Today marks one year of the 3DS being released in North America. It’s been an unusual journey. From a rocky start to its place today, an anniversary can’t be complete without mentioning both the system’s highs and lows.

I still remember picking my 3DS up from Gamestop last Spring, and the sales that they had for the limited (at the time) titles. Unlike a lot of the more harsh critics of the system when it came out, I became a fan of the system from the first moment. Sure, the initial software line-up lacked any major heavy hitters, and I do think the system was likely released before it truly had everything in place, but I was waiting for Kid Icarus.

That was a launch title. Or at least it was supposed to be. Then a Summer, then Fall, then 2012. But I knew that the system could have great potential from its first promised titles. The “Coming Soon” list was stronger than the Wii has ever been, and honestly, I liked the 3D. There really was a difference in gameplay. Distances were easier to judge, making titles like Pilotwings more immersive, and walks with Nintendogs more entertaining. Even Super Street Fighter IV‘s battles felt more in your face, and some online interaction was better than none, and better that Nintendo’s previous offerings. And despite the doomsayers, the 3D has not made for an eye-destroying experience as claimed. It’s unfortunate that little was done to allay the scaremongering tactics that likely slowed sales (but gave early adopters a few benefits).

The system itself felt full of hidden secrets and treasures. From games like Find Mii and Face Raiders to the AR Cards, universal friend codes, StreetPass and Play Coins, it’s pushed me to keep my 3DS around to unlock more in game rewards and bonuses. The experience is much more rewarding than paid DLC, even for smaller things. I even got to secure my original Mii from 2006 over to the system.

The next big wave of games game primarily from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Starfox 64. Again, people decried these “ports” of Nintendo 64 games, but they weren’t straight ports like that questionable anniversary collection of Super Mario All-Stars. These were enhanced ports with improved graphics and play options, not to mention being two of the most beloved and well-received titles of the N64 era.

During the Summer, the eShop finally went online, giving us free content (a huge rarity for Nintendo), and a promise of several notable titles to come in 2012. The eShop, while promising, took a while to grow, but the chance for 3D Classics and Game Boy titles started making the system more interesting. I’m still on the fence about the 3DS Virtual Console given the Wii’s shoddy treatment of the service, but content is still trickling out instead of a total stop.

All that, and the 3DS still wasn’t doing well. That brought about another rarity: A price drop, something that Nintendo usually doesn’t do, and especially that early in. Early adopters could have been totally slighted in this transition, but Nintendo released the “Ambassador Program”: 10 free NES games, and 10 free Game Boy advance Games. Nintendo has been giving away a lot of “free” with this system.

Around the Fall, something changed with the 3DS: The eShop was getting progressively better, and Nintendo was actually introducing new IPs for a change. FreakyForms, Pushmo, and Dillon’s Rolling Western all introduced new characters and environments that are prime for a future Super Smash Bros. game.

The 3DS also began to introduce new content, like the engaging Nintendo Show 3D on the eShop, Nintendo Video (which started slow, but gave players great Kirby and Kid Icarus animated shorts), Nintendo Zone, and a system update that actually did something past a security update.

Find Mii II, more puzzles, accomplishments for Mii Plaza, the ability to shoot 3D videos, and the brilliant SwapNote. It may not be voice chat, but it’s worlds better than Nintendo has ever attempted previously. And with that, you can collect fun stationery from friends around the world.

All of that, and Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7. Even third party companies, previously skittish of the 3DS, and largely non-existent on the Wii were putting out solid, original titles, or very competent ports, both retail and download. Whereas it seemed like any game of various and questionable quality could be pumped out on the Wii, the hits on the 3DS have far oversahdowed the misses.

And in the end, Nintendo kept is promises of Game Gear titles on the eShop, and Kid Icarus: Uprising. Sure, the dual analog addition of the Circle Pad Pro should have been integrated into the system from Day 1, but it feels good for what titles actually use it. Resident Evil: Revelations and Kid Icarus: Uprising are graphics powerhouses on the system, admirably competing with console fare.

A year later, I can say I use my 3DS almost daily. I haven’t been this fond of a Nintendo console since the NES/SNES days. None of the system features have been abandoned, I collect new bonuses and people via StreetPass far more often now, I can send friends voice clips and 3D pictures via SwapNote, and the online features feel like something could happen at any time on the system, from running into someone new, or getting some update or little gift from Nintendo. This is what the Wii should have been, and never fully achieved.

And now, with games like Luigi’s Mansion 2, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, and who knows what will come from E3 this year, the little system that struggled to find its place has become an inseparable gaming accessory for me. If Nintendo is smart, they will maintain this momentum for the lifetime of the system, and apply these newfound philosophies to the Wii U has well. If they lost the “core gamer” on the Wii, they’ve worked very hard to regain them on the 3DS. Keep the gaming fun, the communication open and flowing, reward with a Mii, a stationery, or a free game/app from time to time.

It could all end today, and I’d say that the system did well overall. Fortunately, some of the best looks to be still on the horizon.

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