Nintendo’s announcement of the New 3DS surprised everyone, but it really shouldn’t have been too shocking. With the exception of the GameCube, Nintendo has frequently altered their hardware during its life cycle. The original DS was supplanted by the DS Lite, and both were rendered obsolete with the release of the DSi and the DSi XL that added a camera and debuted DSiWare games that couldn’t be played on either a DS or DS Lite. In the case of the original Wii, Nintendo left it alone for the most part until the tail end of its life. They released a version of the Wii bundled with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and took out the GameCube functionality and made the system a far worse overall value. Still, this was a better value than the Wii Mini, which slimmed down the form factor, but gave you composite video-output and eliminated all web features, including the eShop and its vast library of games, and online play.
Now, Nintendo finds itself in the familiar position of doing its best to make a new version of the hardware seem like a must-buy to people who already own a version of the original system. The DSi was a hard sell because it wasn’t a huge power upgrade, but offered up a whole new storefront to use and a camera. The DSi XL came out afterwards and finally addressed an issue people had with the DS for years – the small screen size. Nintendo is helping to alleviate frustration caused by staggering the DSi and DSi XL releases (and after that, the 3DS and 3DS XL) by releasing both the New 3DS and New 3DS LL at the same time. This means that people won’t be buying one system and wind up blindsided when another variant of it hits the market — a good move in the long run.
With Nintendo announcing new Wii U bundles, one also has to wonder if they’re going to phase out the Wii U in its current form in favor of one with a bit more horsepower. The system has come under fire since its launch nearly two years ago for being incredibly underpowered – with only a few third party games like Need For Speed: Most Wanted U and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag really taking advantage of the increased power compared to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. However, Nintendo has already released two versions of the system before – with the white 8GB basic model being phased out in order to simplify things. Why offer up two different variations of the same hardware when neither version is selling well? Nintendo realized this issue and focused on the 32GB model. They also including a variety of top-notch games to give people a reason to buy the system, which they’re continuing with this year’s holiday bundle SKUs.
The difference between all of the hardware revisions done before and the Wii U is that those systems, whether they were consoles or portables, were exceptionally popular. The NES got the first major revision, and that came out with the SNES in full force and was a budget-minded version of the hardware that stripped things down to an RF connection, but was otherwise far more reliable a system than the original front-loading model, and it came with a more comfortable SNES-style pad to boot. The SNES got a Super Famicon-style revamp when the N64 was released, while the N64 got absolutely no revisions made to the hardware beyond new colors. The same story was told for the GameCube, while the Wii’s revisions were stealthy with the full-sized model, and made more apparent during the more limited release of the Wii Mini.
With the Wii U just gaining traction and still having a ways to go, I doubt we’ll see any kind of upgrade in hardware for it. Nintendo didn’t do anything like that for the Wii, and it was far more out of date graphically than the Wii U is presently. The Wii U is also aided by having first-party games that regularly stun people thanks to a high level of image quality, and Nintendo is at least showing that you can indeed make impressive-looking games on it — most third parties just aren’t doing that. Their present approach of focusing on their own content and bundling top-notch, but older games is working, and including a digital copy of a game with a fairly early Mario Kart 8 purchase was brilliant. It not only showed that the company could embrace digital gaming, but giving people a fantastic deal, and an incentive to buy a game on day one (or fairly close to it). While Nintendo has taken some risks at alienating console owners before by removing some features, it’s clear that they literally can’t afford to do that with the Wii U and aren’t likely to do any major hardware changes beyond adding more on-board storage at most. They’ve already have enough issues establishing the Wii U brand name without adding to the system’s troubles with another similarly-named version of it. People already thought the Wii U was just a Wii accessory, likely due to the uDraw accessory that gained its most fame on the Wii. Nintendo didn’t help matters by making TV ads that didn’t really show off anything but the Gamepad — a mistake they’ve never repeated. Due to the Wii U’s trouble history, it’s doubtful we’ll see a 3DS-to-New 3DS style of upgrade for the company’s current console. They can afford a mistake in the portable space, but not on consoles.