The Nintendo 3DS has a problem. Regardless of what stunts it might pull off, of what masterpieces it may eventually house and of how many great games will continuously grace the system, it will always be a handheld that will be compared to its older brother: the Nintendo DS. Like a younger sibling who gets a masters degree in his twenties, and whose older brother already was a doctor at that young age; and like an Olympic medalist that collects three gold medals in an edition where somebody else captures ten of those; it is destined to live obfuscated by the gargantuan shadows of the accomplishments of its contemporary. That is by no means a terrible death sentence for the system, it is just the fair acknowledgement that it has a whole lot to live up to. And given how rare systems with such a high degree of quality in their library are, it is easy to bet against the Nintendo 3DS' chances to beat its predecessor. A good system it might end up being, but reaching the level of historical greatness of the DS is a far-fetched notion.
The Nintendo DS had a lot going on its favor. Not only did it enjoy the massive support that comes along with being the handheld system of a company that utterly dominates the market, it also introduced the fantastic novelty of the double screens. The system thrived in the junction of those for two factors. A lot of talented developers and resourceful companies wanted to develop games for it, and once they started the process, what they discovered were the perfect flourishing grounds for new explorations in gameplay and design. The glorious match generated excitement among developers, and the direct results of that breath of life are unforgettable: Mario and Luigi 3, The World Ends With You, GTA: Chinatown Wars, Advanced Wars: Dual Strike, and many other titles were significant marks in the history of gaming for their audacity and freshness, and elevated the Nintendo DS into a level that can only be matched by the Super Nintendo and the Playstation 2; two systems that were filled to the brim with new brilliant franchises and old familiar faces at their creative peak.
As impressive as the Nintendo 3DS is from a hardware standpoint - all that it takes to display that is a few seconds of Ocarina of Time 3D footage - it trails from the get go in relation to its predecessor because, aside from 3D, it bets in the very same dual-screen mechanics that the Nintendo DS already explored to great lengths. The two screens still have a whole lot to offer in terms of great design possibilities, especially with the 3D effects added, but they aren't as fresh as they were seven years ago. As a consequence, the 3DS is not only being compared to a handheld with an unbelievably great library, but it is also - when that comparison is done - facing a friendly enemy at its own field of battle, giving the DS a considerable advantage.
Still, even when those two core negative factors working against the 3DS are taken away from the equation - the undeniable and hard-to-reach greatness of its ancestor, and the difficulty to establish its own identity due to the great features it inherited - it is hard not to feel that the 3DS has had a bit of a slow start in terms of software, which is the most important measure of a system's quality. For many months negative comments towards the system were rightfully shielded with affirmations of how it was just way too early on its life to make any judgments. Right now, though, nearly two years into the life of the system, the overall feeling is that the Nintendo 3DS, though sporting a nice collection of very good games, still hasn't really reached a great pacing, and - even worse - it has, so far, failed to deliver a group of games great and original enough to start defining its identity.
It is not just a random feeling supported by blind nostalgia for the DS' unreachable library, it is something that is confirmed by cold hard numbers. According to Gamespot's scores, on its first two years of life, the Nintendo DS had 5 games that scored 9 or higher, a set of titles that included Advanced Wars: Dual Strike, Yoshi's Island DS, Mario Kart DS and New Super Mario Bros. The first was a glorious technological display, the following two were top-notch reinterpretations of important games, and the latter was a refreshing return to the past, albeit too easy. Sitting two months from its two-year anniversary, the 3DS has precisely zero games that managed to reach that score. Obviously, a game that does not reach that grade is far from automatically bad, but it does show that none of them caused the same impact as the four titles mentioned above, which says something.
More worrisome, though, is the fact that a portion of the top games of the Nintendo 3DS are remakes: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear, Star Fox and Street Fighter. Other than that, the system has housed the sequel to New Super Mario Bros. - which is a weaker affair, a stellar Mario Kart installment, the fifth Professor Layton game, a good Resident Evil adventure, a weak Paper Mario entry and a tridimensional take on the New Super Mario Bros gameplay in Super Mario 3D Land. Kid Icarus, Rhythm Thief and Zero Escape are probably the only three highly rated exclusives that brought to the system an experience that cannot be had anywhere else, and for a Nintendo handheld that is not quite good enough. The Nintendo DS also beats the 3DS when comparing their first two years when it comes to games rated between 8 or 8.9 (20 against 16), and it absolutely mops the floor with its younger sibling regarding games in the 7s (65 against 18).
By this point on its life, the Nintendo DS already had two Phoenix Wright games, Animal Crossing, Tony Hawk, two Castlevania titles, Elite Beat Agents, Kirby's Canvas Curse, Mario and Luigi, Trauma Center, Hotel Dusk, Meteos, Metroid Prime Hunters, Mario vs Donkey Kong, Age of Empires, Sonic Rush, among others. In other words, it had more games than an average human being can afford to play. What that difference may indicate, especially the one between games rated between 7 and 7.9, is that while Nintendo is definitely bringing out their support, third-parties are being weirdly shy. Investing on a Nintendo handheld is usually a sign of immediate profit, as the company pretty much dominates the market in a very remarkable fashion, but the on-going dominance is apparently not being as strongly backed up by other companies as it usually was in the past.
It can't be argued that the DS simply started out very strongly, as its pace was very continuous. For instance, after receiving five games rated 9 or higher in its first two years, it went on to have eleven more of those through the remaining four years of its life. In some cases, its pace got even better, as it is the case with games in the middle category (between 8 and 8.9), where in the other four years the system had a whopping sixty-nine games rated in that range, compared to the twenty of its first couple of years. Once again, maybe the achievements of the DS were so gargantuan that whatever the 3DS has been doing loses its shine because it cannot make its light be seen outside of the DS' shadow, but there is still a considerable difference between the support both consoles received during the same amount of time.
If there is one thing the 3DS has, though, aside from a nice library of games, is time. It is clearly too far off the DS' pace to try and replicate that kind of greatness. However, there are still many years ahead so that it can offer us unforgettable portable experiences that rank up there with Link's Awakening, Wario Land, Mario and Luigi 3, or the first two generations of Pokemon titles. Looking too far into the future would be an exercise in wild guessing, but glimpsing right around the corner shows us that Animal Crossing seems destined for a glorious rebirth after the blandness of City Folk, the meeting between Layton and Wright is about to happen, the sorely missed Luigi's Mansion franchise is making a seemingly great, bigger and better come back after ten years of absence, and at least one Zelda game is certainly looming in the horizon. The 3DS has time, Nintendo has the talent, and third-parties are aware of how well the handheld is selling. The recipe is ready to be cooked, it just needs someone to start a fire.