I’d mentioned in the ITSP article that XBLA was rivaled only by the 3DS area in terms of sheer excellence density at PAX East this year. Well, a line like that simply can’t just be left hanging, so the time has come to see what Nintendo was showing off. I’ll begin by saying, yes, the 3D absolutely works, and no, there are no glasses. The effect is dependent on the distance between your eyes, and the distance from the screen they are, so in order to accommodate the range of people likely to be using the 3DS, there is a handy little depth slider. All you need to do is slide it slowly with your thumb until the 3D plunges into the display, and you are good to go. That’s one thing that surprised me a bit. Most of the time I think of 3D as popping out of the screen, but on the 3DS, for me at least, it popped IN. It doesn’t make too much of a difference, but I just thought it was worth a mention. The effect works pretty darn well, but it starts to double up and fail if you tilt the screen too far or move it too close or too far away, which you will do from time to time until you get used to the new rules of usage.
In terms of control and form factor, the system looks and feels a lot like the latest DSi systems. There is a dual screen setup, naturally, with the lower screen equipped for touch and the upper screen slightly wider and 3D-ified. Like the DSi, it can take pictures, but the rear facing camera is now 3D capable, making this the first consumer handheld I am aware of that can both take and display pictures in 3D without special equipment, a major selling point. A gyro was added to measure the tilt of the device, which seems a bit odd, considering the fact that tilting the device ruins the 3D effect, but as you’ll read below, clever game design has already found ways to utilize it correctly. There is also a “motion sensor”, which I’ll assume is an accelerometer. Nothing on display made much use of it, but there is talk of it functioning as a pedometer, so leveling up your Pokemon by jogging is virtually assured. One key addition that makes a huge difference is the addition of the analog nub above the d-pad. It works pretty well, and will no doubt come in handy in any number of games. Something called “SpotPass” has been added, which will let the system pull down updates and the like while sleeping, just like the Wii does. Likewise, “StreetPass” will let it handshake and exchange data with other sleeping 3DSs in range, which has some interesting potential. Naturally older DS games work in it, and it sports an SD card slot, and the system will ship with a 2Gig card to get you started. Not only that, but there is a limited ability to transfer DSiWare titles to it that had been purchased for a different system, similar to the transfer system in place for XBLA titles.
A system is nothing without its games, though, so let’s see what they were showing off and how they highlighted the new features. A word of warning, assets are very scarce on some of the games that had been on display, and by the very nature of the system it is impossible to show you what they REALLY looked like. Hence the low level of illustration below. The 3DS was heavily represented at the convention, with a huge numbers of titles. It was fully accessible to fans and press at both Nintendo’s booth and the Capcom booth, so we might as well start with Capcom’s titles.
Resident Evil had a demo available, and visually it was impressive. I don’t know who they have writing these engines, but they need to pay them more. The demo was essentially the mercenaries mode from RE 5, and while it was gorgeous even in 3D, the controls were only so so. I’m sure if I’d had a little more time to get used to them, instead of the single round available to me before I had to move on, I might have gotten a firmer grip on them, but as it was I had trouble playing effectively, to the beautiful 3D graphics mostly depicted me limping along, gripping my side. SF4, on the other hand, was both excellent looking AND controlled well. The 3D didn’t add much, but the multiplayer was exquisite. They had local wireless multiplayer setup, and everything was smooth and functional. In order to help deal with the fact that the controls aren’t quite as comfortable as a controller, the more difficult moves are assigned to the touch screen to ease execution. Don’t worry, though, you can still pull them off the old fashioned way. If you are a fan of SF4, the 3DS incarnation will suit your purposes just fine.
In an attempt to give a bit of a taste of what the gyro can add to the party, there was a game on display called “Steel Diver”. It is a submarine game, and it correctly realized that, in order to maintain the 3D effect, you have to hold your arms rigidly and rotate the system along with your entire torso. It feels a bit like moving a periscope, so why not make that the game, right? Thus you are presented with a fairly simple submarine combat game that has you diving to avoid shots and surfacing and pivoting your body to target ships. The 3D screen shows a full, deep field of rolling seas and distant boats. Having genuine depth to judge by is important, since you need to know how much to lead your shots. When you get hit, your ship springs a leak on the touch screen, which you must then plug with your thumb until it stops. Kind of gimmicky, but still neat. All in all, it was a good union of 3D and gyro, and managed to show that gyro could be used without causing problems with the screen. That said, it also established that properly using gyro with the DS will severely limit the sort of places you can be while playing the system. Don’t try playing steel driver in any sort of confined space, like say a car, or a subway, or sitting down, or on a crowded bus… or basically anywhere ELSE you typically play a handheld.
Another game that tried to make use of the gyro, while still showing off the 3D visual and increased graphics might of the system was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Remade with superior graphics to the original and making full use of the 3D screen, Zelda is a strong part of Nintendo’s stable. The models and animation were remade to move the game a bit closer to modern graphics, though the textures looked to be on par with the originals. One of the things that made Ocarina of Time so excellent was the extremely effective control system, and the same level of thought went into the move to the 3DS. The gyro, in this case, has been added to aiming. While it functions well enough, it suffers from the feeling of “Well, we have a gyro now, so we’d better find a way to use it” that is so often the hallmark of early entries to a motion control scheme. Fortunately the stick works for aiming, too, and you don’t have to manually switch, since both are active.
Nintendo is also bringing back a franchise that got a brief breath of life when its main character was a late addition to SSBB, Kid Icarus. In terms of using 3D graphics effectively, this game definitely set the bar. It looks GREAT. There is a huge amount of action, shifting constantly between various depths in the screen. It is played from 3rd person, with pit flitting around the foreground while moving forward on a predetermined track. If any of you out there remember space harrier, this is the same deal. In fact, it could have really benefited by ripping off Space Harrier even more than it did. While you can fly, naturally, during my entire play through I found myself with very little reason to do so. Also, since it uses the stylus and touch screen for aiming and the analog for navigation, the game forces you to wield your stylus with your right hand, which sucks for lefties like me.
So far we have talked about gyro and 3D, but not too much about the 3D camera. Time to fix that. The 3Ds will come packed with a few flimsy looking cards used for their AR or Augmented Reality games. You could be excused for dismissing these as throw away titles, but give them a try. I got to try the target shooting game. You place the ? box card on any flat surface and get it on screen with the camera, and an array of blocks appears, rendering in 3D on top of the actual physical table. When you select target practice, it starts to render little landscapes complete with archery targets. These targets aren’t simple little spots you shoot at, you need to hit the front of the target, and that might not be facing you. As a result, you have bend and twist, and strafe, in real life, to get to them. There are moments when the table will bulge and distort realistically, tipping the targets away and toward you. And I’m not talking about some fake, rendered table. They seemed to take the actual texture of the actual table and bulge it toward you. Super neat. It culminated with a boss fight where you had to shoot a dragon, bending and twisting to get to different segments that needed hitting. Really cool.
Best use of 3D as a core gameplay element, though, has to go to Pilot Wings Resort. In a game that has you flying through hoops and landing with pinpoint accuracy on targets, the lack of actual depth perception has always been a little slice of difficulty that had never quite been overcome. 3D makes playing the game infinitely easier. No more judging by a shadow or a dot on a map. Now you you know you are over the center of the landing pad because you can see that you are at the center of the landing pad. Other than that, it is just Pilot Wings in 3D, but that’s really all it needs to be.
Speaking of games that were simply in 3D, there were a handful of other games on display and, while they looked good and ran well, didn’t really stand out. Nintendogs and Cats was a subtle and effective use of 3D, but other than that it is exactly what you’d expect. (By the way, where did they find a cat that eats cookies?) Lego Star Wars made neat usage of foreground and background, but not in a way that really REQUIRED 3D. Likewise for Dead or Alive. In all cases the 3D is cool, but in no situation does it really add much to the game.
When it comes down to it, the system has all of the good features of its predecessor, plus a number of killer new abilities. It launches March 27th with a small lineup of titles, and if you haven’t pre-ordered it already, don’t be surprised if you have to wait a while.