I remember some years ago when one of my Japanese friends jokingly said that “It’s so popular in Japan that it seems like everyone receives one when they are born.” He was referring to the massive popularity of the Nintendo DS at the time, the handheld gaming console that has now gone on to ship roughly 153 million units worldwide, dominating the handheld market both domestically in Japan and abroad. It was a humorous testament to the simple fact that Nintendo has quite successfully been able to maneuver between the home console market and handheld console market with ease, often times with the latter retaining a monopoly over its competitors. It should come as no surprise then to see that Nintendo has increasingly been allocating some of the biggest video game console franchises, both past and present, to the Nintendo 3DS, creating a trend that is as interesting as it is perplexing.
With future 3DS releases such as Monster Hunter 4, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and the recently announced The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past 2, Nintendo seems poised to bring many popular franchises to the small, portable screens of its handheld console. With the recent slump in Wii U sales (which According to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, is due to the company’s philosophy of delivering “valuable titles” for the Wii U), the subtle shift towards more popular titles being released on the 3DS rather than the Wii U is seemingly a confusing decision felt by some gamers, eliciting a notion of abandonment as the latest iterations of the franchises they love can now only be experienced through the 3DS. This decision also does not help to reinvigorate the dilapidated faith in the Wii U itself as a sustainable next-gen video game console–as sales unfortunately prove–leaving many gamers to anticipate other, unreleased video game consoles as viable future purchases.
But from an economical perspective, it does strangely make sense. Capcom had already released Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (2012) at a time in which speculation surrounding the lack of titles for the Wii U was reaching its peak. It was a smart decision, but it was also a title that already had an established fan base to support it, with many fans viewing it as a system selling title for both the Wii U and 3DS respectively. With the announcement that Monster Hunter 4 will be heading solely to the 3DS, one can begin to see that even third-party companies such as Capcom are dedicating much more of their time towards developing major titles for the 3DS over the Wii U.
Even one of the most popular role-playing game series in the last several years is making its home on the 3DS. The Shin Megami Tensei series, an Atlus franchise that gained immense popularity through Playstation 2 titles such as Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (2007) and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (2008), has slowly made its presence felt on 3DS through such titles as Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (2009), Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (2010), Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 (2012), and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers (2013). With Shin Megami Tensei IV now heading onto the 3DS as well, many hardcore SMT fans have already made the jump and purchased a 3DS in order to play this title alone. The improved versions of some of these games, including Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable (2010) and Persona 4 Golden (2012) have made their way to the PSP and PS Vita respectively, showing how important the handheld market has truly become for many major video game companies.
Perhaps the biggest surprise emanated from the announcement of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past 2, a title that stems from a franchise that has remained one of Nintendo’s most popular to date. The surprise did not simply come from Nintendo unveiling a new Zelda title–this was bound to happen regardless–but rather the fact that it would appear on the 3DS. Considering the status of the original The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as one of the most critically acclaimed titles ever released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), to have its direct sequel appear on a handheld console such as the 3DS showcases Nintendo’s vast understanding–or misjudgment–of the franchise in a contemporary light.
But with the growing smartphone and tablet market steadily encroaching upon the sales of handheld consoles, one can see that Nintendo’s lead in the market is slowly losing traction. According to a 2013 report from market research firm Juniper Research, smartphones and their apps now account for roughly half of all game downloads, with the number of gamers playing on such devices actually surpassing the number playing on home consoles. With mobile devices now starting to take precedence over handheld console gaming, it would seem that either Nintendo (and other gaming companies) will have to adjust to the looming shift in market dynamics or continue to do what they have always done and simply hope for the best.
But considering the robust nature of the Japanese market in regards to handheld consoles, Nintendo’s decision to release popular franchises on the 3DS may not be as effective a strategy in the context of a Western market. Unlike Japan, handheld consoles in America consists of a small, niche audience, with more gamers directed towards home console gaming, or like stated earlier, the smartphone and tablet markets. Factors towards why this is runs aplenty–lack of advertisement, societal presence, and even word-of-mouth–but the fact remains that a niche audience always has a difficult time persuading the masses to accept a concept, idea, or design. This is not to say that it cannot be done, but even having some of the most popular titles on a handheld console does not mean it will ultimately succeed when one considers the cultural background of its audience.
So what does this all mean? Nintendo certainly wants to promote the 3DS as the handheld console to go to in order to play some of the most popular franchises and titles around, even if it means somewhat alienating the traditional video game console player base. With such titles as Mario Party 3DS, Mario Golf: World Tour, and Yoshi’s Island 3DS recently announced as well, the 3DS seems to be taking priority as Nintendo’s leading platform. It is a bold move for sure, and it can further position Nintendo as the leader in handheld console gaming, but is it really worth it without a push for market readjustment? And with the poor sales of the Wii U, perhaps Nintendo can foresee a future in which the portability of gaming eventually becomes the standard–like smartphones and tablets are continually proving–with Nintendo having the opportunity to be ahead of the curb in the global shift of the handheld console market. Or maybe they are simply wrong. Either way, time–and sales–will inevitably tell all, with Nintendo continuing to move forward in a technological field that is rapidly changing every year.