I recently played a new game on the Nintendo 3DS and I've now got visions of the Nintendo DS' shaky launch line-up. Allow me to share some thoughts about what is working, and what isn't.
The 3D in the Nintendo 3DS remains impressive, but there are some obvious problems with how it will function, problems I think and hope game designers can avoid.
My recent 3DS guinea pig was My Garden, an EA game that the publisher revealed in Tokyo in early September but didn't let the gaming press touch until a showcase event I attended at a nightclub in New York a couple of weeks ago.
I was shocked to learn that the 3DS was even at this New York event I attended, let alone that I could play it without holding a system leashed to a Nintendo spokesmodel, the method with which I first played the upcoming Nintendo handheld at E3.
At the big E3 in June, I'd tried several 3DS demos and slivers of games. Most felt like tech trials. They showcased a range of 3DS possibilities. At that show I could experience the effect of playing a classic Nintendo Entertainment System or Nintendo 64 game in 3D. Other demos showcased how the 3DS could be used for augmented reality. Remember that the 3DS shows 3D graphics in its upper screen, has a touch screen at the bottom, inward and outward-facing cameras and a tilt sensor. It is a capable device that gives developers many options for how their games can be displayed and controlled.
In New York, I wasn't playing a tech demo. I was playing an early version of a full 3DS game. My Garden, which is supposed to be a launch title for the 2011 handheld, is not the kind of full game that might excite the so-called hardcore gamer. There's no world-saving hero in this one. It's a gardening sim, one that requires the player to drop seeds into the virtual earth and see what grows.
In the upper screen of the 3DS, My Garden shows the lush garden you've grown. If the 3DS slider is pushed all the way up, then that top screen shows the garden in 3D, no glasses required. That effect remained potent and impressive in New York, just as it had been at E3 in Los Angeles. I'm still not used to the experience of seeing 3D imagery without wearing glasses. That "wow," as Nintendo marketing puts it, is still there.
On the non-3D lower screen, the player uses the stylus to select seeds and place them in the garden. The game challenges the player to create specific types of gardens and the challenge appears to be in figuring out how to establish the proper conditions to get the right results. Certain seeds will only grow in certain places. The player can also place Tanuki statues, which have their own effects on the garden, helping to bring rain or kill off weeds or what have you. This works well, too. The touch screen is a fine interface for tapping through a gardening inventory, selecting and depositing seeds, statues, furniture and so on.
The game lets you place a camera on the lower screen, which affects the three-dimensional view of the garden that you see in the upper screen. That element introduces the problem: It is unpleasant to shift one's view of the 3DS from the lower screen to the upper screen while the top screen is running in full 3D.
If you haven't used a 3DS, perhaps you've seen those old Magic Eye illustrations? They look like a bunch of dots until you cross your eyes the right way and a 3D image takes shape. The Nintendo 3DS' view of 3D doesn't take nearly as much time or strain to manifest itself. You can see the 3D quickly, in a split second. But it does require a mental — perhaps, focal — adjustment every time you look at the screen, a quickened version of preparing to look at a Magic Eye image. When I played Star Fox 64 on the 3DS at E3, I had no problem just staring at the upper screen and experiencing the game in 3D the whole time. But My Garden required me to repeatedly switch my gaze from top screen to lower screen, from looking at the 3D condition of my garden to tweaking it by working on the screen below. Each time I did this, I found that looking up at the upper screen again — making the adjustment to look in 3D each time — was a minor nuisance.
The gaze-shifting was a problem, but so too was a lack of two-handed stability. When I've held a 3DS with two hands, I've had no problem keeping my eyes locked onto the top screen's 3D view. When we sit or stand naturally, our head tends to move a little. I've found that, with two hands clutching a 3DS, I can easily and without conscious effort, keep the system at proper range to still see the 3D in the upper screen. My Garden, however, required me to use the stylus, which forced me to hold the system with one hand. That provided less stability and made it more challenging to keep the proper range between the system and my eyes.
I was initially intrigued when an EA rep told me that the game will let me shake it to scare away any insects or pests that invade my garden. But making the system even less physically stable now worries me. Perhaps I'll just stick to whistling into the mic for birds, another feature planned for the game.
All of the 3D challenges I experienced with My Garden were immediately remedied when I used the 3DS' slider to reduce the 3D effect of the system to zero. Nintendo has smartly included that feature, which will limit the frustration players might have. I hope, however, that this isn't a necessity and that we will see developers identify the best and most physically convenient ways to design 3D games. It's still early, and developers are still sorting things out.
When the DS launched, even Nintendo was trying to do things like replicate the effects of an analog stick on the system's lower screen. Bad idea. At the 3DS' launch, I expect we'll see some other design mistakes. At this stage, I would be concerned about stylus-heavy games that require a lot of gaze-shifting from upper to lower screen. I'm more interested and more optimistic about games I can control without looking at the lower screen, preferably using buttons.
We'll obviously keep an eye on how these 3DS games develop. The system is closing in on its February 2011 launch in Japan. That's plenty of time to make things more pleasant.