Happy birthday, 3DS! It's been a rollercoaster of a year for Nintendo's glasses-free 3D gaming handheld, which was first released on March 27, 2011. In the 365 days since it first hit America's grubby hands, the 3DS has been the subject of both admiration and derision, both high highs and low lows.
And although at this point it has found some level of stability — Nintendo sold an impressive 15 million copies worldwide as of January — pundits and analysts still love to tell the world that it, along with all other dedicated gaming handhelds, are surely doomed.
But it's gotten so much better. Over the past year, Nintendo has turned the system from a punchline to a powerful piece of hardware that is worth buying, not mocking. Let's review.
March, 2011: Abysmal, to say the least. Submarine game Steel Diver earned a bit of attention, but there were no killer apps or surefire hits in Nintendo's US launch lineup. The real meat would come later in 2011 with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and Super Mario 3D Land, both of which were fantastic, popular games. But in March, software was painfully barren.
March, 2012: Far more impressive. It was weird for a Nintendo system to not have any great games on it. Really weird. But, thankfully, the library stopped sucking when Nintendo started putting out games like Mario and Zelda, which offer the type of stellar platforming and adventuring experiences you just can't get anywhere else. Original games like Mario Kart 7, Kid Icarus: Uprising, and Pushmo are also really great additions.
March, 2011: Non-existent. The online eShop — where you can download digital games and apps — didn't launch until June.
March, 2012: Solid, but not quite where it needs to be. Nintendo has somewhat adapted to modern times, recently releasing an update that allows you to save your credit card information and download apps while doing other things. You can download demos, 3D videos, and old games for systems like the Nintendo, Game Boy Advance, and Game Gear. But you still can't download full retail games like you can on just about every other gaming device not made by Nintendo.
March, 2011: Weak. You could take photos and play around with a few built-in games, like the location-based semi-RPG Find Mii, but until the eShop's release later last year, there wasn't much available.
March, 2012: Between the addictive (and brilliant) SwapNote messaging system and the proper implementation of promised features, like 3D video shooting, the 3DS's library of apps is no longer a joke. Find Mii 2 is just as addictive as its predecessor, and you can actually browse the Internet (for all three people in the world who care).
March, 2011: $US250, which many saw as too expensive for what the system had to offer.
March, 2012: $US170, following a drastic price cut last summer. (For missing out on the drop, Nintendo gave original owners access to 20 free NES and Game Boy Advance games.) Far more reasonable, although it'd be nice if retail 3DS games were less than $US40 a pop.
March, 2011: Sony's PlayStation Portable was on its last legs and far more popular in Japan than here in the US Apple's iPad and iPhone were the real threat to Nintendo, with their super-cheap games (like Angry Birds) and the fact that just about everybody had one.
March, 2012: Although Apple's newest iPad might not have the buttons or joysticks to properly compete with a dedicated gaming system, it will certainly pose a threat thanks to its convenience and cheap library of great games. Sony's new PlayStation Vita is in its infancy, and we have yet to really see a killer app for that system. As developers start releasing powerful new hardware for both the iPad and Vita, Nintendo will have to step up its game, fighting back with original new Mario and Zelda titles as well as the type of third-party support it enjoyed for its last handheld, the DS.
The Circle Pad Pro
March, 2011: Hard to imagine. Though gamers wondered whether the 3DS would eventually get a second joystick nub, nobody pictured the ridiculous Circle Pad Pro accessory until Nintendo unveiled it later last year.
March, 2012: An omen for the future? Some 16 months after Nintendo first released its DS handheld in 2004, it released the DS Lite. Many have assumed that Nintendo will soon announce a new iteration of the 3DS, complete with the second nub that the Circle Pad Pro has to offer. Especially when you consider that it is pivotal for some games, like Metal Gear Solid 3D and Resident Evil Revelations. Hopefully the next 3DS doesn't look that silly.
The 3DS has just gotten better and better over the past year, but there's still room for improvement. Nintendo's 3D handheld will live or die based on how it adapts to what we expect from our gaming systems in the year 2012. We'll likely see a new version of the hardware at some point in the coming year or two. We'll also see entries in strong first-party series like Paper Mario, Animal Crossing, and Luigi's Mansion. With any luck, it will follow in its predecessor's footsteps and become a magnet for the types of series that might not work on other systems, like Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton.
So what next? Well, Nintendo needs to allow the 3DS to support full retail downloads. It needs to give you access to the eShop on your web browser. It needs to continue attracting high-quality game developers. And it needs to stop caring about 3D, because the rest of the world sure has.