Now, after three months of owning a 3DS, I am a believer.
Don’t get me wrong, at this stage stereoscopic 3D is not essential to play any game on the market. I am not even sure if it will ever be essential for gameplay, but with each subsequent game that I played I could tell that there was a future here. In 10 years, supporting stereoscopic 3D properly for gaming will be as important as having decent camera mechanics and up-to-date graphics. The operative word here, though, is “properly”. We don’t yet know how to leverage 3D in a big way, but we’re learning, and here’s how.
Play Super Mario 3D Land. At first it seems like a blend of Super Mario 64 and New Super Mario Bros., which it is. The use of 3D in some levels is even as cheesy as an SCTV sketch. There are some points where blocks seem to blend into the background unless you have 3D turned on, and these kinds of mechanics are forced and unimaginative.
After a few levels, though, you start to realize what SM3DL really is: an extended experiment. The developers took an established and refined franchise, and just went nuts. Every level does something different. Some levels experiment with perspective: there are top-down views in 5-2, multi-depth sidescrolling in 3-5, and an open SM64-esque world in 3-1. Some levels have projectiles flying at you, important objects in the distance, or dizzying jumps and falls. Even from the get-go, you have the option of two 3D views (selected using the D-Pad), one where the 3D pops out at you, and one where it’s like you’re peering into a box. The developers are playing with this new tool, and that playfulness permeates the entire game.
But sometimes, when the planets align and 3D mojo is cooked just right, the effects are brilliant. You can feel vertigo from being on the edge of a cliff, and giant Bullet Bill coming towards you is no longer looks cheesy, but deadly. Even that classic Mario font counting your coins is somehow more pleasant with a subtle depth. There is truly something to be said for immersion.
Now take a look at Nintendo eShop darling Pushmo. Pushmo is a platform-puzzler where you have to move blocks around to get to the top of various structures. No, really. It’s awesome. These blocks only have 4 possible depths, and the game designers were paying attention when they chose this constraint. It’s the perfect set of depths for 3D to actually help with gameplay. Everything is easier with the 3D enabled: telling depth, gauging jumps, and even examining the puzzle from afar. It’s brilliant.
The thing that most people don’t realize is that stereoscopic 3D is extremely limited. You can’t put objects too far forward or back without straining the eyes (as your eyes can only focus on one thing at a time), and it’s a surprisingly limited field. Depth cues such as shadows and sizes of objects can often more accurately convey distance than actual stereoscopic depth. The designers for Pushmo must have done their homework, though, because they’ve created a great aesthetic style and core gameplay mechanic from these constraints. It’s possible to have 3D work for games beyond immersive visuals, which are important in their own right, and that’s a powerful idea.
Other games have used stereoscopic 3D with mixed results. I found it made Metal Gear Solid 3 more difficult to play most of the time, but turning on 3D for the first-person view when hiding in the grass helps immensely. 3D is nonessential in Resident Evil: Revelations, but fits right in with the narrow-corridors, over-the-shoulder perspective, and the confined-horror feel. Finally, in StarFox 64 3D it can make enemies difficult to see (this may also be an artifact of the screen size), but draws you into the action that much more. Bottom line: some things work, some don’t.
We are in the early stages of 3D media. Designers and artists have these new tools, but just don’t know how much they can do with them. Sure, the hardware is limited (although robust glasses-free 3D on a commercial device is pretty amazing), but it’s only going to get better from here. The best part is that we’ve moved past the gimmicks to where these tools are actually having an effect, and where they can strengthen our overall experience with interactive media. I for one can’t wait to see what the future holds.