If you go hunting for new 3DS games you don't have to worry about running out of bullets. This is one scarce safari.
A couple of weeks ago, after I noticed that the Nintendo 3DS had sold just 143,000 units in June, the month when its two big problems were fixed, my colleague in Japan noticed an even more alarming phenomenon: 3DS games disappearing before they were even born.
Portable games on Nintendo handhelds have never been as rare as jungle cats before. But before we condemn the 3DS for what might merely be a slow start an before we add it to the endangered species list, I decided to go on a search for 3DS games. I did it at a Holiday-preview showcase in New York City for Electronic Arts, the mega-publisher that makes games for every electronic device I own other than my microwave. In that EA jungle of games, I believed, I'd have a chance to find some 3DS games.
The EA showcase was in a large ballroom room. We could call it a vast plain full of grazing water buffalo and antelope if we wanted me to painfully stretch my metaphor or vaguely offend the game developers and reporters in attendance. Let's not do that. But you should be picturing a big room with lots of game demos set up in it, some running on TVs on a stage, some on TVs near couches, some near rows of tables at the perimeter. Dozens of video games!
Looking around the room, I couldn't spot any 3DS games. I went sniffing at the Need for Speed area. They'll have a 3DS version, a developer playing the PS3 version of the game told me. It just wasn't there. It'll be structured as a 26-episode version of this fall's cross-America Need for Speed: The Run. It will even support AutoLog, the Facebook-style notifications system introduced in last year's console game, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, that pushed updates to players when their friends beat their scores in one of the game's races and let them challenge their friends back. The 3DS would also pull challenges from nearby 3DS owners using the systems' Street Pass function, I was told. But the game wasn't being shown in New York.
At least the Need for Speed people had a 3DS game to talk about (no DS or PSP versions, by the way). The NHL guy said there won't be a 3DS version of his game. The Battlefield 3 people had no 3DS game either, not to show or discuss. None was announced, they said which, well, EA's biggest game of the fall doesn't seem to be coming to 3DS. Make of that what you will.
The Madden folks said they were making a new PSP Madden for later this summer, but the launch-day Madden that was released last March was it for 3DS American football for the year. They were showing the next NBA Jam running on the Xbox 360. Again, no 3DS version to speak of.
The Sims Medieval guy said his series is spinning off onto the iPhone and iPad. Nada for 3DS.
(Now's as good a spot as anywhere to mention that, generally I believe the "no 3DS version" answers I was getting meant was being made; but video game people do get oddly cagey about what's announced vs. what isn't announced, often favoring promotional reality over reality reality. That's an ember of hope for you, 3DS fans.)
One of the Sims 3 Pets people I found was very proud of the console version of the game, itself a cousin of the PC game (i.e. the one with the franchise's most-demanded feature: horses). He did indeed have a 3DS version to discuss, though I mean "have" in the sense of there being one somewhere in a development studio that he was able to describe to me. In The Sims 3 Pets for 3DS, players will be able to puppeteer the lives of domesticated animals without having to worry, as you do in the console and PC versions, about also steering the lives of Sim people. You'll be able to buy items in the game through Nintendo Play Coins, which are racked up as you walk around with the 3DS; and you can Street Pass gifts with your friends.
This EA event was a lovefest—or a zoo, if you want to go back to the safari thing—of 3DS games compared to other gaming publishers' showcases lately. I went to a THQ event. They had at least a dozen games, not one of them there on the 3DS. I went to a Ubisoft showcase where they had Assassin's Creed, Rayman, some other games, free drinks and no 3DS games. Capcom had the already-released Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D at theirs. Nintendo, of course, had the new Super Mario, the new Mario Kart, the re-made Star Fox and Kid Icarus at theirs, as if the 3DS was gaming's main event. (Majesco will have a batch at theirs, including the new Cooking Mama and Jaws.)
I've been going to these big game publisher showcases in New York several times a year for a half-decade. It's not as if handheld gaming has ever gotten enough respect or support from the game companies to have a big presence at them. But if you're stepping into all of these Holidays-in-the-Summer press events in 2011 expecting to gauge the game publishers' enthusiasm for the 3DS you see about as many signs of it as you do their enthusiasm for broccoli (at least broccoli sometimes shows up in the free food spread!)
Amid the jungle of 3DS disappointment at EA, I did find one 3DS game, a quite stunning 3DS game, in fact. It's a soccer game. FIFA 12 for 3DS, to be specific. Not really my thing, but I am always up for a video game surprise, though, and let's say that FIFA 12 3DS is actually impressive. Can I judge a FIFA game well? No. But there I was looking at this game when the line producer on it told me that it is the biggest portable game EA Sports has ever made. Not their biggest 3DS game, but bigger than any DS, PSP or iOS game. More than 500 players, more than 50 leagues, and more than 50 tournaments.
"This is not some lightweight game," the producer, a guy named Matt Prior, told me. Wait. I hadn't just found a 3DS game but a guy who was boastful about it? He had me try the game's full 11v11 mode and let me admire the player animations and started rattling off details about the game's career mode, training mode, its 50-plus leagues including English Premier League and Major League Soccer (no Women's World Cup, though; no Hope Solo.) He was telling me about the club-owning mode that lets you control the team's finances and the Be a Pro mode too. He changed camera angles for me and let me see a down-the-field view that made the 3D graphics in the 3DS punch deeply through the screen.
I tried some optional touch-screen activated shooting that Prior said let the designers achieve something never possible in the game's console versions—giving the player the feeling of actually trying to place their shot as they had their footballer kick it (player stats will affect if the spot you touch on a lower-screen three-dimensional rendering of the goal is where the ball actually goes). They won't support online gaming, but will support local wireless. Plus they'll do a day-one update of the game for updating roster transfers and kits (translation: trades and uniforms) when the game launches in the fall. Another update will be pushed through, via 3DS Spot Pass, in January.
Just when I was about to tell Prior he was woefully out of sync with the apparent 3DS disinterest around him, he pulled a Wait-There's-More and loaded the game's "street" mode, a 5v5 mode that had its own custom levels and a curvature to the terrain, Animal Crossing-style to further emphasize the system's 3D effects.
I do believe I had found my lion. My 3DS safari was a success.
What's with the lack of 3DS games at all these showcases? I think it's fair to say that the 3DS is not in the position the DS earned. It's not a phenomenon. It's, at best, a contender. Maybe it's similar to how the PlayStation 3 was after the white-hot PlayStation 2. Or maybe it's the DS pre-Nintendogs and Brain Age. All I know for sure is that new 3DS games, impressive ones or not, are hard to find these days. I also know there were many iOS games at that EA event. But as I search, maybe I'll find more FIFAs. I'll keep hunting.
For some equal-opportunity skepticism about the PlayStation Vita, click here.