Seeing is believing. That is what Nintendo have been telling us for the last few months, but now that the hardware is available in all major territories we can finally see for ourselves if and how a portable system can create 3D images in front of our very eyes.
The 3DS is both an evolution of an existing success story and revolution in terms of what it could offer gamers. When the original DS launched it was referred to as the ‘Third Pillar’ of Nintendo’s handheld strategy. It was so unique and bold that a GBA port was included to ensure that backwards compatibility could be maintained in case the touchscreen interface flopped. It didn’t, though, and the DS has gone from strength to strength since 2004.
There has been a lot of press leading up to this and as various hardware companies are pushing 3D technology as the next ‘big thing’ , Nintendo, a company known for innovation, has delivered the first mass-market 3D device that works without glasses – and it comes in a very big box…
From the choice of Cosmos Black or Aqua Blue you get the same standard pack-ins: a new , extendible stylus, a 2GB SD card, a docking station, power lead and six Augmented Reality cards. What you don’t know until you power up the machine is how much more you are actually getting pre-loaded onto the system itself.
The unit itself is comparable in size to a DSi. It eschews the larger ‘senior friendly’ approach of the DSi XL and, although its closed height is a little greater than any previous DS models it's not overly bulky. The unit carries a nice weight – it doesn't weigh the arms down in extended play and it's light enough that it isn't that noticeable when it is being carried in a bag or an overcoat. Despite fears that it might be flimsier than Nintendo's previous handhelds, it is in fact a sturdy little beast and should have no trouble in standing up to the hours of playtime it is likely to get.
Nintendo have promised us that it has no current plans for a hardware upgrade in the near future. On the one hand it is easy to agree with this statement but on the other hand they are Nintendo and they have been known to upgrade their technology over time. The 3DS isn’t lacking in any department aesthetically or in its feature set , though. The top screen that displays 3D images in now presented in a clean, widescreen format and is the same on both models, it has a gloss-black finish – no matter which colour you buy – to promote image ‘pop’ with 3D content. To the side of the top screen is a 3D depth slider that can be used to turn 3D completely off, presenting a standard 2D image, or gradually increased so that each user can find the optimum level of 3D for them.
The bottom screen is an improved DS touchscreen that functions in exactly the same way as all previous models. The difference is that it feels nicer to the touch and the touchscreen 'layer' is harder to detect than on some previous models. The X, Y, B and A buttons also remain in the same location as all previous DS systems. What is new is the analogue slider which sits at the top -left of the bottom part of the unit. Stiff yet responsive, it provides a better recreation of an analogue stick than the PSP and is rounded up to ensure that thumbs don’t come lose when engaged in frantic gaming.
The D-Pad is standard Nintendo fare which ensures its quality, but its new location – just beneath the analogue slider – will be uncomfortable for some users. It is clear that the slider is the focus for directional control with the 3DS. The on switch is located on the bottom–right and Start and Select have been moved to just below the touchscreen, along with the new home button. These three are built into the unit like an old mobile phone button, rather than being discrete ‘push’ buttons, but it presents no difficulty when using the device – you soon figure out how hard you need to press them.
The SD card slot is located on the lower left part of the bottom of the system, the stylus is on the back now and must be un-extended when stored. The wireless switch and volume slider are on the right hand side of the unit. The standard charging cable (the same as a DSi which is good news for owners of that system) can be connected directly to the back of the unit or into the back of the cradle. The 3DS simple rests into the cradle and charges from there, no click and no fuss.
Standard fare again, the cartridge slot is located at the back of the unit and, although 3DS cards have a slightly different shape to standard DS cards, it plays most DS games. The ones it won’t are the same as the DSi or the DSiXL as both those units lacked the GBA slot of the original DS and the DS Lite.
Speakers are housed on the top part of the unit and a headphone socket on the bottom part. Interestingly , the speakers are capable of creating a 3D sound effect like surround sound. It is an impressive feature and one that isn’t often mentioned. As with every aspect of Nintendo hardware, you can be sure that there will be games that take advantage of this in the pipeline.
The 3DS also has four microphones on the outside of the unit (probably for detecting sound from all angles) and it has a lot of cameras. Well, it has 3 cameras. Two on the outside of the front lid for creating 3D photos and one on the inside for taking photos of your own face.
What you can’t see is the gyroscope and accelerometer that are housed inside the casing, another control input method should developers wish to take advantage of it. In the case of 3D gaming it is actually more important than it sounds and Nintendo have been kind enough to demonstrate that to us with some of the built-in software.
The Built-in Software
In a similar fashion to the Wii and the DSi you get little square icons that represent your software. They all display 3D titles on the top screen and, here is a little trick, blow into the microphone to see what happens to them…
So let’s start with the boring stuff. The Activity Log: it records everything that you do with the system, much like the Wii , but, in a meta-gaming twist of fate, Nintendo have decided to use it to encourage you to be more social with your system. When you put the system into sleep mode the 3DS records how far you walk around with it. Every 100 steps you take earn you a Play Coin – up to a maximum of ten a day. The brilliant part about Play Coins is that you can use them in any game. They are spendable exercise achievement points! They work with the in-built software and developers have the option to include Play Coin functionality in their games. So get walking.
The other advantage to trundling around with an expensive new toy in your pocket is Street Pass and Spot Pass. Street Pass searches for other 3DS systems to exchange data with. It can send Mii’s, game records and other bonus items to anyone within range. It’s surprisingly addictive and well implemented. It makes you want to take your system around just to see who you might ‘meet’. The virtual world interacts with the real and suddenly we all need to permanently strap our consoles to our bodies. Although not properly implemented in the UK yet , Spot Pass allows the 3DS to search for WiFi networks that it can download specific data from. It is easy to imagine Nintendo setting up events where you can simply walk past to download a special Pokemon or a game demo and is another brilliant enticement to get people using their units outside.
Miis. They are back and they are better than before. The Mii Maker has expanded options for face creation and it will attempt to autofit faces based on pictures taken. This is all very pleasant, but the better part is the Mii Plaza. Here you use Street Pass to collect Miis as you walk around. Pointless you might think. Think again. There are currently two built-in games that take advantage of this feature, a puzzle-piece collection game and an RPG. To discuss them in any depth would spoil the surprises in store, but they are genuinely interesting diversions and add to the social aspect of the console immensely. You never know who you might meet walking around… You might even get infected by a wild Charlie Sheen or a dolled up Katie Price.
There is a unified friends list now , which, although still more cumbersome than other approaches to making online friends, is better than Nintendo’s previous efforts. As long as two owners know their code and exchange the numbers over the internet they will be able to game wirelessly, send messages and interact across any game. A huge step up from unique codes for every game and a nice compromise between safety and usability.
After you have performed your first firmware update (yes it is one of those) then a 3D video is inserted into your menu system. Watch it immediately. It may only be a short promo reel but it shows off the fact that the 3DS can display proper, cinema-quality 3D without glasses. What Nintendo do with it from now on will determine how much of an integral part of the machine it becomes, but, as with a lot of the 3DS – the possibility is shown to you and you will have to use your imagination as to how it can be best implemented.
There is a Music application that features the awesome parrots from the DSi and allows for voice recording and manipulation as well as storing music on the SD card. You can even recommend tracks to other users via Street Pass.
For many people the next one will be a real step forward. The 3D camera. It takes photos in 3D. The resolution is limited by that of the screen but to see depth and pop added to photos you have taken is fun. It can be used in certain games as well to record 3D images onto your SD card for showing off. It needs to be played with to be understood and if the concept is even slightly exciting then the only limit is what you can do with it. On the negative side you need to be about 30cm away from your subject for the depth perception to kick in properly which prevents close up photos displaying well in 3D.
Planned features include a 3DS Shop, similar to the Wii equivalent, and an Internet browser for on-the-go surfing. Neither of these were up and running at the time of review, but the options for them are hidden away in the menu systems. The shop is supposed to use ‘real’ money like the PSN and it will allow for data transfer from the old DSi shop. It is due to be
implemented soon after launch and you will be able to download Game Boy, Game Gear games (amongst others) and remastered classics that will be displayed in 3D. So the sooner the better!
The Built-in Games
Faceraiders is set up to demonstrate camera, gyroscope and accelerometer use. You are asked to take a picture of a face – whether real, drawn or virtual – and it is wrapped up, animated and turned into a floating enemy. Your physical surroundings are then presented on the top screen and manipulated so that enemies appear from all around you in 3D, flying at your face. You have to fire tennis balls at the faces to despatch them and points are awarded for accuracy, as well as killing different types of enemy. This this kind of tech will no doubt impress the casual user.
There are various stages and content is unlocked by collecting new faces and playing various modes with friends and family. It is all dressed up in that Nintendo magic that drops in new cross -software features as you progress to continuously surprise you. Again it seems like a distraction at first but there is depth to be enjoyed here beyond first impressions. The later stages are quite hard and, once you get over swirling the 3DS around you, making you look like a crazy person, it is fun – pure and simple.
The Augmented Reality cards are just as impressive, if not more so. Once you load up the game you are asked to put the first card on a table in front of you. It is a yellow bow with a question mark on it. Once the unit has recognised the card and it has calibrated its distance from it a little box pops out from the table and just sits there. So you shoot it. It opens up and then you are presented with the first of various games that you play by interacting with your chosen surface.
You might have seen pictures of this in action on the Internet but seeing it first hand is even more impressive, the 3DS morphs and manipulates your surroundings to alter the playing field. It asks you to move around the 3D space to complete challenges and then a dragon comes alive and tries to kill you. It is brilliant. There are a couple of games built in and there is a photo option, which is where the other AR cards come into play.
Once you have loaded it up you can drop your Mii onto the table to pose and play with it. You can also put other AR cards into the field of view which makes a well known Nintendo mascot spring out of the table to be posed and photographed in 3D. It is a shame that they aren’t fully animated at the moment but once again, imagine the possibilities. Games that come packaged with AR cards that are implemented into the experience, a Professor Layton puzzle that asks you to move physical objects around in the real world to solve a puzzle, a Dead or Alive statute… Actually, let’s stop that one there. This, like many of the features of the 3DS could have been included as an option but not explained properly. Nintendo have taken the opportunity to open the door to new possibility (and likely the eyes of developers) as to how to use their latest toy in innovative new ways. Show the Augmented Reality games to a friend and they’ll be hard pushed to be unimpressed.
The 3D Effect
The big question for most people will be how well does the 3D work? The answer is that it simply does. In most situations it adds a depth to images that isn’t possible with 2D. You look into and through the screen like a magic eye puzzle and you notice things that come out of the screen more sparingly. When they do though, they are impressive, it creates a field of vision both behind and above the standard screen so that, for example, if you pass under a bridge with your avatar, you can see the bridge passing above you, rather than simply snapping out of view.
It is hard to describe how profound the experience will be for any one user. Some players have reported mixed experiences and some have found it difficult to locate the ‘sweet spot’ that is required to properly see the 3D image. This is not a problem associated with the 3DS but rather with current 3D technology as it stands. You need to be at just the right angle and distance from the screen to properly see the 3D. It means that people can’t appreciate it properly while they look over your shoulder and it means that you may lose the sweet spot if you are playing on public transport or with a game that utilises gyroscope controls. What you get though is genuinely glasses -free 3D effects that you actually do have to see for yourself.
If you are uncertain about it , Nintendo have wisely decided to set up stalls and demo units up and down the country so that you can have a look for yourself. After all, you can only see glasses free 3D in person…
Graphically, the 3DS has received a large visual boost over the DSi. Even without the 3D technology it would havefer an experience close to something available on the Wii at the moment and, as with all launches, the best results will have to wait until developers have got to grips with the machine.
One fair criticism that can be levelled at the machine is the battery life. Reports suggest that 3-5 hours is going to be the average level of play time that you can get from a single charge and that isn’t a lot by Nintendo’s standards. It is probably why Nintendo included the cradle with the system. The assumption being that whenever you aren’t using it you simply pop it in the cradle to get a bit of charge as and when. For long journeys you would probably take a charger with you anyway, so it may necessitate a change in your charging habits, but when you consider what the machine is doing, it isn’t enough of a bugbear to put off a purchase.
The price might seem high for a handheld (although it can be obtained for the £200 mark , which is not unreasonable at all) but what you are getting is, quite simply, worth it. Like Ronseal, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the next evolution in DS hardware so it plays DS games (either upscaled or at their native resolution), it displays 3D content without the need to wear special glasses. It offers an improved level of social interaction and new ways to play games. It does 3D. Without glasses. It is a sleek new piece of technology that fires the imagination, there are real possibilities here for developers to use what Nintendo have given them in interesting and effective ways. Let’s hope that they do because you have got to see it to believe it.