A Requiem in Stereo(scope)

More than just a gimmicky gadget, the Nintendo 3DS was a marvel of handheld gaming in the 2010s. And now, a decade after it appeared, it’s gone for good.

You ever hate it when you predict the future? Hey all, Ernie here with an updated piece from David Buck, who wrote this piece just nine months ago predicting that the Nintendo 3DS would see its demise. And now, it has, alas. So we did a significant rewrite of the piece. Read on for more:

Today in Tedium: There was a time when I wouldn’t go anywhere without my Nintendo 3DS (the original model, then the 3DS XL, and eventually the New 3DS XL; I had them all). I’d play during breaks, during commutes and whenever I had free time. Whether it was exploring Hyrule in a Zelda game, planning battle strategy in Fire Emblem or tackling the latest Super Mario game, the 3DS was my go-to game system for most of the decade. Through its long history the 3DS built an amazing library, despite the initial hurdles it faced at the start of its life. The Nintendo Switch handles both the console and portable gaming needs of the average gamer today and the 3DS is now discontinued. It’ll live on in our collections and nostalgia. In today’s Tedium, we’re altering reality and taking a look at the tech behind the handheld while celebrating its rich life cycle and history. — David @ Tedium

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$249

The original retail price of the Nintendo 3DS at launch. Following a hilarious reveal at E3 in 2010, the Nintendo 3DS stood poised as a worthy successor to Nintendo’s tradition of amazing handheld game systems. The system struggled in its first few months, with disappointing sales and a lack of available software. Six months later, the price of the system would drop significantly to $169.99, accompanied by a heartfelt apology letter from then Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata. While this may seem like bad news for early adopters, who purchased the unit at full price, there was a silver lining: 20 games from the NES and Game Boy Advance eras were made available via the e-shop exclusively for those who bought the system at its original $249.00 price point. These “ambassador” systems pop up at online auctions from time-to-time, but don’t expect to snag one without paying a premium price for it.

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The original 3DS console. (Evan Amos/Wikimedia Commons)

Breaking down the parallax barrier

The first version of the Nintendo 3DS was launched in North America in 2011, on the heels of the ultra successful Nintendo DS/DSi and Nintendo Wii. It was a decent piece of portable gaming equipment at the time of its release and successfully brought glasses-free, stereoscopic 3D gaming to Nintendo games by means of a parallax barrier—a device that is placed in front of an image source that can allow for stereoscopic 3D displays. It basically serves the same function as 3D glasses would for a 3D film screened in a movie theatre.

The parallax barrier used in the original 3DS model looks pretty cool when dismantled, as Nikkei Electronics discovered in a 2011 teardown of the system, and it’s the reason the 3DS is capable of producing mostly realistic stereoscopic images. The 3D effect is created when light is directed through the barrier in a certain way Per How Stuff Works, it goes something like this:

The 3DS screen has a special layer on top of it that helps direct light in a particular way. The layer is a second liquid crystal display (LCD) in which the crystals can create barriers that channel light. When you turn the 3D mode off on the 3DS, the crystals allow light to pass through freely so that both eyes receive the same image. By moving the switch up, the 3DS adjusts the placement and width of the crystals in the parallax barrier, sending a different set of images to each of your eyes.

Nintendo was always a bit enthusiastic about 3D, going all the way back to their testing of auto stereoscopic 3D displays on the Game Boy Advance SP and the GameCube. In an issue of Iwata Asks entitled “And that’s how the 3DS was made,” Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto (the creator of Mario) and Shigesato Itoi (a master copywriter/essayist who also happened to create the Mother game series) enthusiastically discuss the 3D effect and something Iwata stated was unique to the 3DS at the time—the 3D depth slider. Per Iwata, the depth slider was a way to adjust the how three dimensional the user wanted the image to be and was the result of a consensus of ideas from different developers (including Miyamoto).

Metroid Samus Returns

The author’s 3DS home screen.

Users of the 3DS seem to be a bit more divided when it comes to the effect itself. In 2011, Kotaku writer Brian Ashcraft wrote about how he initially loved the effect, but eventually tired of it after about a week. Aside from issues with eye strain, headaches, and general feelings of being worn out, he discusses experiencing a difficult time viewing clean 3D images with the system:

The other issue is that the 3DS requires a sweet spot for the 3D effect to be viewed. So you must stay in the same position to view the 3D effect. Shifting position might mean that you have to tweak the 3D effect. Even pressing buttons on certain games, thereby causing the handheld to move slightly, can impact the 3D effect. This makes it difficult to relax—like listening to music and constantly have to turn up and turn down the volume. You can’t focus on simply playing.

While Ashcraft makes a valid point, he does make an effort to enjoy the effect and clearly loves the 3DS. Kotaku made a case for how good the effect was seven years later. At GameFAQs, the consensus is almost 50-50 on most days.

Nintendo YouTuber and occasional Nintendo Force contributor Arlo (who also happens to be a blue puppet) was on the opposite side of that opinion, noting how well the 3D effect was executed on the system in his May 2019 tribute to the 3DS:

I know that I’m in the minority here, but I loved the 3D effect on the 3DS. It just looked so cool. It added this awesome depth to whatever I was playing. It was like the games came to life when I pushed up that little slider. It was like a tiny little taste of VR. I would just sit there and marvel at it sometimes. And, my gosh, did it ever help with depth perception and accuracy in things like Super Mario 3D Land … it’s pretty funny how unimportant the feature ultimately was. Most people just didn’t care about it. Since it couldn’t be implemented across every single game, Nintendo didn’t want to force the feature like they halfway did in some parts of 3D Land. It’s one of those things where you don’t want to require it, but if you don’t require it, it won’t be used very much.

He wasn’t wrong, either. Nintendo released a 2D version of the console (aptly named the 2DS) in 2013 and eventually, some games didn’t even bother to incorporate 3D at all (the remake of Mario & Luigi: Super Star Saga and Hey! Pikmin immediately come to mind).

Aside from the 3D effect, the system boasted backward compatibility with original DS games, a photo manipulation app, and other features like the augmented reality game Face Raiders and Nintendo’s own Mii-based community game/hub, Mii Plaza with StreetPass. Later, the ability to create 3D flipnote style messages with Swapnote and watch a strange array of 3D videos with Nintendo Video offered some bizarre video content like Dinosaur Office and Bearshark, along with the occasional Kid Icarus animation or music video (the service has since been discontinued). A 3D camera and a music making application were also included, each with great potential for fun and mischief.

A gyro sensor, motion sensor, built-in pedometer, the analog control stick, and touch screen rounded out the robust design of the handheld and in 2015, Nintendo released the New 3DS (and New 3DS XL), which added additional would add features and buttons to the system—including super stable 3D (which used face-tracking to help stabilize the image), a C-stick that allowed camera controls and/or smash moves in later games/Super Smash Bros. 3DS, and amiibo support.

640x480

The resolutions for each camera on the original Nintendo 3DS. There are three cameras on the system. One is located on the front and can only take 2D photos—mostly used with programs like Mii Maker. The two cameras on the back allow users to take a 3D image that can then be manipulated in various, predominantly humorous ways in the system’s photo editor. The photos don’t turn out very well overall though, so while it can be fun to mess around with, it’s ultimately nothing more than a novelty on a system where much more interesting things are available to enhance the overall user experience.

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AR cards for the game Bravely Default. (Farley Santos/Flickr)

Adventures in augmented reality

Sometimes, a peripheral is packaged with a new gaming system that—despite a lack of games and support—becomes an iconic, fondly remembered part of the system’s life. Many of us feel a warm nostalgia for R.O.B. the Robot (NES) or the Super Scope (SNES), despite only having a few games with a basic gimmicks. The 3DS had its own unique accessory in the series of augmented reality cards that were packaged with the system.

Augmented reality (AR)—a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image onto the real world—had been around as an idea since the 1960s, but it wasn’t actually called that until 1990 when Boeing researcher Tom Caudell coined the term. The technology would go on to be developed to help train airforce pilots, be features in multimedia performances, find its way into sports broadcasts, and more. Nintendo jumped on the bandwagon to help showcase what their new system could do aside from its singular gimmick.

While the original 3DS AR cards don’t utilize AR as well as Pokemon Go, they were nonetheless an interesting diversion that initially caught public interest—at least well enough to inspire an Android app within the first few months of the system’s life. Then there were fan creations like the giant Mario AR card created by the French website Nintendo Master and that time software development firm REFRACTR turned a whiteboard into a massive AR card. Someone even got a tattoo so they could utilize the augmented reality function on their arm.

Though they certainly captured the imaginations of some fans, the cards weren’t without their own problems. In my own experience, they needed to be placed on a flat surface, in a well lit area. Otherwise, they wouldn’t work well or at all. Of course, that didn’t make them any less valuable to have in a video game collection.

The cards featured well known Nintendo characters—Mario, Link, Samus, Kirby, Pikmin— along with a card depicting the Question Block from Super Mario Bros. But what were these things, exactly? Per Nintendo’s rather wordy explanation, AR cards can be used for a variety of actions from looking at Mario to using a question block to “pose and take 3D photos with your Mii™ character, or play a number of exciting built-in games.”

One of those games is a fishing game, where the type of fish change based on the color of the table. Photo opportunities can be interesting, but they lose their luster after awhile and that may be part of way AR cards really catch on as well as they could have. Though AR cards were packaged with the system, they really weren’t developed much or used as extensively as they probably should have been. Per Nintendo itself, there are only ten games or so that use AR cards in any capacity whatsoever—three of which are entries in the Nintendogs series. Other notable titles are Kid Icarus Uprising (which used them in a major way), Bravely Default, Mario Party: Island Tour, and the visual novel Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir. Aside from what Nintendo lists on its site, there are at least five more, not including Photos with Mario—an AR game featuring the titular character and friends as they “interact with the real world in exciting ways.”

Nintendo’s AR cards never truly caught on. Perhaps it was—as some Nintendo Life users surmise—that a combination of poor resolution, spotty function, and sparse use of the cards in the games contributed to the loss of interest in augmented reality on the system. I tend to agree with that consensus, as it mirrors my own experience. Maybe it was something else entirely. On the bright side, if you lost the AR cards that came with your system or you happen to need a replacement AR card booklet for Spirit Camera, Nintendo has you covered. You can even download larger versions of the cards to print for home use—though it may be more efficient to load the card images on your phone instead. The 3DS will recognize the image as an AR card and launch the game from there.

Either way, augmented reality has a bright future ahead of it in more than just entertainment. The educational opportunities are vast, it has potential for useful applications in health fields, and digital overlays can make navigation a snap. The 3DS’ experiment with the concept was only the tip of the iceberg for showing off technology’s capabilities—as it applies to portable video games, anyway.

1M

The number of units the 3DS shipped in 2018. Per an Ars Technica article from the time, the system was still selling well, largely on the strength of series’ like Pokemon and Metroid that hadn’t yet made it to the Nintendo Switch combined with the system being rebranded as an entry level system and a much lower price than ever before. Additionally, the 3D remake of Luigi’s Mansion and a port of Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story may have provided a shot in the arm for the dying system at the time, but they did very little to sustain that. The following year, 3DS sales were slowing down, with a notable decrease of 73 percent in sales in the most recent fiscal year. Conversely, the Nintendo Switch saw record sales of both hardware and software in 2020, largely related to COVID-19 lockdowns.

The time a guy made an entire anime with just a 3DS

Technological innovation often invites creative invention and the 3DS is no slouch in that department. A Japanese producer named Mirror Panel 3 created Ugomemo Senshi (Flipnote Warrior) with a Nintendo 3DS over the past four years. Per a report by Nerdist, he made the movie with Flipnote Studio 3D and it centers around the story of an illustrator who meets a mystical creature that comes out of her 3DS. She must then battle monsters and protect other artists. The full movie runs 34 minutes with a December 4, 2020 release date and can be accessed via their Youtube channel. Flipnote was great for sending little animated messages to friends but creating a full-length movie is an amazing use of the technology that is not only impressive but perhaps unprecedented as well. It will be interesting to see what sort of innovative things will come next in the 3DS’s afterlife.

2019

The year Nintendo released Mario Kart Tour for mobile devices. The game—a version of Nintendo’s seminal racing game that you play on your phone—generated $37.4 million in in-app player purchases in its first month alone. When one considers the tremendous success of previous Nintendo IPs translating to mobile gaming, perhaps the writing was already on the wall for dedicated handheld systems. Pokemon Go, Fire Emblem Heroes, Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, and Super Mario Run were all successful ventures for the company and don’t require dedicated hardware. After all, most of us have a smartphone or a tablet, don’t we?

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Many of the 3DS’ best games revived and reinvented titles originally for prior consoles such as the Nintendo 64—with Star Fox 64 3D one such example.

Tedium’s Top Five 3DS Games

The 3DS games library contained not only a fantastic variety of excellent first party titles, but was a haven for Indie Games. Shovel Knight received its final updates on the system in December, 2019 and new independent games popped up on the e-shop as late as January 2020.

This list is subjective, but these are some of the titles we’ve been the most impressed with through the life cycle of the 3DS. Our criteria for this list were based on fun factor, utilization of the 3D effect, general gameplay, design and execution, and how well the game holds up in 2020. Here are Tedium’s top five favorite Nintendo 3DS games to commemorate the life of the system:

5. Star Fox 64 3D. This remake of the classic Nintendo 64 game offers updated graphics, extremely cool 3D effects, and intuitive motion sensing controls. The ability to take the best Star Fox game anywhere and play on the go was a boon to fans of the series and its immersive experience makes it one of my favorite 3DS titles to this day. There hasn’t been a Star Fox game since that’s managed to recapture the magic of this timeless original.

4. Kid Icarus: Uprising. The first new Kid Icarus title in over 20 years was basically a rail shooter with ground-based melee combat sections, created by Masahiro Sakurai, the mastermind behind Super Smash Bros. But what a game it turned out to be. You play as Pit—an angel serving the goddess Palatena—in a quest to defeat Medusa and other sources of evil. The game had multiplayer, numerous difficulty settings, great music, and about 400 or so AR cards for use with the game. The play control wasn’t always the greatest, but it’s still not bad for a launch title and a triumphant return for an original Nintendo IP.

3. Super Mario 3D Land. Super Mario 3D Land is 3D Mario with a twist. Try to imagine the fun and adventure of Super Mario Bros. 3 combined with the innovation of Super Mario 64 and mix it together with elements of stereoscopic 3D. The game sees Mario traveling to new and interesting locations, while using the built-in 3D effect in game-enhancing ways. While we never saw a sequel on the handheld, the series transitioned remarkably well to the Nintendo Wii U with its follow-up title, Super Mario 3D World. This one is a must-have for any Nintendo 3DS player or collector.

2. Metroid: Samus Returns. I did not own a Game Boy as a kid and—although I had a Super Nintendo—I did not own a Super Game Boy. I thought I would never be able to play through Samus’ second adventure in glorious, full color, remastered quality, but Nintendo really came through with this one. The 3D effect looks spectacular, the crazy evolutions of each metroid look amazing, and the game was such a blast, it became my favorite entry in the series. We can only hope for another 2.5D Metroid title in the future. If you’re new to the system or the Metroid series, Samus Returns is a great place to start and worth playing over and over again.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Breathing new life into such a beloved and classic game can certainly present a challenge. Nintendo effortlessly rose to the occasion with this remake of the Nintendo 64 classic. The game focuses on Young Link as he endeavors to save Hyrule from an ultimate evil. Traveling back and forth between adult Link feels so intuitive in this version and the transitions are seamless. The best part? The water dungeon is much easier to navigate with the ability to map the iron boots to any button. On top of that, the use of 3D in this game is top-notch and made me wish for more 3D Zelda on the system—a wish that was granted with the equally wonderful 3DS update of Majora’s Mask released a few years later.

“We’ll continue to support our 3DS family of systems as long as there is demand.”

Doug Bowser, President of Nintendo of America, in a June 2019 interview with The Verge. Since then, we haven’t seen any new first party titles, but the e-shop is still active. On top of that, Nintendo continued to tout the system’s entry level status and as recently as November of 2019 stated the system would still be supported well into 2020. As it turned out, information about the 3DS all but disappeared from Nintendo’s website and the system was labelled as officially discontinued as of September, 2020.

Despite their insistence to the contrary at the start of the year, the Nintendo 3DS has reached the end of its life. We definitely called it back at the beginning of 2020, but the little system certainly had a good run, leaving a legacy of technological innovation in its wake. There’s already a newer version of Switch in the Nintendo Switch Lite and the 3DS is officially legacy hardware at this point. The New Nintendo 3DS XL is still a great handheld and worth its weight in gaming value, especially since Nintendo confirmed games and online functionality will still be available for the foreseeable future. For those who prefer the clamshell design or disdain the 3D effect, there’s even an iteration of later 2DS XL that does away with 3D altogether. 3DS nostalgia aside, the Nintendo Switch works well as both a handheld and a home console, with an ever expanding library of ports, indie games, and new installments of classic series’, and remakes/remasters—but there’s just something oddly satisfying about being able to turn up the 3D on a Mario or Zelda game and just dive into another world for a few hours. With Nintendo focusing on expanding and updating the Switch into the next year, it’ll be interesting to what the future of Nintendo handheld gaming will look like moving forward.

The 3DS had a great run and it’s fun to play even with all the other available options. Perhaps one day it’ll even be considered a retro system but its official discontinuation marks the end of an era in handheld gaming. Not a bad legacy for a handheld. Not bad at all.

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Thanks again to David for finding a source of modern nostalgia to latch onto. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!

David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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