its failure to take off, Nintendo had to do something unprecedented - cut the console's price by a whopping $80 to $169.99, and late president Satoru Iwata cut his own salary by 50%, as well as that of other Nintendo executives by 20% to 30%.

As an apology to its most loyal fans who bought the console early on, Nintendo offered 20 free games to Ambassadors, the term it used to refer to the early buyers who paid the original price. 10 titles from the NES were given away on September 1, and 10 Game Boy Advance (GBA) games were released before the end of the year. The NES titles were made available for purchase for other customers, but the GBA games were never released outside on the 3DS outside of this.

I was very excited to play these games, but my first 3DS was unfortunately stolen in early September, and with no way to recover my data, I was unable to ever play the GBA games even though I bought a new console soon after. This time, I got a Flame Red (Metallic Red, in Europe) model that released in September, and I used it so much over the years that the Circle Pad wore off and I ended up gluing a third-party cover on it, which is why it looks like that.

After the price cut, the Nintendo 3DS's story finally started changing, and more good news were on the way. In November 2011, Nintendo released Super Mario 3D Land, the first original Mario game on the console, and the first original 3D Mario game on a handheld. This was a landmark of the 3DS's library, and it was also notable because it converted the formula of 2D Mario games into a game where you move around in a 3D space. 2D and 3D Mario games are always quite different so this was a very unique take on the franchise at the time. Then, in December, Mario Kart 7 came out, bringing one of Nintendo's most successful franchises to the platform, along with new features like gliding and underwater sections, which ended up becoming staples of the series. I bought and loved both of these games, but I waited until 2012 to get Super Mario 3D Land.

These two games completely changed the perception of the 3DS, and by the end of 2011, the console had sold 15 million units.

2012: Fending off Sony and recouping costs

By the end of 2011, Sony had launched its rival to the 3DS, the PlayStation Vita, in Japan, after proving itself to be a worthy presence in the handheld space with the PlayStation Portable. The Vita had much more power than the 3DS, but it was also hailed for having two analog sticks, while Nintendo had stuck with a single Circle Pad on the 3DS.

To address concerns from fans, Nintendo introduced the Circle Pad Pro, an accessory that attached to the 3DS, adding a second Circle Pad and an additional pair of shoulder buttons. In Japan, the accessory was launched in late 2011 alongside Monster Hunter 3G, but because the Monster Hunter franchise often took some time to make its way to Western markets, the accessory debuted alongside Resident Evil: Revelations overseas in early 2012, just before the Vita was released in those markets.

Resident Evil: Revelations was also a major title for the 3DS, having received acclaim from many reviewers and users at the time - so much so that the game was eventually ported to home consoles, and even received a sequel in 2015 (which, unfortunately, didn't release on the 3DS). I spent over 100 hours on this game, beating the Raid Mode levels at every difficulty level with the highest rank. It's very fun and technically impressive for the console.

After cutting the price of the original 3DS so significantly in 2011, Nintendo was likely selling Nintendo 3DS systems with a very low profit margin, if any. So, in 2012, the company also took steps to make the hardware more profitable by releasing the Nintendo 3DS XL. The first hardware revision of the 3DS bumped up the screen size, but also felt significantly cheaper, mostly using plastic for its build. It also didn't come with a power adapter - though, to be fair, Nintendo had been using the same power adapter since the Nintendo DSi - and retailed for $199, $30 more than the standard model. The 3DS XL didn't add a second Circle Pad or more shoulder buttons, so there was actually a variant of the Circle Pad Pro released for this model as well. I didn't get either of these things, since the original 3DS hardware was pretty much the same.

Nintendo had some great games release in 2012 for the system. The company released Kid Icarus: Uprising, which was a noteworthy release because the company revived a franchise that only received two games at that point, the last one released over 20 years prior on the Game Boy. The revival was directed by Masahiro Sakurai, known for directing the Super Smash Bros. series of games, which had actually brought back the main character of the Kid Icarus games, Pit, through Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii in 2008. The game was critically acclaimed, and while we have yet to see a new entry, it has been requested by many fans.

Many other great games released on the 3DS in 2012. Animal Crossing: New Leaf helped propel the series into the mainstream, with other notable titles such as New Super Mario Bros. 2, Mario Tennis Open, and Paper Mario: Sticker Star also released this year. In Japan, Fire Emblem: Awakening also released this year, though it only came to other markets in 2013.

Between the new games and hardware, the Nintendo 3DS had sold 29.84 million units by the end of 2012, almost doubling its user base.

2013: Pokémon and cheaper consoles

No Nintendo handheld is complete without a mainline Pokémon game, and 2013 started off with great news for fans of the franchise. On January 8, the first ever Pokémon Direct was hosted, and it was revealed that Pokémon X and Y would be the franchise's debut on the 3DS later that year. The games introduced the new Kalos region, based on France, new creatures, and Mega Evolution, in addition to being the first games fully rendered in 3D, after almost two decades of sprite-based battle scenarios. The games would launch later that year on October 12, being the first games in the series with a simultaneous worldwide release.

As you can see, I own Pokémon Y, and I was amazed by it at the time, mostly because it had the most advanced graphics for a mainline Pokémon game at the time, and the locations in these games were beautiful. Looking back at them, it feels like one of the more forgettable experiences in the franchise, but it was a necessary step towards a better future for the franchise.

In 2013, Nintendo also decided it was time to make the 3DS ecosystem more accessible, and the company introduced the Nintendo 2DS as a more affordable entry point. The Nintendo 2DS removed support for stereoscopic 3D, got rid of the clamshell design for more of a slate-like look, and only had a mono speaker rather than a stereo setup. The price point was $129.99, $40 cheaper than the 3DS, and despite its limitations, all 3DS games worked with the console. It seemed that, by this point, interest in stereoscopic 3D was starting to wane, though Nintendo would keep investing in the technology.

The Nintendo 2DS released on October 12 alongside the new Pokémon games, and conveniently came in the same colors represented by those games, red and blue. The franchise is very popular among children, so this was a clear attempt to get more users on the 3DS ecosystem through Pokémon.

There were other major games released this year, though. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was the first original Zelda game on the platform, and a sequel to A Link to the Past from the Super Nintendo. The world was largely based on that game, but with new traversal mechanics and the whole new kingdom of Lorule, a dark version of Hyrule. The game also challenged some conventions of Zelda games, since instead of going to all the game's dungeons in a specific order and obtaining items that are required to navigate the next dungeon, you can rent or buy items at will and choose dungeons where those items are more useful.

There was also Luigi's Mansion 2, or Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon depending on where you live, another revival of a series thought to be dead. The original Luigi's Mansion was a launch title for the GameCube in 2001, and nothing had been heard of the series since. Nintendo handed over development of the series to Next Level Games, and the game was generally well-received, eventually prompting a third entry that released in 2019 on the Nintendo Switch. This was my first experience with Luigi's Mansion, and it was a fantastic one. Both with it and the sequel, it's hard for me to pinpoint what makes it so great, but it's just straightforward fun and enjoyable the whole time.

Other Nintendo games in 2013 included Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, a new title in the RPG series, and Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D, a port of the critically-acclaimed Wii title developed by Retro Studios. Fire Emblem: Awakening also released outside of Japan this year. Meanwhile, third-parties chimed in with Lego City Undercover: The Chase Begins, a remake of Dragon Quest VII, Yo-kai Watch, and Monster Hunter 4, all of which were 3DS exclusives, though only the first of those released outside of Japan at the time. However, Monster Hunter 3G released as Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate in Western markets this year after launching in late 2011 in Japan.

The Nintendo 3DS continued to grow fairly well thanks to the new games and the lower entry barrier, reaching a total of 42.74 million units sold by the end of 2013.

2014: The first portable Super Smash Bros.

In most of the world, 2014 was a quiet year for 3DS hardware, but Nintendo released some of the most prolific games in the library this year, specifically Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. The Super Smash Bros. series had never received an entry on a handheld console at this point, and seeing the 3DS get its own game that featured all the same characters as the Wii U version was an impressive feat. The game did feature different game modes and battle stages, which focused more on representing games that originally released on handheld systems.

The game was one of the most technically demanding titles on the 3DS. In fact, it was impossible to open any of the multitasking apps (such as Game Notes or Miiverse) in the HOME menu on the original 3DS, 3DS XL, and 2DS models, since it uses too much of the system's RAM. Later revisions of the 3DS had more RAM, making it possible to open those apps.

That wasn't the only major game release of 2014, though. The Pokémon series returned with another entry, this time a remake of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, originally released on the Game Boy Advance. Pokémon OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire fully transitioned the games into 3D and added the mechanics introduced by Pokémon X and Y, plus new plot elements, including free downloadable content that was released later, the Delta Episode.

Nintendo also released Kirby Triple Deluxe, the first original Kirby game on the platform, which was fairly well received. Yoshi's New Island was also released this year, but its reception wasn't very positive overall. The title was heavily inspired by Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, and it followed a template that became common for Nintendo at the time - adding the word "New" to an existing name.

The pace of hardware sales slowed down this year, with the 3DS reaching 50.51 million units sold by the end of 2014.

2015: A New Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo's usage of the word "New" in product names culminated with the release of the Nintendo 3DS's mid-generation refresh. The New Nintendo 3DS actually debuted at the tail end of 2014 in Japan and Australia, but it only became widely available in 2015. In fact, Nintendo's release strategy was kind of confusing. The standard New Nintendo 3DS launched alongside the New Nintendo 3DS XL in Europe on February 13, 2015, but in North America, only the XL model was launched at the same time. The standard New 3DS was only released on September 25 in the region, almost a full year after its Japanese debut.

Both New Nintendo 3DS models featured significant upgrades over the originals, including double the RAM (with a faster data rate) and a faster CPU, which allowed for some games to release exclusively on the revisions. Nintendo also finally integrated a C-Stick (serving as a second Circle Pad) and two shoulder buttons in these models, removing the need for the Circle Pad Pro accessory.

The autostereoscopic 3D effect was also improved with Super Stable 3D, which used a newly-added IR camera to track the user's eyes, allowing the console to adjust the way the 3D effect was displayed to be visible at more angles. Nintendo also added automatic brightness adjustment thanks to ambient light sensors, and the image quality of the cameras was improved, though the resolution was the same. Both models also featured slightly improved battery life and an NFC reader to add support for Nintendo's amiibo figures, which first debuted in 2014.

The standard New 3DS featured a design with interchangeable faceplates, which allowed for more customization, and it also slightly increased the display size compared to the original 3DS model. The New 3DS XL was more so focused on offering a premium-feeling design, and it kept the same display size as the original 3DS XL. Between the two, I chose the standard New 3DS because of the interchangeable faceplates.

To go along with the new models, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D, a remake of the other Zelda title from the Nintendo 64 era, featuring similar improvements to what the Ocarina of Time remake had offered. On the same day, Capcom released Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, an enhanced version of the title released in Japan in 2013. Nintendo also released Xenoblade Chronicles 3D a couple of months later, as an exclusive for the New 3DS models.

Other big Nintendo releases in 2015 included Fire Emblem Fates, which came in three versions, Birthright, Conquest, and Revelation; The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, a co-operative multiplayer game in the Zelda franchise; Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, the last game in the RPG series before developer AlphaDream went bankrupt; and Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon. In Japan, Monster Hunter X (known internationally as Monster Hunter Generations) was also released in 2015.

With the new models released and some new games, the Nintendo 3DS family maintained its momentum and totaled 57.94 million units sold by the end of 2015.

2016: Dwindling success, and the return of Pokémon

In 2015 and 2016, Nintendo was gearing up to release the Nintendo Switch, still known at the time as NX. After the Wii U failed to garner any sort of success and with good, but not great performance for the 3DS sales-wise, Nintendo had announced plans to enter the mobile gaming market through a partnership with developer DeNA, in addition to announcing the NX as a new piece of hardware. Because of efforts put into those initiatives, the amount and quality of games releasing on existing platforms began to dwindle.

Kirby: Planet Robobot was one of the great games of 2016, offering more of an innovative experience in the Kirby franchise compared to Triple Deluxe. Nintendo also released a version of Super Mario Maker, originally a Wii U title, for the handheld, but removed the online sharing feature for courses, which was one of the most appealing features of the original. Nintendo released other poorly received games this year, such as Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash and Metroid Prime: Federation Force, both titles in dormant franchises at the time that failed to reinvigorate them due to a lack of quality.

However, the 3DS family still had a trump card for 2016, as a new generation of Pokémon games debuted with Pokémon Sun and Moon. The seventh generation of games introduced more freeform movement compared to previous generations and tweaked some of the conventions of the franchise, such as by replacing the traditional Gyms with trial battles, and the removal of Hidden Machines. Once again, I bought and loved these titles, and in my opinion, these aged much better than X and Y. The changes introduced in these games were huge evolutions for the series, and the plot and characters are much more interesting.

This year, Nintendo also cut the price of the Nintendo 2DS, which had yet to receive a refresh or successor, from $129.99 to just $79.99, lowering the entry barrier into the ecosystem even further. Because of this, and the larger success of the new Pokémon games, the Nintendo 3DS family managed to maintain its momentum and reached a total of 65.30 million units sold.

2017 - 2019: One last revision and a steady decline

In 2017, Nintendo released the Switch, and the 3DS began being advertised as more of cheaper way to access Nintendo experiences. The company decided to bring out one last revision of the console, the Nintendo 2DS XL. Unlike the other New models, the New 2DS XL was meant to exist alongside the regular 2DS and it was significantly different from it. It maintained the clamshell design and stereo speakers of the standard models, plus it had all the enhancements introduced with the New 3DS and New 3DS XL, such as the increased processing power, RAM, and new control methods. Of course, 3D support was still absent, and the console was $20 cheaper than the New 3DS.

Because the Switch became Nintendo's primary focus, Nintendo didn't put a ton of effort into developing new games after this point, but the company kept putting out games for the console. However, they were mostly ports, remakes, or otherwise small titles. The console's "last hurrah" was the release of Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon in November 2017, an enhanced version of the 2016 games with some new mini-games, new trial battles, and a whole new side story involving an evil team called Team Rainbow Rocket.

These games were still quite successful, but they were the only ones selling well at this point. However, Nintendo released a lot more titles on the platform until 2019, mostly ports and remakes of prior games. Metroid: Samus Returns was a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus on the Game Boy, and it was the first appearance of a mainline Metroid game in years after the poor reception of Metroid Prime Federation Force. Nintendo did publish some original titles this year, like Ever Oasis and Mario Sports Superstars, though without much success.

By the end of 2017, the console had sold 71.99 million units, and things went down very quicky from there.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a remake of the second game in the franchise was released, as was Fire Emblem Warriors, though this game also had a Switch version. The GameCube title Luigi's Mansion was brought to the 3DS in 2018, remakes of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and Bowser's Inside Story were both released on the console, and more. The last Nintendo-published game on the console was Kirby's Extra Epic Yarn in March 2019, an enhanced port of the Wii title, Kirby's Epic Yarn. Outside of Nintendo games, Minecraft was released exclusive for New 3DS and New 2DS XL models in 2018.

None of these games managed to sell more than a million units, however, and though Nintendo seemed to refuse to give up for a while, it only made sense for the company to call it quits. By the end of 2018, the console had sold 74.84 million units, and one year later, it sat at 75.71 million.

Gone, but not forgotten

The Nintendo 3DS wasn't Nintendo's most successful console, and it fell victim to the company's overconfidence after the Wii and DS era. But with over 75 million units sold, it's hard to say that it did poorly, and it was Nintendo's only hope until the release of the Switch in 2017. The 3DS did what Nintendo needed it to do when it was needed the most.

And for fans, the 3DS brought about new concepts that were either new and unique at the time or that simply became staples of Nintendo's franchises. Super Mario 3D Land merged the formulas of 2D and 3D Mario games wonderfully and prompted a successor on the Wii U, Super Mario 3D World, a game that's coming to the Switch next year. Mario Kart 7 introduced driving mechanics that kept being used for Mario Kart 8 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Animal Crossing: New Leaf was the most successful game in the series at the time and opened the door for the success of New Horizons on the Switch. The Pokémon games on the system, especially Sun and Moon, modernized the series' gameplay and got rid of some of the most annoying elements of it. Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS was the first handheld game in the series and was executed extremely well despite the limitations of the hardware. Series like Kid Icarus and Luigi's Mansion were brought back to life thanks to the 3DS and have become games that Nintendo fans look forward to.

Some of the most memorable moments I've had in gaming were on the 3DS. Aside from the games I just mentioned, I loved Resident Evil: Revelations, and I often heard more praise for it than for the main series at the time. I loved The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D so much I bought it twice, since my original copy was stolen alongside my original 3DS. That game truly made Zelda my favorite video game series, and I'm thankful that I got to experience it when I did.

I'm glad Nintendo is focusing its development efforts on the Switch now, but I cherish my experiences on the 3DS, and it will always be a system I remember fondly. Looking at how its games influenced future Nintendo titles, I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Do you, or did you, own a Nintendo 3DS? What are your best or worst memories of it? Share your experiences in the comments below!

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