Nintendo 3DS hands-on, Part II

Previous Part: Trying to get to, and find, the event

After finally arriving at, and being let into, the Nintendo 3DS preview event in London, I made my way into the first of two rooms containing 3DS units and software to try first-hand.

The first room was blacked out, and illuminated by the combined glow of dozens of 3DS screens, and the flourescent stands they were attached to. Being near the end of the crowd, I found all the immediate devices in use, and headed for the far end. I hopped onto the first free machine I could find, regardless of what game was on it, and found myself faced with Kid Icarus: Uprising.

The first thing I did, of course, was to check out the 3D screen. It’s the kind of 3D that drops back into the screen, rather than popping out of it. That makes sense for a gaming system, as 3D that pops out can suffer from clipping problems when the object reaches the edge of the screen. I don’t know if the system is capable of making things pop out, but I didn’t see any evidence of that during my time there.

I have to admit that I had trouble with the 3D screen in Kid Icarus; most of the time the 3D was fine, but every now and then I would lose the effect and see two overlapping images instead. I think the most likely reason was that I was playing with the 3DS on its stand rather than in my hands, as it looked like it was bolted down. By the time I’d moved onto another game, it was clear that it was simply tethered using a metal frame – the rest of the games were played with the 3DS in my hands, and I never experienced the problem again. It’s also possible, but less likely, that there was a problem with that particular DS, the software, or just that my eyes hadn’t yet “clicked” into the 3D effect properly.

I found the 3D effect itself to be a little underwhelming. It was certainly visible, but didn’t add a huge amount to the gameplay, in my opinion. Unfortunately that was my view of most of the games I played – the 3D was okay, but didn’t transform them into anything extra special – so I would suggest that you think of the 3D as the icing on the cake, rather than the fundamental reason for owning a 3DS. More importantly I would suggest a try before you buy approach if 3D is your main reason for being interested in it.

I did play with the 3D depth slider, but found that I had it set to the max on every game. That led me to wonder if perhaps it just didn’t go far enough for my tastes.

My other point of contention with Kid Icarus is the controls. It required the use of the “circle pad” (the analogue nub) for movement, the stylus to aim, and button presses to fire. Being a southpaw I automatically used the stylus in my left hand, but that meant that I couldn’t move and aim at the same time. I would guess that this will be a common problem with circle pad+stylus games, and that us lefties will just have to get used to having the stylus in our right hands.

Between losing the 3D effect and struggling with the controls, I didn’t get the most out of Kid Icarus, so it would be unfair to talk any further about the game itself.

From there I moved to a game in which you control a submarine and attempt to sink passing naval vessels without getting sunk yourself. From the list of upcoming 3DS games I would guess it was “Steel Diver”, but the screenshots I’ve found of that don’t match the first-person game I was playing. It reminded me a lot of the Submarine arcade game that I played in my youth (and had forgotten until now). Movement left and right was via the touch screen (it desperately needs gyro support, if it hasn’t got it), and the game consisted solely of timing torpedo launches based on the speed of your targets in order to sink them. It was fairly easy, and fairly dull. If it’s just a small part of a larger game, it might be okay, but if that was the main part of the game then it probably needs a rethink. I didn’t find that the 3D either helped or hindered with aiming the torpedoes – but then all the ships were roughly the same distance from the sub. Perhaps more variety in ship placement would have led to the 3D being more useful in judging when to fire.

I moved on, nearly getting onto the only free Zelda console but beaten to it by someone else. I settled for Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars. If you’ve played a Lego Star Wars game – or, indeed, one of the other Lego themed games – then you know what to expect. The 3D again neither helped nor hindered, but didn’t really add anything to the gameplay. Other than using the circle pad to move, I didn’t see any other use of the 3DS technology. The “force throws” were triggered with button presses, whereas they would probably make a great candidate for the using the gyros to control them.

Then we were asked to move onto the next room. We’d been in there about 15 minutes, and I hadn’t had a chance to try Pilotwings or Zelda (or PES or Street Fighter, though I was less interested in them). Never mind, I’d probably be able to play them in the next room…

Note to Nintendo: If you’re going to limit people’s time in a room, tell them that when they go in. If I’d known I only had 15 minutes, I wouldn’t have wasted five of them shooting submarines.

The next room was much lighter, decorated in white and lit with soft pastel shades. From the game selection it was obvious that this was the “casual” game room, and the previous dark room had been the “serious” game room. That also meant that I’d missed my chance for Zelda, as it wasn’t present in the casual room.

Note to Nintendo: It would have been nice to have at least one of each “serious” game also in the casual room for players that missed their chance before being moved on.

Taking pity on my girlfriend being stuck babysitting my niece, the first game I tried in the casual room was Nintendogs+Cats, on her behalf. Again the 3D was okay, but nothing special. If anything the use of 3D detracted from the game somewhat: in the original Nintendogs you interact with the dogs on the touch screen – so your stylus directly presses against the image of the animal. Because Nintendogs+Cats keeps its animals firmly locked to the top screen, your stylus movements (on the lower screen) are abstracted from the animal itself. It’s easy to get used to, but doesn’t feel quite as personal as the older game.

Next I tried a couple of augmented reality (AR) games. The first was specifically branded as an AR game, the second, Face Raiders, wasn’t branded as such – but by any reasonable definition it still counts. Nintendo’s branding of AR games covers those that use the supplied AR cards for their interface with the real world. In this case a card was placed on a table, and when the game was started and the 3DS’s cameras pointed at the card, it acted as an “anchor” for graphics overlaid onto video footage from the cameras.

First a box popped up out of the card, and you were invited to shoot the front of it. To do that you had to move the 3DS around to get the targetting reticule lined up, before pressing a button to fire. The box popped open into various arrangements of targets that you then had to shoot – again by physically moving the 3DS around in space. The most impressive part was the pit that seemed to appear in the solid table, with a target at the bottom of it, requiring you to lean over the top to hit it. That released a dragon writhing up out of the “hole” in the table which had to be shot several times. It was one of the best examples of AR that I’ve seen.

Face Raiders was similar but different. Whereas the AR game had the card as a fixed point, and you moved relative to that, Face Raiders has you as a roughly fixed point with targets (your face) appearing around you. Instead of moving around a card to aim, you tend to stay in place but move the 3DS around yourself. Missing a shot sent it past your face and onto the background where it appeared to blast a hole in reality to expose a dark universe behind. That effect was particularly well done – fairly subtle, but implemented well enough that it really looked like you were blowing a hole into another dimension.

I felt that the AR game and Face Raiders were the highlight of the event for me, though I’m not sure how much longevity they would have. They’re also both freebies with the system, so perhaps longevity isn’t so much of a concern if you’re not paying extra for them. They reminded me of the games with Wii Play – simple games intended to introduce you to the system’s capabilities, rather than full-on titles in their own right.

The next machine had a Mario Kart title screen, but appeared frozen. I pressed the usual buttons to try to get it started, but it dumped me to a developer page. I pointed this out to the girl who was guarding that batch of machines (and who had clearly spotted me pressing buttons) only to be sharply told that “it’s a demo, you can’t play it!” Demo or not, it wasn’t working – and the two other 3DSs on the block were sitting at the same developer screen.

I moved onto a 3DS with Super Monkey Ball on it. Burned by my Mario Kart experience, I skipped the normal mode and went straight for Super Monkey Race in order to see what a karting game looks like on the 3D screen. Again, I’m afraid, I was less than enthused by it; there was nothing wrong with it, but it also wasn’t a revolutionary leap foreward.

At that point I had run out of time – not because of Nintendo booting anyone out, but because I had to go and meet my girlfriend and niece at the arranged cafe. Unfortunately I’d missed Zelda, Pilotwings, the Mario Kart demo and probably more.

Note to Nintendo: You might want to label the groups of consoles more clearly so that people can easily find what they’re looking for, rather than wandering a little aimlessly from machine to machine and possibly missing out on things.

My final analysis is that the 3DS, for me at least, is not worth the £200 to £230 they’re asking for it. The 3D didn’t wow me enough to make my budget stretch that far, and whilst the AR games were fun, I’m not sure they’ve got the longevity to make it worth purchasing based on them alone. When the price drops, some must-have games come out, or the hinges on my DS Lite give up (which looks like it could be soon), I’ll probably buy one, but nothing I saw made me eager enough to pre-order for launch day.

That said, if you’re interested you really should try to play with one for yourself and not just take my word for it. I’m sure Nintendo will be ramping up their demo schedule as the launch approaches, so keep an eye out for an event near you and give it a try. 3D is a very subjective thing, and what failed to wow me might have a better impact on you.

Final Note to Nintendo: For a “family friendly” company supposedly trying to broaden the appeal of games, it seemed like a very male oriented event. Martial arts and zombies to start with, combined with a collection of young, atractive “booth babes” guarding the machines. They were friendly and helpful, but choosing a wider range of people (sex, race and age) might help to reinforce the message that there’s more to the 3DS than just games for men.

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