It’s a very Nintendo-ey time… don’t you agree? In the last year we’ve seen the launch of a new home console, the writhing clamour of customers trying to grab the NES mini or pre-order the SNES mini, the first mobile Mario game, and astronomy carried out with a GameBoy Camera. All this processing neatly through the door after a distinct slump in interest led by the cool commercial reception of the Wii-U (not that it didn’t have its own small devoted following as evidenced by James over on QTX). Given that I’ll soon be indoctrinated, or stamped, or branded, or subject to whatever initiation ceremony those entering the clan of Ninty are subject to with the arrival (hopefully) of my very own Switch in a month or so, it seems right that I look back at the arrival of my last Nintendo handheld console, the original 3DS. It’s also fitting as the great ‘N’ have just announced that production for the small, traditional, 3DS will cease more than likely indicating that they’re winding up for their next handheld iteration… or not if you believe the predictions that the Switch and mobile gaming is aiming to cut that facet from the Nintendo brand.
The 3DS is one of only two consoles that I was lucky enough to get at launch, and even then I didn’t get to play it on launch day; the ancient powers at Amazon (UK) decided that the good people who had paid that little extra for express delivery wouldn’t get their console on launch day whereas those less financially-liberal individuals who had opted for the standard delivery would be allowed access to that brand-new box of tricks with little explanation. When it did arrive a day late, I was nevertheless as enthralled with it as I had hoped. I had originally ordered the 3DS for two main reasons; firstly I had missed the DS hype, but liked the dual-screen idea and was eager to try some of those titles (which would undoubtedly be dropping in price with the arrival of a new, but backwardly compatible, system). Secondly I was captivated by the idea of glasses-less 3D, sure, now the cutely named ‘2DS’ is almost as popular as the original and that new releases havn’t relied on 3D as a selling point for some time, but at release 3D was big news and highlighted once more how Nintendo are risk takers when it comes to innovation.
Upon taking it out of the box, I was neither over, nor underwhelmed with it physically; I guess our familiarity with electronic devices have given us a pretty realistic idea of what to expect from ‘portable electronic device’. It was a tidy, shiny, black, plastic cuboid… maybe a little smaller than I have imagined. There were a few things that instantly struck me as neat; I liked the spring loaded WiFi switch which was satisfying to flick, and the telescopic stylus also jumped out as being well thought through. As a unit it felt solid; the opening click and closing ‘thunk’ assured me that it would likely last being passed around casually. All the buttons had a nice feel, including the sliding thumb stick, although the lack of a second one would lead to problems later in its life. The only physical thing that I didn’t like was the plastic covered ‘Home’, ‘Start’, ‘Select’ bar tucked just below the lower screen; they reminded me of those plastic covered keyboards used by information booths and other devices exposed to the elements before touch screen became ubiquitous. There was something cheap about pressing down on the bar and feeling that it was just pushing a button mounted under a thin sheet of plastic.
Any minor niggles soon disappeared however as switching the system on transported me into the future. There are moments with technology where it feels sci-fi; I felt the same the first time I connected to wireless internet, or when I first saw a HDTV, and even the first time I used location sharing to find a friend in an unfamiliar city. Those gently spinning cubes moving both ‘out of’ and ‘in to’ the plane of the screen gave me that feeling; I knew it was gimmicky and that the fundamental gaming experience wouldn’t suddenly be one hundred times better, but that didn’t make it any less cool. Even now, on the odd occasion that I gently brush the dust off it and fire up a game, I play with that 3D slider set to headache inducing maximum because that’s why I bought the system. The console came pre-loaded with a few fun toys; first up the camera app let you take grainy pictures in 3D and even tweak the level of depth in the image, most of these early images survive on my 3DS and are of me, my family, and friends all lunging towards the camera in some way or another to best appreciate the effect. The camera was a neat toy, but unlikely to win any awards for quality; more fun was when it was combined with that mysterious ‘question mark’ card and AR game. The Augmented Reality games were a simple but fun way to show off the merging of digital and virtual worlds and (in the way that so much new technology does) make people look silly as they jump and circle a card on a table holding a 3DS and giggling. Similarly the character cards will have spawned thousands of almost identical photos of people sat holding a tiny Mario in the palm of their hand, or balanced on top of their dog/cat/ferret.
For a taste of something closer to a traditional console experience the NES classic ‘Excitebike’ was included in 3D form, a title that was undoubtedly not selected by accident. The already quasi-3D visuals made for an excellent demonstration of the 3D effect on that small screen with distinct foreground, mid, and background elements, clean pixilated graphics, and distinctive colours. There was one problem however, I was terrible at ‘Excitebike’, so I quickly un-wrapped the two launch titles that I had picked up and gave them a shot. I had opted for the 3DS port of ‘Street Fighter IV’ and ‘Pilotwings Resort’ as being the best titles in the limited launch line-up.
Despite having some doubts about it going in, I was pleasantly surprised by ‘Pilotwings Resort’, it was simple but engaging, and made a great launch title to showcase the system. The Mii embodied player was thrust into the pilot seat of a variety of flying contraptions to ‘Chocks Away!’ and ‘Take to the Skies’ around that, creepy smiling utopia, Wuhu island (the setting for ‘Wii Sports Resort’ and ‘Wii Fit’ titles). Once airborne they had to complete a plethora of aerial challenges, being awarded medals for performance and consequently unlocking new levels. It played up the 3D-ness heavily with the neat aircraft models prominently popping out of the screen and the island terrain providing the detail to the depth. Challenges revolved around flying through ‘things’ and landing on ‘things’ which were unsurprisingly activities made easier via the use of 3D. I really must have thrown myself into it as I picked up every medal in the game and every unlock.
Street Fighter IV was a simpler affair to judge as I already owned the game on PC and the 3DS version was in all important ways a straight port which showcased the power of the system, particularly in 2D mode where the higher framerate and resolution made it sparkle. One of the weirder comments that a friend of mine made upon handing the 3DS back to me after giving it a go was “It’s like they’re tiny people fighting”, which is something that stuck with me. It really WAS like tiny people fighting; seeing the characters in 3D gave them a sense of real world scale, most of the ‘3D’ was provided by depth, so it was as though you were controlling teeny-tiny Ryu in a diorama-like box in your hands… and once that thought had been suggested it was very difficult to see it differently. The other addition to the SFIV experience was the hyped ‘street-pass’ which (without confusing it with my previous statements) pitted collectable mini-figures against strangers as they strolled past. Unfortunately I rarely inhabit crowded public spaces, and given that so few people had one of these systems it was a long time before I picked up any street pass activity. I did take the system to EGX that year and made absolutely sure that I had a full battery to pick up as many street passes as possible whilst shuffling around Earl’s Court.
Picking up a new console is a fun experience and, even if you are aware that something is ‘overhyped’, there’s a joy to be had in just going with ‘it’, raving about it to friends and delving into the details. Nintendo seem to be masters of putting on a good show for early adopters and despite it not being at launch, I’m looking forward to getting hold of the Switch to see what it can do and how that Ninty magic has been applied.
Did you have a 3DS at launch? Any good memories?