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Published August 25, 2011

Five months into the 3DS’ life cycle and we’re already hearing rumors of a drastically reduced emphasis on its eponymous glasses-less  gimmick. Yikes. 3D handheld gaming was supposed to be the future, and now some are predicting it won’t last beyond another year. As we and many others have discussed, Nintendo’s scrambling to turn its 3DS fortunes around this holiday, and thanks to that pesky iOS platform, a massive price drop and Mario might not be enough this time. Even as an ardent fan, when I’ve got a few minutes to kill, I’m more likely to turn to Cut the Rope‘s froggy creature than I am the famous plumber, and that’s a reality that Nintendo can’t ignore any longer. But short of a hardware relaunch – and again, that’s supposedly on the table – how exactly is the 3DS to compete? I still say that the secret weapon has been available since the beginning: StreetPass.

When the 3DS debuted, you may recall that most reviewers were more taken with the numerous bells and whistles than they were with early software like Pilotwings and Steel Diver. Between the AR Cards, Face Raiders, 3D photos, SpotPass and more, the general consensus was that these apps would offer limited replayability but maximized laughs. However, the one feature that seemed like it could have legs beyond the novelty phase was StreetPass. Because this function is always on, and because developers can tailor it to fit all sorts of game types, there’s a lot of potential for passive interaction between users. Street Fighter IV and Nintendogs + Cats used it in pretty meaningless ways, but like the old Game Boy’s link cable port or the Xbox 360’s achievements, StreetPass seemed like it could end up being the most integral feature you never knew you needed. Luckily, as someone who has used it extensively during my daily commute, I think it still can.Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has said in interviews that one of the company’s major failings was not educating the public about the benefits of the 3D display, and going a bit further, about how the 3DS is different from the DS. The added visual depth is still cool in this blogger’s book, but the bigger misstep has been failing to educate the public – and developers – about why StreetPass is not just another worthless tag mode. The initial way to do so is to push the Mii Plaza games.

I began my own Mii Plaza quest back in May, stuffing my 3DS in my front pocket so that it could broadcast my funny hats to the world. Mii Plaza is designed to let you show of your Mii and very simplified gamer profile with those around you. There are two games within – a puzzle collection quest and gaming’s simplest RPG. It’s a far cry from Words with Friends, but it was enough to get me to charge my 3DS every night for a few consecutive months.

It should be noted that my experience is not at all typical; I live in New York City, one of the most bustling cities in the world with one of the most widely used public transportation systems in the world. I hope that my experience would be the ideal that more of you would get to experience as the handheld’s sales rise. Regardless, I found myself entranced by the puzzle exchange half of the game early on. The game is about a collective experience. Unlike Street Fighter IV‘s trophy mode, you aren’t trying to show off how awesome you are by clobbering people with your all-Rufus lineup. You share pieces with each other to create 3D images of your favorite Smash Bros., and if someone has more pieces than you, that just raises the likelihood of finding a sliver of Yoshi that you don’t already have. It’s passive cooperative gameplay, and it was great to think that I was helping others as much as they were helping me. I completed that one back in June – thank you Ocarina 3D launch event – and have been happily helping the occasional passerby ever since.

From there, I moved onto Find Me, in which you enlist other Miis and free agents to rescue your captured king. This half had an added bonus of wearable hats to show off to friends, including a yellow pikmin hood currently attached to my Mii. Despite this incentive, I began to notice that I was StreetPassing far less often, despite being crammed in the front car of the F train each morning with at least a couple folks with whom I had connected earlier. Eventually, I made it to the end of the castle summit on my own, mainly thanks to the brute force method of dropping Play Coins for CPU-generated helpers. But without new software support, the limited Mii Plaza content just wasn’t holding people’s interest. I doubt most made it even half as far as I have. However, for a couple glorious months, I was able to discover the one feature that could set the 3DS apart in the market.

Now that the price drop has spurred sales some, it’s time to give the grand experiment another, bolder chance. Iwata has already said more StreetPass software is in development, and that’s fantastic news. I think giving folks a reason to keep charging their 3DS systems every night is crucial, and just seeing that green light blink whenever I’ve secretly exchanged information still elicits a thrill. But from what we’ve seen of the retail stuff, it doesn’t seem like Nintendo’s pushing StreetPass nearly enough in its retail games. As far as I’m concerned, StreetPass should be in every single first party game if the feature is to turn into a system seller.

Case in point: Ocarina of Time 3D was a huge missed opportunity. The game somehow sold several hundred thousand copies to a very small user base, meaning that we were all playing the game at the same time. I know that most of the Miis I’ve been bumping into have been carrying Hyrulian shields with them. Why not let us share the experience somehow? At the bare minimum, I’d love to know how far everyone has progressed, but what about an exchange of in-game masks or customized ocarina melodies? What about map doodling – think Phantom Hourglass – to share secrets in the overworld? None of this would have been that hard to implement, and I suddenly would have a reason to pop in a Zelda game after completing it, a series first.

User generated content is always tricky when it comes to Nintendo, but StreetPass is practically begging for it. Super Mario 3D Land is almost guaranteed to be worth a purchase based on pedigree alone, but platforming games can only last for so long. I wouldn’t mind Mario taking a page from Sackboy and offering very simple customized levels. Hell, I would even be willing to use existing levels if I could alter enemy/coin/item placement. Again, there’s an unique thrill to a mutually beneficial exchange, and I think “unlimited levels,” in a sense, would be a hard-to-refuse bullet point.

There’s no reason why developers can’t be more ambitious with the feature. One of the advantages of handhelds like the Nintendo 3DS is that you can take them with you. (Duh.) But like the iPhone with its GPS tagging, the 3DS can help put things in pretty cool geographical contexts. According to Mii Plaza, I’ve connected with people from Japan, France and even Canada. I suppose those distinctions are meaningless on their own, but what if a developer were to include a viral “achievement” of sorts in his or her game? You see these a lot in console multiplayer games, but it’s not that big a deal when I don’t have to leave my house to get one. However, if I could trace an item’s path back to its origin after acquiring it through StreetPass, that journey would suddenly seem incredible.

Now, I already hear some of you asking why I’m not opposed to 3D-less games on the 3DS but insist on shoehorning StreetPass into everything. Trust me though – the feature is potentially that versatile. Mario Kart 7? Share your favorite track ghost. Star Fox 64 3D? High score challenges and multiplayer bots with recorded voice samples. Luigi’s Mansion 2? Hidden Mii ghosts strewn about the map. I’m not a game designer, but I can see dozens of possibilities quite clearly.

I’ve walked over one million steps, I’ve maxed out my Play Coins, I’ve completed my Pokedex 3D, I’ve exhausted Mii Plaza and I’ve walked my Nintendog around the neighborhood more times than I care to admit. I’m hungry for more StreetPass content, and I think you’ll find this fall that so are a lot of other 3DS owners. When we’re on the train, we may not be able to launch Angry Birds at each other, but I know I’ll never tire of seeing someone else’s funny hat.

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