To 3DS or not to 3DS…

April 14, 2010, Author: Ray Willmott

Nintendo are notoriously difficult to extract information from. That’s how they’ve managed to create a sort of magic and majesty within the gaming industry over the years, remaining infamously coy when discussing their next Mario or Zelda projects, ensuring their first party support is top notch and managing to keep hardware, peripherals and consoles very close to the chest. So, a few weeks ago it seemed a very unusual turn of events to hear that they’re working on a new handheld capable of 3D technology with a relatively low-key online press release sourced from an investor report. This is a huge announcement that seemed to come out of nowhere and has left the industry and the general public dumbfounded as to why this information wasn’t revealed at a high profile show like E3 which is in just a few short months.

Was this a knee-jerk reaction to Sony’s unveiling of 3D gaming on the Playstation 3 system at the Game Developers Conference? Are Nintendo concerned that their Wii technology is about to be dwarfed by the impending arrival of Move and Natal? Was the news about to be slipped out by a source and this was Nintendo’s way of containing it? More to the point, are we, as gamers, actually that interested in having 3D gaming in our homes right now?

This article will assess the impact of this announcement with the little information we have to hand, where Nintendo can go from here and if this has the same impact on the industry, if not more so, than the Sony Move and the Microsoft Natal.

To 3DS or not to 3DS, that is the question. Here is my answer…

Before considering the 3DS, one should look back as far as the Virtual Boy in 1995, Nintendo’s first attempt at bringing 3D gaming to the mainstream. Ultimately, this was a failed project, the technology was not at an appropriate level at the time and the interest was more about refining the products currently on the market, as opposed to trying to recreate the wheel. With only twenty-two games released on the system and 800,000 shipped Worldwide, the Virtual Boy was considered a flop and led to its creator, Gunpei Yokoi, being released from Nintendo. Yokoi was the man responsible for Game and Watch, the original Gameboy models and the Metroid series. After giving it the old college try with heavy marketing campaigns and several price drops, the Virtual Boy was discontinued in 1996, only one year after its original release, making it an instant collectors item.

Fifteen years on, technology has obviously moved forward and comparison between the two systems is probably unfair. Still, it’s interesting to note that this wouldn’t be the first time Nintendo have tried their hand at a 3D gaming console. The difference this time is that they have the eyes and ears of a whole new brand of audience with the success of the Wii and the DS. All things considered, this next venture could very well turn out to be their biggest success story yet.

Of course, the major difference between the 3DS and the Virtual Boy is that this new handheld will apparently not require the use of 3D glasses. How Nintendo have managed to achieve this is still a source of contention, but there are several theories doing the rounds, none of which have been confirmed.

This was a gamechanger in 1995

This was a game changer in 1995

In total, the Nintendo DS series has accumulated 125 million units sold as of the end of December 2009. Four months on in April 2010, the machine still continues to sell with the new DSi XL just hitting the market and sending the masses crazy. Bearing that in mind, Nintendo’s new baby certainly has some large shoes to fill. Based on those statistics alone, large high street retailers have a huge interest in the 3DS with HMV coming forward saying they are particularly excited for the product.

At Nintendo’s own word and based on the technology being implemented into the machine, the 3DS is considered the successor to the DS, but will be fully supportive of all DS and DSi software. Whether that means you can play your favourite DS games in 3D remains to be seen, although this doesn’t seem likely. It also raises the question of the cartridge slot used for the 3DS and what size it is going to be. Bear in mind, original versions of the DS had a slightly larger cartridge slot than was needed to support Gameboy Advance games and were later phased out in favor of additional features on the DSi. How this functionality will work with the system is anybodies guess, however some pictures, apparently leaked from a Japanese Website called Munch Blog add further fuel to the fire. While the site does not say what system these pictures represent, they do say that the pictures were taken without the manufacturer’s permission and apparently do not represent a final product.

Please note, the following pictures are not an official representation of the 3DS and as of writing, Nintendo have not commented on the publishing of these photographs.

Is this the future of handheld gaming?

Is this the future of handheld gaming?

If this really is the 3DS, then the backward compatibility with the DS and DSi software could be achieved by splitting the big screen in half. Either way, this product has more than a passing resemblance to Apple’s new iPad but also seems to have incorporated the ‘flip phone’ technology that has been implemented into many mobile phone models resulting in a rather intriguing hybrid…

Just like your modern day mobile phone

Just like your modern day mobile phone

Nintendo know what people like, they know what works and what doesn’t work and have locked the handheld market down for many, many years. The Gameboy always outsold the Game Gear, the Gameboy Color destabilised the Neo Geo Pocket and the DS has separated itself from the PSP. Despite the failed Virtual Boy experiment, Nintendo are still the most trusted party out of the big three gaming developers that can pull this off and that’s what has so many people excited. That’s what has me excited and entices me toward the product. The past few years have been extremely profitable for the Big N with the incredible success of the DS and the Wii combined and it has enabled them to explore new ventures, to invest more money and research in areas they have yet to explore fully.

Many claimed the DS was too radical of an experiment for Nintendo. People started wondering why would you need two screens on a handheld when you have one? What is the purpose or the point? However, after playing games like Mario 64D, Mario Kart, Zelda: Spirit Tracks or Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, players began to understand just how much of an asset it is to gaming, and now many cannot be without it. Nintendo had already done something similar with Game and Watch but never on such a mass market scale. Needless to say, it’s paid dividends.

This is a very current system that seems to be implementing everything bucking the trends right now. Not only is the machine capable of 3D visuals, rumours suggest it will house motion control, similar to technology seen in Apple’s iPhone’s tilt functionality, an analog controller, faster wireless connectivity than the DS, increased battery life and a vibration pack. Of course, despite this progress, Nintendo regularly come under fire for keeping behind the times. While the Wii was a revolutionary piece of technology that essentially paved the way for Microsoft and Sony to throw the big bucks at their own form of motion control, many said that its online model left a lot to be desired as did its capacity to communicate with friends, which is something that both Microsoft and Sony’s console offer with ease. However, it has always been Nintendo’s policy to prioritise gaming in the household first, about being interactive with those around you, as opposed to those who live a distance from you, even though this has brought them into question many, many times. Perhaps the 3DS will be the first step forward in a new direction for the company, still offering something completely different from the masses but enabling the same functionality that people have come to love and expect.

Ultimately though, we need to ask ourselves, to 3DS or not to 3DS? That’s a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, many of us are happy plodding along with the systems we already have, amazed and bedazzled by how far graphics are developing on handheld systems and satisfied by the gradual changes. Many of us would probably have been satisfied with N64 quality graphics on a portable product, enabling a variety in games on a handheld as never before. Many people weren’t that enthralled about Sony’s announcement of 3D gaming on the PS3 simply because, they haven’t got a 3D television upon which to experience it. However Nintendo have achieved something different, making a 3D handheld and therefore a self contained system that will require the user nothing more than to buy the system and to start experiencing 3D gaming from the get go. Perhaps it is from this product that true interest in 3D gaming can begin, that people can actually understand and appreciate the excitement and the buzz generated around the concept. As ever, Nintendo seem keen to raise the bar as they did with the DS six years ago. Instead of refining it, Nintendo want to recreate the wheel and are constantly looking for new ways to develop and enhance the way we play video games.

We can’t make snap judgements now and say ‘We don’t want this’, ‘We don’t need this’, ‘What’s the point?’. We don’t know enough about the system and will have to wait until June 15th when Nintendo spill all the beans on product specifications and will have test models available for people to trial. As with any product like this, people will be sceptical and uncertain, so Nintendo are going to need to have something exceptional on hand at E3 to convert the doubters and the fence sitters. Perhaps announcing a high profile release such as a Zelda, Mario, Metroid, or even Pokemon game to coincide with launch or within its first year would add a nice boost.

Even though we know so little about the product, even the name 3DS isn’t final, the system has a lot of potential and knowing Nintendo’s affection for the handheld market, we can be sure that we’re going to receive something special. Will this be as much of a success as the DS? Time will tell. However, it’s no longer a question of whether the World is ready or not for 3D gaming, because the time is now and in just a few short months, we’re going to experience gaming as never before, whether we’re prepared or not.

What’s your take on 3DS? Revolutionary? Unnecessary? Have your say in the box below….