Nintendo has never required users of the Nintendo 3DS to play their games with the system's glasses-free 3D visuals activated. But 3D has been the machine's selling point, one baked into the machine's name.
There are signs, however, that game creators, Nintendo included, are discovering that the 3DS' 3D isn't always a useful technological perk and that it might even be a nuisance that some gamers are avoiding.
At a roundtable of developers at E3 in Los Angeles earlier this month, Nintendo's chief game maker, Shigeru Miyamoto, acknowledged that some gamers have been playing the 3DS with the system's 3D slider pushed to the off position, flattening the games graphics so they appear as they would on an conventional portable gaming screen.
"There are times when people are going to want to play in 2D anyway," Miyamoto said through a translator. "I think it's fair for people to say, 'Oh yeah, for this section of the game, I'm just going to turn the 3D depth slider off.' And, in other parts of the game, they may want to turn it on. I think that's a perfectly acceptable way to play the games."
Miyamoto's comments follow Nintendo president Satoru Iwata's April remarks that there is "no easy road to making people understand the attraction of glassless 3D images." While Iwata's comments seemed to involve the challenge of getting people who haven't seen glasses-free 3D to even imagine the experience and, consequentially, be excited about it, Miyamoto's comments involved the practical experience and struggles of 3DS owners who have actually tried to play games with the handheld's 3D settings activated.
Some 3DS gamers have had a tricky time finding a comfortable and visually-clear 3D setting on the 3DS that allows them to consistently appreciate the 3D effects without ruining their gaming experience. While the 3D effect can be impressive, it requires focus within a relatively narrow viewing angle. (A person sitting next to someone who is playing a 3DS game with the 3D cranked up, for example, can't see the 3D effect.) Jostling of the handheld system or changing the distance between a person's eyes and the 3DS can cause the 3D-enabled images on the system's upper screen to appear blurry or doubled. This issue has challenged developers and players for months, spurring our own complaints here at Kotaku, for example, that it was hard to maintain 3D focus while flying through rings in Pilotwings: Resort.
At E3, Miyamoto seemed concerned that 3DS games that have some tilt-based controls are even more likely to dissuade gamers from playing them fully and happily in 3D. He singled out The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D and Star Fox 64 3D, which both have optional gyroscopic controls. "On the programming side with the gyro controls, we are providing some assistance to make sure that the 3D visuals stay in focus as much as possible," he said. It wasn't clear, though, how much Nintendo's programming can widen the 3DS' 3D viewing angle.
The 3DS only shows 3D graphics on its top screen. It only allows touch controls on its smaller lower screen. That means that games that primarily involve a touch interface and visuals on that same screen can't even do much with the bigger non-touch 3D screen. That's the case for the makers of Cooking Mama 4 from Majesco. A representative for that game briefly showed me a demo of the 3DS title at E3, noting that "99%" of the game involves the lower non-3D screen. It's not that Cooking Mama 4 doesn't use the 3DS' special capabilities. The game lets players use the 3DS' touch and tilt controls to cook 60 new recipes, chopping food with a stylus, sauteing a pan with butter by tilting the system, and so on. But with all that action required to be on the lower screen, all that top 3D screen can do is show the Cooking Mama herself, expressing encouragement or disappointment, as you play—in 3D if you've turned the 3D graphics on. In other words, Cooking Mama 4 is a 3DS title that doesn't emphasize the 3DS' 3D options simply because it can't.
At his developer roundtable, Miyamoto clearly wanted people to enjoy the 3DS' 3D when they can, while conceding that that's not going to be all of the time.
"There are some sections of some games where you might find it easier or more compelling to play it in 3D," he said. "For a game like Ocarina of Time, in particular, if you know a cinema scene is coming up, please, definitely pop that thumb up there and quickly slide that 3D depth slider to max. It will look great."
Nintendo and its partners are talking about the 3DS a little differently than they used to, transitioning from the broad enthusiasm for 3D to the realistic acknowledgement of the pros and cons of playing a given game with 3D turned on. The 3DS' predecessor, the DS, got its name from its dual screens. But almost from the start, Nintendo and its partners produced popular games that downplayed the system's two screens, putting them to limited use in some of the machine's best-selling games, including the nearly-all-single-screen New Super Mario Bros.. Just a few months into the 3DS' existence we have Nintendo telling us it is okay to play the 3DS without 3D. We have them saying, hey, maybe you could at least turn it on for the cut-scenes?
The DS proved its greatness without a strict adherence to its technological DS-ness... its dual screens. The 3DS may be on its way to its own success, surprising as this may be, without 3D being as important to its fate than initially hyped by Nintendo or initially thought by all of us.