3DS vs. iPhone: Nintendo’s best weapon is a matter of character(s)

iPhones and similar devices are like electronic Swiss Army knives: They can transform themselves into an amazing variety of tools. They can replace clocks, music players, televisions, radios, carpentry levels and cameras.

What they can’t replace’so far’is a great portable game player.

iPhone excels at puzzle games, word games and novelties. There are a handful of passable RPGs and strategy games. And Skee Ball.

Most titles attempting fuller gameplay are doomed by uncomfortable controls. Screen-tilting and finger-swiping will never be a great way to control a racer. Street Fighter 4 looks amazing, but who wants to play with their thumbs covering the art?

Recently, a game called Infinity Blade looked like it could be iPhone’s killer game app, featuring astounding graphics and smart use of the touch screen. When you actually play the thing, though, you discover its visuals come at a price: The game offers limited character control on a quest that’s about 2 inches deep. The swordfights are fun, but it’s basically a medieval version of Punch-Out! minus any hint of personality, emotion or charm.

I’m keeping Scrabble. And Skee Ball. And Infinity Blade, because it’s entertaining enough for brief sessions of great scenery.

But now I turn my attention to Nintendo’s next handheld, eager for a system with an identity, a heritage, and a new home for a stable of likeable and welcome characters.

On iPhone, you won’t find a mascot or anything approaching video game star status. Seriously, the Angry Birds are as close as it gets”¦at least, so far. The App Store features dozens of quality games for quick play sessions, but none that create any sense of emotional involvement.

The 3D-with-no-glasses innovation is exactly the right move for Nintendo’s new handheld. Whether or not 3D becomes an enduring element, the feature will reach beyond Nintendo fans to attract more of the casual crowd–Folks merely looking to show off their new gadget at the office water cooler. A percentage of those trend-riders will discover how much fun a quality Nintendo title can be.

The characters are the factor that will hold those new fans and remind returning players why Nintendo remains so memorable. These games are all about the quirky charms, humor and great design of the Mushroom Kingdom, Hyrule and Wuhu Island.

Plus, it’s a comfortable game system designed for one main purpose: Play.

Unless Apple announces a 3D iPhone before March, Nintendo doesn’t have to worry about 2011. The market is changing, and only time will tell what our favorite game company will face after that. But they’ve got a library of unforgettable personalities and an emotional link to their fans that no other corporation in the game industry can approach.

And they’ve got Shigeru Miyamoto. I hope he never retires.