I've played video games in 3D but, last week, I still thought 3D might just be an attractive gimmick, a buzzword, a special effect. I've been a skeptic about this stuff. It looks nice on the 3DS, but is it just a cosmetic effect or can it actually affect how video games play?
Answering my question was Hideki Konno, a Nintendo developer with the credentials to back things up. He's the guy who created Super Mario Kart, the man who designed most of the levels in Super Mario World and now one of the heads of development on the 3DS.
I don't know if I could have found a better person than Konno to answer my question, and sure enough he said 3D would affect gameplay. But he didn't say it that seemly and he didn't come off as a shill who just wanted to convince us all to each spend $250 on a 3DS.
Here's how he broke it down while we chatted in a meeting room at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown San Francisco:
"I think most end-users' immediate impression of 3D graphics is that they think something is going to pop out of the screen," Konno said. "However, for myself, i think the most important characteristic is it makes it easier to really feel and understand depth and distance. Depth, width, height, all of this distance between those points becomes easier with 3D graphics."
I'd noticed and admired the 3D depth effects on pre-release versions of the 3DS' Ridge Racer and its fighting games. I'd also recalled Nintendo's top game creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, say that 3D helps a player judge the distance of Mario's jumps. Still skeptical, though, I wanted to hear more. Konno, thankfully, wanted to be specific.
"One of the first things we did when we were working on this project, in order to show people at Nintendo was… in order to convince them of the potential of using 3D graphics, we took a special LCD screen and hooked it up to a Wii. We were able to play Mario Kart Wii on a 3D screen and we were also able to do a number of other experiments, again, sort of exploring the potential of how it could affect gameplay. For example we worked with Animal Crossing, Super Mario Galaxy and Wii Sports as well.
"One thing that was particularly impactful was on Wii Sports golf. When you got to the green, you were actually able to see the undulation of the green itself and were able to understand the distance between you and the hole and how the terrain rolled up or down, side-to-side and whatnot. And not just on the greens, but on the fairway. If you were looking at a course that sloped down or had a precipitous upgrade, looking at that in 3D really brought that impact out and made it stronger."
Konno was seated on a couch with his back to the window. He turned around and pointed out the window toward some buildings. "If we look across the street here, with the naked eye, we're seeing 3D, so it's easy for us to estimate the distance. This is on a game screen in 3D, it's not easy. That being said, we bring 3D into the picture and again it becomes something we can more easily estimate.
"I think the game that really illustrates that and drives that home is in Star Fox, which we're working on as well," he said. He was referring to the undated but forthcoming 3DS remake of Star Fox 64, one of the most popular flight combat games Nintendo has ever made. "You know, you have to fly through the rings [from time to time]. It is so much easier to understand where they are and how far it is before you have to get to them because it's in 3D. You're like, oh, it's right there, I have to take this approach instead of seeing it here, I don't know how much time I have… It's much easier to develop your flight pattern."
What Konno said makes sense but, as I mentioned to him, the fact that the 3D can be turned off at any time on the 3DS implies that the effect is not essential to the 3DS' video games and therefore not integral to how they played. He made a solid argument, however, that 3D, while not required, can be a great help. We'll see in the coming months as I and other gamers get our hands on Nintendo's system. The 3DS, out in Japan already, launches in America and Europe at the end of this month.