Thursday, October 7, 2010

The 3DS in 3Detail

Last week, Nintendo finally revealed some long-awaited information about the 3DS, the anticipated upgrade to its popular dual-screened handheld gaming system.

Though the DS has gone through no fewer than four iterations since its introduction in 2004, it has yet to actually be replaced with a new device. The original, ugly, fat DS will still play every DS game that your shiny new DSi XL can play, with all of the same jagged polygons intact.

The 3DS, on the other hand, is a completely new system that brings a ton to the table. Join me as I detail the most important stuff.

The hardware

The new DS has quite a bit in common with the old one - at its core it is a dual-screened portable gaming system with a touchscreen on bottom and another screen on top.

That top screen is the 3DS's trump card. Unlike the current, stupid 3D, which requires big investments and dumb-ass expensive glasses, the 3DS uses autostereoscopy and a small amount of magic to produce 3D images without the all of the annoying parts. For those who are opposed to 3D in principle, not just because of the ridiculous hardware involved, there's also a slider that can de-intensify the 3D effect or turn it off entirely. This is an implementation of 3D that I can get behind.

Another key selling point of the system is its much-improved graphical capabilities, which far outstrip what the current DS can do. The system blows past the PSP and even the Wii - Nintendo execs have said that the visuals on games should be roughly comparable to what the Xbox 360 or PS3 can do. We'll see about that, but at any rate this upgrade should bring DS visuals into the modern era. Most DS games have never been held back by the system's capabilities, exactly, and developers have learned how to compensate for its weaknesses, but a new graphics chip should not only make familiar handheld experiences look better, but also enable games that the DS just can't handle in its current incarnation.

Other banner features of the 3DS include an analog stick (hopefully better than the awful one that the PSP has always shipped with), backward-compatibility with the existing DS game library, and a new Virtual Console service that offers up older games from the Game Boy library for your perusal. Here's hoping they add 3D effects to Penguin Wars.

The software

New game consoles have almost always shipped with a flotilla of sub-par software, stuff that has been rushed to launch because publishers know that early adopters will want something, anything, to play on their shiny new pile of plastic and silicon. The DS has almost always enjoyed stellar support from both Nintendo and from third-party game studios, and the list of heretofore announced games for the 3DS suggests that the steady stream of quality titles shouldn't be disrupted much by the advent of new hardware.

We don't know what the system's launch library will look like just yet, but most of gaming's familiar faces and franchises appear to be waiting in the wings - we've already seen Paper Mario, Star Fox, Mario Kart, Kingdom Hearts, Resident Evil, Professor Layton, Mega Man, and more games demoed for the system, so it's obvious that it's being taken seriously. Game cards will be up to 2GB in capacity, which isn't as much space as a dual-layer DVD can hold (north of 8GB), though it's a fair bit larger than the cards for the current DS (which max out at about 512MB). DSiWare, the system's downloadable game store, is still going to be around, and it'll apparently be tweaked in the hopes of making it a service that people will actually want to use.

One of the most interesting wrinkles in the 3DS's software lineup is the fact that 3D movies will be made available for the platform - there's no word yet on how these will be delivered, but my bet is that a downloadable or streaming service is going to be the only way to go. Sony's UMD showed us that no one wants to buy copies of movies that they can only play on one device, so passing them out on game cards seems like a shortsighted decision.

The decision to let the 3DS play movies is an obvious shot at Apple's iDevices, which have been eating up marketshare since they accidentally stumbled into the gaming arena a couple years ago. Being able to play 3D movies may give the 3DS a brief edge if it's handled correctly, but color me skeptical at this point - Nintendo's Internet services, with their Friend Codes and accounts that aren't tied to anything, are rudimentary at best, and I'm not especially confident in their ability to turn that around into a competent movie store. Nintendo is a surprising company. I'm just not sure they're that surprising.

The launch

This is mostly stuff we've learned in the last week - the 3DS is going to launch in Japan on February 26 of 2011 for 250,000 yen, which works out to be some $300 USD. The system will come to America and to poor, neglected Europe in March of the same year, though firm dates and prices for those territories have not yet been established.

If Nintendo sticks with a $300 price point, that will mean that the launch price of the 3DS is double that of the original DS when it launched in 2004, $50 more than the Wii when it launched in 2006, and $50 more than the PSP when it was launched in 2004. Launching this system puts the 3DS squarely in the same territory as big, powerful, full-featured game systems from Microsoft and Sony, which is quite a statement on Nintendo's part. Whether the system will sell to the DS demographic - kids, girlfriends, parents - as well as the gamers who routinely line up to drop $300 on expensive electronics remains to be seen.

That's all we know about the 3DS as it stands - feel free to speculate, rave, and get into big fanboy-fights in the Comments section!