It's not just a new platform – it's a whole new dimension.
One of the very first (of many) creeds they tell you when you enter a beginner’s writing class is the age-old, cannot-be-overstated “show, don’t tell”. While most of those little nuggets of wisdom from the college days recede to the dark depths of booze-fueled memories – along with all those early stories that seemed like artistic breakthroughs to my fledgling writer’s mind and now show themselves to be the absolute schlock they always were – “show, don’t tell” remains relevant and reigns supreme as just about the best creative advice you could ever give.
[image1]The lead-up to the release of the 3DS these past few weeks seemed to me a bit of a head-scratcher. Compared to the launch of Nintendo’s last “big thing”, the Wii, which benefited from a huge hype campaign, the 3DS has flown completely under the radar for most of us. Just a few days ago I, a gaming journalist, turned to my colleagues and said incredulously, “Wait… the 3DS really launches in a week?” After being blown away by a frantic 15-minute sampling of a smorgasbord of demos at last year’s E3, I had to wonder – where is the Big N’s hype machine for this amazing little box?
And now that I’ve sat down and had some quality time with it, I know the answer. Here is a product that defies the effectiveness of conventional advertising. How do you convey the impact of full stereoscopic 3D without glasses on a 2D TV commercial? Or talk it up on the radio? Or print it on a static magazine page? Simply put, you can’t. With the 3DS, Nintendo has taken the “show, don’t tell” adage to heart. Telling someone about it will just sound like “blah blah blah 3D, blah blah”. Showing them will make their jaw drop, eyes dance, and hands scramble to snatch it from yours.
I realize now that there are plenty of salesmen and advertisers for the 3DS – it’s all of you out there. The first round of consumers on launch day will take home their shiny prizes and promptly show them off to as many friends and family as they can muster. Once others see the system’s capabilities for themselves, many will want one of their own, and it will spread like wildfire. Having played it extensively myself, I’m not only predicting this reaction; I’m guaranteeing it.
That being said, it almost seems counter-intuitive to even discuss the 3D. That’s the big draw of the system, of course, so it must be addressed – but again, nothing I say is going to be a passable substitute for your own two eyes. It’s very good. Hell, it’s pretty damn amazing. The 3D is not just some gimmicky cheap trick, it’s the real deal – quality 3D visuals without those clunky movie glasses to dim the picture and make you look like a special kid. And the slider continues to amaze me more: enabling you to adjust the 3D effect on the fly, as you play, and unmistakably notice the background moving closer or father away or even collapse altogether as you switch it into 2D.
[image2]The slider is definitely a blessing too, when it comes to finding what’s comfortable for you. I like to keep it in the middle, mostly, but you’ll need to adjust it from time to time to whatever’s onscreen; sometimes having it on full blast is just too disorienting for certain images, while you could miss cool imagery or some genuinely helpful depth perception by having it too low.
While the 3D is naturally the element of the system that shouts “Look at me!”, its regular, old graphical prowess is a huge leap forward and feels like a gift from on high ("on high" being Satoru Iwata’s ruby-encrusted throne) after over six years of muddy, jaggedy DS graphics. Finally, Nintendo has taken back the top spot in pretty-looking handhelds, at least until the NGP comes out. As it stands, the 3DS barely edges out the PSP and lands somewhere between last gen and current gen consoles in the graphics department (think Wii, when they’re actually pushing the hardware).
As for the controls, they’re as standard as can be if you’ve ever picked up a DS before, with the one very notable exception of the new Circle Pad. Identical to the PSP’s thumb stick in concept but worlds apart in execution, the Circle Pad is comfortable and natural. Instead of the stiff, sticky thumb stick on the PSP, the Circle Pad glides around smoothly and is contoured to actually fit the shape of a human thumb. One match in Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition will have you wondering how you ever got along without one.
Moving on to the wireless, the 3DS is thankfully more customizable than its predecessors. There’s a simple physical switch on the side to turn wireless communication on or off when you want to save battery power (more on that later), and you can finally use other security settings besides WEP to communicate with a router. But the really cool wireless stuff is in StreetPass.
Taking a page from the newest Pokégear thingamajig in Pokémon Black and White, which exchanges information with other trainers you pass by even when in Sleep Mode, StreetPass enables your 3DS to communicate with any other units you walk past, exchanging info between them for up to 12 relevant games you mutually own (even if you’re playing a totally different one!). SSFIV3D, for instance, has a mini-game of sorts wherein you can set up a team of figurines, adjust their stats and fight order, and set them to fight mock battles with any other SSFIV owner you walk by who also has StreetPass on, earning you points in-game which you can spend on even more collectible figurines. Even if you don’t actually trade game data, just walking around with StreetPass earns you “play coins” that you can spend on games that utilize them or Nintendo’s built-in applications like AR Games.
[image3]And that is a perfect segue into the coolest stuff the 3DS has to offer at launch: Face Raiders and AR Games. No, they’re not full games, just small applications pre-loaded onto the system. But unlike the mildly (un)interesting Brain Age stuff that came with the DSi XL, these are some truly awesome apps, and dare I say more impressive in showing off the system’s potential than any of the actual launch titles.
Face Raiders began as little more than a tech demo that we saw at E3: you used the inner camera to snap a pic of your face, which the game would then map onto a 3D ball that floated around and you had to shoot for points. I hoped back then that it would be more than just a tech demo, and Nintendo must have read my mind. The Face Raiders that comes with a retail 3DS has four levels, with health bars, bosses, and legions of little creepy clone versions of you to fight off. The software animates your face to blink, shout, gasp, etc. It comes off as equal parts fascinating and disturbing. The 3DS will also do a neat trick by relaying whatever the outer cameras see as the background for your shooting gallery, and you can watch as cracks and holes open up in your living room from the war on your own face (there's a sentence I never thought I'd type).
But AR Games takes that interaction with reality to an even more amazing level. By just keeping the card in view (unfortunately, you need to remain in an almost excessively lit area), the 3DS will turn a simple table or desk into a wonderland of 3D effects. Through the various AR Games, like fishing, archery, and shot, you’ll see whatever surface the card sits on breathe, ripple, flip, rise, and lower. Rotating around the scene will allow you different angles and avenues of attack on the convincing terrain and creatures that spawn right in front of you. It’s difficult to describe – again, showing is better than telling – but if you can only show off one thing on the 3DS, make it AR archery and you’re bound to get plenty of oohs and ahhs.
The AR cards also allow you to snap 3D pictures of your favorite Nintendo mascots or Miis in all kinds of poses. It’ll become quickly apparent to those with dirty minds how best to put this to use – within minutes of trying it out, Blake had set up a scene of Link
violating putting a sword somewhere near Samus, while I in turn snapped a shot of Blake’s Mii doing something highly inappropriate to Reggie Fils-Aime’s. The sky’s the limit, kiddies!
[image4]If it seems at this point like I’m just gushing, it’s because the 3DS is all I hoped it would be and more. There are, however, a couple glaring issues that, try as I might, could not be banished completely from my mind despite my thorough enjoyment of this little wonder. The first is really inexcusable: As you probably know, the system has an internal camera and two external ones for taking 3D pics. That’s all well and good, and taking a 3D picture of your friends or bedroom or…well, anything, is extremely cool, but all three cameras are the same 0.3 megapixel cameras that came with the DSi two freakin’ years ago. 0.3 megapixels was a disappointingly low resolution even back then – to still see them in a system today, especially one in which everything else is pretty much state-of-the-art – that’s just disheartening. Even a meager 1 megapixel would have been enough for me.
Item number two on the complaint docket is more egregious, albeit a bit more understandable: The battery life is shorter than a midget Toad addicted to caffeine. Playing at full brightness, sound up to max, and wireless communications active, the battery lasts a mere three hours. Dropping the brightness down to its medium setting and activating Power Save mode (a highly recommended feature, which adjusts the brightness and color gradation on the screen to whatever image is being displayed – you generally won't even notice it) still only gives 3.5 hours of charge. If you dropped brightness to the bare minimum, kept wireless off, and muted the sound, you might squeeze out another hour and a half at the cost of a hampered play experience.
It's solely because of these two detractions that I cannot in good conscience give out my first 'A' at GR. The 12 year-old Nintendo fanboy in me is all at once kicking, screaming, sulking, and raging at the injustice of not giving the 3DS an 'A', but the wizened, cynical journalist side of me will have none of it. I'm sure that in a couple years Nintendo will release a 3DS Lite that will address one or both of these problems, but for now, the low-res cameras and short battery life are the only things marring a truly outstanding piece of modern technology.
With that said, I still unflinchingly recommend the 3DS to anyone who enjoys handheld gaming, cool gadgets, or even just showing off to friends. The $250 price tag might scare some away, but the great potential of the system is plain as day. With the immersive AR capabilities, backwards compatibility for DS titles, awesome graphics, and of course, glasses-free 3D, this is one monster of a handheld.
If no launch titles catch your eye, it's understandable that you might want to hold off on getting one until the harder hitting titles come out in a few months. On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to have similar supply issues to the Wii's launch (Oh Nintendo, you rogues, you!). Either way, you're going to want to check it out – and then want one of your own. Killing aside, of course.