Y’all remember that time Nintendo really fucked up bad? I’m talking when the Nintendo 3DS first came out in the spring of 2011. There were no launch games worth talking about, no game to sell the system to gamers, to casual audiences, or even to kids. The 3D gimmick was really neat, but no game truly showed it off in any notable way, much less anything that made it essential for gameplay. As the follow-up to the best-selling handheld gaming system of all-time, Nintendo really ruined things.
Sales were very poor. Even when they released their first new “big” titles that summer, those titles were… Star Fox 64 3D and Ocarina of Time 3D, remakes of Nintendo 64 games, y’know, the system the original DS was already powerful enough to handle ports of.
As for me, my family was still going through a very bad financial situation at that time, but even if we weren’t, I hadn’t really paid all that much attention to the 3DS—I was much more focused on the upcoming Project Cafe, which later turned into the Wii U (another even sadder story for Nintendo’s horrible marketing in the early 2010s). Even when things began to improve significantly for my family later that year, there just wasn’t anything on the system worth paying $250 for.
But then… like a flash of lightning from Zeus, everything changed. Nintendo saw the pressures they were facing, knew they were bound for a spectacular failure when its first real “killer app” titles were still many months way and the system was going belly-up. So they made an unprecedented move and dropped the price to $170, just five months after its release.
People were ecstatic. This was the kind of price drop that really made the system worth it for most consumers. This was the kind of price drop that saved Nintendo and turned the 3DS into yet another mega-hit handheld, one that became increasingly important when the Wii U itself also flopped.
Of course, those who bought the system already were clearly not ecstatic. I’m sure they were furious, actually; they bought a system out of company loyalty, having been promised amazing things from a new system, and were rewarded with barely any games and then a price drop months later. Nintendo, anticipating this reaction, gave these early adopters a massive reward known as the Ambassador Program.
The Ambassador Program, thanks to being rewarded to only those limited Nintendo fans who purchased the game very close to its launch date, is a forgotten and somewhat glossed-over factoid these days, but at the time it was a huge event. To make up for the anger they were set to cause, Nintendo offered free digital games to any and all 3DS owners who registered their device before the price drop, sometime in early August of 2011.
Only, this wasn’t some pittance. This was TWENTY GAMES.
Ten NES games, which were worth at the time $5 each on the Wii, all for free. Even taking into account that today you can get an NES emulator on your phone and play the entire NES library for a total of like, 300 MB of storage space, back in 2011 it was the very first time you could legally play all these games digitally and portably. Sure, while these games consisted mostly of mindless distractions like Balloon Fight, Ice Climber, and Golf, but they also included Metroid, Super Mario, and the first two Zeldas, which are all pretty nicely sized adventures.
The real kicker came from the other games, ten Gameboy Advance releases. This was just… Absolutely nuts. Gameboy Advance games were a lot less expensive than they are now, but I mean come on, look at that lineup! Fire Emblem Sacred Stones alone is a 30-hour game. But they had the absolute audacity to hand out some of their absolute best GBA games such as Metroid Fusion, WarioWare Inc., and Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap, for an all-out fantastic lineup of free games. Ten GBA games alone would have been far worth the cost of the price drop, or far beyond that when you know these games’ ultimate fates…
The GBA games are the kicker here, the thing that get people riled up about the entire Ambassador Program when they hear it now. While all of the NES games were eventually made available for purchase on the 3DS Eshop, the GBA games never were. They remained exclusive for the entire runtime of the 3DS, to this day still unavailable for digital purchase outside of the Wii U (which nobody owns, let’s get real).
People get really angry about this until they find out why—These games were not Virtual Console emulation. They didn’t have fancy save states or screenshot functions or any of that. You had to reset the entire system if you wanted to return to the home screen.And that’s because they weren’t emulated! Deep inside the 3DS hardware, within that DS backwards compatibility, they had the GBA functions in there like some vestigal organ. These GBA games aren’t emulated—they are actual GBA files being played in their original forms, just on a new system. They couldn’t offer these on the eshop because they simply weren’t 3DS games to begin with.
To make up for the price drop to early adopters, Nintendo broke their own code of quality assurance and gave ten games that exploited their own hardware at the cost of slightly subpar presentation. It’s completely out of character for them, and it’s fantastic that they did it. They’ll obviously never do anything like that again, so it’s infinitely impressive that they went there to appease their biggest supporters.
And the best part of all of this?
The day before the price drop started and the Ambassador Program ended, it turns out Target had jumped out in front of everyone and dropped their 3DS price early. So my family bought three 3DSes for the sale price, and STILL got the Ambassador Program games.
I love it when retail messes everything up.