A new addition to the Lego line of licensed video games may not elicit much excitement. After issuing “Star Wars,” Batman and Indiana Jones-branded properties, the series has hit a comfortable stride, but has offered little in the way of a grand reinvention.
Thus, it would have been safe to expect Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars to be little more than a solid addition to a consistent brand. And it is, and that’s nothing to complain about. Yet take it for a spin on Nintendo‘s newly-released dual-screen handheld – the 3DS – and a good platform game becomes an engrossing one.
The latest update to Nintendo’s handheld line offers the promise of 3-D without glasses, and yes, it delivers. By using a 3-D technology that, simply speaking, delivers a different set of pixels to each of the gamer’s eyes, the 3DS ($249.99) adds a level of texture to well-worn formulas. When it works, even time-tested names such as Lego Star Wars feel like something wholly new and inviting.
That in itself is a major achievement, as the proliferation of mobile devices has made handheld gaming something of a cheaply available commodity. Shelling out $250 for a device — and one with a rather dreadful battery life of about three hours — is a lot to ask of the consumer when Angry Birds can be had for a couple bucks. Additionally, like the Wii and previous DS iterations before it, Nintendo forgoes top of the line graphics and processing power in terms of innovation.
To be sure, the 3DS’ top-screen resolution at 800 x 240 pixels (400 x 240 pixels in 3-D mode) is a huge step up from older DS models, which topped off at 256 x 192 pixels, but Sony’s upcoming NGP will outpace the 3DS in nearly every category, including a stylus-free touch screen. Yet the 3DS experience puts uniqueness ahead of horsepower, and it was a gamble that largely worked for the Wii, even if it took developers a while to catch on. Though introduced back in 2006, the last year has offered some of the Wii’s most innovative games, such as Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Epic Mickey and Super Mario Galaxy 2.
The 3-D adjustment
Expect, perhaps, a similar growth period for the 3DS, which has launched without a Zelda or Mario must-have game. Additionally, when it comes to 3-D, each user’s experience may vary slightly. For me, it took about 20 or 25 minutes to adjust to the images, but the period was shortened with subsequent use of the system. One 45-minute session did create some eye fatigue, and Nintendo encourages users to take a break every 20 or 30 minutes. Each game also comes with a warning that it should not be played by anyone under the age of 7.
Yet a 3-D “slider” allows users to control the depth of 3-D and find a comfort level. Rarely, however, could I keep it at max. In some games, such as Pilot Wings Resort, I settled for a minimal 3-D effect, as 3D- at full-blast created a stereogram sensation in that so much as a blink of the eye would result in instant blur. Don’t be discouraged, though, since by allowing users to customize the level of depth, the 3DS avoids any potential headaches.
What remains to be seen, however, is how developers make use of the effect. A game such as Super Street Fighter IV is a joy to watch with some 3-D, but can easily live without it and still be a worthwhile experience. Likewise, tactile submarine game Steel Diver, which uses the 3DS’ movement-sensitive gyroscope ability, at times played better without any 3-D, which requires head-on viewing. A verdict on whether the effect is used simply to add depth to the environment or if it becomes integral to gameplay — perhaps 3-D-only segments — will have to wait.
The extra content
Yet the 3DS offers reason for hope. Included with the system are six “augmented-reality” cards, which when read by the system’s two cameras allow for games to seemingly materialize out of nowhere. For instance, pointing the 3DS at one of the cards will superimpose video-game imagery outside of the handheld’s environment. One can essentially watch a dragon rise out of a kitchen countertop. It’s somewhat irresistible, and the simple games included with the hardware make for some of the most innovative uses of the technology, as gamers can watch their furniture shift and move as they do battle.
Other 3DS features seem poised to grow with the system. Further updates will add an Internet browser, as well as access to downloadable games. Users who have downloaded prior DS games are promised the ability to shift most of them to their 3DS, although the capability is not available at launch. An agreement with Netflix will eventually allow the 3DS to become more of a multimedia machine, and while music partnerships have not yet been announced, the 3DS has the ability to store MP3s and included software allows users to create their own sounds. Although the latter was more cutesy than technical.
More so than any of the included bells and whistles — the ability to take 3-D photos or create a “Mii” avatar by snapping a picture of yourself — where the 3DS excels is in the way it encourages exploration. Unlike any other handheld device on the market, there’s an excitement to pop in each game, and an undeniable sense of wonder as the cityscapes speed by in Ridge Racer 3D or a puppy paws at the screen in Nintendogs + Cats. It’s a pricier investment than choosing games via your mobile carrier’s app store, and it cedes power to the competitors, yet Nintendo has found a way to make gaming an act of discovery.
The best of the launch games
Nintendo unleashed 18 games at launch, and there was grumbling in some quarters that some of the company’s most famous characters (Zeld’s Link, for instance) were not in any of the initial offerings. A slight disappointment, but updates to the Mario Kart and Super Mario Bros. series are in the pipeline. Yet with games carrying a $39.99 list price, one has to be a little choosy.
Super Street Fighter IV is largely hailed as the system’s strongest launch title, and the benefit of 3-D allows the game to appeal beyond its core audience. Yet the fluidity of Ridge Racer 3D was a pleasant surprise, as were the textured worlds of Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars, both of which constantly reward gamers with new locales. A more timid experience can be had with Pilotwings Resort, although I found the 3-D a little shaky in it. Though most gamers may find it rather slow, the tactical options in Steel Diver give it plenty of depth, even if it works best without 3-D. Yet if one simply wants to wait for more of a blockbuster title, the 3DS is backward-compatible for all DS games, of which plenty great ones can be had at a bargain, and the augmented reality features alone will be enough to show off the machine.
– Todd Martens
Images, from top: Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (LucasArts); Pilotwings Resort (Nintendo); An augmented reality dragon (Nintendo); Super Street Fighter IV (Capcom)
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