Etrian Odyssey V, an impassioned case for the continued existence of dual-screen gaming
Switch may make the DS line redundant, but it'll never be a direct replacement.
No one's really sure what will become of Nintendo 3DS now that Switch has slammed into the console market full steam ahead. Although the company has positioned Switch as a substitute for the ailing Wii U, the new system also makes things feel uncomfortably crowded for the 3DS as well. With console-level horsepower in a flexible, portable-friendly form, Switch makes the 3DS with its six-year-old specs something of a hard sell. While the older handheld has stuck around as a hand-me-down for younger players and, curiously, a home for remakes (see Samus Returns, Mario & Luigi, Strange Journey, Radiant Historia), the question on most people's minds when they think of 3DS tends to be the same: How much longer will this thing be around?
While the 3DS itself may not be much longer for this world (though with Nintendo, who really knows?), I'd like to hope the DS line itself won't fade away once the current platform fizzles down to nothing. As much as I love the Switch — and seriously, I love it a lot — there are certain game experiences it simply can't hope to reproduce. Nintendo attempted to bring the DS experience to the console space with Wii U, and that flopped hard; Switch reels it in somewhat and takes a calmer approach whose appeal is an easier sell to the masses. In doing so, however, they cut away a critical part of the DS concept.
Today's launch of Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth (which, by the way, is excellent and you should really buy it) serves as a strong reminder of the unique experiences the DS's form factor made possible. Much of Etrian Odyssey's appeal comes from the manual mapping feature that players undertake as they play. The game permanently sets the lower touch screen to function as a dungeon map, tasking the player with the need to plot out the geography of a 30-level labyrinth as they fight their way to the end. It's a bit of hard-labor-as-gaming, yes, but for those who grasp the innate appeal of creating game maps, it's a delight. And it's wholly unique to the DS family.
What makes the Etrian Odyssey series so wonderfully suited to DS and 3DS? For one thing, the games make brilliant use of the system-as-notebook concept. As you journey through the dungeon with a stylus in one hand and your DS cradled in the other, that hardware arrangement mimics the sensation that you have become one of the game's adventurers. It's a brilliant meta-gaming conceit, bridging the gap between flesh and virtual worlds with the same elegance that the series draws a line between classic RPGs and modern concepts.
In theory, I suppose it would be possible to approximate the joy of mapping an Etrian dungeon on Switch. But it would amount to that: A mere approximation. You'd have to limit the console to use in handheld mode only, since docking a Switch for television play locks away the touch screen. And the sensation of drawing the maps would be completely different; you'd either have to dedicate half the screen to the map and cut the dungeon view down significantly, or else you'd have to put the map on a slide-out tab or something, which would undermine the connection between player and avatar borne of carrying around a "real" map while you dungeon-dive.
Plus, Switch's touch screen is capacitative, whereas the DS family has always used resistive screens. Capacitative screens are more advanced, yes, but they also you'd have to use a finger to draw maps on Switch rather than a stylus. Multi-touch controls work better for gameplay, but some applications work better with the use of a stylus. Mapping is one of those; drawing fine outlines with which to define the corridors of a dungeon requires the precision of a fine stylus point. Plus, it's all part of the illusion: You become a bold explorer charting the unknown with a quill pen as you play Etrian Odyssey, not a courageous finger-painter.
Etrian Odyssey V also highlights another feature abandoned by Switch: Street passing. Passive communications between 3DS consoles may have resulted in brutal battery drain, but anyone who's ever spent time somewhere thick with 3DS enthusiasts should be well familiar with the thrill of opening a sleeping system to discover a Street Pass Plaza full of other players' Miis. In Etrian Odyssey V, street passing allows you to exchange guild cards with other players; as in other 3DS entries in the series, you can then import another player's party leader into your own guild. This time around, however, you'll also encounter their guilds within the dungeon in special events scattered throughout the labyrinth. It's a nice little touch that, again, creates a metatextual connection between player and game: You've "encountered" another "guild" while out exploring with your 3DS, and that becomes an element of the game. Switch lacks 3DS's passive wireless handshaking (and it enjoys tremendous battery life in sleep mode as a result), so these exchanges would have to work more like the Wii's Mii "traveling" concept… which is fine, but again, it loses something in translation.
Etrian Odyssey isn't the only game or series that shows off the unique strengths of DS and 3DS, but this fifth entry in the franchise arrives at a perfect time to offer a valuable reminder of what Nintendo created with its modern portable lineup. And as such, the prospect of 3DS's retirement casts more doubt on Etrian Odyssey's future than perhaps any other franchise. Given that this ultra-niche RPG series has sold maybe a million units worldwide across eight releases, I can't imagine that the long-term well-being of Etrian Odyssey is any sort of factor for Nintendo executives as they plan out a hardware road map. Nevertheless, this new release gives us a reason to hope that Nintendo's dual-platform approach hasn't been altogether abandoned, even if a new member of the DS family would be a tough sell in the Switch era. ("Yes, we have a system that's both a console and a portable, but wouldn't you also like to own a system that's only a portable?")
Whatever the future holds for Nintendo's handheld hardware, we still have a few final 3DS Etrian games to look forward to: Etrian Mystery Dungeon 2 arrives next year, and the series' producer has promised one final 3DS outing for the franchise — presumably either Etrian Odyssey VI or an "Untold" remake of Etrian Odyssey III. So, even if we never see another dual-screen console beyond that, that should be a decent enough fix of classic touch-mapping Etrian questing to last us a while, at least.