In most ways, the now 10-year-old 3DS was an oddity–the next evolution of the equally strange Nintendo DS, and with a trendy 3D hook to boot. While glasses-free 3D was the marquee feature, riding the wave of renewed popularity from 3D films like Avatar, the real killer app was StreetPass. Serving as both enticement to tote your portable system around with you and a bulwark against the encroaching threat of mobile games, StreetPass is a social feature that no other gaming system has ever replicated as successfully, not even Nintendo has done something like it again.
With StreetPass, leaving your 3DS on in sleep mode and taking it with you would ping other 3DS owners doing the same thing, transferring your Mii to their Mii Plaza and vice-versa. This encouraged real-world exploration, especially in more densely-populated urban areas, because you would come home to a Mii Plaza bursting with new friends. It made 3DS owners part of their own little secret club, frequently and anonymously giving each other a handshake.
Sometimes you might recognize someone with wild hair or a very identifiable set of glasses from your bus ride. Checking your Mii Plaza when you got home was a sweet way of realizing that stranger was, in their own way, a kindred spirit. It was an inclusive sense of belonging to the society of “gamers.” The concept was said to have originated from while walking your own canine companion, an activity oriented around getting to know your community.
But your new friends weren’t limited to waiting at your plaza. You could import them to help you in a variety of minigames. The initial slate of two games was fairly simplistic: a puzzle swap game in which your visitors would drop off puzzle pieces of classic Nintendo games and new releases, and a stripped-down RPG called “Find Mii” where your visitors were adventurers trying to save your own Mii, the monarch of a kingdom.
These were breezy time-wasters, but the real fun began when Nintendo introduced paid DLC games that expanded on the StreetPass Mii Plaza concept–and opened your gate to hold many more visitors at a time. These ran the gamut from slot car racing to stock trading to a strategy game. You might fend off zombies to save your StreetPass companions one moment in Battleground Z, and then switch to cooking a fine meal with ingredients supplied by your companions in Feed Mii. The sheer variety was overwhelming.
My personal favorite was Ultimate Angler, in which your visitors would provide you with new types of fishing bait, and you could take them out on boating trips to help with your catches. While it was still simple, this was essentially a full-fledged fishing game, complete with its own currency system, equipment, and upgrades–remarkably ambitious for a cute diversion to pair with a firmware feature. That level of quality should be no surprise considering it was developed by Sonic the Hedgehog creator Yuji Naka. Other StreetPass games were notably designed by similarly talented developers and studios, like Grezzo (3DS Zelda remakes), Good-Feel (Yoshi’s Wooly World, Crafted World), and Spike Chunsoft.
Nintendo further capitalized on the concept by showcasing some of its personalities. During special events, you could turn on your 3DS to find your plaza visited by notable figures like Reggie Fils-Aime, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Takashi Tezuka–all sporting golden pants that marked them as a special event Mii. These cameos often brought greater rewards than the standard Mii trades, which made it feel like a special experience.
StreetPass was even incorporated into standard games. In Pokemon X / Y, meeting other people via StreetPass earned you Poke Miles, which you could exchange for special items like rare candy. On the other hand, Super Smash Bros. utilized the feature for a mini-game called StreetSmash, where you fought against AI-controlled versions of the people you passed to earn currency to buy trophies. Dozens of games used Street Pass in creative ways like this, feeding into this larger overarching sense of community built by simple wireless communication technology.
The 3DS was a strange mishmash of design choices and priorities, but its best feature deserves a successor.
When Nintendo announced the Nintendo Switch, I was astonished. The company finally committed to tying the fates of its console and handheld businesses, and the new unified structure would mean less split development between its two platforms. The system’s success speaks for itself. But the one feature missing is StreetPass. The hybrid console is still portable–albeit less so than the comparably tiny 3DS–but there’s no tingle of excitement to taking it out and about. Admittedly, the portable functionality is an end to itself. You bring it along because you want to keep playing a video game on the go, and that’s all. But I just wish it had more of the exciting bells and whistles that helped define Nintendo’s dual-screen family of portables.
I still remember doubling back to my hotel when visiting a city, specifically to grab my 3DS because I didn’t want to give up the opportunity for new StreetPass pings. That encouragement was special, not just because it helped remind me that I might want to play a game on the go, but because it helped new places feel a little more familiar and friendly–a little more like home. The 3DS was a strange mishmash of design choices and priorities, but its best feature deserves a successor.
For more 3DS-related features, be sure to check out our roundup highlighting the best 3DS games, as well as our feature discussing our favorite 3DS games that actually utilized 3D well.