I think it's fair enough to say that, as a whole, the Nintendo DS was awful. In fact, everything about the system, aside from its recent 3D addition, is a phenomenal example of how most gamers view what has become of modern day Nintendo. Absolutely amazing first party games, followed by a slew of terrible shovelware garbage that isn't fit to see the light of day. Just looking at the DS, it's really a shock how the system has done so well and it's not even remotely surprising how much ground Nintendo has lost to the iPhone and PSP as a result. Bad planning across the board helped generate a platform that had so much potential, yet was absolutely wasted to an almost admirable level of laziness and greed. Nintendo had no competition, so as long as units were selling it simply didn't care.
The two screen mechanic was neat, but more often than not, they just used the touch screen mechanic to inappropriately justify having a touch screen. It was also completely bogged down by poor quality third-party games and classic-title remakes; which is fantastic if you were really excited for games that would provide either an hour or more of entertainment (if you really liked old games re-released for the second/third time). This isn't to say that every title released on the system was a flop, but rather that after the first few years, nothing new was really brought to the table. Sure we saw a title like Professor Layton or Pheonix Wright come along now and then, but as a whole there really wasn't all that much to look forward to.
All of that seems like something that is now being looked at extremely carefully and with third party support being stamped on every single advertisement even remotely related to the 3DS, it's hard not to wonder where this will lead. It's equally hard not to wonder where Nintendo has been these past few years, while Microsoft and Sony have been fighting tooth and nail for console exclusives to properly define their individual experiences. That being said, the 3DS is ensuring that gamers will have plenty to look forward to, not just from Nintendo but from independent parties as well.
Nothing speaks larger volumes of this than the fact that there's no real flagship Nintendo launch title released with the 3DS, it seems to be all about the independents. After all, if the system can launch well without a Mario Kart or Zelda title backing it up, doesn't that mean that there's hope for a similar approach to the much elusive, yet inevitable, Wii 2? As a publisher that has been extremely reluctant to let outside developers in on their secrets before, this radical change shows that Nintendo has not only addressed the problem with the DS long-term, but they've finally seemed to identify competition in the handheld sector. Nintendo just can't do whatever they want anymore.
I would hesitate to say that 3D isn't a gimmick either - because in some ways it is, but it certainly brings a different experience to the table. Unlike touch screens, voice commands or motion controls absence of 3D from a title won't provide a completely different title. It's the addition of visual flair that consumers will be paying for, and while it's possible to argue that 3D is a game 'mechanic' in its own right, I find it easier to accept paying more for a visual upgrade than paying for another opportunity to wave my hand around and pretend I've got a sword. There's simply more that can be done with the technology (in my opinion) than with any other gimmick Nintendo has brought forth thus far.
So keeping the past in mind, and looking forward at the promising future, I think Nintendo has come a long way. A far cry, at least, from hoping that a system will sell simply from having the Nintendo label on it, as if the publisher could survive forever by being the Apple of the gaming industry. It's now just a matter of whether or not Nintendo can keep up this sort of momentum, ensuring that their platform has a proper lineup just like any other console. Where the PSP and the iPhone suffer in having a slightly unstable release calendar, the 3DS can finally capitalize on a constant stream of high quality titles. It will be hard work, and developers will no doubt have to figure out new ways to push the handheld system to its limits, but so long as Nintendo can work together with their third-party associates they just may be able to completely fill a year with some decent titles while 'hardcore' fans wait for the next big first party title. I'm fully willing to invest in the 3DS as a result, perhaps even considering this as Nintendo's last chance. If things go poorly from here, it's hard to say I'll ever be willing to trust their handheld platforms ever again.