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Nintendo's 2DS is a short-term fix for a long-term problem

Nintendo's 2DS is a short-term fix for a long-term problem


The low-cost handheld misses an important dimension: the future

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Nintendo 2DS
Nintendo 2DS

Nintendo is used to surprising people with its hardware designs. But even for the company responsible for weird devices like the Virtual Boy and the Wii U, today's announcement of the 2DS handheld came as a shock. It's a cheaper device, priced at $129.99, and it moves away from the DS line's iconic clamshell look with a solid, flat design. It's a device for people who want to play Pokemon and Super Mario but don't want to spend too much — it could be ideal for parents to give their young ones, and will make a good stocking stuffer come the holidays. What it won't do is expand the company's shrinking audience of core gamers. Given its recent struggles, Nintendo could use a short-term win. And while the 2DS might provide that, it's not the long-term savior the company needs.

After years of dominating the handheld market with its Game Boy and DS lines, Nintendo has now suffered an annual operating loss for two straight years. The ever-struggling Wii U is a big part of that, but so is the dwindling market for traditional handhelds, which is being cannibalized by smartphones and tablets (a market Nintendo doesn't seem likely to enter anytime soon). Despite selling 13.95 million 3DS units in 2012, Nintendo called the sales results "weaker than expected." Clearly something needs to change, whether it's adding more functionality to a device like the 3DS or offering Nintendo franchises on hardware like an iPad or smartphone. The 2DS, meanwhile, doesn't address these issues at all.

"Strategically Nintendo has not changed."

"Strategically Nintendo has not changed," says Avi Greengart, research director at Current Analysis. "They maintain that owning the entire value chain is crucial to providing the kind of gameplay experiences that they want to sell. A new DS product is certainly an affirmation of that strategy, but I don't see it really being different than anything they've done in the past."

And as Polygon's Chris Plante explains, it's also a somewhat confusing device. It's called the 2DS, yet you don't go to the store to pick up 2DS games; instead, it can play the library from both the 3DS and the original DS. That's a lot of games, but like the Wii U, the device's branding could be problematic. "Today we get the Nintendo 2DS," writes Plante, "a video game system that doesn't have any games of its own. Try explaining that to the average person." There's a sticker on the box that could alleviate this issue, but the potential for confusion is clear.

That said, these issues don't necessarily mean that the 2DS won't find its audience. As Greengart notes, the 3DS saw a sizeable jump in sales after its most recent price cut, and the 2DS could create a similar — if brief — boost to the handheld line. "It's quite clear that this is a highly price-dependent purchase," says Greengart, "especially for parents buying for small children." When compared to a tablet or even a PlayStation Vita, which recently had its price cut to $199.99, the 2DS is a nice and affordable option — provided buyers aren't turned off by the curious new form factor.

The 2DS doesn't expand the market so much as it reaches out to a few potential holdouts

While mobile devices have been moving away from clamshell-style designs for years now, the DS' shift away from the form feels strange. The original incarnation of the DS and its hinged design was great for keeping screens clean and scratch-free, though the hinge was prone to cracks. The 2DS, meanwhile, fixes one problem at the expense of the other — it's more solid, but leaves the screens exposed. The new look also just feels strange aesthetically. "The notion of going to a flat device in general is perfectly understandable," says Greengart. "But it still seems wrong."

But even if the 2DS achieves those early sales, likely buoyed by the upcoming holiday season, they won't last forever. When everyone who was holding out on a 3DS because of the price buys a 2DS, who is left? The market for traditional gaming handhelds isn't getting any bigger, and the 2DS doesn't expand the market so much as it reaches out to a few potential holdouts. Once those people buy a 2DS, Nintendo will be left right back where it was: saddled with a console and handheld dependent on the appeal of a few major franchises to sell. It's a strategy that worked in the past, but based on Nintendo's current financial predicament, it doesn't seem to be one that will work forever. And unfortunately for Nintendo, the 2DS doesn't change that at all.