A little under a year ago today, I was writing about how Nintendo had opted to finally cash out on the 3DS. Fast forward to today and we are seeing Nintendo’s final efforts on the 3DS begin to fizzle out as well as third party support. The titles being released are largely remakes, low-effort entries, and the occasional new—quality game from Japan that released the year before—assuming you can speak Japanese. With this drop in titles and the 3DS almost entering its 8th year, we have officially entered the twilight years, and with it, the end of an era of portable games.
The 3DS and its predecessors represented a time and way of thinking that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Sure, the successor to portable gaming—the Nintendo Switch—exists, but it lacks some of the aspects to the same extent that true portable gaming has thrived off of in regards to the scale, type of games, and the ability to be brought anywhere easily. Many of the quality titles that were made for the 3DS most likely wouldn’t thrive in their current form on other consoles, even with the Nintendo Switch still being portable, and much of this has to deal with expectations.
Let’s start with the most obvious and most important difference when it has come to the 3DS and portable consoles in general, the sense of scope in games is much smaller. Like all things, there are exceptions, but generally, when playing a 3DS game there is an understanding that this game’s scope is going to be smaller than a home console or PC game. Take the Zelda franchise for example and compare the latest title on the Nintendo Switch and the latest title for the 3DS. For the Nintendo Switch, you have The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that gigantic in size and is built with the idea of exploration and experimentation; you can do a lot of what you want when you want, and how you want. For the 3DS there is the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, a direct evolution of the top-down Zelda genre that makes many advancements but still keeps to the many of the design elements and size of The Link to the Past. There is no denying that the scope of A Link Between Worlds is vastly different than Breath of the Wild, but it is through this reduction of scope that allows some of its unique charm to exist.
Without the platform of choice being the 3DS, many of the concepts and ideas for A Link Between Worlds wouldn’t work as well. Take the design of the game itself, being a top-down Zelda game that released after the N64 meant it was inherently smaller and followed a different type of design. The dungeons weren’t as long, the world was limited in scope, and how it was all accomplished was in a concise and focused manner. Your abilities and world were limited, but through those limitations allowed unique ideas to flourish and created challenging scenarios for the player to conquer with their restricted abilities that were more developed than in a larger world. With portability being the main factor, dungeons and areas were forced to be shorter, and with it, more meaningful during the short time you were there. Dungeons couldn’t go on forever and natural stopping points needed to exist as a requirement for the platform as you could very well be in an environment where there is very little time.
It forced developers to create titles concise in their design and with portability in mind. When you transfer that same mindset to platforms like smartphones or the Nintendo Switch, the equation becomes a little different. Everyone has a smartphone, but they are not primarily gaming devices and thus games need to adapt to the platform to be successful. The Nintendo Switch is larger in size and thus is less of a portable console and more of luggable one, meaning titles designed for it are inherently going to be developed with longer playtimes and greater scope than portable games. These changes alter how games are designed and can clearly be seen when looking at franchises that have been both or all the platforms mentioned above.
Let’s take both the Animal Crossing and the Professor Layton series, both of which have thrived in the portable gaming sphere and have entries on either smartphones or the Nintendo Switch. Animal Crossing New Leaf kept much of the same design elements that previous Animal Crossing games had built upon with some new enhancements, fast forward to Animal Crossing Pocket Camp and you see many of the same elements on a smartphone scale—except now—much of the waiting that served as an intentional design decision on the 3DS had turned into something that could be easily bought and sped along, defeating part of the purpose of the original game’s systems. The Professor Layton series has always been known for its puzzles, but the other aspect of the games has been their stories. When it has come to the entries on the 3DS, you would wander around the area, solving puzzles, and eventually reaching a point that advances the overarching story. For the entry that came to smartphones, Layton’s Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaire’s Conspiracy, the puzzles remained much in the same style as before however the story was sacrificed and became more truncated; broken up into such small pieces that much of the stories that made the previous entries stories so rich was lost.
Both were games that found success on the portable gaming platform, but as soon as they were translated to platforms that were close but not exactly the same, they lost something. Even for games that didn’t noticeably lose something in their switch for a platform when it came to gameplay, they still lost something intangible that comes with the platform itself. Games like Phoenix Wright embody this perfectly, while nothing is different depending on the platform you are playing on, something is just especially enjoyed playing these games on a dedicated portable console. It gives a sense of focus and commitment to playing a game that you couldn’t find on a smartphone, but the enhanced portability that something like the Nintendo Switch is lacking.
It sits in a happy medium that sadly, won’t exist anymore. This speaks to the larger loss that comes with the end of the 3DS, and with it, the end of the portable console platform.
We are losing a type of platform that has been around since the original Gameboy. One, that has been offering uniquely smaller but still interesting experiences that could only be found on a platform that is dedicated to gaming but is also portable enough to be brought anywhere. The 3DS will be greatly missed and so will the portable gaming market as we know it.