Raising the Game

Nintendo's latest handheld gaming device offers 3-D graphics — no glasses required

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Illustration by Tamara Shopsin for TIME

Four years ago, when releases for other home consoles trended toward ever more elaborate graphics and cutthroat multiplayer game designs, Nintendo unleashed the cartoony avatars and easy-to-understand motion control of the Wii. Its user-friendliness managed to ensnare a new generation of gamers — i.e., parents and retirees — and make the Wii one of the best-selling game machines of all time.

Now the Japanese corporation is aiming for another surprising success story with a handheld gaming device that offers 3-D graphics without cumbersome glasses. It has dual screens like those of previous Nintendo DS models, but the new 3DS uses stereoscopy to add depth to its top screen. (Users can adjust the graphics to fit their own depth perception or turn the 3-D effect off.) The device won't be in stores for a month or two, but the demo I watched — of a sky filled with enemy ships and laser beams — made me feel as if I were in a miniaturized 3-D movie theater. Exponentially better than systems using red-and-blue glasses, the 3DS creates clearly delineated depth that pulled me in yet didn't strain my eyes. Rather, the 3.53-in. (8.97 cm) display served as a portal to a vibrant, layered world that I wanted to poke, prod and touch.

Though the technology powering the 3DS remains a secret, Nintendo executives believe that freeing viewers from the tyranny of wearing special glasses will convert millions of skeptics into consumers. In other words, the company that created the megahit Mario games is hoping to do for 3-D what it did for motion control: pare down the technology and the accessories and make the gaming experience accessible and entertaining for everyone.

The release of the 3DS comes at a time when the record-setting pace of Wii sales has slowed considerably, a drop-off that coincided with last year's debut of Sony's Wii-like Move controller for its PlayStation 3 console and of Microsoft's hands-free Kinect sensor for the Xbox 360. "The controllers and interfaces we introduced have become de facto industry standards, time and time again," says Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. And adding 3-D should deepen the sensory immersion that is key to a successful gaming experience.

But Nintendo acknowledges that 3-D, or at least 3-D TV, is still a tough sell in the home. "First, it's expensive," says Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. "Second, you have to buy those glasses for every member in your household who's going to be watching the TV. And thirdly, there's a thimbleful of entertainment [available] compared with what we'll be doing." And what will the company be doing with its little stand-alone devices? Providing games galore, plus a massive pipeline for movie studios and other entertainment entities to get stereoscopic content in front of consumers, some of the details of which will be announced at a press conference on Jan. 19.

Along with its enhanced visuals, the 3DS will include a passive communication mode in which the device can send game information to others when a user isn't playing. The idea is to let 3DS owners share weapons and other in-game collectibles simply by sitting in the same coffee shop (or classroom). If this feature — and the rest of the 3DS strategy — succeeds, the company could vault to another crucial triumph, just like Mario leaping to grab an extra life in the nick of time.