Nintendo 3DS has enjoyed a lengthy stay in the spotlight as Nintendo's primary handheld since its debut in 2011. You might think the launch and incredible sales success of Nintendo Switch (which can also function as a handheld) would spell the end for 3DS, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Nintendo envisions the two co-existing for some time, and they recently announced plans to make new 3DS games until at least 2020. Is Nintendo crazy to continue to support seven-year-old hardware when they've got that beautiful, HD Switch screen available? Maybe a little, but there's a method to their madness.
The most obvious reason for Nintendo to hold off on totally abandoning the 3DS line is the install base. Nintendo Switch has sold around 18 million units, which is an incredible feat at this early stage in its life, but the 3DS family of systems has sold a combined 72 million units. That's a ratio of four to one. There aren't really 72 million active 3DS players (how many people bought and never opened special limited edition 3DS consoles?), but there's still probably more people playing 3DS than Switch today.
At $300, Switch isn't exactly a cheap handheld. Its ability to function as a home console as well more than makes up for this, but millions of potential customers (especially parents with young children) need a cheaper option. As current Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima explained to investors, there's a world of difference between whether a console is viewed as "one-per-household" or "one-per-person." Switch is still in the former category, while 3DS (partially thanks to its lower price tag) is thriving in the latter.
"Consumers purchased Nintendo 3DS systems in numbers we expected last fiscal year. It has an ample software lineup at a price point that makes the system affordable especially for parents looking to buy for their kids. We expect that demand to continue during this fiscal year as well, so we will continue to sell the product.
"Given that Nintendo Switch is a home gaming system that can be taken on the go, this situation may change if it grows from being a one-per-household system to a one-per-person system. But the price of Nintendo Switch is not something with which most parents would buy a system for every one of their children in a short period of time. Moving forward, we will work to ascertain what kinds of play people want at which price points, and as long as there is such demand, we will continue to sell the Nintendo 3DS system. I see the product coexisting with Nintendo Switch at this point in time." — Tatsumi Kimishima
Still, no matter how cheap it is, there will come a time when 3DS is put to bed. Whether or not it gets down into that "one-per-person" price range, the active install base of Switch users will eventually pass 3DS. With Nintendo projecting another 20 million units sold this year, it might not take long. Compare the games coming to 3DS against some of the upcoming Switch releases, and there's a world of difference.
Nintendo's upcoming 3DS schedule is largely comprised of ports or remakes, including Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Luigi's Mansion, and Bowser's Inside Story. The only other Nintendo-published 3DS games on the docket are Dillon's Dead-Heat Breakers, Sushi Striker, WarioWare Gold, which are all low impact franchises with small budgets. In other words, Nintendo isn't really investing any serious resources into 3DS anymore.
These are all games that can be made quickly and cheaply to cash in on the existing 3DS base, but none of them are system sellers. Nintendo is past the point of attempting to drive 3DS hardware sales. This becomes clear when you shift your focus from the 3DS lineup to some key upcoming Switch games, including the next Pokémon.
Pokémon Sun and Moon were so successful when they launched in November of 2016 that Nintendo was caught off guard by a sudden surge in 3DS interest. 3DS sales had been on the decline for a couple of years, but the handheld became almost impossible to find in late 2016 and early 2017 due to Pokémon fever. This led Game Freak to continue supporting the system with Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, but we know the next main series Pokémon game is coming to Switch instead.
Fire Emblem is another example of a strong, system-selling franchise on 3DS (especially in Japan) that Nintendo has pulled from the aged handheld for Switch. Nintendo tested the waters with Fire Emblem Warriors in Switch's first year, and now an all-new Fire Emblem game is scheduled to launch sometime later this year on Switch. Given that the new Pokémon game is also aiming to launch this year, it seems clear that this is a deliberate move to convert 3DS as owners as soon as possible.
There's no doubt that Nintendo Switch is the superior console and Nintendo's preferred platform for the future, but it's not quite time to write 3DS off completely. Nintendo will spend 2018 (and beyond) releasing the kind of software that will compel 3DS owners to make the upgrade, but they'll also continue releasing low-investment titles on 3DS to make some easy cash as 3DS slowly coasts into the history books.
Image source: Luis Alamilla