OK. So Nintendo has finally announced the release date and pricing for the upcoming Nintendo 3DS handheld (March 27th for $249 US). Let the wailing and lamentation begin.
I shouldn't joke. I have complained about overpriced hardware myself in the past (eg. Dreamcast, PSP, PS3...). But quite frankly, I am over it. There is clearly a price at which electronics overreach their audience. This was true of the 3DO ($699 in 1993), the PS3 (originally priced at $499-$599 in 2006), and certainly true of the PSP Go ($249 in 2009), which is perhaps the poster child of over eager pricing.
So, how can you justify the 3DS at $249 when the PSP Go was "overpriced" at the same price? Because when it comes to price, "too much" is relative.
It is now 2011. The last Nintendo handheld, DS, started around $149 and rose to $189 for the DSiXL — which is an interesting, but ultimately minor, upgrade on the base unit. So another $60 jump for a major new platform is not unreasonable. Especially when you compare it to the PSP Go which had a new form factor, but no really new functionality.
The real question is what is happening to console prices? All three consoles are now priced starting around $200-$300. So the 3DS will come in pretty much even with a home game console. 3-5 years ago this would have been inconceivable. But the fact is, the age of console gaming is over.
I don't mean consoles are going away; I expect video game consoles and console games to continue. There will always be a place for "serious" gaming. But the era where consoles dominate the industry is over. Smart phones play a part in this. Casual gaming is also involved. But perhaps more importantly, video game consoles have evolved to a point of diminishing returns. The expense of producing the hardware and of developing games to exercise that hardware is barely sustainable.
Nintendo avoided this cycle by moving (no pun intended) in a new direction with the Wii, to great success. But in the five years since Wii debuted, much of the technology involved is now possible in handheld form. Besides its eponymous 3D gaming, the 3DS has cameras, a microphone, accelerometer, wifi, and touch control (as do many smart phones). So as the amount of additional graphic power that can be eked out of consoles shrinks, we get closer to the day where the only thing that separates consoles from handheld gaming is the big screen. (And I expect someone will soon figure out how to link that to a handheld as well...)
But I digress. Is the 3DS worth $249? For a portable "console" that is is backwards compatible (with DS), upgrades the processor significantly, and delivers an entirely new form of play? Sounds like it to me.
Of course, the real question is what will Sony do when it announces its rumored successor to the PSP. They have traditionally been at the high end of both features and pricing. Their new device may make the 3DS look like a toy. But it is unclear (as it was with the original PS3) whether people will be willing to pay the premium for a... toy?