Nintendo 3DS: the exit interview
A success, but not in the way Nintendo imagined
Welcome back to Multicore for Tuesday, March 28th.
Nintendo shut down its digital storefronts for the 3DS and Wii U this week. Neither system has been manufactured for years; the Switch's success has been so emphatic that it effectively replaced both of them. But now that the company literally won’t take your money on these platforms any more, I thought it'd be a good time to look back on this era of Nintendo hardware design and reflect on the choices that were made — for better and worse.
We'll loop back to the Wii U on Thursday, but for now let's focus on the 3DS, a device that went through a rocky history but ultimately proved to be a qualified success — even though its headline feature had little to do with it in the end.
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The 3DS was announced in March 2010 by way of an extremely perfunctory press release that looked like it was optimised for maximum fax machine efficiency. It described a mysterious machine "on which games can be enjoyed with 3D effects without the need for any special glasses", but that was about it for details; Nintendo said a full reveal would have to wait until the E3 trade show in June. All anyone presumed was that this new console was going to revolve around a new kind of screen.
Glasses-less 3D screen technology was not common in early 2010. Sharp released a 3D laptop called the Actius RD3D in 2004 that PC World later listed as the 25th worst tech product of all time. 2009 saw the launch of Fujifilm's Real 3D W1 point-and-shoot camera, which had two lenses to capture 3D images and let you view the photos on the rear LCD or through a compatible digital photo frame, but it was little more than a curio.
Although the 3DS was in development for several years, and Nintendo had experimented with the technology before, the new system was riding a wave of interest in 3D. The first Avatar movie came out in 2009 and was the catalyst for 3D projection to become a standard option in movie theatres. TV companies were pushing glasses-enabled 3D as an essential at-home feature, and Sony was playing up the PlayStation 3's 3D compatibility. Meanwhile, Sharp was building on its earlier laptop work to commercialise smaller 3D LCDs for phone-sized devices.
Nintendo settled on Sharp's technology, which made use of an adjustable parallax barrier to direct offset pixels into each eye. The 3DS's display resolution is nominally 400x240, but the actual panel is 800x240; the parallax barrier splits the horizontal resolution in half so that each eye sees a slightly different 400x240 picture, creating the illusion of 3D depth. Through the use of a slider on the side of the display, the 3D "volume" could be increased depending on the user's preference, since stronger 3D depth can be disorientating in more visually intense software.
Once the 3DS was released in early 2011, it was clear that the 3D technology really worked. This wasn't an obscure gimmick — every 3DS game supported it, and the effect generally looked great. If anything, it was better than 3D movies at the cinema, because you weren't wearing glasses and there was no reduction in brightness. You had to make sure you were looking straight on at the screen, sure, but that was a manageable constraint for a handheld gaming device in a way that it wasn't for a TV or a laptop. Even though the screen was small and low resolution, it was easy to imagine the tech improving and spreading beyond the 3DS.
As such, I think Nintendo's idea to focus on 3D was justifiable at the time. It made more sense for a handheld device that came with its own screen, and even without 3D the system offered a legitimate generational upgrade over its predecessor, the gigantically successful DS.
You may have noticed, though, that we are not living in a world of 3D screens today. Nintendo’s 3D bet didn’t pay off, and with the Wii U floundering, the company had to scramble to push the 3DS back into relevance in the years before it was able to move onto the Switch.
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