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Which console will win 2011?

NINTENDO

1. The 3DS

All eyes are on Nintendo for this one. Can it replicate the runaway success of the DS, with a more powerful handheld, less battery life and $40 games? Will the 3D effect strain your eyes? Will some people be unable to view the 3D trickery at all? As far as 2011 is concerned, it almost doesn’t matter, because this thing is going to sell like a clever setup with a humorous punchline.

All it takes is one look and you’re ready to slam $250 on the table right then and there. Nintendo is shipping demo units across the world, and I would love to see the ratio of people who try a 3DS and then buy one on the spot – I bet it’ll be startlingly high. The 3D effect, superfluous as it may be, is inarguably impressive and will no doubt dazzle millions of people into a purchase before they even know what hit them.

Nintendogs+Cats will be huge. Super Street Fighter IV has to be seen and played to be believed. Ocarina of Time 3D will sell hardware all by itself. Kid Icarus could breathe new life into a long-dormant franchise. All this before a Mario, Pokemon or Brain Age-esque game appear, each of which has the potential to move millions of handhelds. The 3DS’ best year is still to come, but it all starts right here, in 2011.

2. Skyward Sword

In typical Nintendo fashion, the company hasn’t unveiled its plans for 2011 beyond the next couple of months. Other than Mario Sports Mix, Pokemon and the 3DS, who knows what it’s cooking up for the summer and fall months? Well, we do know ONE thing, and it’s easily one of our most anticipated games of the year. Probably one of yours, too.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword fell victim to an unfortunately glitchy demo at last year’s E3, which made the game’s much-touted motion controls appear disjointed and clumsy. After playing it for myself, I can say that’s not the case – each enemy (and the scorpion boss) required specific slices and slashes to defeat, and each time I was able to perform those attacks with ease. Couple these enhanced combat controls with sure-to-be brilliant puzzles and there’s little reason to think this won’t be one of the top titles of the year. That said, there will be a LOT of waggle going on, so if your tolerance is low, that could be a problem. At least it’ll be better than Twilight Princess’ shake-shake-shake-shake mindlessness.

By the time Skyward Sword releases, it’ll have been five years since the last major entry in the franchise. Hourglasses and spirit tracks aside, that’s a bad case of gaming blue balls for such a high-profile series. All the Wiis that have collected dust for the past couple of years will light up again, ready to go on one last adventure before tucking Nintendo’s console away into the closet forever.

3. A new console, possibly

Speaking of tucking the console away, longtime Nintendo followers should recognize this scenario – we’re entering year five of a console’s life span, with little to no info on the year’s games, all while most of Nintendo’s biggest franchises have already appeared on the current system. What’s left? Another Mario? Pull Star Fox and F-Zero out and try to pimp ‘em as a holiday-worthy release? We know there’s another Kirby coming, plus a Wii version of Rhythm Heaven but uh… that’s what you’re putting up against Skyrim, Arkham City, Uncharted 3 and Gears of War 3? Sounds like you need the hype of a new console to get people talking again.

Above: Interest in Nintendo’s “Revolution” diverted people’s attention from GameCube’s bleak fifth year

There’s no arguing around it at this point - Wii is looking long in the tooth from every measurable angle. Visuals? Unclear and dated. Games? Drying up. Online? Nonexistent. Motion controls? You and everyone else, buddy. To me, this all suggests Nintendo will announce (but not fully reveal) its next console at this year’s E3. Expect general details, like motion controls, HD support or backwards compatibility, but not necessarily a hardware shot or official name. Handhelds typically act as heralds of new Nintendo consoles: GBA was revealed and launched just prior to GameCube, and the DS appeared just before Wii, so all this 3DS hullabaloo suggests Nintendo’s ready to talk about a Wii successor.


Above: Remember the very first Wii lifestyle shots? Let’s hope they’re not part of the next console

This one announcement, Nintendo’s follow-up to the most popular console of the current roster, could give a lot of consumers pause when they start looking at a 360 or PS3 this fall; not heavy gamers like us, but the mass-market folks who’ve made Wii and DS the machines to beat. This wouldn’t translate to money for Nintendo in 2011, but if it’s a particularly strong announcement (like “plays upscaled Wii games out of the box”), its effects could be felt for the rest of the year, giving Nintendo a roundabout advantage as the other machines enter their fifth (and sixth) years.

And yeah, I had to invent a reason for Nintendo because again, we know so little about its plans for the year.