Lazy summers. Low-key evenings. Quiet breaks. Games have long existed to be best at these times, reveling not in excitement and epic consequences but in the smaller things. It’s a few minutes here to customize your home, some optimization or upkeep as you make small but steady progress. And never has a system been as good at this sort of low-stakes play as the Nintendo 3DS.
Take two of Nintendo’s recent releases: Ever Oasis and Miitopia. Both have been released to something of a middling reception, the sort of tepid response that doesn’t alarm but doesn’t send players running to the store either. Are these bad games? We don’t think so. Both just very much break down in the pressure-cooker environment of rushed, busy media on review deadlines. They’re meant to be taken slowly. They’re meant to be taken with deep breaths. They’re meant to be comfort food, not a candy binge.
Miitopia is an RPG that feels more like a management simulation: you control one character, to a degree, but the entertainment and interest comes from interactions between party members that are well beyond your influence. They’re not random: you can guide certain pairs toward each other and build their trust through shared experience. But they can get miffed or have character flaws that pop up and change things. It’s like a reality show without the flashy editing: watching relationships evolve and change through the long lens of time. There’s a fast-forward button — and it helps — but even when using it, the game’s about that long lens, about fleeting moments that add up.
Ever Oasis is more action-oriented, sure, but its emphasis on tedium and upkeep makes it equally best fit for short sessions over long months. Making a run or two to grab supplies or complete a side quest is an ideal little slice of that game, played on a commute or before sleep. It’s all smiles and pleasant colors, reinforcing that soothing feeling of accomplishment that boosts the rest of your day just a little bit.
Many of the system’s best games shine similarly. Of course there’s Animal Crossing and New Leaf may be the best version of that experience, but there’s also Tomodachi Life, Fantasy Life, Story of Seasons and Rune Factory. There’s Attack of the Friday Monsters! and The Denpa Men. Games for players with a high tolerance for tedium and a limited desire for failure. Games we play to escape the strife of the world, to calm down on a sleepless night, to give us a feeling of progress when life feels like a series of stuck gears.
So why is the 3DS so great at this? It’s certainly not its oft-ignored 3D elements; how has it outshone the DS? Is it because the rise of mobile games has made 3DS releases focus on the joys of a game that’s not always yelling for your attention (and money)? Is it because the increased horsepower has been just enough to make these games more possible? Is it just that the world of today needs these games a lot more than the one of a decade ago? It’s hard to say. It could be all of these things or none of them. But as we look toward a horizon that sees the system in its waning years, it’s good to acknowledge everything it’s been for us and hope that these lessons outlive its era.