Why 3D Isn't the 3DS' Greatest Achievement

The window into a world where I am a submarine commander, a street fighter, a pilot, a Jedi, pops outs at me in stunning 3D.

The diminutive animated submarine seems to float in front of the colorful screen of the Nintendo 3DS as I play Steel Diver. In LEGO Star Wars III, pieces of toy bad guys appear to fly out of the screen at me when my minifig Yoda cuts into them with his lightsaber. But for all of the spectacle of this 3D gameplay, delivered without the need of any sort of glasses, the most intriguing things about Nintendo's next portable are the things it does quietly in the background.

A built-in pedometer tracks how far a 3DS gamer walks, sharing the information with your games and rewarding players with gold coins that can be used to unlock fun little free games in the system. The portable, due out March 27 for $250, can also tell when another 3DS is nearby and exchanges bits of information with it, like your favorite songs, the cartoon character version of yourself you use on the platform and even items from the games you play.

The first thing most people are likely to notice about the 3DS, though, is its ability to deliver 3D without the need for glasses. The portable is able to do that by using a parallax barrier, which allows the device to show a slightly different version of the same image to each eye.

The 3D is a stunning effect, especially the first time you view it without the need for glasses. But within a day or two I found myself turning the 3D off and just playing the game. Few of the early games use the 3D effect for anything more than an added visual. As developers grow more use to the new effect, I suspect we'll see more games that use the 3D in a way to enhance the way a person plays a game.

That's what Nintendo did with the little set of augmented reality games that come with portable. Gamers place special cards on a flat surface, like a table, and through the built in cameras of the 3DS, it appears that the cards jump to life, delivering 3D game characters and little games to play. My favorite of the bunch has me walking around a table, looking for targets to shoot with arrows that fly out of my 3DS. Viewed without the 3DS it looks like someone is just circling a table with a card on it. But through the screen of the 3DS the card shows moving targets, holes in the table and even a writhing dragon.

The 3DS is packed with a lot of other neat features, some already available and some still to come. You can, for instance, take 3D pictures with the device and view them on the screen. You can also listen to music and by this summer you'll be able to watch movies through NetFlix, buy games online, and browse the internet from any of 10,000 free WiFi hotspots in the U.S.

The device's design also gives gamers plenty of reason to plop down the cash for the 3DS. While the 3DS looks a lot like the DS and DSi, when you open the device up you'll notice a new flat thumbstick to the left of the screen. This new controller gives gamers much more precise controls in their gaming. The device also comes with a handy dock, which charges the 3DS without having to plug a cord into the device. That's especially helpful given the 3DS' relatively short battery life.

It's that surprisingly short battery life, three to five hours of 3D gameplay, that has the biggest chance of derailing the 3DS' greatest potential. Combining a pedometer that rewards players for taking their portable with them on the go, with a system that allows 3DS systems to talk to each other has the potential to change the way Americans game on the go.

The 3DS could help make gaming a more communal hobby and driving the popularity of multiplayer portable gaming. That has the potential to change the sorts of games made for the system, driving the creation of more titles that are meant to be played in group settings or the public.

At $250, the 3DS is a hard sell, but it's one that delivers not just those stunning 3D effects, but a bevy of neat extras and the chance to redefine what portable gaming means.

Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.