On a stage in SoHo in January in front of a packed house of games reporters, Reggie Fils- Aime, the president of Nintendo of America, promised that the launch of the Nintendo 3DS would not just be big for his company. The debut of the company's new mobile console would be "a big day for each and every one of you as well," one that would mark "the opening of a vast new world in 3-D entertainment." The device, he said, was in "a category of one."
More striking for video game fans, Fils-Aime harkened back to 1996, when Nintendo unveiled Super Mario 64 to Westerners. This was one of the first games with graphics rendered in three dimensions, and the first game that allowed players to control the viewing angles, or the "camera," within that three-dimensional space. Fils-Aime also compared the 3DS to the Wii, the console that introduced a new kind physical play into the living room. The Wii, as the Nintendo of America president rightly put it, was "a different kind of 3-D, something you hadn't experienced before."
The main sell of the 3DS, which hit store shelves on Monday, is the promise of 3-D video without special glasses. Just hold the device in a sweet spot, straight in front of your face, and the screen seems to recede into another dimension. (A slider on the right side of the handheld allows people who experience things like double vision and headaches to turn it down, or even turn it off.) Like Fils-Aime predicted, most gamers have swooned. Michael Abbott, writing at his Brainy Gamer blog, says it "packs a brilliant wow-factor punch that turns every new owner into an uncompensated sales rep for Nintendo." Wired.com's Chris Kohler called it "the best gaming platform the company has ever created." Seth Schiesel of the New York Times wrote, "In an age of technical wonders, Nintendo's only competition in innovating personal electronics is Apple."
While I can appreciate the 3DS as a technological accomplishment, I haven't been won over by it as a gaming device. Some caveats: Handheld games aren't really my thing. With the exception of a couple of extremely primitive LED football games from the late 1970s and early 80s—one being Coleco's Electronic Quarterback, the other called Touchdown but otherwise virtually identical, if memory serves, down to the na-NEE-na-nee-NEE-NEE tone that played after each score by the horizontal blip of a ball carrier—I've never owned a handheld system. I was too old for the Game Boy in its heyday, and I have missed everything in between it and the present, including Nintendo's DSi and Sony's PlayStation Portable.
To make matters worse, I'm not a big 3-D fan either. Notwithstanding my childhood affection for films like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and Metal Storm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, 3-D and I have a somewhat rocky history. I can recall some frustrated hours spent staring in vain at "Magic Eye" images (which in the mid-90s seemed to festoon every wall in America, including those at the student center on my college campus), never once glimpsing the dolphins or unicorns or whatever everyone else said they were seeing. I was wowed by Avatar, which stands alone as a visual experience that used a third dimension in a way that didn't feel gimmicky. Everything since: Meh.
I mention all this only to acknowledge that I'm not a member of the core audience for a handheld 3-D gaming device. Beyond these personal quirks, a Nintendo spokesman explicitly told me that the company wants the 3DS to expand beyond an audience of young males in their teens to mid-30s, a demographic I'm still in, albeit barely. So maybe it's unsurprising that I'm unimpressed. But I do think it's more than just me. Right now, based on the games available during launch week and judging it against the standards that Nintendo has set for the device, the 3DS is a spectacular disappointment.
The 3DS feels nothing like the jaw-dropping experiences that Super Mario 64 and the Wii were upon first contact with gamers. It is less a full-fledged $250 console than a tech demo, a proof of concept for something that may or may not pay off in the future. In part, that's because the system isn't fully up and running, even though it's on sale. The Internet browser doesn't work yet, and neither does the online store, which will sell new games and classic ones, as well as other forms of entertainment, like 3-D movie trailers. (Nintendo says this will all go live in May.) The battery life is also a major concern. With everything running (the screen at full brightness, the 3-D and wireless turned on, etc.), a 3DS at full charge will operate for three hours. And after 500 charges—one each day for less than a year and a half—Nintendo says the battery will work at only 70 percent capacity. For those who aren't scoring at home, that's just barely more than two hours.
It's undeniable that the 3DS is packaged with some cool stuff. The glasses-less 3-D works, even for someone who is Magic Eye blind. But the 3-D effects don't revolutionize the gameplay experience—or at least none of the launch titles use the added sense of depth in any particularly interesting ways. And the ability to take 3-D photos with the built-in camera is a fun gimmick, but the images aren't mind-blowing. I can't imagine using it to take pictures worth keeping.
On the other hand, Nintendo has used the photographs for some interesting gameplay tricks. You can shoot an image of your face, and the 3DS will convert it into an animated "Mii" that looks kind of like you—depressingly so, in my case. Face Raiders, a minigame that comes bundled with the 3DS, is the closest thing the system has to a so-neat-you-want-to-show-your-friends game. In Face Raiders, you take pictures of yourself and your family and friends, and everyone's faces are converted into scowling, taunting, helmeted aliens for you to shoot. The faces dance against the background of whatever you're actually looking at through the 3DS screen—they'll burst through your bedroom wall, for example. It's a neat trick, but there are only six levels, so the fun lasts no more than a couple hours (after which you'll have time to recharge your battery!).
Face Raiders is an example of what has come to be known, for better or worse (meaning worse), as "augmented reality." The 3DS comes packaged with a second set of augmented-reality minigames: You place a card on a flat surface, like your kitchen table, point the 3DS at it, and boom, a dragon roars at you (and, once again, you shoot it). Like Face Raiders, this is a neat trick, and like Face Raiders, the fun wears off fast.
Maybe better games will come, but they're not here yet. Not one of the cartridges that Nintendo sent me—Nintendogs + Cats, Steel Diver, Pilotwings Resort, Madden NFL Football, Lego Star Wars III, and Super Street Fighter IV—is worth buying the system for. You can imagine some deep, sophisticated games that employ augmented reality—titles that incorporate all of the 3DS's features, from the 3-D photographs to its ability to record audio to its social components, into the gameplay. That's a lovely dream, but it's hard to ask people to buy a console on the basis of imaginary games. (There was something riveting, however, about being asked to use the touch screen to sign a card to play the flying game Pilotwings Resort, and then seeing the autograph on my Mii's "membership card.")
To be honest, I don't expect these better games to arrive. Or at least not very many of them. The system is backward compatible, so I'm delighted to have the opportunity to play a couple of DS titles that have long intrigued me: Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars and The World Ends With You. But the bulk of the games available for the current DS—and for the Wii, for that matter—aren't ambitious titles. They're really just tricked-out carnival games, digital adaptations and iterations on the kinds of play that were widely available during the Mechanical Age.
There are people—people who, unlike me, actually make games for a living—who think that's all that video games are. If you're one of those people, you might find the 3DS to be perfectly satisfying. But if you think that video games have as much to do with traditional forms of play as the cinema does with the theater, you're apt to find it unfulfilling. A reference to two launch titles from a previous Nintendo console might help illustrate my meaning. Super Mario Bros. was something new under the sun, impossible to replicate at a ring toss monitored by a carnival barker. Duck Hunt was not.
That doesn't mean the 3DS doesn't have promise, for "narratologists" and "proceduralists" alike. But these days, I'm tired of projecting my fantasies onto promising video-game technologies and then watching them go largely unrealized. I'm eager to see what Nintendo and third-party game developers do with this system. But based on what the 3DS looks like today, if this is the future of video games, well, it's a future that I want nothing to do with.