Nintendo’s 2DS Gaming ‘Gablet’ Isn’t an iPad Killer, Thank Goodness

It's basically a 3DS, minus the 3D and the hinge.

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A little over three years ago I was seated in L.A.’s Nokia Theater at Nintendo’s E3 2010 presser when dozens — or was it hundreds? — of women in identical dark leggings, white tees and black blazers emerged from either side of the stage. They proceeded to walk down the stairs like cabaret dancers (though they didn’t dance) holding Nintendo 3DS handhelds up, Price Is Right-style, tiny cables securing the units to large belts around their waists to prevent some loose cannon from wandering off with one.

“Here’s how it’s gonna work,” said Nintendo honcho Reggie Fils-Aime as the women began circulating through the audience. “Our demonstrators are equipped with Nintendo 3DS devices that will show you how video game characters and video game environments appear in that new dimension. It’s 3D, right in your hands.”

Nintendo’s annoyingly gender-biased showmanship aside, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one of the things. This was Nintendo’s fabled no-glasses 3D, untested by the press. How would it work? Would it feel weird? Would it seem gimmicky?

After trying a few games and watching several minutes of a movie (How to Train Your Dragon, if memory serves) streamed off a memory card, I was impressed. It worked, and not in the half-baked way slipping on a pair of cheap cardboard blue and red cellophane glasses used to, watching retrofitted black and white B-movies like The Creature from The Black Lagoon on TV. This was perfect stereoscopy — as vividly three-dimensional as peering into a View-Master.

Even then, a little voice nagged about 3D and gameplay; the takeaway was 3D as effect (and effect alone). “Effect” gets a bad rap these days. We used to marvel, for instance, at computer-generated imagery in movies, and rightly so. Remember when you first saw Terminator 2 at the theater? It’s a mediocre film, idea-wise, but I still went, over and over, to see James Cameron’s “liquid metal” shapeshifting T-1000 pour into that helicopter cockpit or walk through those jail-style bars.

Over two decades later, I tend to have the opposite reaction. CGI has become an excuse for too many lazy filmmakers to exploit the improbable, leapfrogging shambolic filmmakers like Roland Emmerich and George Lucas to drown us in visually muscular, emotionally brain-dead sequences that feel more like powering through a brutal workout with Full Metal Jacket‘s R. Lee Ermey. In recent years, the film industry’s added stereoscopic 3D to the menu, upping the theatrical shtick and using that as an excuse to jack up ticket prices.

To be fair, Nintendo’s take on stereoscopy is more customer-friendly, eschewing the fugly eyewear, even if getting it to work requires holding your head (and your 3DS) still, lest you slip outside the “sweet spot” and garble the image. But since the 3DS arrived in March 2011, I’ve rarely played with 3D enabled. It’s still just a gimmicky effect, as far as I’m concerned.

Thus Nintendo’s “Nintendo 2DS” announced yesterday caught my eye, at least for what it purports to be: a 3DS without 3D or a hinge, a shift back to something like the Game Boy of old, only with dual screens (one of them touch-sensitive), nudging it in the direction of a dedicated gaming tablet — or, in the tradition of silly portmanteaus like “phablet,” a “gablet.”

If you’re bouncing off the look of this handheld aesthetically, either you despise the 3DS, or you’re not thinking consistently: the 2DS looks no more repulsive than a lid-fully-open clamshell 3DS (and arguably less so, because the top screen is now flush with the bottom screen). The screens themselves are regular 3DS-sized, meaning 3.5-inches for the top screen and three inches for the bottom one (they’re actually one screen, split into two areas), and it retains all of the 3DS’s other features, including, weirdly, the dual cameras, which can still take 3D images (though you’ll need a 3DS to view them in 3D).

The strongest argument for the 2DS, assuming you care nothing for stereoscopic 3D — and I’d be with you on that count — is its budget price: $130. A 3DS runs $170, while the 3DS XL costs $200. Again, assuming you care nothing about 3D, see plenty to like about the 3DS’s games lineup (and there is a lot to like about it these days), perhaps have younger kids you’d rather not expose to stereoscopic 3D and would rather use the money you’re saving on games, the 2DS’ stock goes way up.

Some of you may be thinking “Why didn’t Nintendo use the opportunity to roll out a Vita-killer? Why not throw a better screen in the thing, since you don’t have to waste CPU cycles on 3D processing?” It’s a fair point, but that would have entailed new software, and strong as 3DS sales have been, there’s little incentive to lay that on developers at this point. A more reasonable criticism might be that Nintendo’s still not bothering to drop a second analog thumbstick on the system, ruling out (for me anyway) playing all sorts of first-person games.

On the other hand, I’m grateful Nintendo didn’t try to make this into a single-screen gaming tablet, Wii U-style. Companies like Razor are already tinkering with gablets, but we’re talking about boutique hardware with (at best) niche appeal, and Nintendo’s never been interested in niche. If the company’s going to do a full slate in the nine- or 10-inch range, there’s no reason for it not to go all-in and compete with Apple or Google. But if it’s going to do that, it’ll need a lot more than Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda if it wants to lure more-than-just-gamer iOS and Android acolytes.