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Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Nintendo 3DS' Surprisingly Social Legacy

I tell this story a lot: I didn’t have much of a life before the Nintendo 3DS.

It happened a year after I moved to New York. Aside from my housemates and a couple of over-friendly acquaintances, I didn’t know a lot of people, and certainly none who’d play video games with me. It was a sunny fall day in 2014 when Nintendo released its free demo for Super Smash Bros. 4 on the handheld 3DS system. The competitive fighting game’s launch, a month from then, was slated to be my highlight of the year. I’d celebrated every Smash launch before it. Unconscionable snack foods, hours of screaming in basements packed with friends and friends-of-friends left back in prior homes. As Smash 4’s launch approached, I prayed for a good online versus mode.

I loved the demo, but sitting alone in bed, I quickly became bored of pummeling Smash 4’s CPUs. I packed my pearl-pink 3DS into a backpack and walked over to the nearest coffee shop. On the back patio, I sipped too-strong cold brew and practiced Zelda’s aerial combos. I was absorbed, not noticing the people around me, and hoping that, in a space better suited to ostentatious reading and Tinder dates, nobody would notice me. I looked up briefly between sips of coffee. Just people. Then, I noticed them: three Nintendo 3DSes, all at one table, and all running the Smash 4 demo. Whoa.

I walked over to the table and introduced myself, a little too loudly. Two coders, a video game developer, and a musician. They invited me to sit down and play. We traded friend codes. It was my first multiplayer match against humans; they were good, too. Turned out they lived a couple of blocks from me. After friend codes, we traded numbers. A month later, when Smash 4 came out in full, there would be a party, and many after, with lots of screaming.

After that, everything got better. My neighbors introduced me to their friends, who introduced me to the arcades, bars, and events frequented by New York’s welcoming network of adult gamers with jobs. At one, I met my current partner of four years. At another, I met a video editor who recommended me for my first full-time journalism job. In 2018, when Smash Ultimate released for the Nintendo Switch, I was able to pack every room of my Brooklyn apartment with friendly, screaming faces.

The End of an Era

Nintendo has sold over 75 million 3DSes since its release in 2011, 14 million more units than its widely beloved Nintendo Switch. Nine years later, last night, Nintendo announced it had discontinued the device and its immediate family—the 3DS XL, the 2DS, and the 2DS XL. It was a versatile little thing: dual screens (for maps and menus), foldable (for storage), 3D (with a toggle), and touchscreen-capable (a stylus snapped inside). It was easy to love, but nine years later, just as easy to move on from.

The tech wasn’t what sold the 3DS. Few games took full advantage of the 3DS’s two screens. On single-screen consoles, maps and menus appeared with just one button push; a whole, dedicated display was unnecessary. And without the second screen, the 3DS would have been half as thick; no need to fold. Then there was the whole 3D thing, which, if toggled to “max,” made Fire Emblem: Awakening fights too dizzying for me to concentrate on. The stylus, though; it was fun. A whole world of drawing games opened up, and it felt good to tap menu options with a pen when my button-muscles were atrophied.

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.

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.

Hardware matters, but in the end, portable console players want to connect to each other with as few barriers as possible. The legacy of the 3DS, at least for me, is as a reminder that gaming is more than just entertainment: It’s a social network. Strangers saw each other playing their 3DSes out in the world and forged quiet (or loud), immediate connections. The magic of the Switch is that it was one of the first consoles to bring those outside connections inside—from the cafe onto your sectional couch.

In 2018, New York’s Lower East Side got a top-of-the-line gaming café. In the back, rows of esports enthusiasts bowed their heads to glowing, high-refresh-rate monitors playing Fortnite or League of Legends. Up front, by the matcha lattes and pastries, tables of gamers sat comfortably apart with their Nintendo Switches. They were not entirely alone. Beside them, clusters of other Switch owners were huddled around televisions playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It was full of warmth, with the people all gelled by a bit of gaming hardware, and it never would have been possible without the 3DS.

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