Nintendo owes much to late designer Gunpei Yokoi. A former maintenance technician at a Nintendo manufacturing plant, Yokoi's creativity even in that role (where he used assembly line scraps to create a best-selling robot arm) caught the eyes of visiting Nintendo execs, who put Yokoi to work designing toy puzzles.
Yokoi went on to become the founding architect of Nintendo's 30-year dominance of the handheld market, creating such classics as the Game & Watch line and the blockbuster Game Boy. All told, Yokoi's hardware designs sold nearly 163 million units during their collective lifetimes.
Just as Yokoi's successes sparked the handheld movement as we know it, his missteps set it back. The oft-lamented monochrome 3D Virtual Boy, released in 1995 to tepid reviews and poor sales, was Yokoi's final project before leaving Nintendo. Yokoi's tragic death in a motorcycle accident in 1997 further served to hamstring handheld innovation by his very absence from the scene.
It took some time for handheld progress to recover from Yokoi's loss. Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, while a solid system in its own right, was little more than a pocket-sized Super Nintendo. 2004's Nintendo DS (whose form factor was based partly on a 1983 Yokoi design) sought to revive Yokoi's tradition of innovation, but despite worldwide success, third-party use of the DS touchscreen varied wildly.
But while Nintendo's more recent handheld innovations have been comparatively conservative, competitors' products, also-rans all, have pushed even fewer boundaries. No surprise, then, that Nintendo would be the first company in 16 years to try something risky with a handheld.
Note that I said "risky" and not "new." Nintendo's 3DS goes off the rails, all right—and right back onto the rails Yokoi laid with the Virtual Boy, with a liberal sprinkling of modern sensibilities to boot. The 3DS is less the next thing and more the culmination of the last things, refined and perfected.
You wouldn't be able to tell by its looks that the 3DS is anything but the next iteration of the DS. That's a calculated move; Nintendo is banking heavily on the success of the DS line to get the 3DS out the door. The 3DS' form factor is practically unchanged from the DS Lite and DSi models, and the 3DS is backwards compatible with most DS titles. With the exception of a couple of miniscule camera holes and the addition of an analog control nub, the 3DS exudes DS-era familiarity.
But most importantly, the 3DS is riding on the public's perception, as meticulously groomed by the DS and Wii, that Nintendo can turn crazy ideas into system-sellers. Seven years ago, the 3DS would have been met with incredulity at best, but after racking up consecutive victories with the DS and Wii, Nintendo has afforded itself the benefit of the doubt.
It's a rather overabundance of caution, though, as the 3DS serves to deliver an experience that bests even Yokoi's highest points. The "3D" in the 3DS, against all previous glasses-centered experiences, simply works. Its learning curve is comparable to the Wii's motion sensors, intuitive enough with a bit of on-screen tutelage and a minor user paradigm shift. Line your sight up with a relatively generous "sweet spot," adjust the 3D slider to your liking, and all of a sudden, you're in.
The 3DS launch library, albeit as anemic as one would expect, is a sufficient proof of concept for Nintendo's strategy going forward. Games thus far deliver a unilateral declaration of hostilities against the meager limitations of the second dimension, presenting themselves as windows into an animated world and not just another series of images projected onto a flat surface.
It's Avatar gone micro, the moving image magical again for the first time in a long time (and even more so for its portability). When done correctly—and if the library thus far is any indication, "done correctly" isn't that difficult—it's as advertised on the box. Nintendo is even trying to create a decent online infrastructure this time around, a complete 180 from their previous non-attempts.
From any other corporation, the 3DS might be considered a simple capitalization on favorable trends and existing goodwill in the consumer base. But Nintendo is another beast entirely. This is a 120-year-old company we're talking here, an ancient, inscrutable samurai meditating on a hilltop, watching its competition in silence and learning from their mistakes as though they were its own.
This is a company that regularly turns its own slumps into feints and uses them to deliver precision strikes against unsuspecting industries. It would be in no way surprising if the 3DS was the finishing blow in a generations-long series of maneuvers too complex to be perceived by common gamers.