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The Nintendo 3DS Is the Greatest Handheld Console of All Time

Having sold tens of millions since 2011, Nintendo's portable console is a commercial hit. But it's also an essential window onto video gaming history.

by Mike Diver
14 February 2016, 3:00pm

Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham

Five years and the best part of 58 million units sold since its February 2011 launch, Nintendo's 3DS is the only handheld games console you need in your chunky backpack, subversive print-tote or remarkably roomy coat pocket in 2016. Its only "console-proper" rival, the PlayStation Vita, is as good as dead, with Sony refusing to commit first-party resources to developing new titles for their commercially flat-lining portable. Following the 154 million sales of the DS range before Nintendo's twin-screen system took on the (autostereoscopic) third dimension, the 3DS's market dominance is absolute. And the console's completely changed my relationship with video games since I got one to call my own. Not that its early reception was entirely positive.

Writing on IGN just a couple of months on from its stateside release in March 2011, Audrey Drake remarked that her 3DS had been "collecting dust for weeks", highlighting a lack of launch window third-party titles, adding: "I'm now an extremely dissatisfied customer." Sales were slow, and Nintendo laid the blame for the console's sluggish commercial performance on a lack of high-profile software. With the company losing money to the tune of billions of yen, a price cut had to come – and when it did, it was dramatic. In the UK, the 3DS's initial price of £229.99 was slashed to under £150 just months after its launch. It was a gamble for Nintendo, but one that paid off – it knew that some big-hitters were on the horizon, games that could push the 3DS into profitability.

In November 2011, Super Mario 3D Land began to change the fortunes of the 3DS, ultimately selling over 10 million copies. A month later came Mario Kart 7, which has (to date) beaten that figure by over 2.5 million. Pokémon series titles in 2013 and 2014, a handful of Monster Hunters, "life simulators" Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Tomodachi Life, and more Mario Bros. entries have all racked up sales figures in the multi-millions. The rest is history, save a few headaches. The 3DS is more than just a success; it's another Nintendo phenomenon to rank up there with the handheld that started them all, the Game Boy. Not that Nintendo's debut portable of 1989 was the first on-the-go system – that was Milton Bradley's Microvision, released in 1979. But ask anyone aged between, say, 25 and 40 where their mobile gaming experiences began, and they'll almost certainly answer the Game Boy. (With DS being the most likely response of anyone younger.)

A range of Game Boy models – I eventually owned (and still do) the clear version of what you see here in green, front left (photo via Wikipedia)

I wasn't allowed to have a Game Boy, as a kid. I'd pore over pictures of the whitish-grey machine, with its monochromatic LCD screen, recognisably NES-like face controls, and glowing red power indicator. I'd go to bed with the Argos catalogue, dreaming of what it'd be like to own one, with a copy of the always-bundled Tetris and whatever else I could grab from the store in question – some Bugs Bunny platformer, Alleyway and the first Super Mario Land. But my parents never relented, despite my repeated requests in the run up to several Christmases and birthdays.

Maybe today I can see their point of it "just being a toy", something I'd quickly grow out of – it was a plaything, a time-killer/filler, whereas the family Amiga did so much more (not that we ever used it for homework). Years later, in the late-1990s, my then-girlfriend got a summer job at Nintendo, and one day brought me home a Game Boy Pocket – the clear model – with a couple of games: The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening (amazing), and Disney's Mulan (I'm not sure I ever played more than five minutes of it). I quickly picked up Tetris, Tennis, Pokémon Blue and a couple more cartridges – including the impossibly difficult Star Wars – but Zelda aside, few held my attention. I had grown out of these simple games – that, and as an 18 year old, many more ways to fill my evenings had just opened up to me.

Handheld gaming didn't pique my interest again for 15 years and change. I'd been through a degree and a publishing job in London, worked for well over a decade in music journalism and begun writing about games as a paid gig (I know, right?) before an email from Nintendo caught my attention. Super Smash Bros. was being relaunched for the company's contemporary consoles, the Wii U and 3DS. I'd played 2001's Melee on the GameCube, liked it, and was keen to check this new version out. Small problem: it was coming out first for the 3DS, and I didn't have one. No problem, as it turned out – Nintendo would loan me a 3DS XL (the bigger-screened model), and a copy of the game. A few days later, sure enough, the postie delivered me a little bundle of joy. I got more than stuck in – every commute was a chance to face a new challenger, and I worked hard on unlocking every character, from EarthBound's Ness to Falco from the Star Fox franchise and Mr Game & Watch. Link and Kirby became my main guys, and while I'm certainly not proficient enough at the new Smash to take on the pros, I reached a personally satisfying level. Eventually, Nintendo needed the 3DS, and game, back. I was close to inconsolable (no pun intended), but another games writer came to my aid.

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I bought a second-hand 3DS XL from a gentleman called Dom. It had a few knocks, nicks and scratches on it, no big deal. So if you see a slightly battered 3DS covered in VICE and Ninja Tune stickers on a train anytime soon, take a peek around it and you'll probably find me – hiya. It's perhaps the greatest gaming investment I've made in recent years, and I absolutely include the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in that snap assessment. I adore my 3DS, and to repeat a point you might have missed earlier: it completely has changed the way I relate to video games, how they impact my life, and the amount of time I even get to spend with them.

You might think that covering games full time means that I play a lot of them. Wrong. Covering games full time means spending hour upon hour chasing stories and commissioning articles; subbing, publishing and promoting content; liaising with other in-house departments about potential new projects; handling everyday admin (people have to get paid); responding to events and announcements that demand instant coverage; and generally keeping on top of an inbox that's got more pitches in it right now than an entire Major League Baseball season. So when it comes to getting hands-on with the "big" console releases of any given year, most of the time I'm in for five, six hours, top. Fallout 4? Barely four. Metal Gear Solid V? Nine. I finished The Witcher 3 and its Hearts of Stone DLC, but that is the exception to the rule. Bloodborne? I'm still the wrong side of Father Gascoigne.

Related: Check out the top 20 games of 2015, according to VICE

But I've sunk a solid 12 hours, at least, into The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and I'm still some way short of finishing 2013's fantastic 3DS RPG. It's a beautiful game, portable but so far from being a compressed take on home-console cousins. And I think that's why, for me, the 3DS has become such an essential amongst my gaming hardware – its games are only rarely "pocket-sized editions" of others you'll have played on more-powerful systems. A Link Between Worlds is a bespoke production that is both lovingly crafted with nostalgia for the SNES's A Link to the Past and the Game Boy's Link's Awakening, and built to perfectly fit the specifications of the 3DS. It makes great use of the 3D, for one thing, with dungeons playing out across a number of simultaneously visible levels, and Link's wall-merging ability always looking exquisite. The same is true of Super Mario 3D Land, which uses the system's stereoscopic top screen to better telegraph routes through stages, and its gyroscope for aiming first-person tools, like binoculars. Neither of these games would work so sweetly on any other platform.

Promotional art for 'The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds'

Which is why it's slightly saddening to see Square Enix's brand-new Final Fantasy Explorers – an engaging take on Capcom's Monster Hunter series, albeit simplified and featuring famous Final Fantasy characters – completely ignore the graphical potential of the 3DS. While every game on the handheld can conceivably be played in 2D, Explorers is only ever that way, no matter how far you push the side-mounted 3D slider. That doesn't particularly detract from what is an enjoyable romp through FF-series sights and sounds (so far, at least – my blue-haired Gary is only six or so hours into her adventuring), but Explorers isn't a game that feels unique to the 3DS. Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, a ghost-busting blast through a series of haunted houses, absolutely does; likewise the sublime Mario Golf: World Tour, a sunshine-kissed sports sim that never fails to brighten my day. The 3D is a vital gameplay ingredient of the terrific puzzler Pushmo (aka Pullblox), and makes N64-era Zelda titles Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask look better than they ever have.

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And it's accessibility to older games that really makes the 3DS such an indispensible companion for me, on my travels. I've armed mine with a 16GB memory card, onto which I can load any number of old-school NES and Game Boy titles, via Nintendo's digital eShop. So whereas the Game Boy was a toy, the 3DS is a window on the very history of gaming culture. I can use it to play NESsentials like Super Mario Bros. 3, the original Castlevania and Metroid, and Punch-Out!!, as well as GB winners like Kirby's Dream Land and Super Mario Land 2 (both in black and white, of course). And it's not just Nintendo's past that's preserved here – a number of releases for SEGA's Game Gear are on the eShop, while Japanese developer M2's series of SEGA titles "remastered" for the 3DS is regularly delivering the definitive versions of childhood favourites.

"I think all of these classic SEGA titles have much to offer, in terms of evergreen gameplay appeal," is what M2 president Naoki Horii told me in 2015. And having played through the 3DS updates of Streets of Rage 2, Out Run, Fantasy Zone and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, each of which add new gameplay modes to familiar experiences, I can honestly say that these are the best these games have ever been.

'Chrono Trigger' is playable on the DS, which means you can play it on the 3DS, and you really should

The 3DS's backwards compatibility with DS game cards (all 2,000-plus of them) is another massive part of the handheld's appeal. In recent months I've laughed myself sideways while simultaneously saving a high-school girl's relationship in the awesome rhythm-action game Elite Beat Agents; built a drug empire capable of impressing real-life dealers in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars; and shat my pants exploring the USS Sulaco in Aliens Infestation, aka the one Gearbox-made Aliens-series game you should play, and not the stinking Colonial Marines. And then there's Chrono Trigger. Perhaps my favourite SNES RPG, narrowly edging out Secret of Mana and A Link to the Past (I was never much into Final Fantasy back then, sorry), the time-travelling, world-saving Chrono Trigger was ported to the DS in 2008, and to have access to it again, anytime I like, is just glorious. Not that I've been able to get past the sodding Golem Twins on this run. Forgot my element-absorbing armour, didn't I.

The author's somewhat battered 3DS beside his Pocket-edition Game Boy

And even when it's faced with a genre of game that it maybe shouldn't be suited for, like a frame-precise fighter, the 3DS impresses. I actually prefer the portable Super Smash Bros. to its crisper-of-visuals Wii U relative, and Super Street Fighter IV on the handheld, a 3DS launch title in Japan, holds up well against the tournament-play console versions. VICE contributor Andi Hamilton is something of a Street Fighter authority, and says of the 3DS port of IV: "It's a surprisingly fully featured version of Super, and if you're a pad player you can actually use it as a decent practise tool for combos and execution." Not that French Street Fighter pro-player Luffy swears by it – the last time I saw him with his 3DS out, during downtime at a London tournament, he was taking on his girlfriend at Smash.

In conclusion, the 3DS is, for my money – and I've spent plenty of it on it – the best handheld console ever made. I appreciate that there's a lot of love for the Vita, and that the Game Boy will always be in the hearts of gamers of a certain vintage. I respect, too, those who fought so valiantly in the battery wars of the 1990s, but ultimately succumbed to plugging into the wall: the Game Gear and Atari Lynx had their fans. And, yes, Sony sold a certifiable shitload of PSPs, despite those awful UMDs. But the 3DS isn't just a portable for the present – it's a platform for gaming across the ages, and better yet, a means to play (and replay) so many beloved titles from more than three decades of gaming history while on the move. Which is why it's so perfect for me. On the train, at a station, in an airport: I'm rarely bothered by spread sheets, meeting schedules or inbox woes. I can just get my head down and press on with playing. It's a feeling of freedom, really, that I get whenever I switch on my 3DS – and wherever the game in question takes me, I'm almost always happy to be there.

@MikeDiver

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