A Magical Screen Without Much Depth: Nintendo 3DS Review

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Nintendo's latest launch is packed with wacky camera games, a pedometer and other gimmicks, but it lacks innovative software.

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I pulled a little device out of my pocket and approached the concert stage so I could snap a photo. Much like a cell phone, this camera had no zoom, and I wanted my photo of this guitar solo to pop.

After the set, I approached the band in question -- Wye Oak, a Baltimore rock duo currently on a West Coast tour -- to show off the photo. "Only one of you can see it at a time," I warned, and I held the Nintendo 3DS up to lead singer Jenn Wasner's face so that I could flip the switch and see her eyes bug out in surprise. Once the switch was flipped, the mic stand, kick drum and neck of the guitar stood out with a 3-D effect, since they were the closest to the camera.

Silent transfers, a pedometer, attention-grabbing 3-D effects, 3-D cameras: all great twists for a portable device.

Like everyone else I'd shown before her, Wasner responded with a "whoa!" and a smile. The Nintendo 3DS, the portable game system that launched in America on Sunday, has enough wow factor to get attention almost anywhere, even a rock show. It looks strikingly like Nintendo's last mega-selling portable, the DS: clamshell, two screens, game control buttons.

The first difference, well, pops out at you. The 3DS renders glasses-free 3-D on its top screen by delivering two images in one. Half of its beams of light aim slightly to the left; the other half, slightly to the right. At the wrong angle, this looks blurry and ghosty, but at the proper angle, each eye perceives a distinct screen. Like normal stereoscopic vision, eyes must then drift slightly into and out of focus to combine those images and perceive depth -- guitar is closer than guitarist is closer than wall.

Most reviews of the 3DS out this past weekend stuck to the 3-D, and understandably so; the effect elicited the most post-concert oohs and ahhs. And, like most reviews point out, the effect varies in the system's games. Board games and pet sims, which have slower action, look the best with subtle 3-D touches. Racing and flying games prove tiresome; in another article, I compared its worst 3-D moments to "the pocket-sized Magic Eye book from hell."

The 3-D switch can be turned off. But the thing about the 3DS is, its social switch cannot. Nintendo has delivered its most outgoing game system yet, one designed to be carried around at all times and to constantly interact with other systems.

For example, this system is obsessed with AR: Augmented Reality, which superimposes images on your camera view. One pre-installed game begins with you laying playing cards on a table; view them through your 3DS to make critters, targets and other visual tricks appear on the same table. Another free AR game, Face Raiders, asks you to take a photo of a friend, whose face transforms into a floating 3-D globe that must be shot down by aiming in real space. These games, by default, draw a crowd because of their odd nature, cute touches and need for space. You can't shoot at virtual globes in the air without fetching a curious glance.

Playing with others works as you'd expect -- link two systems together wirelessly, or hop on the Internet with Wi-Fi to challenge foes (the latter of which works quite well on the 3DS's Street Fighter game). Then there's StreetPass -- oh, StreetPass. Toss your 3DS into your bag or purse in "sleep" mode, and it'll wirelessly hunt for other nearby systems with which to trade data. The 3DS remembers all the games you've played in the past and can trade fists in Street Fighter, pet toys in Nintendogs + Cats and puzzle pieces in Puzzle Swap simultaneously. And while out, the 3DS's pedometer converts your footsteps into points that can be spent in games.

Silent transfers, a pedometer, wacky camera games, attention-grabbing 3-D effects, 3-D cameras: all great twists for a portable device. In fact, the 3DS is a fine blueprint for a future cell phone. The silent transfer concept would shine on location-based apps like Foursquare -- imagine a coupon unlocking if a restaurant had, say, 50 Foursquare users silently ping each other on a given night. Cell phones already have the cameras needed for AR games, and pedometers and 3-D displays will only get cheaper in the next two years.

Nintendo broke through first, certainly, but at $250, gizmo shoppers can save both cash and purse space by upgrading to a smartphone. Worse, the 3DS launched with a battery life of approximately four hours and a lack of innovative software; its best games are all sequels and ports of existing titles. Portable Netflix streaming and an online shop of classic games aren't here yet; best estimate for both is a vague "coming soon" announcement.

Then again, one week after getting my 3DS, I'm still lugging it everywhere. I'm an old-school Nintendo guy who likes playing the same ol' Street Fighter and petting the same ol' Nintendogs, and I hold out hope that future games will take wild chances with 3-D, AR or other unheard-of gimmicks. But as of now, after looking at the 3-D effects and the fun moments with friends, I look at this magical screen and don't see a lot of depth.

Image: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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