Katherine Boehret

Nintendo’s 3DS Brings Dizzying Fun On the Go

The first videogame that promises 3-D without the goofy glasses is about to hit stores, but in my tests, it made me a little dizzy.

On March 27, Nintendo is introducing the 3DS. This apparent breakthrough turned negative for some when Nintendo added a warning to the device that said viewing 3-D images by children age 6 and under may cause vision damage.

Unaffected by age restrictions, I’ve been using the 3DS for the past week, and it’s a lot of fun—though its chunky design looks like the company is taking a step back rather than forward. Its 3-D screen works as advertised without 3-D glasses, though its effects can’t be seen from side angles, so friends trying to peek at the screen won’t see much. It made me a bit dizzy after a while, so I adjusted a 3-D Depth Slider to make the screen images appear less three-dimensional. This slider, or a setting in parental controls, can turn off the 3-D.

The videogame industry has a lot riding on Nintendo’s launch. Sales of new videogame consoles in 2010 fell 13% to $6.29 billion from $7.19 billion a year earlier, according to market-research firm NPD Group. Sales have begun edging up in the past few months following the launch in November of Microsoft Corp.’s Kinect motion-controller for its Xbox 360 console.

The industry is facing competition from sleeker, lighter smartphones which offer good quality, downloadable games free or for a few dollars, much less than the average $40 price for each Nintendo 3DS game. While Nintendo has created products with 3-D capabilities since the mid-1980s, none have caught on. Nintendo 3DS is the result of improvements in screen technology and lower prices for these screens. The company, which is based in Kyoto, Japan, saw no apparent damage to its headquarters after the recent earthquake, a spokesman says. Business operations, including future product shipments, haven’t been affected, he adds.

Nintendo’s competitors aren’t jumping on the portable 3-D bandwagon quite yet. Apple has no intention of introducing a 3-D, portable display anytime soon, say people familiar with the situation. When Sony announced plans for its Next Generation Portable gaming device in January, the company confirmed this device wouldn’t have 3-D. A spokesman says Sony considered including 3-D during the development process for this device, but decided to focus on other features. A Microsoft spokesman says as consumer demand evolves for 3-D, the company is committed to evolving its technology. Both Sony and Microsoft offer 3-D games and movies in the living room via their PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles.

On March 27, 18 game titles will launch including Nintendogs + cats from Nintendo, and Madden NFL Football and Sims 3 from EA Sports. Almost all Nintendo DS games and DSiWare games will be playable in 2-D on the Nintendo 3DS.

Games that come loaded on the 3DS include Face Raiders and Nintendo 3DS Sound, which plays MP3 or AAC files and mixes your voice using funny sound effects. A Mii Maker program lets people make a Mii (personalized game character) with photos they take with the device. I created a particularly funny looking Mii with features that mirrored some of mine. But these Miis can’t be exported back to the Wii gaming console, where Miis first became popular.

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Nintendo’s 3DS has cameras that capture 3-D photos for use in games.

Another cool game called AR Games lets users look through the 3DS cameras at six augmented-reality cards that come with the device. The cards make images more animated and three-dimensional. I found the effect so realistic, I reached out with my hand to make sure the imposed images, like a card with mini bull’s-eyes, weren’t actually on the table in front of me.

The 3DS has a few new features besides 3-D. A new circle pad works like a super flexible joystick for smoother navigation. Two outward-facing, stereo cameras take 3-D photos of friends or things, which can then be used in games. This made the games more personal and fun.

I used the 3-D photos I took in games like Face Raiders, which makes use of its motion and gyro sensors. The 3DS has an Internet browser, which wasn’t available on the device I tested. A Nintendo spokesman says it won’t work on devices until May. Also in May, Nintendo will start offering downloadable games for the 3DS.

Programs called SpotPass and StreetPass allow the 3DS to wirelessly receive or send data on the go even when the device is in sleep mode. SpotPass detects wireless hot spots so the 3DS can download free software, videos or game data. In late May, SpotPass will let users access AT&T’s Wi-Fi hot spots, free of charge. StreetPass lets one 3DS wirelessly exchange data with others within range (roughly 100 feet). A light on the 3DS indicates when the device has received new notifications.

The 3DS can perform other functions in sleep mode, like counting steps for a built-in pedometer. I carried the 3DS in my bag on several occasions throughout a conference and noticed a tiny icon of feet at the top of the screen with a number of steps beside it.

But the addition of 3-D technology to this device meant compromises on some key features. At eight ounces and 0.8-inch thick, the 3DS is slightly heavier and thicker than its comparable predecessor, the Nintendo DSi, which came out in 2009. (Apple’s iPod touch weighs less than half as much and is 0.28-inch thick.)

The 3DS’s estimated battery life is up to five hours while playing 3DS games, while regular Nintendo DS games will last up to eight hours. The DSi’s estimated battery life is up to 14 hours of game play. The 3DS is $100 more expensive than the DSi and its games are also pricier.

The Nintendo 3DS does a good job of incorporating 3-D with photos and games, as long as the games don’t make you feel dizzy. But its clunky form and limited functionality is up against steep competition from smartphones that cost less and offer more games.

Ian Sherr in San Francisco contributed to this article.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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