6 things the Nintendo 3DS needs to beat Apple at its own game

Has handheld gaming passed Nintendo by? We spend hands-on time with the new Nintendo 3DS, and ponder what it needs to do to steal the spotlight back from Apple's App Store.

Nintendo 3DS: what's its killer app?
Nintendo 3DS: what's its killer app? Scott Stein/CNET

Not so long ago, Nintendo was king of the hill in video game land--especially when it came to handheld games. Back in those magical days, the Nintendo DS was the pinnacle of kid-friendly fun, and even casual gaming for those who normally didn't find games appealing.

Then came Apple. While some might debate the quality games in the App Store versus offerings for the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, the success of Apple's seemingly endless supply of cheap games has been undeniable. Nintendo even acknowledges that Apple is its chief rival, now.

Enter the Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo's next-gen 3D handheld. Can it change the equation and recapture the Nintendo magic--and, most notably, kid appeal--that's worn away a bit in the wake of shiny gadgets like the iPhone and iPad?

The 3DS goes on sale in America on March 27, and it's been on shelves in Japan for weeks. We've reviewed the system already at CNET, and I've been playing around with one for the last six days, along with a handful of launch games.

At this year's GDC, Nintendo delivered a keynote literally across the street--and on the same day--as Apple's iPad 2 unveiling . Nintendo's focus on handheld gaming has had to take into account the meteoric rise of Apple's App Store. The App Store redefined the landscape of game pricing and effectively stole some of the casual-gaming crowd from Nintendo. Now that the 3DS is about to arrive, can it help fix what Nintendo's been missing ?

After a week playing with one, my feelings are mixed. The 3DS has technical tricks up its sleeve that no iDevice can lay claim to yet--namely, its 3D camera and glasses-free 3D screen--but 3D is a divisive technology. Some people prefer their entertainment without a third dimension forced onto it. Also, Nintendo has been intent on not using 3D as an essential element in its 3DS games, making it a less integral technology than motion control on the Wii. The system has its advantages, and it has impressively improved graphics, but that alone isn't enough.

If the Nintendo 3DS is to effectively answer back to the juggernaut of affordable, diverse iOS gaming and offer up a convincing alternative, this is what I think it still needs to stand a chance.

  • A "Wii Sports." Every game system needs its killer app, and the Wii's was, without a doubt, its pack-in game. Wii Sports redefined casual family gaming and was a show-off centerpiece at the same time. The Nintendo DS' killer game might have been Brain Age: its self-help angle and generational appeal helped create a larger landscape for gaming. The Nintendo 3DS doesn't have that game in its launch lineup, and it'll need one to justify its purchase to a greater audience. Pilotwings is a great demo of the power of the 3DS' 3D effects, but it feels more like a pack-in game than a full-fledged one.

  • Better battery life. This used to be Nintendo's ace in the hole, but suddenly the tables have turned. Whether an answer comes with a future high-capacity battery pack or the next iteration of the 3DS, the current 3 to 5 hours of battery life we've experienced just doesn't cut it compared with the 10-hour-plus battery life we used to get out of the Nintendo DSi. While the iPhone's battery life can drain quickly with frequent gaming, the iPod Touch and iPad still easily trump the 3DS.

  • Cheap, creative downloadable apps. It remains to be seen what sort of offerings and prices the 3DS eShop will bring, because the eShop won't be available for the 3DS launch--we'll have to wait until at least May. If we're to compare to the DSiWare shop, we'll say that prices are too high compared with App Store games, and the selection was too limited. A Virtual Console library of old-school Game Boy and Game Gear games will add immense appeal and bring games that Apple's App Store doesn't offer, but they need to be affordable. Like it or not, the App Store's 99-cent landscape has redefined expectations for downloadable game prices.

  • Much better online gaming. Nintendo's been a slouch compared with Sony and Microsoft when it comes to easy-to-use online connectivity, and it'll need to catch up quickly to nip Apple's myriad online-connected games. Street Pass, a location-based social network of sorts for 3DS gaming, has potential, but it needs some clear-cut killer game execution to show its worth. We won't know for sure how Nintendo's online approach will really work until May, when the rest of the 3DS' software features will be updated--but it needs to be better than the Wii and DS.

  • Turn augmented-reality gaming into a signature feature of the 3DS. Nintendo's unique combination of 3D cameras and motion sensors, along with its easy-to-hold shape and flip-up second screen, give it an ergonomically perfect design for augmented-reality gaming. AR (short for augmented reality) Games, an app built into the 3DS, uses coded cards to create interactive 3D games that literally pop out of the player's actual world. Archery targets emerge from desks, and dragons bubble out of floors. It's borderline magic for the uninitiated, but Nintendo needs to figure out better ways to develop new AR games. While the App Store has augmented-reality games, too, the addition of 3D and a second screen give Nintendo a potential edge for unique future concepts.

  • Find something other than 3D to sell the 3DS.This might sound silly, but hear me out: By the end of 2011, the 3DS won't be the only gadget out there with glasses-free 3D. New phones like the HTC Evo 3D and LG Optimus 3D already promise alternatives, and it might only be a matter of time before glasses-free spreads to other gadgets, too . The Nintendo DS' claim to fame was its dual screens, but its success probably had more to do with its touch screen and broad-appeal "Touch Generation" games. AR Games could be the answer, but they'll need to get fleshed out beyond the limited card-based tech demo that's prepackaged on the 3DS.

Right now, I agree with Jeff Bakalar's CNET review of the 3DS: a lot of potential, but it's not all realized yet. The real concern I have is this: will the 3DS lose the cross-generational appeal that the Nintendo DS so carefully built?

 

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