Earlier this month Nintendo invited two competition winners to join the games industry in Amsterdam for the announcement of the European 3DS launch date and software. Eurogamer reader Richard Horne was one of them, and as soon as he got back he wrote up his epic impressions of the hardware and software. Read on to see what he made of them.
Last week saw the official unveiling of the Nintendo 3DS at a press conference hosted by the surprisingly knowledgeable Johnathan Ross in Amsterdam. With a confirmed release date of 25th March, it's tantalisingly close. And so, after Eurogamer was good enough to send me, on behalf of you the vociferous community, with a whole day's hands-on behind me, what follows is an honest and objective appraisal of the 3DS's merits and flaws.
It would be remiss of me not to begin by talking about the 3DS's key unique selling point – its 3D capabilities. Going into this event I was quite sceptical. 3D movies and television are yet to convince me that they're anything but a gimmick and a fad, and I expected to go home with my pessimism intact. So you can imagine my surprise when the 3DS – with its glasses-free 3D – turns out to be a magical device. Surely Nintendo has flogged Shigeru Miyamoto's soul to the devil in exchange for this unholy witchcraft.
I'd previously heard people wax on about how the images pop right out of the screen and how objects appear to float in midair like something out of science-fiction, but I'd put such grand claims down to fawning excitement and hyperbole. But you know what? They were right on the money. Seeing Link almost protruding from the screen for the first time in the Ocarina of Time remake is a spellbinding moment. I felt like I can reach out and touch him, or that I can peer over his shoulder; that he's somehow and suddenly a real physical being with tangible weight and presence.
What's even more mesmerising is the 3D slider – a switch that lets you control the level of and even disable 3D. For every game I play I find myself repeatedly turning it off and then on again, hoping it will give up its secrets and let me in on its alchemy. Watching a game come to life as it transitions from traditional flattened 3D to revolutionary authentic 3D bewitches me every time. Resident Evil Mercenaries 3D is a prime example – with the 3D switched off, it just looks like any other dull brown third-person shooter, but with a quick wave of that Nintendo wand, the whole game surges bewilderingly and spectacularly to life. This is a special kind of voodoo.
But then as quickly as the 3D blows my mind, it's equally quick to shatter the illusion, because the 3D works if and only if you find that magical sweet spot. The 3DS has to be held perfectly square on and at the optimal angle. Move just a few degrees to either side, or up and down, and the effect is shattered completely and the visuals become a distorted mess as your vision is blurred and you see two of everything.
Of course, the more you experience the 3DS you more you get a feel for how you should be holding and viewing it, and no doubt after a couple of hours' extended play you'll be able to find the optimal position and intuit the boundaries quickly. And again, I must stress, when it works, it's beyond compare. It's like peering into another world, another dimension.
This leads me nicely onto another issue I have to get my head around. The fact the 3D can so easily be switched off demonstrates two things: firstly, that the extra dimension is applied and controlled by the hardware as opposed to the software. This is an important distinction to make, because games never suffer from having to process the effect, and developers can't use it as an excuse for developing sub-par games while they figure out ways to optimise their code. But secondly, disappointingly, the 3D effect is just that – an effect, and one which, at this juncture, has zero impact on how the games actually play, other than to give you an added appreciation for the depth and perspective of the environments.
It's also apparent early on that, similar to the DS, developers are going to take time figuring out how best to utilise 3DS' unique abilities, which means we're going to be paying for their mistakes while they find their feet and figure out what works and what doesn't.
This is evident in the repeated overuse of 3D.
It appears to work on three planes: the background, the middle distance and the foreground. And the majority of games I play follow a similar trend: the HUD and on-screen display elements are in the foreground, your main character sits in the middle distance and the surrounding environments and backdrops are set in the background. But in-game engines throw too much, often literally, into the foreground, and while I can only speak for my own experiences with the handheld, it's when things unexpectedly hit the foreground and my eyes have to adjust their focus that the illusion is shattered. Having to refocus and rediscover that sweet spot is often to the detriment of whatever I happen to be playing. Namco's Ridge Racer seems particularly guilty of this, as it frequently kicks up dust and confetti in the foreground.
Eventually developers will probably decide less is more, even when it comes to effective 3D visuals, and this is already clear in Nintendo's Pilotwings Resort, where your Mii sits in the middle distance, appearing to float and hover above the lush and colourful backgrounds. On my third play with the game I realise that with a deft tap of the Y button you can switch camera views from third-person to overhead to first-person, and the discovery is revelatory. Having only the one plane to focus on is exhilarating, and flying my aeroplane through rings, coves and the myriad obstacles on Wuhu Island is hugely impressive, especially when the 3D effects are subtle and sparing.
It appears the 3DS's touch-screen is resistive as opposed to the iPhone's, which is capacitive. Capacitive means that when your finger touches the screen it acts as a conductor, and results, according to Wikipedia, in "a distortion of the screen's electrostatic field, measurable as a change in capacitance". A resistive touch-screen features two layers that become connected when any physical object makes contact with the screen.
The use of a resistive touch-screen means I have to fight my natural inclination to use fingers instead of the stylus, because it is much less consistent. Whether this is a hardware or software limitation is unclear. It should be stated that the 3DS's touch-screen is as responsive, if not more so than the DS, but I want it to be as responsive as my iPhone.
Another thing that strikes me is that the 3DS seems to be a conflict of technologies. On the one hand you have the stunning 3D visuals, which really set the handheld apart from anything else out there, but then on the other – in what's surely hard evidence of Nintendo acknowledging the oft-denied threat of the iPhone – you have the gyroscopic sensors. When tilting the 3DS off its optimal angle ruins the 3D experience, what use is motion control? Does Nintendo really expect developers to use both technologies at the same time?
On the basis of SEGA's Super Monkey Ball 3D, I hope not. The 3DS version seems like a faithful, if not entirely predictable, interpretation of the many previous Monkey Ball games, and tasks you with navigating a minefield of obstacles by controlling the environment in order to tilt and roll your monkey-in-a-ball toward its objective. The game works exactly as you'd expect and looks great, but before starting you're given a choice between controlling the experience using the Circle Pad and the motion controls, and while the motion control is surprisingly responsive, I have to disable 3D to save myself from the inevitable headache.
Disabling motion control and using the Circle Pad is also an eye-opener, but this time a positive one. It's a considerable improvement on the directional pad. It's comfortable, responsive and applies just the right amount of resistance to allow for precise controls. It also makes a mockery of Sony's PSP nub, which could not be further apart ergonomically. Even for a game like Street Fighter IV 3D, which requires plenty of thumb gymnastics, it's a pleasure to use and I'm confidently unleashing Hadoukens and Shoryukens like the seasoned expert I wish I was.
Graphically the games on display are a mixed bunch. The 3DS is clearly more powerful than the original DS: its 3D worlds are rendered smoothly and beautifully with none of the artefacting that was prevalent in early DS games. But based on what I've played, it's hard to believe 3DS is as powerful as a PSP. But then while PSP games often appear unnaturally sharp and crisp, the 3DS' visuals are enhanced considerably by the added depth. And the fact that in-game models – even with low polygon counts – are so believably rendered adds another intangible layer of polish and sparkle that's hard to describe and quantify.
Referring back to back Ocarina of Time once again, while the models are quite primitive compared to modern games, the 3D effect somehow gives them a real sense of charm and personality. I immediately fall in love with the adolescent Link, pointy elbows and all, and now can't wait to play through this classic game all over again.
The Metal Gear Solid interactive demo also reinforces this. Watching Snake carefully sneak through a jungle environment is enchanting. At one point he hides beneath a tree root as an enemy soldier reaches through it to find his dropped cigarette box, and the soldier's hand appears to reach out of the screen. It's tense, dramatic and believable – and this is all the more remarkable because I am not actually playing the game, just controlling the camera. There's something about this level of immersion that ramps up tension, excitement and drama, creating a palpable anxiety I rarely experience in games, never mind handheld ones.
There are no doubt one or two hurdles the 3DS has to overcome, but it is clearly a device with a ton of untapped potential. History dictates that developers will take a few early missteps, and that a lot of the third-party launch games will be poorly executed and rushed to exploit early adopters (hi Ubisoft!). But when the 3DS works, it's a stunning proposition, and is yet another game-changer from Nintendo. Much as the Wii and DS disrupted the games industry, so too will the 3DS.
There's no doubt in my mind that it will sell by the bucket-load, and Nintendo is wise to include backwards compatibility. While the gaming community audibly groaned as the £229 price-point was mooted, I'd have no reservations recommending the 3DS at that price. This is one type of 3D that's not a fad or short-term curio; it's here to stay. Over to you Sony.