GDC 11 – 3DS Hands-on

The Nintendo booth was packed with people throughout GDC, all of them eager to try the Japanese company’s revolutionary handheld, the 3DS. About the size of two packs of cards laid side-by-side, the 3DS packs four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, a D-pad, and an interesting little joystick that seems to slide about the surface of the device like a hockey puck on ice. The distinctive upper and lower screens of the regular DS have returned, along with the stylus.

On the back of the device, in keeping with my report from the Nintendo keynote, are two camera lenses, whose powers will combine in order to take 3D-ready images, both still and video. Quite how this works is beyond my technical acumen, but work it did, much to the delight of the people demoing the hardware.

The big question on everyone’s minds is, of course, the 3D graphics. Easily turned off and on by a sliding switch on the upper part of the device, the glasses-free 3D is a technological marvel that approaches the uncanny, delivering on practically every promise made by Nintendo. You’ll have to hold the screen fairly steady, at a relatively short distance from your face, to take advantage of it, but as long as you can fulfill these conditions, the results are truly striking.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

I managed to work my way to the front of the line for two games, the first of which was Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D. Porting one of the greatest games of all time was a no-brainer for Nintendo, and I’m happy to report that the game is still transcendent. The graphics, first of all, are razor sharp, a testament to Moore’s law, which correctly predicts the inexorable and rapid increase in computing power. What was state of the art on a console the size of a textbook in 1998 can now be significantly improved upon by a device the size of the 3DS.

Selecting one of the three available levels, I did battle with sword and slingshot against a series of giant spiders. The slingshot can be aimed by tilting the DS, in addition to regular thumbstick aiming. Quest and item management, along with the map, are all confined to the device’s bottom screen — an elegant division that must have made the UI designers lives much easier.

Dead or Alive: Dimensions

Second on the docket was Dead of Alive: Dimensions. Though perhaps better known for its forays into breasts and beach volleyball, Dead or Alive is still a solid fighting game at its core, and the graphics got the most out of the 3DS’ hardware. Since fighting games are all about foreground (the fighters) and background (the background) anyway, Dimensions was the perfect vessel to showcase the device’s 3D technology.

The fighters were crisp and responsive, and they each had distinctive strengths, weaknesses, and styles. The ability to consult the lower screen to find special moves and combos was a welcome addition, especially for a new player like myself. The wireless connectivity included with the 3DS is sure to provide opportunities for a lot of breathless battling in the ring, either between friends or strangers.

Final Thoughts

Nintendo didn’t get where they are by backing the wrong horse, and the 3DS is packed with the kind of features that are likely to make it a winner. Most of the pre-launch kvetching concerns its relatively weak lineup of games, but this seems a little unfair considering the presence of a Zelda classic,  and Kid Icarus reboot (which I didn’t get to play, unfortunately — they shut down the whole conference just as I was about to get my grubby hands on it), along with recognizable names like Street Fighter, Resident Evil, and Dead or Alive. None of those are Tetris, to be fair, but if the 3DS turns into as big a hit as the original Game Boy was, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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