Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo unarguably occupies both extremes of the risk aversion spectrum. From a thematic perspective, they are certainly relatively conservative, generally using the same cast of characters to tell the same stories repeatedly. From a gameplay and mechanics standpoint, however, they innovate far more often, reinventing core properties to gamers new classics like Metroid Prime and Super Mario Galaxy. Their approach to hardware and gaming infrastructure, however, is a little harder to pin down.

It’s easy to view Nintendo’s reluctance to abandon the cartridge format in the era of the Nintendo 64, as well as their current reticence to offer a robust online environment akin to that of Xbox Live or PSN, as doggedly old-fashioned. By the same token, however, when they believe in their creative vision of a new product, no matter how strange it seems, they bring the same level of persistence to the table. For sure, they’ve had some missteps, the most notable being the old punchline that is the Virtual Boy. But in the past several years, they’ve had some fantastic successes as well.

The 2004 release of the Nintendo DS seems downright prescient in retrospect, the touch screen being such a ubiquitous feature on smartphones today. The Wii, despite its relative dearth of quality third-party titles and deficiencies from a graphical standpoint, was difficult to find for well over a year, and was the first console to crossover to the casual market in years. Further, it clearly informed both Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Kinect peripherals. When the concepts of the DS and Wii were first introduced, they were generally greeted with confusion, if not outright derision. In both cases, however, Nintendo produced hot commodities that continue to influence the direction of the gaming industry as a whole. In general, the public and gaming press seemed fairly excited when the 3DS was unveiled, and undoubtedly the success of the DS and Wii had something to do with that. Further, when reports started filtering in from those that had played with demonstration units that the glasses-free 3D technology actually worked, excitement for the device seemed only to increase.

Now the 3DS is here, and while it does a number of things fantastically well, certain problems with respect to both the hardware and the launch itself are difficult to deny.

Given that preview videos had no way to convey the sense of depth the 3DS can deliver, the first experience with it in hand is an undeniably impressive one. It’s almost as though you’re playing a game inside of a shoebox diorama. Of course, as with both the Wii and DS, it will take some time for developers to figure out how best to use the unique technological hook of the device. Certain genres, notably racers and first person shooters, seem primed for 3D presentation, and there isn’t a fantastic one of either for the device, at present. But while the 3D effect is stunning when you first see it, it’s easy to see how it could wear out its welcome quickly if not used judiciously. It is certainly possible to experience some eyestrain when playing, even for a short amount of time, and even when the 3D slider is bumped to its lowest possible setting. The ability to adjust the intensity of the effect or turn it off altogether is welcome, and allows for anyone to enjoy the system regardless of how sensitive they are to the downsides of the 3D effect.

The charge cradle that comes with the 3DS is a relatively elegant solution to the device’s short battery life, and it seems adequate for moderate usage patterns. But the prospect of traveling with the 3DS is a little concerning. While peripheral battery solutions have already popped up, it is unfortunate to have to shell out for extra power for a $250 device so close to day one. If Nyko can come up with an acceptable solution to the 3DS’s short battery life, why couldn’t Nintendo? The launch lineup, too, is woefully half baked. The excitement of getting one’s hands on a 3DS is roughly equal to the disappointment that there’s really nothing on it to play. While the launch was successful on a variety of measures, it likely would have been even more so if it had occurred alongside even a single must-have title.

The 3DS hardware is successful in many ways, but with no killer app as yet, it’s difficult to view the device as a must have. Indeed, for the time being, it might well be considered simply the best ever version of the DS, as opposed to an all new device. The Wii-like menu system alone, along with the ability to suspend the active application and arguably the best analog stick in portable gaming, makes the 3DS feel like a sleek, bleeding edge portable system. For sure, if you’re in the market for a new DS of any kind, this is the one to get. It seems likely that the 3DS will not truly fulfill its potential until Nintendo releases 3D entries in its core franchises, namely the June release of The Ocarina of Time. If that happens, it’s probably safe to assume that other portable devices will start to employ similar technology in the next few years, with Nintendo once again paving the way forward.