Why 3-D isn’t the 3DS’ greatest achievement

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Brian Crecente

The window into a world where I am a submarine commander, a street fighter, a pilot, a Jedi, pops outs at me in stunning 3-D.

The diminutive animated submarine seems to float in front of the colorful screen of the Nintendo
3DS as I play Steel Diver. In LEGO Star Wars III, pieces of toy bad
guys appear to fly out of the screen at me when my minifig Yoda cuts
into them with his lightsaber. But for all of the spectacle of this 3-D
gameplay, delivered without the need of any sort of glasses, the most
intriguing things about Nintendo’s next portable are the things it does quietly in the background.

A built-in pedometer tracks how far a 3DS gamer
walks, sharing the information with your games and rewarding players
with gold coins that can be used to unlock fun little free games in the
system. The portable, due out March 27 for $250,
can also tell when another 3DS is nearby and exchanges bits of
information with it, like your favorite songs, the cartoon-character
version of yourself you use on the platform and even items from the
games you play.

The first thing most people are likely to notice
about the 3DS, though, is its ability to deliver 3-D without the need
for glasses. The portable is able to do that by using a parallax
barrier, which allows the device to show a slightly different version
of the same image to each eye.

The 3-D is a stunning effect, especially the first
time you view it without the need for glasses. But within a day or two
I found myself turning the 3-D off and just playing the game. Few of
the early games use the 3-D effect for anything more than an added
visual. As developers grow more use to the new effect, I suspect we’ll
see more games that use the 3-D in a way to enhance the way a person
plays a game.

That’s what Nintendo
did with the little set of augmented reality games that come with
portable. Gamers place special cards on a flat surface, like a table,
and through the built in cameras of the 3DS, it appears that the cards
jump to life, delivering 3-D game characters and little games to play.
My favorite of the bunch has me walking around a table, looking for
targets to shoot with arrows that fly out of my 3DS. Viewed without the
3DS it looks like someone is just circling a table with a card on it.
But through the screen of the 3DS the card shows moving targets, holes
in the table and even a writhing dragon.

The 3DS is packed with a lot of other neat features,
some already available and some still to come. You can, for instance,
take 3-D pictures with the device and view them on the screen. You can
also listen to music and by this summer you’ll be able to watch movies
through NetFlix, buy games online, and browse the internet from any of 10,000 free WiFi hotspots in the U.S.

The device’s design also gives gamers plenty of
reason to plop down the cash for the 3DS. While the 3DS looks a lot
like the DS and DSi, when you open the device you’ll notice a new flat
thumbstick to the left of the screen. This new controller gives gamers
much more precise controls in their gaming. The device also comes with
a handy dock, which charges the 3DS without having to plug a cord into
the device. That’s especially helpful given the 3DS’ relatively short
battery life.

It’s that surprisingly short battery life — three to
five hours of 3-D gameplay — that has the biggest chance of derailing
the 3DS’ greatest potential. Combining a pedometer that rewards players
for taking their portable with them with a system that allows 3DS
systems to talk to each other has the potential to change the way
Americans game on the go.

The 3DS could help make gaming a more communal hobby
and drive the popularity of multiplayer portable gaming. That has the
potential to change the sorts of games made for the system, driving the
creation of more titles that are meant to be played in group settings
or the public.

At $250, the 3DS is a hard sell, but
it’s one that delivers not just those stunning 3-D effects, but a bevy
of neat extras and the chance to redefine what portable gaming means.

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