That another revision of a Nintendo handheld system is coming is no real surprise--routine hardware refreshes have been part of the company's business model for upwards of two decades (the DS had four different designs, for example). But the latest versions of the 3DS announced today, intriguing as their potential is, seem likely to create confusion.
The New Nintendo 3DS, as it's being called, offers a suite of new features: an analog nub (the new C-Stick), additional ZL and ZR shoulder buttons, improved 3D (no longer do you need a protractor to properly line your head up with the screen for it to work, Nintendo claims), integrated NFC support for Amiibo, and a faster CPU. It comes in standard and XL (or LL, as it's called in Japan) sizes.
With the possible exception of Amiibo, these are primarily things of interest to a more hardcore audience. And that's interesting in light of what Shigeru Miyamoto had to say recently, when he suggested Nintendo may focus more on core games, as opposed to those for people with only a "passive" interest in games. "In the days of DS and Wii, Nintendo tried its best to expand the gaming population," he said in an interview with Edge. "Fortunately, because of the spread of smart devices, people take games for granted now. It's a good thing for us, because we do not have to worry about making games something that are relevant to general people's daily lives."
This New 3DS shows Nintendo is indeed more serious about gunning for the hardcore audience, and less concerned with expanding to a broader audience with its every move. I can't imagine a casual player will suddenly be compelled to buy a 3DS because it now has the buttons and hardware to handle more advanced games.
For others, some of these additions make the system very exciting. I know I want one (though I'm a poor barometer for these things, considering I bought a PSP Go at launch). The improved hardware, in particular, makes me hopeful that we'll finally see Virtual Console games from the Super Nintendo land on 3DS. Extra buttons and the integrated C-Stick means some functions don't need to be relegated to the touchscreen, and there's no longer a need to use the Circle Pad Pro. The placement of the C-Stick--which reminds me of the Wii U GamePad--is not where I would have liked to see it, but those new, Super Famicom-style face buttons on the regular-sized system (see below) are gorgeous, and only a limited number of games will use the C-Stick anyway.
Even if SNES games on Virtual Consoles don't happen, Nintendo is already ensuring the faster CPU is put to use for more than just speeding up system navigation and downloads. Acclaimed Wii RPG Xenoblade Chronicles will be ported to 3DS, but only to these new systems--and that's where I think Nintendo is creating problems. It's not the first time a revision of a handheld has been the only one to play certain software (see: the DSi and DSiWare), but with a game like Xenoblade, we're no longer talking about small, download-only games being exclusive to a certain model.
With the release of this latest version of the 3DS, we'll have a situation where you have the 3DS, 2DS, and New 3DS. The 3DS can play 3DS games, but not New 3DS games; the 2DS can play 3DS (in 2D), but not New 3DS games; and the New 3DS can play all 3DS games (except, as Siliconera's translation of a Q&A notes, for something like Pokemon Tretta Lab, which requires external hardware made for the 3DS and 3DS XL). If you don't think that is going to confuse consumers--particularly the more casual audience that helped Nintendo to dominate the industry with the Wii and DS--I'd remind you that many people thought the Wii U was a Wii accessory.
Just the name "New 3DS" is likely to confuse people who might be led to believe that it, along with its New 3DS-only games, is an entirely separate system from the existing 3DS. Nintendo has shown in the past it's cognizant of the possibility of confusing the public with too many 3DS models, so I'm surprised by the way this new system is being handled. These new systems may be geared toward the hardcore audience, but its existence can still confuse the public at large.
The New 3DS will be launched later this year in Japan, with a European launch to follow sometime in 2015. Nintendo of America refuses to say whether it will bring the new models to North America, and while that has to be frustrating for those wondering whether they should simply import one, I think it's actually a smart decision to avoid talking about it this fall. There are already three basic models--the 3DS, 3DS XL, and 2DS--available to consumers in a variety of colors and bundles, and there's no reason to complicate things by changing things up with new options. If or when these two systems come to North America, they need to take the place of the existing 3DS and 3DS XL models, should that not already be the plan for all markets.
Games are ultimately what will help sell the New 3DS, and I wonder whether it'll receive the support from developers to make it a worthwhile upgrade for existing 3DS owners. Xenoblade is well and good, but people will want more than just a port of a several-year-old Wii RPG to justify the system. Developers, meanwhile, will likely want a sizable install base before devoting resources to a game that can only be played on these specific models. It's a similar problem to the one faced by Wii U; Nintendo's attempted solution in that case is to develop desirable, high-profile games like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. that will (hopefully) sell hardware, which will in turn lead to more third-party support and subsequently even more hardware sales.
It'll be interesting to see if Nintendo decides to take a similar tact of developing New 3DS-only games in its franchises--imagine what a new 2D Metroid could do for sales--or if it'll be content to largely treat this like a standard hardware revision.