You can forgive Nintendo for leaving 3D alone for more than a decade after the brain- and eye-breaking abomination that was the Virtual Boy. This time, they really have got it right. The 3DS needs to be played to be believed, and a post-E3 showcase this afternoon gave us the chance to have some hands-on time with the handheld's first playable demos.
Nintendogs and Cats
The addition of cats to Nintendo's wildly successful virtual pet simulator theoretically redeems it from being nothing more than a re-release, but sadly we're not allowed to play with kitties yet - only a beagle, a golden Lab and a terrier, gambolling around in a typically sparse Nintendo virtual living room.
I wonder, fleetingly, what on earth happened to my old Nintendog, Steven the black Labrador, in the several years since I last switched on his cartridge. Does he still sit in that virtual living room, flea-ridden, awaiting my return, or has he finally given up on me and run away? Thankfully the 3D effect in this update is breathtaking enough to distract my conscience.
The Nintendogs themselves always were profoundly adorable, but 3D multiplies the cute factor. Using a flat touch-screen to pet a 3D virtual animal feels strange at first, but you soon get used to it, and seeing a ball apparently disappear into the distance when you chuck it into the screen can't help but amaze. The doggies scamper in and out of the screen without screwing with your depth perception at all. When they're stood up on their hind legs with their paws up against the screen, the instinctive temptation is to reach out and try to touch their paws.
The 3D effect isn't the only addition. The camera allows for facial recognition, meaning that your puppy now recognises when you're holding the 3DS up to your face and leaps up for some enthusiastic licking. This didn't exactly delight me - I'm a cat person - but it reduced two grown men standing behind me to girlish giggling. It will be interesting to see how far the facial recognition goes: will Nintencats and dogs recognise their owners, or be able to tell the difference between new playmates and old ones?
At first it's difficult to decide which fact is most incredible: the eventual appearance of a brand-new Pilotwings years after most fans had given up the ghost, or the fact that it's magically in 3D in your hands. It feels made for this technology. A flying game is in many ways the ideal showcase for the 3DS - hillsides and buildings come gradually towards you and banking narrowly around corners feels absolutely instinctive when canyon walls come rearing out of the screen. The demo consists of two levels - a ring challenge in a biplane, and a jetpack challenge where the goal is to burst as many floating balloons as possible with your fast-zooming little form.
The demo appears to be set on the Wii Sports Resort Island. I spotted the swordfighting dais, the baseball stadium and a few other prominent landmarks from my hours spent doodling around in free flight mode in Island Flyover, wishing for a new Pilotwings. Gently guiding the biplane through hoops in Ring Challenge feels almost as natural with the sensitive, lovely-to-use 3DS analogue stick as it does with the MotionPlus. The quality of the hardware here is beyond question. The responsive stick is so far removed from the PSP's fiddly nub that it beggars belief.
The rocket challenge features a very Mii-like jetpack wearer, which raises the possibility that Miis might go cross-platform. It's simple to control - you press A to fire up the rockets and use the analogue stick to adjust the direction of the jets. The little pilot goes zooming and bouncing around the island at surprising speed, but the 3D effect and depth of field has no trouble adjusting. I found it worked a little better with the 3D effect turned down slightly with the slider on the side of the screen - otherwise my eyes would occasionally try to focus on my plane and the background at the same time and send me crashing into the side of a building.
As a Ubisoft-developed title, Hollywood 61 is the only non-Nintendo game playable at the showcase, and unfortunately the difference is immediately apparent. The 3D isn't well-suited to the hand-drawn graphical style and all the characters and objects on-screen look like poorly stacked cardboard cut-outs. Turning the 3D effect down confuses the image, too. The cut-out effect might be intentional, though, and it's very much a work in progress, so there's no need to rush into the comments thread and proclaim that third-party developers can't make games for the 3DS just yet.
It's a puzzle-based murder mystery game, clearly aimed at the bewilderingly enormous Professor Layton-devoted portion of the DS-owning casual crowd. The demo opens with a car journey towards an old theatre, during which a comically animated cardboard man gives us a little badly lip-synched background information about the murderer on the loose, who has a dangerous obsession with the as-yet-unnamed protagonist.
The 3D makes parking up outside the theatre and getting out of the car far more visually interesting than it should be, and a lot more interesting than the first challenge, which is a light puzzle designed to turn on the floodlights in the theatre. I've mentioned before on Eurogamer that I have absolutely no capacity whatsoever for light puzzles. My brain just cannot understand how they work. Once the floodlight is eventually awakened through sheer trial and error, it reveals a body hanging above the stage with a written note inviting me to pan the camera around to find the hidden message. Panning all the way to the left and right of the stage reveals the words "YOU'RE NEXT!" daubed on the stage curtain in white paint, before the demo ended. To be honest I'm not enormously scared yet, Ubisoft, but the finished game does have the potential to be interesting.