Nintendo has released the 3DS, the next generation of its mobile gaming console and successor to the immensely popular DS, at an interesting time for mobile gaming. Smartphones and tablets are getting into the hands of new consumers faster than ever. Each one of those devices is seeing more downloads of apps than ever, and a huge proportion of those apps are games, like Angry Birds, Doodle Jump or Tiny Wings. Games like those garner tens of millions of downloads, sometimes for relatively low development costs, and Nintendo knows as a result it’s going to have a huge problem attracting developers and consumers to its mobile platform in the very near future.
Nintendo has responded by adding 3-D capability, better graphics and a 3-D camera to the proven dual-screen format of the Nintendo DS. It hopes to become a platform for high-quality games and an entirely unique experience with the help of 3-D, but does the 3DS have the potential to help it maintain its position as the leader in mobile gaming? Let’s find out.
The first thing anyone familiar with previous-generation Nintendo DS devices will notice in the 3DS is its very similar feel to its predecessors. Aside from a few aesthetic tweaks, the 3DS feels almost exactly the same in hand; it’s solidly built and feels just right. While the bottom touch screen is nearly exactly the same as the DS and still very responsive with the stylus, Nintendo made the top screen a bit wider and, more importantly, added 3-D capabilities to the screen.
Nintendo uses parallax barrier technology, which effectively sends two different images to each of your eyes resulting in the perception of 3-D, and it also means this is a glasses-free, 3-D device. Given the performance of 3-D TVs that require glasses, Nintendo seems to have made the right decision with the parallax barrier, but many people question whether 3-D technologies, in particular, parallax barrier 3-D, actually work and whether it results in a headache for the user.
After using the 3DS for a while, the answer to the first question is definitive: The technology works and is actually some of the best 3-D I’ve ever experienced. It’s very cool to just walk up to a device and see the screen in 3-D. The main problem people will face is moving around with the device while using 3-D; the parallax barrier technology means it only works in a specific range or a “sweet spot”. Most of the time, it was fine for me when I was using it normally, but there was some shadowing if you moved even a little sometimes, and your eyes would take some time to refocus. This could get particularly annoying if you’re on a train or bus but if you’re just sitting on the couch, it should be fine.
The answer to the second question is a little more complicated; after I used the device for about 30 minutes with the 3-D on, I began to feel a headache coming on. It was enough for me to turn off the 3-D, which you can do easily with a slider on the side of the screen, and I continued to enjoy the game with 3-D off. Some people I gave the device to said they could easily use the device with 3-D on for an hour, while others couldn’t even use it for five minutes without feeling nauseated. It seems like it’s definitely possible to feel uncomfortable using 3-D on the device, but how long that would take is subjective. People I talked to who said they felt sick during movies like Avatar were generally the people who began to feel nauseated after only a few minutes of using a 3DS. The only thing I can say for sure is that the 3-D works and works well.
The game I was most impressed by is one that comes pre-installed on the device. The Nintendo 3DS ships with a very cool augmented reality game involving a simple card and the cameras on the 3DS. The concept is simple: You lay the card down on a surface and point the device at the card. The game recognizes where the card is and brings the real world into the game; on the screen you can see shrubbery and targets virtually placed onto the surface where you placed the card. You shoot the targets to advance in the game, and it keeps getting cooler. Sometimes the game “creates” a hole in the table and other times it “flips” it over. This initial game is very simple and can only keep you occupied for a few minutes, but the concept is there, and Nintendo promises many more games that utilize augmented reality more heavily. Another interesting, but short, feature was the 3-D camera. The picture-taking was easy and fun, but the photos are obviously only 3-D on certain displays. I was only able to try them out on the 3DS screen itself. It was definitely a novel idea that was fun for a few minutes, but it got old quickly and older as soon as I realized that I was only going to be able to look at the photos on the 3DS.
The other games I played, like Super Street Fighter IV and Pilotwings Resort, all seemed to utilize the 3-D and it was very cool to have it on, but I eventually got a headache and had to turn it off in all the games. The games were all still very good without the 3D, but at that point, the console isn’t much different from the previous version of the DS. And this is where the real problem with the device comes in.
The 3DS does enter a market that may be on it’s way out. When you walk into a retail store, you see the 3DS, but not too far away is the iPad 2 or a smartphone. Even though the iPad 2 is double the price, it has many games with very competitive graphics and user experience to the 3DS and an interesting gaming attraction that the 3DS doesn’t have: a large capacitve touchscreen. Aside from the gaming, the iPad 2 can also double as a very capable computer for some consumers, which could easily justify the extra cost when choosing between the 3DS and the iPad 2. After using both, I would say the comparison between the two is justified, and it’s a decision that many people will make. Particularly, people who consider themselves casual gamers will face this problem a lot more.
There are clearly both good games and bad games on either platform. I did notice the games on the 3DS in general had a lot more polish; they all seemed finished, full-featured and rarely crashed during my play. But, iPad 2 games were very hit or miss depending on who made the game and how popular it was. You’ll likely to be very happy buying a game in the top 10 paid games chart in Apple’s App Store, but randomly buying a game with few reviews can be disappointing. This is slightly offset by the price; games are much cheaper on the iPad 2: an average of $2 per game vs $40 dollars for the Nintendo 3DS, but that doesn’t excuse low-quality games. The quality of games on the Apple App Store and Android Marketplace is something that’s changing rapidly with games like Angry Birds and Real Racing 2 HD, but many of the games are still short bursts of entertainment as opposed to long-form games with an immersive, expansive story arch. The long-form game has yet to come to smartphones or tablets in large numbers, and the absence of those types of games is the biggest falling for the iPad 2 as a gaming platform. There are a few games that are paving the road, like Sword & Sworcery EP, but the platform still needs its Mario series.
Nintendo promises the 3DS will have things like an app store, a browser and Netflix soon, but none of that is here right now. It’s very hard to compete with the iPad 2 and even harder to compete with smartphones or the iPod touch, devices that match on price and serve many more functions, without these features. Whether the Nintendo 3DS is worth it or not really boils down to whether or not you feel $250 is worth the intermittent 3-D play that may give you a headache and the new games the device will offer. If you enjoy getting into games that have long, complicated stories and will be 3DS exclusive, then you’ll probably like the 3DS a lot more. However, if you were considering getting the device as a casual gamer to play on the subway from work, you may be better off investing in a smartphone, like an iPhone or Android device, or a tablet, like the iPad 2 or Motorola Xoom, that offers tons of short, cheap and fun games and a lot of other functions.