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Tough Road Ahead

Naysayers are speaking too soon on the 3DS - but that's not to say it's all looking rosy for the system.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

If you'd like to get your hands on a Nintendo 3DS, there's good news for you - it's extremely easy to do so. In most if not all of the countries in which the new system has launched, you can walk into any major games or electronics retailer and pick one up off the shelves. You might, at worst, not be able to get the colour you want - black was sold out when I went to buy a couple of units in Japan earlier this week, but there were thirty-odd blue units stacked up behind the tills.

What's great news for consumers, though, is precisely the opposite for Nintendo. In some regards, the launch of the 3DS seems to have been engineered to avoid the massive shortages which we witnessed with previous hardware launches - most notably the Wii. The firm dropped the console into the market in spring, rather than autumn, far away from traditional times for mass market gaming purchases. If that was the strategy, however, it's unlikely that the firm expected - or wanted - success on quite this scale.

Bluntly, the excitement around the 3DS has fizzled out - with the first wave of early adopters driving a sales spike, only to discover that there's not much in the way of a second wave waiting behind them. The most worrying figures come from Japan, the market in which the DS launched first. Here, we can see a clear spike followed by an incredibly rapid fall in sales, to the extent that the 3DS now lags the PSP in week on week sales.

The excitement around the 3DS has fizzled out - with the first wave of early adopters driving a sales spike, only to discover that there's not much in the way of a second wave waiting behind them.

We don't have quite so much data from the USA and Europe, but the same pattern seems likely to be followed - an assumption supported by the evidence of this week's UK software chart, which saw 3DS titles plummet out of the rankings.

So this is it, right? This is the drastic fall of Nintendo's fortunes that half the industry has been anticipating ever since the company's star rose so high on the back of the DS and the Wii? Each new graph and sales ranking being released is another nail in the coffin of the 3DS, a system whose potential has been questioned - albeit cautiously - by analysts, commentators and insiders ever since its existence was revealed - right?

I wouldn't be quite so hasty. The 3DS isn't performing as Nintendo would expect, and it remains a risky gamble for the company - both in terms of the 3D technology itself, which quite simply may not resonate with the wider audience as much as Nintendo hopes, and in terms of the business model, which seeks to continue charging console-level prices for physical software, in an era when handheld gaming is obviously under pressure to move in a different direction. However, to declare the console to be in crisis after just a few weeks is to ignore the sheer weight that Nintendo is capable of throwing behind its platforms.

A few things to consider. Firstly, the launch timing is undoubtedly somewhat neutral - well away from major gift-buying times in all of the launch territories thus far. Several commentators have noted that the real test of the 3DS will come when we hit mass market buying seasons around Thanksgiving and Christmas (and, to a lesser extent, Japan's Golden Week holidays early next month), and this is a perfectly reasonable stance. For all that it has legions of devoted core fans, Nintendo makes no bones about how much of its market is made up of children and families - and for them, console purchases are often a holiday affair.

Secondly, those self-same core fans can't all be categorised together as "early adopters" - it's just not that simple. Some of them will run out and buy Nintendo's latest hardware simply because it's Nintendo, confident that the software will come with time even if it's not there right now. These people drove the stellar adoption rates that we've seen in the first week in every launch market.

Others, however, will wait for the software - and on that front, Nintendo has yet to deliver. Capcom's Street Fighter IV 3D is the early break-out hit for the platform, shifting over a million units so far, but even with a few solid titles to be seen elsewhere - Pilotwings, Nintendogs and Professor Layton being the particularly notable ones - the overall line-up is uninspiring. Nintendo needs to roll out its big hitters, and wait for other publishers to do likewise - recall the excitement at E3 over Konami's Metal Gear title for the platform, for example. There is undoubtedly a huge reservoir of consumers out there who are already mentally committed to investing in a 3DS, but they're "waiting for the games".