Nintendo Breaks New Ground

Story and photos by David Ko

Nintendo has set up booths in Grand Central Terminal and around the country to promote its new 3DS handheld system.
Nintendo has set up booths in Grand Central Terminal and around the country to promote its new 3DS handheld system.

Is the public ready for a 3D, handheld video gaming system?

Nintendo thinks so, with its March 27 release of the 3DS, which offers three-dimensional gaming without the need for special glasses.

Similar in form to the DS, released in 2004, the 3DS boasts a few new features. The most dramatic is how it achieves the 3D effect – using something called a “parallax barrier,” which displays two images to each eye. The effect can be controlled by a “depth slider” that heightens the intensity of the 3D, or turns it off.

Two cameras built in the shell of the system allow the user to take low-resolution 3D photographs. Other features include a pedometer, which allows players to earn “coins,” an MP3 player, WiFi connectivity to the Internet and an infrared port for easier communication between systems. Multimedia features are also built in to the 3DS, and Nintendo has announced partnerships with Netflix, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks and other companies to bring 3D movies streaming to the system.

Will 3D gaming be well received by the general public? The hardware itself brings a few hurdles.

The first is eye strain. Nintendo recommends that players use the 3D effect no more than 30 minutes at a time, taking a 20-minute break to rest the eyes. Children under age 7 may be particularly at risk, some experts warn, though no concrete evidence has been offered on this issue.

The battery life of the 3DS is another hurdle to overcome, as it can last three to five hours on a single charge, similar to current cell phones. Nintendo provides the use of a charge cradle, though it currently has no plans on releasing a longer-lasting battery.

The 3DS is priced $250 at launch, similar to what the Sony PlayStation Portable cost when it was launched in 2005.

Sony, one of Nintendo’s major competitors in the video game industry, has recently announced the successors to its popular line of PlayStation Portable consoles, the Next Generation Portable (NGP) and the Xperia Play.

The NGP boasts two touch surfaces, compared with the 3DS’s one, and graphics similar to the PlayStation 3 video game console. The Xperia Play, touted as a smartphone device, runs Google’s Android operating system, and the ability to play PlayStation games. Prices have not yet been announced, although the NGP is expected to sell for about $300.

Gamers seem enthusiastic but are skeptical about its $250 price.
Gamers seem enthusiastic but are skeptical about its $250 price.

Unlike the 3DS, the Sony systems will be able to connect through the Internet through 3G, a feature increasingly common with devices like the Kindle and the iPhone.

Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft compete with each other in the home video game market. Nearly five years ago, Nintendo released the Wii, in which players used a motion controller to play games. In 2010, Sony released its PlayStation Move controller and Microsoft offered the Kinect for the Xbox 360.

With handheld gaming devices, Nintendo was virtually unmatched after to the success of the DS.

At first, the DS was regarded as a child’s toy. But with the release of “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!,” based on a book by a Tohoku University neurologist, Ryuta Kawa-shima, that the system’s popularity began to take hold. The DS was no longer seen as a mere plaything.

Eventually, smartphones stole some of Nintendo’s thunder, allowing consumers to buy software easily with the flick of the wrist. .

And at first, the company dismissed the notion of such competition.

Speaking with, Cammie Dunaway, then the executive vice president of sales and marketing at Nintendo of America, said, “It is interesting that for all of the talk of competition from Apple last year, here in the U.S. we had our best year ever, selling 11.2 million units,” referring to 2009 sales of the DS.

By October 2010, Nintendo had changed its tune, acknowledging that it was competing for consumers’ time and money against all sorts of content providers.

“I compete with Zynga, I compete with surfing the net, I compete with the newspaper,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, the president of Nintendo of America in an interview with Forbes.

The “Angry Birds” game, for example, has been downloaded more than 100 million times, according to business site Mobile Entertainment. The game costs 99 cents, and it has helped Rovio Mobile raise $42 million in capital from investors. Zynga has earned about $850 million from micro-transaction sales resulting from its Facebook games, including “FarmVille” and “Mafia Wars.”

Despite these numbers, Fils-Aime is not worried about inexpensive games.

“Full-fledged” games, he told GameTrailers TV, offer deeper experiences, contrasted with those “disposable from a consumer standpoint.”

Nintendo has a few tricks up its sleeves to encourage widespread use of the 3DS.

“Street Pass” is the 3DS’s answer to social gaming applications like FourSquare, where players share data with each other. Users place the 3DS into sleep mode by leaving the system on and closing the lid, then can walk around town, while their device shares data with other systems, especially saved game data.

Even though these features may encourage users to socialize with other gamers on the street, Nintendo will have to change how it sells and markets its games to appeal to the average consumer.

Nintendo plans on selling its bigger games in cartridge form, as it has done for its handhelds since the Game Boy in 1989. For smaller games, the company plans a new approach. When the Wii came out, Nintendo offered an online store that required players to purchase “point cards,” ($20 for 2000 points) that could be used for downloadable games. However, the cost was relatively high; games ranged from 500 to 1,500 points.

This approach will be made available for the 3DS, but few details are known. Koji Kondo, the head of the 3DS project at Nintendo of Japan, told Gamasutra, the online version of Game Developer magazine, that Nintendo is “really taking the right amount of time to make sure that it’s right.”

This cautious approach may be a response to criticism Nintendo faced about software for the Wii and the DS. Many gamers complained about the amount of “shovelware,” or inferior games, that the company allowed third-party publishers to make available, as well as about the lack of a variety in its online store.

In news conferences in January, Nintendo promised to try to maintain high standards in the games for the 3DS, though did not indicate how it would be done.

While the 3DS has just come out, player feedback has, so far, been overwhelmingly positive.

At Vanderbilt Hall, inside Grand Central Terminal, Nintendo has hosted an event allowing passersby the chance to play with the new system. Six systems were set up to play games “Nintendogs + Cats,” the submarine game “Steel Diver” “Augmented Reality” and other games.

“I liked the fact that it was 3D without the glasses,” said Kendra Hammond, a 24-year-old management consultant. She played
“Ridge Racer,” an automobile driving simulator, and was impressed with the graphics. But she said she didn’t think the 3DS was worth $250.

Her friend Carolyn Fanning, a 28-year-old business development consultant, agreed. “The graphics were cool,” she said, “but I will stick with my iPhone.”

Michael Monger, a 20-year-old student, said the 3DS “works pretty well, especially in “Street Fighter.” A lifelong gamer, he wasn’t too concerned about the threats to the handheld, especially from the iPhone or the NGP.

“Competition’s always good,” he said. “Besides, the 3DS caters to different markets and different kinds of gamers.”