Over the weekend I was invited to a Nintendo event showcasing their forthcoming 3DS handheld console. They were taking a small group approach to the demo space they rented near Brick Lane. We were first ushered through two rooms with short live-action presentations to warm us up. The first of these was an impressively detailed Street Fighter stage with a choreographed Ryu versus Ken fight. My inner child could barely contain his glee. The second was distinctly less successful and frankly somewhat unnecessary: a darkened Resident Evil themed room, half lit with actors “protecting” the group from attacking zombies. Unlike the preceding room, audience participation doesn’t work quite so well in what might have been cheesy fun merely to watch.

We then proceeded to the demo rooms with dozens of 3DS stands featuring a range of games. First the hardware itself: this is undoubtedly the best build quality for a Nintendo handheld thus far, feeling solid and robust with a larger 3.5″ 3D screen at the top and the now-familiar 3″ touch-sensitive screen below. The top screen is of the glasses-free autostereoscopic variety and, while the viewing angle is narrow, playing alone one can remain within it comfortably. Interestingly the adjustable 3D effect is not simply on/off, but rather features a slider much like a volume control which adjusts the depth of the effect. Naturally their demo sets were mostly set to the maximum, but I found a middle setting much more comfortable and it’s likely where most people will learn to default. The analogue “circle pad” is a welcome addition (though just the one, like the original PSP, while the PSP2 has upgraded to two analogue controls). I found the placement of the flat Start and Select buttons below the lower screen made them a little fiddly to use. Finally there are no less than three cameras, one front-facing and two rear-facing which can even be used to take 3D photographs, though I did not get a chance to see the results.

So is 3D the proverbial — and literal — game changer? It is undoubtedly a gimmick but, for the most part, one that works. Unsurprisingly, no photography of game footage was allowed, since the 3D effect would be lost. Racing and flying games naturally benefit from the additional dimension as you hurtle off into the screen. Street Fighter looked particularly impressive with its background pulled away and the action in the foreground. It also neatly utilised the touch screen for easy execution of special moves, making the hardcore fighter more approachable to a casual audience. Resident Evil  is undoubtedly part of the launch push because of the franchise’s status, but I don’t think it forms a great showcase for the new hardware. With enemies’ up close the graphics consistently look pixelated (the 800×240 resolution is really only 400×240 per eye) at which point the 3D does little to improve immersion.

Interestingly the one game that took the technology beyond a gimmick into truly fresh territory was the augmented reality offering. Placing a card on a surface, the 3DS’ twin cameras can identify it with depth perception, and create a virtual gaming space wherever you like. Looking through the 3DS screen you can then move around in three dimensions and interact with it. In this case it meant moving around to aim at targets and ultimated defeating a dragon which required maneuvering behind it to hit certain spots. Hopefully we will see more of this originality from developers once they become accustomed to the hardware.

The demos we experienced were all too short to give a good indication as to whether prolonged use would cause eye strain. Certainly I think setting the 3D slider to a middling level will be more comfortable but I would not be surprised if eyes do become fatigued faster. When leaving, I also noticed reps having to turn away a couple who had brought with them a young child, since Nintendo is clearly very aware of the ongoing debate as to the potentially detrimental effect of 3D on young eyes. Marketing a console where the key new feature is not to be used by children will be a difficult line. Similarly the StreetPass system, allowing data automatically to be transferred between consoles in proximity, even while asleep, is an interesting touch that requires careful marketing. Although I think the minimal data held by the console ought to leave little to fear, with privacy concerns on the rise the words “send data without you even knowing” from one rep were alarmingly ill-chosen.

Overall I came away with a decidedly positive impression. A more powerful hardware refresh means better games even in 2D, as evidenced by a Resident Evil game, while the 3D varies between gimmick and — at its best — some genuinely original innovation. Marketed well, there’s no reason the 3DS shouldn’t follow its predecessor’s monumental success. Whether the 3D remains, or we all switch it off within a few months, remains to be seen.