How do you replicate the success of the most popular handheld console since the beginning of time? With the current revolution in mobile gaming, is there still a place for a dedicated handheld games console? And how do you manage to create something innovative enough to, once again, attract instant, unabashed curiosity and interest from both core and casual gamers alike? No doubt these and many other questions were asked, dissected, and pondered over by Nintendo on the road to formulating a concept for the eventual successor the Nintendo DS. The answer to those deliberations will soon be lining shelves here in South Africa and contains Nintendo’s response to the aforementioned questions, which is quite simply, stereoscopic 3D…without the need to sport a pair of aesthetically poorly designed, over-priced glasses. There is of course much more to it than that, but without a doubt, the wow-factor here is rooted firmly in the realm of the 3rd dimension.

I’ve been privileged to attend the Nintendo 3DS pre-launch event on Thursday at Montecasino courtesy of Onelargeprawn and the Core  Group, where I’ve been able to finally get my hands on one of the most anticipated pieces of tech that doesn’t have the word “Apple” plastered over it. I’ve since done my utmost to try and separate my impressions of the device from the rather loud (and decidedly impressive) pomp and circumstance that accompanied the event, but subsequently found that my impressions have remained largely unchanged. In short, I want the 3DS and I want it now. Read my thoughts after the jump.

Through the introductions, acrobatic dancers, free food, and thumping music, I patiently waited for the local pricing reveal. It will retail for a recommended retail price of R2799. It is slightly over-priced in my view, but hey, this is S.A. – we’re pretty much conditioned by now to being overcharged for new technology. So with that slight little damper aside, enter the Nintendo 3DS. Paraded around by a substantial amount of Nintendo reps, and linked to them umbilical cord-like to a battery pack carried around the waist, the 3DS creates a great first impression.

If you’re familiar with the current DS, you’ll be immediately at home with the look and feel of the new handheld, which is strikingly similar. But this in no way dampens the fact that it’s a sexy piece of hardware, and manages to capture and reflect all forms of light in a flashy and decadent manner. Touch controls return for the lower screen, while the top screen boasts the 3D visuals. Additions you’ll likely notice first are an analog nub (or Circle Pad, as it’s officially dubbed) just above the D-pad, the 3D slider to lessen the 3D effect (or turn it off completely), and the Home button below the lower screen. The outer lid houses two cameras this time around to take 3D pictures with (which will no doubt soon be used in all sorts of imaginative ways), while the inner lid retains the single camera, while a motion and gyro sensor completes the innards.

I’ve spent short bursts with most games on the floor, having tried out everything from Super Street Fighter IV, Dead or Alive: Dimensions, Pilot Wings and Nintendogs + Cats, to Kid Icarus, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, and the Augmented Reality (AR) games.

I don’t know about you but stereoscopic 3D films don’t give me headaches or eyestrain, and similarly I didn’t experience any issues with the 3DS. I know some people complain about these very things but since I’m not affected by them, I won’t be able to comment on it. In all the instances, the 3D effect worked largely with great effect, with a few definitely standing out. Kid Icarus: Uprising probably impressed me most. 3D was grandly accentuated and felt extremely natural in the flying segments. The controls will take some getting used to though, and it will be interesting to see if the somewhat awkward control scheme carries over to the final product. Similarly Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D looks great but I had some trouble adjusting to the controls. Perhaps I’m too used to the console versions, but I’m hoping the final product will have the option to map the controls differently.

The 3D effect will always be dependant on the game and how the developers utilize it for the visuals, so there are bound to be a few clunkers floating around eventually, but apart from one or two niggly instances, the 3D effect was fantastic and truly immersive. Mostly it consists of a real sense of depth, as if you’re looking into a glass case populated by all sorts of objects, although there are instances where images would come popping out of the screen, with great effect.

There have been quite a few reports floating around now on various sites that the 3D effect is really finicky when it comes to viewing its sweet spot. Having tried it out on a few different games, and purposefully viewing the screen from different angles (naturally within reason), I personally think these reports are blown a bit out of proportion. The 3D effect was even viewable for me watching other players play, although obviously diminished from the full-on front view. The “problem” comes in when you start tilting the device horizontally while still looking at it diagonally, in which case the 3D effect becomes completely muddled. But this being a handheld, it’s hardly something that you’ll constantly be viewing from bizarre side angles, unless perhaps you’re all kinds of cross-eyed (in which case you have my sympathies). But I suppose no matter how well it works, we’ll probably be hearing a lot more reports of how the 3D illusion can be broken as people purposely try to find the “weakest” viewing spot, which is inevitable, but for all intents and purposes a non-issue for me. You’ll even adapt quite quickly to some of the AR shooting games that require you to move around a static target (for example an AR card of a dragon being placed on a table) and you’ll quickly adjust to turning with your 3DS, in an almost periscope-like manner.

Of course, the 3D effect can also be turned off completely, so if 3D’s not your thing, you can act all retro and still play in 2D mode. Frame rates should increase slightly when 3D is turned off, which is to be expected. This may hamper games that are often dependent on high frame rates like the launch title Super Street Fighter IV, or Dead or Alive: Dimensions, but it’s still very early days and I’m sure once developers are more comfortable with the 3DS’ architecture, we’ll see them find many innovative ways to combat this. For what it’s worth, with my limited playtime of Dead or Alive: Dimensions, it didn’t bother me at all. I played with the slider all the way down and it certainly felt a bit smoother, but overall I definitely preferred playing it in 3D.

Features like Spot Pass and Street Pass were touched on in the introductory presentation, and it will be interesting to see how many people will make use of the functions. Spot Pass essentially lets you connect to authorized wi-fi spots or your wireless network at home, and will automatically download updates and new features, while Street Pass will allow game information to be transferred to other 3DS systems simply by walking past someone who also happens to carry a 3DS. It sounds intriguing and with mention made of high scores or additional maps for games being transferred in this fashion, I would love to see this in practice.

From my hands-on time with the device, I’m extremely excited about the future of the 3DS, and while it will have a much harder time to match the success of the DS in the current market, I’m absolutely positive that Ninty has another winner on its hands.

At the end of the event, I walked away with a massive grin and a pressing desire to own one of these nifty little devices as soon as possible. As with any new console, the success is often decided by its software library. The DS has a fantastic record for having a ridiculous amount of great and often classic games, and even though nestled in-between a fair share of shovelware, this was in large part what made the DS the sales monster it is today. It’s natural to assume this trend will continue with the 3DS, but with continuous iPad revisions and Sony’s upcoming NGP on the horizon, the 3Ds’ relevance will be tested much more than that of the DS.

No matter the outcome, one thing is certain – March 25th can not come soon enough, and I’ll have no qualms to once again hand over my hard-earned cash to Nintendo.