New hardware and software expose how nonessential the "3D" in "3DS" has proven.
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Andrew Cunningham - Oct 4, 2013 4:05 pm UTC
The modern Nintendo relies overwhelmingly on two things: the strength of its first-party software (and the nostalgia its franchises continue to inspire), and the ability to offer hardware that isn"t quite like anything else on the market.
The latter was important to the success of both the Nintendo DS and the original Wii. The DS foresaw the gaming potential of a touchscreen years before modern smartphones and tablets appeared on the scene, and the console used its then-unique motion controls to stand out next to its more powerful, traditional competitors.
The 3DS and the Wii U were clear efforts to recreate the "something different" that helped those earlier consoles succeed. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime called the 3DS and its stereoscopic, glasses-free 3D a look "far into the future of gaming" when he announced the handheld at E3 in 2010, a clear bet that 3D would become as familiar and widely implemented in gaming as touch has become.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Nintendo had begun to distance itself from its earlier three-dimensional enthusiasm. "I think when we launched the 3DS there was a kind of 3D boom, which is perhaps slightly on the wane again," said Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. The feature is cool to play with in the days and weeks after you get your first 3DS, but "just
Nintendo has only continued tiptoeing away from stereoscopic 3D in the year-plus since that interview. As the 2013 holiday season approaches, the "3D" in "3DS" has never been less important to Nintendo"s portable strategy.
The 2DS: marginalizing a marquee feature
The 2DS is the most obvious smoking gun here, so let"s start with that. The 2DS is the newest member of the 3DS family, but it isn’t actually 3D at all—it has the same internals and controls as both the 3DS and the 3DS XL and sports full compatibility with the 3DS and DS software library, but both its screens are strictly 2D-only.
That such a console is even viable speaks volumes about how integral the stereoscopic 3D feature is (or isn"t), even in games that implement it well. A version of the original Nintendo DS that just included one screen, or one that included two non-touch screens, simply wouldn"t have been possible. Such a monstrosity would have broken compatibility with every game on the platform, and many of the DS" most memorable games (from early efforts like Kirby Canvas Curse to the prolific Professor Layton series and late bloomers like Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective) needed touch and a second screen to work as well as they did. Remove the touchscreen, and the DS essentially becomes a portable Nintendo 64, something that wouldn"t have sounded appealing even in 2004.Advertisemenns
The 3DS" signature feature is far easier to live without. Even games like Super Mario 3D Land or Pushmo that use stereoscopic 3D to good effect can be played in their entirety with the feature turned off (excepting some difficulties in a few bonus rooms in 3D Land). The vast majority of games use the feature to provide some added depth or texture rather than anything that"s essential from a gameplay perspective. The 2DS is an effort to lower the barrier to entry for price-conscious gamers looking to hop into the 3DS pool, but it"s also an admission that the once-lauded stereoscopic 3D just hasn"t caught on.
Pokémon X and Y: Better in 2D (when there’s even an option)
Just as telling as the 2DS is Nintendo"s attitude toward 3D in Pokémon X and Pokémon Y, two titles that are practically guaranteed to be Nintendo"s biggest-selling games of the season. Nintendo"s first- and second-party titles are almost always used as technology showcases for Nintendo"s hardware, something especially true of games like Super Mario 3D Land. It"s true that Nintendo and Game Freak have rarely used the Pokémon titles as graphical showcases (what Pokémon really emphasizes are the systems" communication features, even going so far as to embed IR blasters in the game cards for outings like Black 2 and White 2), but the use of stereoscopic 3D in X and Y is so sparing that it might as well not exist.
For starters, the 3D effect isn"t always available. If you have the slider on, you"ll notice stereoscopic 3D during cutscenes, battles, and in certain buildings or caves (despite the paucity of paved roads, the Pokémon universe continues to be simply lousy with caves). On the overworld map and in many other buildings, areas where you spend quite a bit of time, the 3D effect is simply absent. The scene looks the same whether you have the slider on or not. While I"m sure this isn"t the only 3DS game where that happens, it"s certainly the first I"ve played.
More troubling is that in the scenes where stereoscopic 3D is enabled, the game does not appear to have been optimized very well. This is the most noticeable in battles; X and Y are, surprisingly enough, the first of the main Pokémon titles to present fully 3D battlefields and Pokémon models, ditching the 2D backgrounds and sprites that the games have used since Pokémon Red and Green were released in Japan back in 1996.Advertisemenns
Most of the time the models, battle scenes, and fight animations look pretty good—the cel-shaded art style is reminiscent of recent Dragon Quest games (or other Level-5 RPGs like Ni No Kuni), which is totally fine by me. Watching the monsters move in 3D gives them more character than the sometimes-janky animated sprites in the Black and White-generation games. Depending on where the camera is and how complex the Pokémon on the field are, the framerate can sometimes dip below 30 FPS in 2D mode, but it happens pretty rarely.
You can finally carry three-dimensional Pokémon around with you—just keep that 3D slider set to "off."
This is not the case in 3D mode. Turn the slider on mid-battle and the framerate immediately plunges well below 30 FPS and stays there. Animations as simple as an HP bar draining stutter. I"ve seen the 3D effect impact performance before, but turning it on in Pokémon X and Y is painful. I usually keep the slider off most of the time, but in this case leaving it on actually makes the game look and feel worse, something that may encourage even stereoscopic 3D enthusiasts to keep the feature off.
None of this is to say that future Nintendo titles won"t do unique or interesting things with the 3D effect or that the feature will quietly vanish when the 3DS gets a true next-generation successor. It"s not to say that stereoscopic 3D was a bad idea or that the 3DS has been a failure for Nintendo. That the 3D feature has become so very optional tells you quite a bit about the problems the company is having right now, though.
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Nintendo succeeded in the DS and Wii generation in part because it made bold, risky bets on hardware features that really connected with people, features that ended up defining those consoles and their game libraries. In the 3DS and Wii U generations, the hardware made similarly bold bets that have failed to spark the same interest from consumers and game developers alike.
Andrew Cunningham Andrew is a Senior Technology Reporter at Ars Technica with over a decade of experience in consumer tech, covering everything from PCs to Macs to smartphones to game consoles. His work has appeared in the New York Times" Wirecutter and AnandTech. He also records a weekly book podcast called Overdue. Email andrew.cunningham