In case you missed it, sunday our long journey to the US release of the Nintendo 3DS finally come to an end. The system has launched, the games are out, the reviews are in, and predictably the lines are long. Nintendo has had a pretty successful launch by all accounts. No major problems, the system is working, a spatter of 16 launch titles of varying quality. So why am I not excited? Why don’t I really care? It’s been such a long odyssey waiting for the damn system and I’ve posted at least 5 articles on the freaking thing, so why has my enthusiasm diminished? I’ve been thinking long and hard about it and I think I’ve figured it out now.
Throughout reading reviews from a vast array of sites ranging from tech sites like ArsTechnica and Gizmodo, gaming sites like IGN and Joystiq, and even mainstream sources like The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, one thing has become quite clear: the 3D works….. sometimes. The parallax barrier is designed as such that it does work as advertised, but some games don’t use the feature well at all and while the depth slider can allow for good adjustment on the fly, moving even a little bit messes up the illusion, causing headaches. You CANT have the one feature that makes or breaks your device work sometimes. It needs to be reliable or don’t have it at all.
You know, it’s strange because we often think about Nintendo as the company that moves slowly with technology, when that’s really not the case. Nintendo was the first to usher in analog control, motion control, touch controls, and now stereoscopic 3D graphics. Nintendo is a great company for innovating with new and interesting technology to enhance the way we play games. That is most certainly and undeniably true: Nintendo has been one of the greatest innovating forces ever in the history of video games. But they still miss the mark. Because with every innovation the company makes, they completely miss what the rest of the market introduces and makes essential to gaming. When Nintendo goes to analog control, Sony starts using CDs. When Nintendo starts using touch controls, Apple revolutionizes how we access our content. Nintendo introduces motion controls but completely misses the boat on HD graphics and the next generation of online infrastructures. And now with the 3DS, Nintendo has brought 3D gaming but seems to have forgotten about the 5 years of software development in the mobile space.
For every great, generation-defining innovation makes, Nintendo forgets about meeting consumers with the features considered common place. Friend codes is a great example. Nintendo has thrown players a bone with finally giving you a single code for your machine, used across games. That and assigning a Mii as your avatar is about it. There’s no way to look up friends, no interactive plaza for finding friends, no way to look up players by name. Linking to friends still requires you to get their friend code from them through other channels than Nintendo’s own system. Why does Nintendo, as ArsTechnica put it, fear a social planet? Why do they constantly provide a framework but fail to flesh it out? In a world where mobile devices are capable of innumerable operations for our daily lives, why does Nintendo offer a pedometer and….uh…. Bueller?
The same goes for hardware. Some choices from Nintendo seem frustratingly short-sighted. In a post-iPhone world where multi-touch is ubiquitous, why is the 3DS touch screen still stylus-based, resistive affair? Why are the cameras so god awful and the software nothing more than a quick diversion that will attract a toddler for an afternoon? Why is the battery life so atrocious?
I think the problem is that Nintendo continues to try to out innovate themselves and now it has approached gimmick levels. The 3DS has only proved that 3D gaming is possible, not that its necessary or inherently better. The quality of a game should be in its design, narrative, content, and gameplay. Not how it is presented or the type of input used. Adam Sessler’s most recent “Sessler Soapbox” weighed the same issue because he too has had a serious loss of enthusiasm towards the 3DS. In his belief – which I agree with – Nintendo has made the game industry think that it needs to change the way we play, but not what we play. Move and Kinect and the Wiimote are just replacements for existing systems, but these controller types have at best proven marginally more immersive than a gamepad or at worst vastly underused and poorly executed. We can’t have such a wild range of quality in the most basic way we interact with our games (the same is true for the 3DS display). Why do we feel the need to change how we play when we continue to watch movies and read books the way we have for the past century?
Nintendo wants you to believe that they are placing the games before the technology, but that’s just not the case. They still care about the hardware before the game, just not the processing silicon. Nintendo is willing to recycle old games as long as you control it (or view it) differently. Pilot Wings Resort is a barebones, phony flight simulator with nothing particularly exciting happening. Ocarina of Time will be a remake of a great game, but that’s really it. These games don’t feel even remotely as inspired in their design as Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect or Minecraft. These games push the medium forward in a variety of aspects, and they do it just fine with existing inputs and display technologies.
So the 3DS might be a good gaming machine and great games will most certainly arrive on the system. But the 3DS sets a bad precedent of leveraging gimmicks before truly inspired game design and incomplete experiences. Here’s hoping the 3DS Lite brings major software improvements and better battery life to boot.