Nintendo is promoting the 3DS as a revolutionary system. Does it live up to the hype yet?

Before the Nintendo DS came out, people wondered: “Why a touchscreen?” Before the Wii came out, people asked: “Will motion control catch on?” Now that the 3DS is on its way, those same exact people are questioning the ability of glasses-free 3D.

Nintendo calls the 3DS a “game changer,” and a culmination of all of its efforts going back to the N64. It has the revelation of 3D first seen in Mario 64, the touch controls of the DS, the motion controls of the Wii (via gyroscope and accelerometer), and adds glasses-free 3D graphics on top. So is 3D that big of a deal? I checked out about a dozen games at Nintendo’s 3DS event in New York and can honestly say… maybe.

After all the hype, I was expecting the 3DS to blow me out of the water. It changed Warren Spector’s life. An EA executive thought it was magical. How could I not be similarly impressed?

The big problem was that 3D wasn’t all that special in most of the games I played. Flipping the 3D effect on and off with the 3D slider made me go from “oh” to “Oh” more than “oh” to “OMG.” It was neat, but if you tilt the screen slightly to either side the effect disappears and the screen has a flickering effect. It’s no big deal, and you can just reorient the screen to the proper angle, but in my experience this reorientation was straining on the eyes. Not that anybody plays handheld games sideways, but shaky hands really do have an effect.

However, there were a few games I played that made me see things Nintendo’s way. The animals in Nintendogs + Cats appear lifelike in a way that I think only 3D could enable. Other titles like Dead or Alive: Dimensions, where characters are constantly moving through their environments, seem highly suited for the effect. Even Lego Star Wars III impressed me with the improvement that 3D made.

Basically, I found that certain games use 3D to their advantage. Nintendo puts the “game changing” 3DS in a “category of one” that will “pull you in” and leave a “great impact” (in the words of Reggie Fils-Aime). Maybe not, but with the right games, the 3DS is without a doubt going to give gamers a better visual experience.

A major non-graphical improvement that hasn’t been trumpeted too much is the analog stick. It was so natural to use that I almost forgot the DS doesn’t have one. While playing one particular game, I tried to go back to the D-pad, and it felt like going from driving a Lamborghini to the Flintstones car. That analog stick is a big deal.

I’m most excited about the 3DS’s potential for augmented reality (AR) experiences. The two games I played in Nintendo’s AR lineup were terrific examples of what can be done with the technology already. Once you’ve seen a game object sink into a real world table, you’ll be hooked.

Nintendo has been criticized for its lack of online focus in the past compared to competitors, but online functionality has been made a key aspect of the 3DS. The handheld’s Spot Pass system connects to wireless broadband to download new desired content silently. The 3DS has a specific color of indicator light that tells players when a friend is online. The friend code system is simpler than ever, only requiring one registration per friend. Nintendo didn’t create Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network yet, but it has advanced its online position with the 3DS, and games like Dead or Alive: Dimensions and Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition are already taking advantage with online play modes.

So even though glasses-free 3D wasn’t as magically mind-blowing as I’d hoped, I’m still enthusiastic about the 3DS. Maybe not as enthusiastic as Nintendo, but it’s not like I made the thing. Everybody will have to decide for themselves whether the experience is worth the price of entry, but they should keep in mind that it’s not just a DS with 3D. For those interested in 3D, it’s definitely cool, but won’t make every remake worth playing again.

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