When Nintendo recently announced details on the American launch of the 3DS, they let folks play samples of the upcoming system’s titles. I had a chance to try out a number of games and came away with impressions on both the games and the 3DS itself.
Working on the assumption that the 3DS models on hand were near-final production units, the stereoscopic effect on the 3D top screen looks pretty good when viewed straight on. But, the 3D noticeably breaks up when viewed from an angle. This means that you’ll have to be a lot more still when playing a game with the 3D on, lest movement degrade the depth effect. That’s going to be very tricky with a handheld system, especially one that people that succeeds a device that people have gotten used to playing on trains, airplanes and in cars. However, the graphics noticeably improve when the 3D’s turned completely off. The new analog nub feels looser than that of the PSP and gave a smooth experience when I played Kid Icarus: Uprising.
(More on TIME.com: E3 2010: Masahiro Sakurai Makes Kid Icarus Fly Again on the Nintendo 3DS)
That game was used to unveil the 3DS last year and for good reason. The flying combat shows off the added depth to good effect as I played demo sequences where airborne demons attacked heroic angel Pit above the clouds. Pit could choose from one of three weapons. Moving the stylus on the touchscreen on the bottom of the unit controlled the aiming of the targeting reticule. The transition to ground combat delivered some exploration along with the demon fighting, winding up with a dodge-then-shoot boss battle.
Capcom showed two different approaches to adapting their games to 3DS. Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D took the traditional over-the-shoulder third-person camera view point and lengthened the depth of field. The RE: TM 3D section that was made available played like a shooting gallery, but one where you roamed around the map and picked up health and ammo. It looked very similar to RE4 and RE5 but the 3D made the European village where the zombie killing was going down more elongated and more populated with robe-wearing undead. On the other hand, Super Street Fighter IV 3D had two camera options, the traditional profile view and an angle with a slightly forced perspective. The latter point-of-view enhanced the 3D effect, making it even seem natural. SSFIV 3D made clever use of the lower viewing area as well, making the series’ trademark punishing super moves available with the tap of a square on the touchscreen. It’s smart thinking for a platform where the many buttons of an arcade stick or gamepad aren’t available.
But, for all the flair of the 3DS games on hand, it was really two of the ones I was most skeptical about that won me over. At first blush, Steel Diver looks like a throwback. The first-party Nintendo title was, after all, first shown as a tech demo for the first DS. But playing with it gave the impression that some willful experimentation was going on with the submarine action title. First off, things are slow in this game. You’re steering a sub underwater, with touchscreen sliders that controls height and forward/backward momentum. The floating aesthetic worked really well with the 3D and the mines, seaweed and other details dotting the underwater world undulated in the virtualized depth. The standout mode for Steel Diver, though, was its Periscope feature. Holding the 3DS up to you face, you’re beset by enemy vessels all around you. The Periscope Mode uses the built-in gyroscope and accelerometer to track your turning left and right, bringing a new part of the level into view.
(More on TIME.com: Nintendo 3DS Launching on March 27th for $250)
AR Games takes that idea–real-world movement becoming gameplay–and extrapolates it with other parts of the 3DS’ technology. All the pre-installed game needs to work is a card with a question mark printed on it. Players place the card on a flat surface and point the outward-facing camera at it. The AR stands for augmented reality and as you aim at the card, the real-time image gets overlaid with a mystery box, hovering just off the screen. Shooting at that box reveals a bunch of targets amidst a mini-bonsai grove and shooting at them cycles the locations of the targets. You need to move your whole 3DS to aim and will wind up rotating around the AR card as an axis. The final phase of the minigame spawns a virtual dragon that you need to shoot at while dodging its lunging attacks.
By far, AR Games impressed me the most of any 3DS title I played. This mechanic of transforming personal space into gamespace is the most remarkable use of the system’s capabilities and delivers on the promise of augmented-reality-as-entertainment that’s been bandied about over the last few years. I didn’t fiddle with the 3D slider or note when the image broke down while playing AR Games; I just kept moving and shooting. It sucked me in so much that, as things wound down, I glanced up at the ordinary table where the card lay and was surprised to not see a little dragon popping out of a box.
The 3D in AR Games helped keep my eyes glued to a decidedly unreal augmentation. In certain other cases, as with the cutscenes in Kid Icarus: Uprising, the 3D added drama to the proceedings. In others, it widened the appearance of illustrative graphics that gamers are already used to seeing, like the familiar football field of Madden NFL or the tracks of Ridge Racer, which were both widened and given new feeling. Aside from playing games, I took a few shots with the stereoscopic camera on the device’s lid, too. The 3D effect on the pics works as advertised but the image resolution is strikingly grainy. It might’ve been a consequence of the lighting in the venue but I tried a few different shots and was surprised at how low-res the pictures looked. This element of the 3DS highlighted just how risky the gambit facing the House of Mario. Sure, it does the 3D things Nintendo says it does, but will it do them well enough to draw a sizable audience? The company’s going to be mounting a huge campaign to put people’s eyeballs in front of the handheld over the next few months, so people will get to judge for themselves.