The 3DS's absurd collection of grand claims and technological novelties come together to create a magical experience. Its 3D is convincing, if limited, but it's the whole package that makes the most sense.
A 25th March release date and price of around GBP 229 or USD 250 has put the 3DS on every reviewer's lips. To complement my Nintendo 3DS Initial Impressions and 3DS Technical Analysis reviews last month, here's a more personal account of what it's like to play.
Fig 1. UK Pre-order deals.
The first time you play a 3DS game is an odd experience. The screen in unlike anything your eyes encounter on a day to day basis. At first there's a battle between binocular vision and technology as your senses strain to make sense of what is in front of you.
Like the children's eye test where you are tasked with putting the Lion in the Cage, or the more recent experience of straining to see 3D Stereogram dot pictures, you consciously have to get your eye muscles to focus. Slowly the two images being fed to them by the 3DS coalesce and you are granted another dimension.
I never really managed to see illusive 3D tigers, windmills and flowers hidden in 90's Stereogram pictures, and I was worried that my eyes wouldn't be up to the task of this new magical 3D experience. But with a little persuasion, and remembering to relax my vision, things came into focus.
Fig 2. US Pre-order deals.
Initially you see a double image, but looking at this for a short while is enough for it to be magically combined into one 3D scene. This focusing process took a couple of seconds for me at first and each time I looked up from playing I had to refocus before I could resume.
This was aided by reducing the 3D slider. The affect of this was not what I expected. It doesn't control the depth or power of the 3D affect, but rather fine tunes the different images being fed to each eye. This is more about matching how your eyes process the world (and the physical gap between them on your head), than adjusting how much 3D you could cope with. I found a sweet spot about halfway down the slider for my eyes, this not only made the experience feel less of a strain, but reduced the time it took to focus on the output.
This certainly underlined the advice given by Nintendo, that children with developing vision (which is not a fixed age but generally taken to be those six and under) should avoid using the device in 3D mode. In fact the Health and Safety warning is positively scary, "The use of the 3D feature by children under six may cause vision damage".
Parents have a choice for these vulnerable players - who will doubtless be clamouring to play the new device - of either using the slider to turn the 3D off or setting a Parental control that locks the feature away. This is all commendable stuff from Nintendo, although I would have preferred the default option to be off. The majority will no doubt use it responsibly but busy parents may well not realise the implications for their young children's eyesight. And it's not like a 3DTV that is always in a shared family space, this device will often be out of sight of parental eyes making it hard to identify how long it is used in a day and whether the slider is in the appropriate position.
Although my eyes may have protested, my brain was very happy with the 3DS experience.
Along with the trickiness for the eyes, I hadn't realised that this no-glasses 3D means you also need to hold the device at a fixed angle. This isn't a big problem, although it does mean you look a bit sillier, holding the 3DS up in front of you, in public. The bigger issue is that you can't use the 3D effect to look round corners. As soon as you move your head your eyes fall into a different shuttered image and the illusion is broken. It's a shame as this limits some gameplay mechanics - peering round corners and the like. But, as I'll get to in a bit, this is compensated for with a clever use of the external 3D cameras to create an exploreable 3D (augmented reality) game space.
Although my eyes may have protested, my brain was very happy with the 3DS experience. The 3D affect doesn't just add depth to the image, but introduces a series of layers. These create the sense of three dimensions, but also enable games to present interactions in new ways. For instance, a head up display in Zelda Ocarina of Time (3DS) becomes integral to the game world while at the same time floating some way in front of the action. The amount of screen real estate is multiplied by the number of layers the games introduce - which can be anything up to four or five.
Fig 3. Zelda Ocarina of Time
Each game I have spent time with use 3D in different ways. Some, like Super Street Fighter (3DS) simply add a greater sharpness to the hand drawn visuals - making the experience more visceral and engaging. Others, like Pro Evolution 2011 3D (3DS) use the layers to create a greater sense of distance and depth - enabling players to judge distances and angles with much greater accuracy. This not only fundamentally changes the feel of the game but also introduces the possibility for new camera angles and styles of play.
Fig 4. Super Street Fighter IV 3D
Other titles, like Pilotwings Resort (3DS) weave the three dimensional layers into the heart of the visual experience. This may be subtler than the game-changing 3D layering of other titles, but it makes impressive use of the technology to create a greater sense of motion and momentum. Then there are games like Animal Crossing (3DS) that create a miniature world in the palm of your hand, using the layers to offer a pop-up theatre like feel to proceedings.
Fig 5. Pilotwings Resort
It will take time for these techniques to be perfected. Some feel like they are Nintendo DS games up-rendered in 3D, while others push the technology to create experiences that ask much more of the player's eyes. Pro Evolution felt more ambitious in this respect and was the hardest to focus on. Street Fighter was at the other end of the spectrum, much easier to see but still very impressive.
Fig 6. Pro Evolution 3D
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the 3D experience for me was how flat other games looked in comparison. I had half thought that I would turn 3D off once the novelty wore off on a particular game, but quite the reverse has been true in my initial time with the device. Not only is 3D an integral part of the experience, but once tasted (like experiencing motion controls on a Wii) it's something that I can't imagine playing games without.
The 3DS isn't just a DS with a 3D screen though. Firstly the visual horsepower is more on terms with a PlayStation 2 (or PSP) than a PlayStation 1. So long have we put up with jagged graphics on the DS that it's a bit of a shock to see something so fresh and clean. 3DS games look like something from this generation of consoles rather and loose that old school retro look we've become acclimatised to on the original devices.
This all comes at a price though (not just money, I'll get to that in a moment), battery life. Exactly how long the 3DS will last on a full charge is a matter of debate and obviously affected by what you are doing with it and which features you have turned on. The high end estimation from Nintendo for gaming time is from three to five hours. That's quite a shock compared to the DS's seven to nine hours of play without charging.
To alleviate this problem the 3DS comes with a charging station to drop it into when at home that will keep the battery topped up. The charger itself is the same as the DSi, something I'm thankful for as well. Battery is also conserved while the Nintendo 3DS is in sleep mode. But unlike the DS, the new device is now more aware when running silently. For instance it can connect to the Internet to download updates overnight, as well as track your steps and keep an ear out for other 3DS's in the vicinity.
Other features that place less a strain on the battery are the 3D cameras and motion controls. Placing two external cameras on the 3DS shell not only enables you to take 3D pictures (and convert them to Mii's automatically), but they can also be used by games to track your position in relation to your real world environment.
This approach to augmented reality - placing the camera in the hands on the player (like the Wii-mote) - seems a much less problematic and flexible approach than either Kinect or Move's camera pointing at the player. One of the most magical demonstrations of this feature is a little game where you place a card on the table which is detected by the cameras and used to introduce enemies into an image of what the camera is seeing.
It sounds complicated, but what results is a challenge where you literally circle the table with the 3DS as you explore and shoot different enemies that popup. This not only requires you to move left and right but also to peer down from above and crouch down to get a shot in under some enemies armour. Again, this is not something to do in public, but a very different and engaging way to play a game.
Fig 7. Augmented Reality Game
The final trick in the 3DS arsenal is the motion sensors - both accelerometers and gyroscope are included like MotionPlus on the Wii - that provide a new way to control particular game elements. In Ocarina of Time for instance you aim the sling shot by simply moving the 3DS around in front of you, or in Silent Scope (3DS) you use the motion sensing to aim your torpedoes. On its own this isn't a big deal, but like the other features of the 3DS, when it is combined with either 3D or augmented reality it inherits an almost magical quality.
As if that wasn't enough, there are then a range of non-game related features. There is a pedometer feature that tracks your activity through the day much like Walk With Me (DS). You can also access 3DTV services on the device - although these are yet to be fleshed out it sounds like Eurosport and some Sky channels will be first out of the gate.
Fig 8. Exercise Tracking
Around this arsenal of interactive options are a range of social networking modes. But this is not social networking as we know it on Facebook. Rather than just developing a close knit collection of friends online, Nintendo offers a variety of ways to feel part of a wider gaming community on the device.
This StreetPass feature means that if you take your 3DS out and about you are likely to return home with gifts and awards (and Mii's) received from other 3DS's that you came into contact with - provided your locality has enough people wandering around with the new handheld console in their pocket, handbag or backpack.
Fig 9. StreetPass Mii's
They have also learnt a thing or two from the success of Xbox Live. Rather than separate friend codes for each game you now have one universal code for the system. This means you only have to "friend" people once to be able to play with them on any game with an online mode.
The 3DS also heralds the first proper new Operating System for the 3DS - after the bolted on extension of the original in the DSi. This is first of all an opportunity for Nintendo to get the underlying architecture right. Case in point is the provision of a wider range of Wi-Fi security options, rather than just WEP as on the original DS (and later WPA on DSi).
As well as new technology behind the scenes there is also a raft of new channels that aim to streamline the purchasing experience as well as extend the Nintendo 3DS experience beyond just gaming.
To this end the new Operating System offers a set of new channels. Some of these, like the Mii Plaza, will be at launch while others like the eShop, Virtual Console (for old Gameboy games) and Internet Browser channels will be added soon after.
Fig 10. 3DS Operating System
The eShop represents some serious rethinking on Nintendo's part. The 3DS is ditching the half hearted (in user interface terms at least) DSi-ware channel in favour of an all encompassing eShop. This not only delivers small downloadable games but also offers an alternative to buying games on cartridge. It also includes retro Virtual Console Gameboy games that are played via the Virtual Console channel. If you still need convincing that common sense and clear thinking have won the day, Nintendo are also leaving being their points purchasing system in favour of using real money.
Finding games in the eShop is much easier too. You can browse titles by platform as before. Additionally though you can view games for a particular franchise - regardless of format. I like this feature because it lets you see all the Mario games in one place, regardless if they are DSi-ware, full games or virtual console titles. You can also view a currently popular list of games that are selling well that day.
Fig 11. 3DS eShop Searching
Once you have selected a particular game you are now able to view a video of gameplay, read other player's comments, view more details and in some cases download a short demo of the game. You can even maintain a list of favourite games within the shop software. It's a million miles from the two blurry screenshots and brief description on offer in the DSi-ware channel on the DSi.
Fig 12. 3DS eShop Purchasing
What has been less fleshed out though is how you will be able to transfer purchases from your DSi to your 3DS. Nintendo have promised there will be a route to do this, but how, where and when have yet to be nailed down.
The eShop, along with the other OS features give the 3DS a more coherent feel than previous versions. Not only are there now more functions available as standard on the device, but it now supports multitasking. You can pause games by pressing the Home button, perform other tasks such as taking pictures and exchanging data and then resume your game where you left off.
There is a lot to take in here, and it's clear that this is much more than just a 3D DS. This is something that is perhaps reflected in the price (of around GBP 229 or USD 250 - plus sales tax). It's a price that Nintendo can justify with the technology on offer here. It also feels like another industry savvy move on their part as they look to position the device to initially attract more hardcore gamers as well as distinguish themselves from the likes of the iPhone and Android games marketplace.
If you get to the stage of making a purchase you have the choice of Aqua Blue or Cosmos Black. The Blue version is shinier with a princess pleasing pearl sheen to the case while the Black one is less reflective and more serious looking. Interestingly though both have a black surround to the top 3D screen, perhaps a requirement of the technology, that makes the Black option able to offer a universal colour.
You will also want to pick which games you buy for your new device. Currently, the exact titles available at launch are a little sketchy. It looks like we will have Pilotwings Resort, Nintendogs and cats, Steel Diver at first with Street Fighter, Pro Evolution 2011 3D and Ridge Racer 3D following soon after. 30 games are said to be available between the launch on 25th March and June.
More mouth watering titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Star Fox 64 3D, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Mario Kart, Animal Crossing and Paper Mario are all in the works but still await a firm date.
The final piece of the retail puzzle is which region to buy. You see, the 3DS is the first Region locked portable from Nintendo (although DSi-ware was region locked on the DSi). This means you can only play and download games that are available for your region.
Most of course will be more than happy to buy the region that matches their home territory, but for more discerning gamers it is worth a little consideration of the pros and cons of each. Going on the releases for the current DS, the American version of the 3DS is likely to see the most English games and often gets games a little before Europe. It should also see the best value for money on game prices - although you need to factor in import costs here.
Which of the 3D, motion sensing, social sharing and augmented reality features make the most impact will be down to the games that are created for the device.
The European version is likely to miss out on a few games (through perception of the market and costs to localise in different languages). More positively though it usually sees attractive discounts on new games when they are released, despite games staying at a higher price for longer after that.
The Japanese version will see the highest number of games released, although of course these are unlikely to have an English language option. Again cost may be a factor, and certainly once you factor in import duties and postage these games are not going to be cheaper their European or American equivalent. In addition to the volume of games, the Japanese market is also the reserve of more novelty experiences. There are many DSi-ware games (such as the ingenious 3D hidden object game) that I would have bought instantly if I could have on my UK DSi.
You can probably tell that on balance I'm keen on the Nintendo 3DS. But for me this isn't really about 3D gaming. A busy family life means I have less time to play, so the prospect of having Ocarina of Time, Pilotwings Resort, Super Street Fighter and the like to play on the go is a big win.
In some ways I'm simply happy that 3D and more horsepower means that Nintendo now have good reason to create fuller more immersive portable games. Add to this the augmented reality, motion sensing and 3D visuals and the 3DS is a system that I am more than a little excited about.
Having three young kids, and the slightly higher price ticket, means that this will initially be dad's gaming gadget rather than something for the whole family. It will also make a rather special coming-of-age present for eight year olds birthdays.
Like the DS's touch screen, dual screen and microphone combination, the 3DS brings a host of new functions to the table. And like that first (seemingly) preposterous device, which of the 3D, motion sensing, social sharing and augmented reality features make the most impact will be down to the games that are created for the device.