Will Sales of the Nintendo 3DS Surprise?

Retailers are already seeing strong demand for Nintendo’s latest portable gaming device, and it hasn’t even hit store shelves yet.

The Nintendo 3DS, which allows players to see 3-D images without special glasses, will go on sale in the U.S. on Sunday for $250.

Amazon is already claiming that the Nintendo 3DS was the biggest console launch ever on Amazon.com. It sold more units on January 19–the day it was announced–than any console had before, including the slimmed-down versions of the Xbox 360 last year and the PS3 the year before.

GameStop, which will open 800 of its stores worldwide at midnight on sales day, said pre-sales were strong. “Demand has been so strong that, literally, we are working every day with Nintendo to ensure that we have sufficient product. And they have been very good partners on this, and we fully expect to have sufficient product at launch; the demand is very strong,” said GameStop’s President Tony Bartel during the company’s earnings call yesterday, according to a SeekingAlpha transcript.

Nintendo expects to ship about four million 3DS units worldwide by the end of March, and said 1.5 million of those will likely be in Japan. The device went on sale in Europe today.

The original DS has been insanely popular over the years.

Nintendo has sold more than 47 million portable video game systems in the U.S. since the original model launched in November 2004. By its own measures, it says, that makes Nintendo DS the nation’s best-selling video game system of all time.

Still, it’s unclear whether the 3-D mechanism will draw a new audience, or whether it’s enough to encourage current users to upgrade.

In other words, can the 3DS repeat history? There’s a handful of reasons why this could be game over.

Nintendo warned that children under the age of six should not view the 3-D images due to health concerns, although optometrists have since largely dismissed the worries.

Another concern is price.

The device costs $250, which is $100 more than the original. The games are also $10 more expensive at $39 each.

Finally, there’s the competition.

The Nintendo products are attractive because they don’t require a monthly fee. Increasingly, however, smartphones are offering an equal gaming experience. Apple’s iPad and iPod touch also don’t have monthly fees, and those devices have thousands of games for much less than $39. If 3-D is important, two smartphones were unveiled this week at CTIA with 3-D capabilities–without glasses.

Katie Boehret of The Wall Street Journal and All Things Digital gave the device a mixed review, calling out its clunkiness and remarking that the images sometimes made her dizzy.

However, the device offers a lot more features than the old model. In May, it’s expected to get a software update that will enable downloadable games and add a Web browser.

On launch day, users will have a choice of dozens of game titles, including several created by Nintendo, such as Pilotwings Resort, Nintendogs + Cats: Golden Retriever & New Friends, and Steel Diver.

Typically, the launch of new hardware spurs a spike in game sales.

It’s Ubisoft’s intention to launch more 3DS titles than any other third-party video game publisher this week to ride that wave. It has four titles ready at launch, including Asphalt 3D, Combat of Giants, Dinosaurs 3D and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon. In all, it has more than 15 games in development for the platform.

All of Ubisoft’s games at launch will be in 3-D; however, a toggle on the device allows you to convert the images to 2-D. The games also take advantage of other new features, such as the accelerometer, which in Asphalt 3D allows you to steer the car with motion control.

Ubisoft SVP of Sales and Marketing Tony Key said the goal is to be No. 1 on the platform. “The thing is going to be hot. Our initial prediction is that it will be hard to get your hands on one. It’s going to sell out. All kinds of people will be trying to buy one, ranging from the core gaming men to tweens to every gamer segment out there,” he said. “As fast as Nintendo can make them is as fast as they will be able to sell them.”

Both Amazon and GameStop are providing incentives for current DS owners to upgrade. They are offering $50 to $100 in trade-in credit on old gaming units, depending on the device.

Nintendo, which is based in Kyoto, Japan, has previously said that there’s been no apparent damage to its headquarters after the recent earthquake, and that business operations, including future product shipments, haven’t been affected.

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