Nintendo’s long term focus on the casual market has allowed the company to dominate its competition, but at what cost. While the Wii waggles its way into the hearts and homes of casual gamers the world over, longtime fans of Nintendo’s classic games and systems — hardcore gamers — feel increasingly alienated by the company who’s games many of them literally grew up playing. They are uninterested in motion control, and resent the Wii’s last-gen graphics. These days, those gamers are far more likely to play Halo than Metroid.

But after years of neglect and indifference, something remarkable appears to have happened. Nintendo has heard the protests of the hardcore community, and has answered them. Not with a statement to the press, and not with a game, but with a system.  A powerful, innovative system that is arguably the most cutting-edge piece of hardware Nintendo has ever produced. Hardcore gamers of the world, Nintendo made the 3DS for you.

At precisely the moment that rivals Sony and Microsoft are making a play for Nintendo’s wide, casual audience with Move and Kinect, Nintendo is rededicating its efforts in a decidedly more hardcore direction. Nintendo’s 3DS announcement marks the beginning of a new era for the most successful manufacturer of videogame hardware and software in the world. Though clearly designed to be approachable, the 3DS will never be mistaken for a toy. It is, in many ways, Nintendo’s most adult console. As the first piece of mass market, glasses-free 3D technology, its place in history is secure even before it has been released.

Nintendo GameCube

The Nintendo GameCube

Of course, Nintendo has long been an innovator, and a quick tour of their last several platforms reveals a laundry list of features that most gamers now take for granted. The Nintendo 64 re-introduced analog control to the console world, and pioneered the use of vibration based force-feedback. Every controller on every current console makes use of some variation of both technologies. The GameCube’s Wavebird wireless controllers were the first such devices to actually work both well and reliably. Now, all controllers are wireless. The DS brought touch screen gaming to the world, while the Wii’s motion control revolution is now being actively pursued by both Microsoft and Sony.

At the same time, Nintendo’s reputation has suffered within the hardcore community. The GameCube, Nintendo’s purple box of a system, looked like a toy, particularly when compared to the stereo-component inspired styling of the PS2 and the hulking slab that was the original Xbox. The DS’s graphics were never cutting edge, and the system’s original design was frankly unattractive.

But it was Nintendo’s decision to forgo high definition graphics when designing the Wii that most alienated much of the hardcore community. The imprecise control afforded by the Wii Remote, coupled with a game design philosophy that emphasized simple, casual fun and largely family-oriented games (like Wii Play) conspired to make the Wii a controversial (though extremely successful) system. At best, some hardcore players simply refused to take it seriously. At worst, others outright hated the system, and claimed that is was ruining videogames.

Nintendo 3DS Aqua Blue

So it should have been some sort of tip off when Hideki Konno, Nintendo’s General Producer of the 3DS, came right out and said that better graphics were a priority for the system. This is a philosophy Nintendo had actively denounced when promoting the original DS and the Wii, claiming that keeping costs low was more important, and that most players couldn’t tell the difference, anyway.

But of course they can, and the 3DS is clearly capable of delivering on Konno’s promise. Rumored to contain some powerful tech, the system’s graphics eclipse those of any portable console yet seen. Take a look at the trailer for Capcom’s Super Street Fighter 4 3D for an example. And remember that, when actually played on the 3DS, all that gameplay will be in real-time, glasses free 3D. It’s a high end presentation, and though casual favorites like Nintendogs + Cats will no doubt benefit from it, 3DS’s more hardcore titles will likely be the games that take most advantage of the system’s power.

The Nintendo DS’s enormous install base eventually convinced some publishers and developers to take a chance on creating more mature games for the system. But it took time for those games to appear, and they never performed well in the marketplace. For 3DS, those games are in development now, and many will no doubt be ready in time for the system’s February 26th launch. In addition to the previously mentioned Super Street Fighter 4 3D, the hardcore crowd can look forward to Resident Evil: Revelations, Resident Evil: the Mercaneries, Ninja Gaiden, Dead or Alive, Ghost Recon Tactics, Splinter Cell 3D, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater 3D Edition, and more.

Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater 3DS

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater 3D Edition

Any discussion of 3DS is inexorably going to lead to the system’s price. The system will launch at roughly $300 in Japan, and there is nothing “casual” about that. The system’s cost effectively excludes the 3DS from being a system that is primarily purchased by parents for their children. Instead, the 3DS is positioned as a system that older players (read: those with some regular source of income) will buy for themselves. The games are in place, the tech is attractive, and the price — though not insignificant — seems appropriate. Nintendo expects to sell four million units the first month. I don’t doubt that they will.

Of course, some questions about the 3DS remain. Specifically, though the system’s StreetPass (SpotPass in Japan) Tag Mode looks promising, how will Nintendo deal with online play? Their archaic and arcane Friend Code system is almost universally reviled, and would seem conspicuously out of place on such an otherwise forward looking piece of hardware. Separately, Nintendo’s manufacturing pipeline has been notoriously prone to causing hardware shortages. With the North American launch currently believed to be slated for March, can Nintendo hope to make enough systems to match demand?

Still, it’s difficult not to be excited about the 3DS. With this system, Nintendo seems to have taken much of the criticism they’ve accrued during the Wii years to heart. They are delivering an unprecedented piece of tech, powerful but approachable, with high end graphics and an unbeatable hook in its glasses-free 3D display. Mature games will be a part of its software lineup from day one. It is the Nintendo system many in the hardcore gaming community have waited for. And it’s coming soon.

tags: 3DS, Nintendo

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