The Nintendo 3DS’ Surprisingly Social Legacy

In retrospect, the 3DS was very “right place, right time.” While 2006’s Nintendo Wii had been a world-shaking success with its innovations in motion capture and psychedelic sports games, Nintendo’s next console, 2012’s Wii U, was its least successful. Its one major innovation was its gargantuan touchscreen controller, too clunky to appreciate. The 3DS, released just one year before the Wii U, was poised to absorb the hype that would normally attend a better Nintendo console release. And soon, the price would drop from $250 to a fairer $170.

I purchased my 3DS purely out of FOMO. I was satisfied with my red, two-dimensional, single-screen Nintendo DS—by 2014, scratched-up and covered in kawaii bubble stickers I’d collected over the years. I didn’t need the upgraded display. And desperately cobbling together freelance jobs in New York, I didn’t have the expendable cash. But FOMO kicked in on a trip with some childhood friends to the beach in Delaware, exactly one year after college. We’d all had trouble acclimating to post-college life and decidedly did not have our shit together. I wasn’t sure I could handle another alienating, oppressive year in New York and needed some fresh air.

Despite my best efforts, the beach was alienating too. For two days, my friends took every free moment to huddle together and gossip about their virtual friends in the 3DS life-simulation game Tomodachi Life. Frustrated, at one point, I told them to shut up and get a grip. But I began to notice that whenever they caught a second’s break, they’d begin unzipping their fabric cases. I recovered from the flare-up fast enough to grab a friend’s Polaroid and snap a picture of the five of them, sprawled out and intoxicated on a sleeper couch, grinding away at various games on their handhelds. Six years later, it still makes me jealous.

My $170 pink 3DS arrived in one week. It quickly became my main game console. On the New York subway, Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World. Watching TV, Pokémon. Before bed, Fire Emblem: Awakening. Between everything else, Super Smash Bros. 4. It connected me to my childhood friends, and in New York it became the social fluid I swam in. Eventually, it collected stickers, too. On the carpeted floors of gaming conventions and on cross-country airplanes, other 3DS players would always silently acknowledge me. We had at least one thing to talk about. And even if we didn’t say anything out loud, StreetPass might have already exchanged our tags for us. My virtual Mii plaza filled up with the avatars of friends and strangers.

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The weird, wonderful hardware for the Nintendo 3DS meant the console’s e-shop was a veritable garden of ridiculous games. Game journalists published “Top 10” lists several times a year of the console’s quirkiest buys, like Tokyo Crash Mobs, a puzzle game in which you eliminate photorealistic “scenesters” by pulling back a touchscreen slingshot with your 3DS stylus. Pocket Card Jockey, made by the studio behind Pokémon, combined horse racing and solitaire, with the former on the top screen and the latter on the bottom.

Gaming Moved On, but the 3DS Blissfully Froze in Time

As it aged, and trends in hardware design shifted toward simplicity, the 3DS showed its true colors. The games were good. The hardware was wonky. After just a couple months grinding out Super Smash Bros. combos, the circle pad wore down, an experience shared by many. The graphics quality was meh compared to the PlayStation Vita handheld, and with all those superfluous features—the 3D toggle, the clamshell screens—I began to wish for a version of the 3DS that was flat, with just one large display.

After March 2017, when Nintendo released its Nintendo Switch, 3DS game releases slowed to a trickle. Nintendo was gradually weaning its dedicated handheld audience off the 3DS and onto Nintendo’s most versatile console ever, one that didn’t make sacrifices in the design department. Commercials advertised how the Switch could seamlessly transition between its handheld mode and its docked-to-a-TV mode. It was an irresistible upgrade.

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