Sometimes choosing between videogame systems is like choosing which lie you’d most like to be true. You can see it in the short chronology of videogame hardware released since the 1970s. Every successive generation has combined the promise of optimal pleasure with technological progress—the great and secret mystery of turning a small electrical current in a piece of silicon into a flickering mirage that responds to your touch. If everyday life is indifferent to our actions, videogame machines are the doting android nanny designed to reaffirm our instinct for magical thinking.
In those terms, waiting for the Nintendo 3DS to arrive is both exciting and hopeless. After learning to connect gestures with game actions on the Wii, Nintendo’s advance to three dimensions is apt. In a time when motion control is becoming a standard, visuals with added dimensional information appear to be the perfect next step.
“This is going to be a big day for Nintendo, and we believe it’s going to be a big day for all of you.” Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s President and COO, said to the press as he prepared to announce the 3DS launch details. If only.
When it comes to gaming, this new 3D is a fundamentally confusing idea. As Fils-Aime mentioned, videogames have rendered graphics using polygons for 15 years. These three-dimensional computer worlds are projected onto flat surfaces where it’s easy enough for our brains to re-imagine them in proximate 3D.
Nintendo’s newest version of 3D isn’t any less 2D than what we’ve been doing for the last decade and a half. It does, however, have a better way to trick our brains into thinking that a flat screen is actually a window, something it accomplishes by rapidly alternating between two slightly offset images.
Nintendo can claim to be the first videogame company with hardware that produces this effect without glasses. In other words, they’re the first company to create a machine advanced enough to lie to you without the need of extra peripherals.
What I’ve discovered in my time playing 3DS demos so far is that the effect is impressive, fragile, and very quickly forgotten. I played every available demo after Fils-Aime’s presentation in New York and found the 3D effect inessential in every way.
The original DS had one of the least impressive launch lineups in videogame history, but even amidst this haphazard heap were hints at how the touchscreen could be a central idea in game design. Feel the Magic XY/XX was predictably shallow but it prefigured the touch-only greats like Nintendogs and Electroplankton. Ping Pals showed how much more efficient menu-hopping could be using a stylus. Even the wobbly touchscreen-steering wheel of Ridge Racer DS gave some sense of new ground being broken.
With the 3DS launch window games, there is almost nothing that proves the extra spatial information is more than an expensive luxury. Ideally, this added information would enhance ambient exploration in games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, but instead the 3D effect made the environments feel overly big and empty.
Kid Icarus: Uprising is purported to make even better use of the effect with its floating enemies and obstacles, but I found it was a superfluous affect easily forgotten amid the constant bulletstream. Nintendogs + Cats didn't seem to benefit from the 3D either, its furry pets directly facing the camera in a way that flattened the whole screen.
As I played each of these games—making a point of switching back and forth from 3D to standard view—I was reminded that both view options are already in 3D. The autosterescopic effect remains a trick played on a 2D surface, an enhancement of a mode of play that the industry—led by Nintendo—has been moving away from for the last several years. It’s in motion control that real three-dimensionality occurs, and on this point the 3DS is a perfect contradiction.
The system uses two cameras, a gyroscope, and accelerometers to support motion play, but the 3D technology in the screen is so fragile that small movements ruin the effect. The 3DS will include some augmented reality games in its operating system, and these make terrific use of the device’s motion sensors and its 3D camera capabilities.
Face Raiders takes a picture of a person’s face and uses it to populate enemies in a shooting game. The reticule stays centered onscreen and the player must physically turn around in order to to confront and destroy the surreal floating faces. Another shooting game has players using a card placed on a table as a reference point. The card turns into a target-filled pit, and moving the 3DS around like a viewfinder reveals previously hidden targets. Games like these are playful beginnings, awkward and charming points of departure for real three-dimensional interaction and hints at what the future of mobile gameplay might one day become.
Frank Lantz, creative director and co-founder of the design studio Area/Code, once described a future in which games had computers in them, rather than running inside computers themselves. The 3DS could hasten the arrival of that future. Ironically, it’s this exciting potential that is most hindered by the dazzle of the 3D screen effect. It’s a seductive flash of something new and seemingly miraculous, but so far it’s more of a lie than a promise kept.
Michael Thomsen has written about videogames, sex, and animals for ABC World News, Nerve, n+1, IGN, The Faster Times, The Millions, Gamasutra, The Escapist, and Edge. He lives in New York City.