Nintendo 3DS review: Is 3-D the future of gaming?

The art of play.
March 31 2011 5:47 PM

This Is the Future of Gaming?

Why Nintendo's 3DS is a huge disappointment.

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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.")

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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.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.