Nintendo finally gets the 3-D right with its new 3DS console

Feb. 16, 2015 | 5:00 a.m.

THE PLAYER

Nintendo has updated its 3DS hardware and released a revamped version of the game "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask." (Nintendo of America)

Nintendo has updated its 3DS hardware and released a revamped version of the game “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.” (Nintendo of America)

When Nintendo released its hand-held 3DS system in 2011, the tiny machine packed a neat trick. It allowed for 3-D — without the glasses.

I was smitten on first use. There’s Mario and Luigi, with greater depth! There’s a starfighter flying through space, and you really do need to squint to see off into the distance!

Sometime around Week 2 or 3, though, I started to wonder whether the 3DS was somehow breaking my brain. Although it’s never given me the headaches that forever have me avoiding live-action 3-D films — or the nausea I’ve experienced with the Oculus Rift headset and 3-D simulators such as Disneyland’s Star Tours ride — something still felt … off.

Playing the device with the 3-D turned on became akin to toying with a modern autostereogram. You needed a moment to find the image, and any sudden movements would necessitate a reset to lock in the picture again. The solution was simple: Turn off the 3-D, and lo and behold, the 3DS became the most robust hand-held on the market and arguably the strongest video game console available, period.

It accomplished this feat with content. Broadly speaking, there are a few key tenets I look for in a game. Does it show me a new way to interact with the universe? And are the characters and story so compelling that I’ll want to live with them for 20-plus hours?

So-called fun and sports-like competitiveness aren’t major factors for me. My game-playing time competes with new episodes of “Orphan Black” and the latest Sleater-Kinney album, so a game’ s emotional experiences must at least be on par with those.

Nintendo has updated its 3DS hardware and released a revamped version of classic game "The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask." (Nintendo of America)

Our hero, Link, can don different masks to shape-shift and also play a song to rewind time, perpetually staving off doomsday until all the puzzles have been cracked in “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.” (Nintendo of America)

Nintendo’s hand-held, for all its cutesiness, delivered. There was the heavenly wonder of “Kid Icarus: Uprising,” the dragons and romance of “Fire Emblem: Awakening,” the art mystery at the core of “Hotel Dusk” and even a few games that required use of the 3-D, such as “Super Mario 3D Land,” still one of the strongest entries in the venerable franchise.

Now, Nintendo has released an updated edition of the hand-held, the $199 New Nintendo 3DS. The key selling point? More stable 3-D.

Turn your head, and the image adjusts on the fly so as to not waver, at least in theory. The good news is that it works well enough to make the case that 3-D in gaming will become more than a novelty; that is, if developers use it to do more than create sweeping landscapes.

A fine showcase is the re-release of “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” in 3-D. Even in a franchise that often doesn’t make any sense, “Majora’s Mask” is weird, set in a relatively small universe that will expire in three day’s time. Our hero, Link, can don different masks to shape-shift and also play a song to rewind time, perpetually staving off doomsday until all the puzzles have been cracked.

For perhaps the first time since “Super Mario 3D Land,” “Majora’s Mask” has me believing that 3-D can add to a game. When Link transforms into a woodsy tree person, for instance, the 3-D effects turn the game into the world’s most frightening kaleidoscope.

LIST: Todd Martens’ best video games of 2014

It doesn’t look or feel fun; it looks and feels painful. Instead of wanting to test out Link’s new powers, I wanted to use the masks only when needed, suddenly more cognizant of the head case-inducing command they wielded over Link. Here, 3-D brought me closer to the character. A new feat accomplished.

One by one, I’ve been replaying 3- or 4-year-old games, looking for moments where the 3-D effects finally work as they should. In some, such as an old “Phoenix Wright” game, the barebones courtroom setting feels more alive, as if your brain were being fooled into looking into some sort of digital shoe box diorama.

When the 3-D effect works as I imagine Nintendo intends, it’s harder to turn away. Although I’ve long argued that character and story matter over tech, the New Nintendo 3DS XL is the best argument to prove me wrong. Unlike television consoles that attempt to dazzle with high-def cinematics, and in turn more and more resemble film, the New 3DS is content to craft little cartoon worlds that beg to be explored.

That said, a couple of public-service announcements are necessary here. One, the New Nintendo 3DS XL does not come with a power cord. Though it’s only a $9.95 accessory, this is a consumer-aggressive move. Imagine buying a new iPhone without a way to charge it.

Two, if you purchased a Nintendo hand-held this past holiday season, do not despair. Yes, the 3-D effect is stronger here, but the tech isn’t so advanced that your machine will suddenly feel outdated. For now, Nintendo has announced only one game that’s exclusive to the new 3DS, the coming RPG “Xenoblade Chronicles.”

As long as 99% of the titles remain playable on all versions of the 3DS, consumer confusion will be kept to a minimum, and the New Nintendo 3DS will be seen as a perk for high-end enthusiasts rather than a necessary upgrade. Until — or unless — significant price cuts come to the older models of 3DS, that’s as it should be (Nintendo is selling the non-“new” 3DS XL for $174.99).

One last thing: Should current 3DS owners upgrade, the process of moving games to your New 3DS can be a Wi-Fi slog, one that for most users will require both systems to be plugged in (except, drats, the new machine doesn’t come with a cord). For me, this took about 10 hours of constant monitoring to switch cords back and forth between the systems to ensure that neither ran out of juice.

Was it all worth it? Tech purchases are never easy choices, especially nonessential ones like video games, but on a sunny weekend in Los Angeles with plenty of distractions, I’m content to spend the day peering into Nintendo’s latest looking glass.

– Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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