Sunday, 1 August 2010

Nintendo 3DS Hands-On

Getting to play with Nintendo's new handheld, the 3DS, so far ahead of the UK launch perhaps makes up for all these years spent writing for free. That is me in the picture below. You can see another picture of me, playing Metroid: Other M, in part 1 of D+PAD Magazine's excellent Nintendo feature here.

There can be few industry-centred moments that videogame fans cherish as much as the reveal of new hardware, not least because they happen so rarely; these first months of a console’s gestation are usually characterised by a level of anticipation and rich sense of possibility that makes all talk of third places, emotion engines and red rings of death (just kidding) sound plausible and like the future has finally arrived (this writer’s favourite console reveal was that of the Nintendo 64, and thanks to Super Mario 64 it’s perhaps the only piece of hardware that fulfilled its radical promise on day one). We only say this because the 3DS reveal had felt, until we had actually got our hands on the little miracles, just a tad underwhelming. There were several reasons for this: it was first announced through a press release two months before E3, stripping the Nintendo keynote of any major impact or surprise; Reason 2: there was no doubt that the console would work – Nintendo surely wouldn’t have discussed it otherwise – but the fact that you can’t truly comprehend its impact without holding one is, at the moment, a little frustrating. Eventually though, as we’ll discuss later, this could be the 3DS’ masterstroke. And Reason 3? Well, we want one now but probably have another eight months – at the very least(!) – to wait.

D+PAD arrives at Nintendo’s two-day London press showcase with the mentality of waking up on Christmas Day, consciously leaving the biggest present to open last. So, aware that the 3DS is just yards from where we stand, we first take eager if distracted peeks at Donkey Kong Country Returns, enjoy GoldenEye multiplayer, and marvel at Samus Aran’s Ninja Team-approved makeover, before the pull of new Nintendo hardware becomes something beyond irresistible.

In discussing the console at E3, Nintendo’s 3DS producer Hideki Konno admitted that its unique approach can only be appreciated first-hand: “Consumers can’t see the real surprise without the 3DS in front of them – cool footage isn’t enough – but yesterday I went to our booth and found consumers being surprised, saying: “Wow!””. Our first experience with the machine, watching a trailer for Resident Evil: Revelations, delivers much the same response.

The stereoscopic 3D being displayed on the handheld’s crisp high-resolution top screen is actually quite subtle (at least in the majority of ways it was being used in the demos presented, bar the contribution of Hideo Kojima), but the sense of depth and level of immersion is undeniable. What’s also impressive - and has understandably been overlooked in the clamour to herald the 3D - is that the visuals are a significant leap forward, in terms of texture and detail and impact, then what we’ve become accustomed to with the DS. Given that this is what developers have been able to create with such a new piece of hardware, we anticipate the 3DS’ graphics to approach a level that could neatly bridge the gap between that of high-end Wii titles and early PS3, if you’ll excuse the crude system for comparisons.

No other demo demonstrated these aspects, the visual quality and the 3DS’ true 3D capabilities, as well as Kojima’s aforementioned offering, Metal Gear Solid 3D Snake Eater The Naked Sample. A virtuoso demonstration of technical brilliance, we of course expected nothing less from such a shy and modest personality as the creator of Solid Snake. A seven-minute movie in which the sole interaction afforded was the ability to move the camera, the assortment of events – from Snake clinging onto a bridge, or being chased by a swarm of bees – effectively highlighted how such factors as height (the sensation of vertigo in one cliff precipice-based set-piece in particular was astonishing), depth, and the use of foregrounding will impact on the gaming experience if used as well as they were here.

The Metal Gear Solid demo was also a useful example of how much difference the 3D slider makes. An integral, not to mention sensible, part of the console, the 3D slider allows you to set the degree of the 3D effect, as well as turning it off completely. Whilst ensuring that players have the option to cushion their eyes from the effect should they need to, it will also hopefully – though probably not - rein in certain developers who might otherwise have seen the 3D as a gimmick to be exploited as lazily as the Wii’s motion-control was/is.

Two of the three playable games at the event also proved what a difference – if not in central mechanics than in an overall, intangible feel – the 3D will make. While Nintendogs + Cats (the new cats sadly not present) had a familiar design, we threw a boomerang more times than is perhaps sane, just to watch the graceful curve of its flight, while PilotWings Resort proved even more addictive, as we used our jet-pack to fly between houses to reach targets, the distance to which could be effectively calculated. This latter example also showed how dynamic the 3D will be when viewed at speed and from a conventional third/first-person perspective (Mario Kart looked similarly excellent, albeit in teasing rolling video form). The Slide Pad, the 3DS’ analogue nub, also proved an intuitive and necessary inclusion. The other playable title was Ubisoft’s Hollywood 61, but my colleague assures me it was uninspiring, while “its use of 3D felt token at best”.

There are a few minor issues. One is that the 3D effect will be lost if your vision of the screen is coming from an angle as opposed to straight-on, though this is perhaps an unavoidable result of achieving such startling results without the need for glasses. Another is that the 3DS, despite having a touch screen in the same place as the DS, may force a change in the approach towards interface than that taken by many ‘traditional’ DS games such as Animal Crossing, because of the 3D screen. For example, whereas the original Nintendogs had you directly petting and cleaning your pet with a stylus, here we were touching a silhouette of our dog as seen in the top screen. Will there be a loss of the tactile feel so well communicated in such games as Trauma Centre? And even if there is, does it really matter? After all, even after such a relatively short hands-on time with the 3DS it’s clear that it’s approach to play is markedly different to that of the DS.

Other features, such as the ability to view 3D movies, showed promise thanks to an impressive trailer for a new Zack Snyder film about owls, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (the film itself looked awful, but the transition of a 3D film to the 3DS was laudable). The 3D camera will also no doubt impress once the inevitable perspective-distorting assortment of lenses is set. Despite such an intimidating feature set though, our thoughts keep returning to the games – those we want to play again, those we wish we could, and the delirious prospect of Ocarina Of Time 3D being a launch day title. Nintendo have earmarked September 29th as the day on which all release date and price information will be unveiled. Our wishful thinking side hopes for £160 and pre-Christmas, while the realistic part of us expects something in the region of £180 (perhaps intentionally matching the Wii’s launch price) and a launch, at least in the UK, of late-March.

So, that masterstroke: no screenshot, or video, can hope to communicate the genius of the 3DS effectively. While on paper this might be the recipe for a gaming PR disaster, there’s only one thing as powerful as actually playing the console for yourself, and it’s something that arguably helped push the Wii to the globe-conquering status it now enjoys: word-of-mouth. Once people try the 3DS they will tell others, perhaps in slack-jawed awe, that they also need to do the same, and so the ripples will begin.

A version of this article was published by D+PAD Magazine.

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