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The Nintendo 3DS may be a niche, but it’s my niche

Some games just don't work on a phone

I can't read on my phone. I've downloaded Pocket and the Kindle app, but anything longer than a quick news article just doesn't work for me on mobile. It's not the small screen, it's all of the distractions; with Twitter, email, and Puzzles & Dragons just a tap away, it's hard to concentrate on just one thing. That's why I have a Kindle Paperwhite and shelves full of actual, paper books: they only have one purpose, but they do it really well. When I want to read, I don't want to be distracted, and a multipurpose smartphone or tablet has too many temptations.

It turns out the same is true for video games.

With the continued growth of mobile games, many have predicted the eventual death of dedicated handheld gaming devices. And in some ways it's already happening: the 3DS isn't the dominant force it used to be, while the Vita is essentially on life support, with few notable games on the horizon. Why would anyone want to play a $40 game on a device that can only play video games, when you can grab a free game on your phone and also watch Netflix and read comic books? It's for the same reason I'm glad that the web browser on my Kindle is terrible: with a dedicated handheld, I can actually focus on only one thing.

An unforgiving, immensely rewarding quest

I realized this as I've been playing Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight on my 3DS. The upcoming game, which launches on August 4th, is the kind of deep, involved role playing experience that I just can't imagine playing on a phone. It's actually a remake of the original Etrian Odyssey II, and like the rest of the series it's an unforgiving, immensely rewarding quest that requires dedication.

Unlike most RPGs, which send you out on a grand quest to save the world, Etrian Odyssey is almost entirely about exploring. You're presented with a massive, intimidating labyrinth made up of twisted paths and multiple floors, and the challenge is figuring out how to survive while still making your way through to see the end. The games barely even have a story (though the remakes add an optional story mode that includes a charming cast of characters to explore with); instead, the thrill is simply in exploring and seeing what surprises await you on the next floor.

Staying alive means being cautious — push too far without rest and you might not make it out — and mastering complex systems. You can harvest resources in the labyrinth, which can be used to cook helpful meals in town, or forge new items or gear. The Fafnir Knight even features a town-building aspect, where you can help improve businesses around town to earn more money, which can in turn be used to buy better weapons and armor. I've played for more than a dozen hours, and I'm still learning how many of these aspects work.

I'm still learning how many of these aspects work

Etrian Odyssey's defining characteristic is its maps. When you first venture into the labyrinth, it's undocumented territory; the only way to remember the layout is to actually draw a map using the bottom screen. Without that information, you will almost definitely find yourself lost and, eventually, dead. The labyrinth is full of short cuts and spots to rest and recharge, and if you don't know where they are you'll have a tough time advancing. It's also just incredibly satisfying to sketch the world as you explore; it's almost like a part of the world wouldn't exist if you didn't document it.

This game could probably technically work on an iPad, but it wouldn't be the same. Much of the appeal of an Etrian Odyssey game, at least for me, is that it's completely absorbing, forcing me to pay attention to everything I do if I want any chance at success. I've probably spent more time reading the in-game bestiary than I have playing mobile games these past few weeks. And it's not just Etrian Odyssey: the games I'm finding myself drawn to on the 3DS the most are big, sprawling games that wouldn't feel right on a phone. When I pick up Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, I know I can settle in for the night in the same way as when I pick up a big book, and I'm looking forward to doing the same with Yo-kai Watch. The only real distraction is if I decide to play another game instead; just like the Kindle, the 3DS is built for a specific purpose, and playing games on it just feels right.

Dedicated gaming handhelds have become a niche, but one that I hope stays around. I've got maps to draw.