When better isn't better
The gamer's game

Look Ma! It's autostereoscopic!


I don't typically do hardware reviews, but after a few days with Nintendo's crazy/brilliant 3DS device, I feel compelled to share my impressions. If you're wondering whether or not to take the $250 leap into 3D handheld gaming, maybe I can be helpful. 

When I say "crazy/brilliant," I mean both. In releasing the 3DS, Nintendo has made a series of befuddling "what were they thinking?" choices that seem crazy to me. On the other hand, the device packs a brilliant wow-factor punch that turns every new owner into an uncompensated sales rep for Nintendo. Since the 3DS can't be adequately demonstrated on TV or in print, new owners of the device become walking demo kiosks. Your friends will see it and be amazed. Seriously.

So, for what it's worth, here's the crazy:

The launch-day lineup of games is embarrassingly weak. Reggie and the PR gang at Nintendo have touted the number of release games (sixteen) as proof that the 3DS is the best-supported system launch in Nintendo history. At the risk of being a contrarian, I would argue the Nintendo 64's pitiful selection at launch (two games) easily bests the 3DS's. One Super Mario 64 puts sixteen mediocre games to shame, in my book.

It's hard to understand why Nintendo didn't develop a first-class showcase game to lead the way for other developers to exploit the power of the new hardware. They did it with SM64, and they did it again with Wii Sports. The pack-in AR Games point in that direction (and genuine jaw-droppers they are), but they're more proof-of-concept demos than fleshed out games.

Should have bought Super Street Fighter IV 3D.
I've played all three 1st-party games (Pilotwings Resort, Steel Diver, and Nintendogs + Cats) and several 3rd-party titles (Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, Ridge Racer 3D, and Super Monkey Ball 3D), and I can't find a single good thing to say about any of them. For the most part, they're thin (Steel Diver), shallow (Monkey Ball), 3D-after-thought (Lego Star Wars) games - or in the case of Nintendogs + Cats, a $40 re-release of a DS game with mostly cosmetic updates.

Pilotwings is fun, and it nicely showcases the system's 3D visuals, but after an hour or so the fun tank runs empty. As with all of these games, it feels like the developers grew so enamored of their games' 3D-ness that they forgot to finish making them. 

Which brings me to the value question. In a market full of iOS games that run circles around these launch titles, is it realistic to expect consumers to pay $40 for a 3DS game? Launch games are notoriously immature, and I'm sure developers will eventually dream up all sorts of wonderful ways to leverage the 3DS's power. But will the 3D value-add cover the $30-35 price difference? As much as I hope this slick little aqua device will succeed, I fear Nintendo's pricing model isn't sustainable. Some have suggested the unit itself is too pricey at $250, and that may be true; but I see the current price of its games as a bigger hurdle.

The 3DS includes a web browser...but it won't be available for month or two. Owners can download new 3DS games, as well as DSiWare and retro Gameboy games...but the new eShop isn't ready yet. Nintendo's inability to have a robust download service up and running at launch suggests their struggle to implement a coherent online strategy continues.

They want to get it right, and that makes sense, but releasing a ballyhooed new system with major announced features missing is inexcusable. Imagine if Apple had released the iPad with its app store "coming soon." With its new connectivity-enhanced online-enabled device, Nintendo's priority remains boxed hard media, even as every industry trend moves in the opposite direction.


Now for the brilliant stuff
The 3DS delivers on its promise of amazing 3D visuals, sans glasses. This fact alone nearly overcomes all the negatives. In my first few hours with the device, I couldn't help turning it on every few minutes, just to be sure I wasn't fooling myself. 

It literally draws a crowd. I brought my 3DS to class with me this morning, and before I knew it five students were hunched over the shoulder of one playing FaceRaiders. The 3D camera blew them away. I sold half a dozen units today. Easy. Kiosk.

The AR cards are incredibly ripe for imaginative game design. Place a card on a table, train your 3DS cameras on it, and up sprouts a 3-dimensional character or place. So many possibilities, especially as items to trade or to augment other games. If you've heard people describe the 3DS as jaw-dropping, it's likely they were talking about the pack-in AR Games.

The 3D slider is quite useful for finding your own sweet spot. The 3D effect may initially disorient you, but adjusting the slider and your viewing angle will bring everything into focus. I find that when I wear my glasses, I prefer to set it a little higher than when I wear my contact lenses. The device is light and feels comfortable in my hands. Nintendo finally wised up and moved the headphone jack to the front center of the unit. You may decide not to use it, however, because the 3DS produces surprisingly rich, resonant sound through its speakers.

Built-in fun
Mii Studio, 3D photos, the FaceRaders game, the StreetPass mode that exchanges Miis with other 3DS owners as you walk past them (among other game-specific functionality) - all are fun, distinctive features built into the system. Nintendo still insists on Friend Codes, but trading Miis is easy because you can export them as QR Codes, square-shaped barcodes that can be read by scanners and the 3DS camera.

I hope these early impressions of the 3DS are helpful. I don't know if it's a must-buy, a maybe-buy, or a wait-and-see system. Those sorts of recommendations aren't my bag. I do know I'm excited about the 3DS's possibilities, and I'm savoring its novelty-cool. We'll see how long that lasts. In the end it won't be about the device anyway. It's always about the games.

Addendum: When I wrote this post I hadn't yet played a standard DS game on the 3DS. This morning I popped Pokémon White into the system for a look. My advice: hold on to your DS Lite or DSi. The 3DS's 800x240 top screen display (400x240 for each eye, basically) is significantly greater than the DSi's 256x192. To compensate, the 3DS defaults to upscaling, which produces some fairly nasty fuzziness on both screens. If you hold down start+select when loading a DS game, you can run it at what Nintendo calls "native resolution," but the images on both screens are shrunk significantly. Destructoid posted a photo that shows what this shrinkage looks like.