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.

Nintendo 3DS in Aqua.

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."

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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.