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The Nintendo 3DS was supposed to be one of the gadgets of 2011. But seven months after its UK launch, the handheld hub is struggling to stay relevant, as iPhone and Android games turn the portable gaming market on its head. The Japanese giant’s latest attempt at making the 3DS relevant is a new software updated, reportedly set for release on 4 November, which will bring 3D video recording, an improved eShop and a new StreetPass game. But there’s just no escaping the fact that if this update fails, Nintendo will have to concede that handheld gaming is no longer the guaranteed cash cow it once was.

Slashing the cost of the Nintendo 3DS has undoubtedly stimulated sales. There was a 260 per cent rise in the US in August after the price dropped to $169 across the pond. And at £129.99 in the UK, a drop of £90 from opening day, the console should be doing well. But sales all over the world are still being measured in hundreds of thousands, rather than millions. It’s impacted on Nintendo’s share price, which is down 45 per cent in 2011. All the while, it feels as if Nintendo is groping for a new way to boost sales in the face of growing competition from the smartphone space.

This latest update promises to be cool, although it’s doubtful it’ll set the world alight. 3D video recording is fun, but hardly a reason to stump up for a dedicated games console. Likewise, a new StreetPass title is exciting, but not groundbreaking. Despite this, Nintendo desperately needs to play up the fact that these features are unique to its console, functions which most smartphones don’t have and won’t have for some time.

But make no mistake. If this software bump doesn’t ignite the passion of current owners and help boost sales during the vital pre-Christmas period, then Nintendo is going to have to rethink its handheld strategy, and fast. Of course, it can’t let the 3DS rot while it switches focus to next year’s Wii U release. But it’ll have to start offering cheaper games and, more generally, start opening itself up to the world of mobile phones.

The Professor Layton games are on their way to iOS, but just imagine how good it would be to be able to get retro Mario titles on your iPhone or iPad. This needn’t completely undermine the 3DS. It can act as a gateway for hardcore gamers who want to buy the console, rather than a full blown alternative. This might not make for massive sales, but Nintendo will have to soon realise that the days of dedicated handhelds, while not numbered, are slowly coming to a close. Positioning the 3DS is a niche products for hardcore gamers could win it back some credit among the gaming fraternity.

But there’s no denying that there is a need to diversify. This isn’t just a lesson for Nintendo to learn. It’ll be fascinating to see how the pricey PS Vita fairs when it launches here next February. Mobiles are becoming increasingly more powerful and capable of handling top notch graphics. With punters having less money to spend on games, this is a reality Nintendo (and Sony) will soon have to face up to.

  • Anonymous

    Lots of people are playing Mario and other Nintendo games now on their jailbroken iOS and Android devices.

    They just aren’t paying for them.

    Some of them probably would be, if it were legal, but just google around a bit and you’ll see there’s no shortage of ways to get your Nintendo fix by hook or by crook. Would Nintendo sacrifice their hardware exclusivity in exchange for a much smaller piece of a much bigger pie?

    A better question might be: Can millions of people carrying computers around in their pockets with more raw power than the Wii finally do to Nintendo what conventional wisdom said the PSP would do? I have to say I’m extremely surprised at the chilly reaction the 3DS has gotten, but I also honestly expected the 3D to be a lot more immersive than it turned out to be. I didn’t buy one, and there are enough free and very cheap games on Android that it could easily consume all my available gaming time.  You won’t give a 5-year-old a cell phone the way you’d give her a Nintendo DS, but you’ll probably give her a last-gen iPod Touch or £99 Android tablet, if not the $199 ones we have over here.

    I do still plan to buy a 3DS this winter. Mario still has a pretty big pull for me, even as they dumb it down more and more, and I do want to play a prettier version of Ocarina of Time. Will I hang onto it after playing through those two? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on if I can find enough other things to do with it that it’s compelling enough to carry around in my winter jacket while my phone’s in my pocket. That probably depends in turn on whether I can jailbreak it. If not, well, I haven’t bought a tablet yet either and the Kindle Fire and Nook Color would both be pretty cheap if I use the proceeds from selling a slightly used 3DS…

Hot chat, right here!

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