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GAMES

The Nintendo 3DS faces stiff competition, and not just from other game consoles

by Brian Ashcraft

In 2004, Nintendo released the Nintendo DS, a dual-screen gaming handheld that was revised several times over the next few years as the DS Lite, DSi and DSi XL (LL in Japan) and went on to become one of the most popular consoles ever. The Kyoto-based gamemaker is obviously hoping to repeat that success with its new Nintendo 3DS.

While electronics makers struggle to sell 3-D televisions, reporting unimpressive sales, the Nintendo 3DS, which is able to display 3-D imagery without using 3-D glasses, sold out for the Japanese launch on Saturday, with some people who had not pre-ordered it lining up overnight.

Rumors put the initial launch shipment for Japan at 400,000. An unconfirmed and paltry number, considering the 140 million-plus Nintendo DS units that have been sold around the world. The vast majority of the 3DS were claimed in the January pre-orders. Many retailers received some extra units from Nintendo in an attempt to satiate the demand — or at least show they were trying.

“We got 60 3DS units for pre-orders,” says an employee at a Toys R Us in North Osaka. “And we got only 20 more for those who didn’t have pre-orders.” Those went quick, with customers snapping them up soon after the shop opened. Some stores only had as few as four units for customers without pre-orders, making for very short lines once gamers knew how many the retailers had.

Despite the intense interest in the console, however, the 3DS is already facing stiff competition and the short lines may indicate something else: There is another console on the horizon to tempt players.

Sony is slated to release a new portable later this year, codenamed the Next Generation Portable or NGP. Like the 3DS, the NGP uses a touch interface. But unlike the 3DS, it is not 3-D and has a touch panel on both front and back, making for new and interesting gameplay options.

The NGP also blows both the 3DS and the current PlayStation Portable (PSP, also from Sony) out of the water in the High Definition (HD) graphics department and features more power, with a stunning OLED screen. HD graphics, however, didn’t matter much in the last handheld wars, with the underpowered Nintendo DS outselling the slick PSP.

This time around, video gamemakers are no longer simply competing with each other either. They’ve reached a tipping point and now compete with anything that consumers can invest time or money in, whether that be movies, cell phones — or even books. Early last month, Sony Computer Entertainment President Kaz Hirai told the Nikkei newspaper that Sony was even competing against going out drinking with friends.

As a case in point, 3DS wasn’t the only thing drawing a crowd early Saturday morning. Across Japan, folks also lined up for the new set of Kamen Rider Infinity “medals” or medallions, from Bandai, which sell for ¥999 per set. The small medals emit an array of sounds when inserted in an “Infinity Belt” like the one the Japanese superhero wears on the popular TV show “Kamen Rider.”

The medals are more kid-friendly than the 3DS too. Nintendo is issuing a warning for the 3DS, telling players that after 15 minutes of playing in 3-D, they should take a break. It is possible to play in 2-D on the 3DS and even manipulate the intensity of the 3-D effect with a volume slider-like controller that can “blast” the 3-D effect and turn it down so players can barely make it out. The 3DS can also be played in regular 2-D.

Nintendo isn’t simply being cautious. When the full 3-D effect is on, playing the 3DS can be tiring on the eyes compared to regular 2-D. Nintendo is recommending that children under 6 years old do not use the 3-D effect — ironic as Nintendo built its reputation on kid-friendly products. That could be why many of those who lined up early for the Kamen Rider medals were not planning on adding a 3DS to their shopping basket.

“The Nintendo 3DS just came out,” says Kimiko Ohashi, who lined up early in the morning for the medals with her husband Yasuo and two kids. “There’s no rush to get it now, because Nintendo will probably make a revised and better version in the future.”

Nintendo loves to tweak and repackage its handheld machines, and if the past is anything to go by (and it usually is), the Nintendo 3DS will be released in an array of colors as well as having the inevitable hardware revisions. It’s as though Nintendo uses early adaptors to do product testing. Just ask anyone who sprung for the original DS — which was a horrid, ugly-looking beast. Nearly 18 months after it was released, Nintendo rolled out the slicker, far more stylish DS Lite. Further revisions also followed. The 3DS is a stylish-looking device and is leaps and bounds better than the original Nintendo DS — but do expect Nintendo to release more desirable versions of the 3DS in the future. The question is, can you wait?

Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com