Can the 3DS answer back to the iPhone?

The Nintendo 3DS has a large 3D screen, but has it done anything to answer back to the threat of Apple's growing iOS gaming platform?

Recently, Nintendo's Satoru Iwata claimed that Apple was now the company's main competitor in the handheld gaming arms race, not Sony. This year's E3 seemed to confirm that observation, as Sony largely backburnered the PSP while Apple's recent WWDC was a veritable celebration of the iPhone 4 and its upcoming game partnerships, including FarmVille.

The landscape has changed drastically since the Nintendo DS launch back in 2004. That year, a smartphone basically consisted of a BlackBerry or a Palm Treo. iPods just received color screens and still couldn't play video. The PSP didn't exist. The DS was an oasis to kids and those looking for portable entertainment.

Is the 3DS actually an appeal to hard-core gamers instead of casual ones? Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Now, of course, a slim iPod Touch can offer numerous forms of entertainment, cheaply gotten. Moreover, many kids we know have started requesting iPod Touches instead of Nintendo DSes as their systems of choice.

We wondered a few weeks ago what Nintendo could do to bring excitement back to the DS platform , and the 3DS announcement at E3 has answered a few of our wishes. Unfortunately, however, not all of them.

The 3DS has added motion controls to its handheld, much like the iPhone 4 already has. A larger screen is more ideal for movies, and indeed Nintendo has announced future partnerships with Disney and others for kid-friendly 3D movies.

That top 3D screen, which doesn't require glasses, is a tech trick the iPhone can't pull off yet, and might be enough of a "gee-whiz" concept to push the DS back into the cool kids' toy pile. In a surprise move, Nintendo also added a 3D camera built-in. 3D tech is still really more of a gimmick than a necessity, but isn't interactive entertainment half novelty anyway?

Another key feature on the 3DS, made apparent by a demo of launch game Kid Icarus, are updated internal graphics. They seemed at first glance to push the 3DS to a graphic quality somewhere between the N64 and GameCube, and certainly are a far leap from the blocky 3D look of current DS games.

Unknown at this moment are pricing or a release date for the 3DS and its games. Will games and movies be more affordable than they are in the App Store? That's unlikely. Another large unaddressed concern is Nintendo's inability to transfer games from one DS to another, or even redownload deleted games. If the 3DS is as "DSi compatible" as Nintendo says, there will have to be an easier way to install and manage software.

With an analog stick and its larger screen, the 3DS actually seems like more of a nod to classic gaming than a pathway to casual games. Maybe that's Nintendo's new strategy to compete with Apple, because Apple's casual gaming library is far better right now than Nintendo's might ever be. Perhaps the days of selling Sudoku and Brain Age cartridges are over; maybe Nintendo is realizing that its greatest assets are its "core" games, not its casual ones. The 3DS does look like a marked improvement over the existing DSi, but it's still an old-fashioned game system next to next-gen devices running Android and iOS. Maybe that's good for parents, but for kids it might not be enough.

For other hopeful future improvements to Nintendo's game plan, check out our recommendations below.

 

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