Widgets Magazine

Mind Games: Worth the wait

Courtesy of Nintendo

If you’ve been pounding goombas and grinding experience points for as long as I have, you’ll remember a time when new hardware was an almost annual occurrence. The market was explosive, and we had machine after machine sitting under our Christmas trees each year — the Saturn and PlayStation in ’95, Nintendo 64 in ’96, Gameboy Color in ’97 and Dreamcast in ’99, to name a few.

Things are different now. With HD displays and a casual market that boosts long-term sales and console updates from the Internet, the Big Three — Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, for the uninitiated — are free to sit on their golden geese. Even five or six years after releasing their most recent hardware, the gaming trinity has yet to announce another proper, big-screen console.

But regardless, we’re about to get something new. It’s not big in a literal sense, but it’s already a huge hit.

A week ago today, Nintendo launched its newest handheld, the 3DS, in Japan. The initial shipment of 400,000 units sold out immediately, and CEO Satoru Iwata expects to ship 1.5 million in the region by the end of March. Stateside, the 3DS is raking in cash even three weeks ahead of its March 27 release — the Cosmo Black and Aqua Blue SKUs ranked second and seventh on retail-giant Gamestop’s top-10 sales list last week. All that comes despite a hefty price tag of $250, the most expensive that handheld-king Nintendo has ever put on a portable.

I’ll admit that the prolonged hardware hiatus has me a little starved for something new, but either way, I’m dying to get my paws on the Big N’s new gadget.

For those of you who don’t know, Nintendo thought it might be smart to follow up the best-selling game hardware of all time — the original DS just hit 145 million — and they threw in the kitchen sink.

Let’s start with the big draw: glasses-free 3D. That’s right, stereoscopic depth with no Star Trek shades. I won’t get into the tech behind it here, but you should check it out. (By the way, don’t be surprised to see glasses-free 3D on big-screen TVs in a few years.)

It’s not just a gimmick, either, if dozens of journalists and 400,000 Japanese fans are to be believed. Nintendo has been toying with 3D tech for a long time, from the Virtual Boy to an unreleased Gamecube add-on, and in 2011, the time is definitely right for a new kind of 3D. You need to see it to believe it, but I guarantee that any kid who plays a 3DS in the mall will be begging for one until it’s his or hers.

Developers will need a little more time to warm up to 3D and learn how to integrate it into new kinds of gameplay — to learn whether 3D is a spice or a meat, as it were. We’ve seen this before, though, with analog, touch and motion controls. Nintendo is keenly aware of this, and wisely included a built-in slider to adjust the strength of the 3D effect.

Beyond that, the 3DS is — or at least has the chance to be — a love letter to the hardcore fans, a demographic that Nintendo has put on the back burner while casual gamers are content to waggle their Wii-motes. We’re talking full analog control, gyroscopes, a touch screen, a microphone, a pedometer, augmented reality games, internet browsing, front- and rear-facing cameras that can read faces and take 3D photos and a processor that can render graphics on par with early 360 games, if you scale for resolution. More importantly, though, the device has overwhelming third-party support and gives Nintendo the chance to reintroduce classics like Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Star Fox 64 in brilliant 3D.

It’s also an opportunity to correct some mistakes of Nintendo’s yesteryear, like a frustrating, code-based online service and terrible support for downloadables. We’ll have to wait until the service launches in May to judge, but early indications are positive.

It’s hard not to let myself get giddy whenever there’s new hardware on the horizon, yet I’ve been let down enough times (I’m looking at you, Wii) to know that I shouldn’t take anything for granted. But with the 3DS, my heart and mind are <I>this<P> close to agreeing. Nintendo has lightning in a bottle — I just hope they’re careful opening it.