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Editorial: Lay of the 3D Land


Eric Caoili loved the stereoscopic effect in Super Mario 3D Land. In this article, he explains why it was so good -- and why it shouldn't be a priority for other 3DS games.

Since the 3DS's launch, many gamers and reviewers have complained about the lack of titles that use the handheld's stereoscopic 3D features in a meaningful way capable of affecting or improving gameplay -- new experiences unavailable elsewhere, something to justify early adopters' expensive purchases.

Some unaccommodating people would act as if 3DS games failing to meet this standard aren't worth their attention. The gimmick of an image that really looks like a dog's tongue is coming out of the screen to lick their face is not enough, not if the novelty ends there. "These puppy kisses mean nothing to me," they will sneer. "Take him away and drown this contemptible creature in a river."

If there's a title that will please those demanding more depth to 3DS releases, as well as those puppy drowners, it's Super Mario 3D Land. This platforming masterpiece is the Avatar of 3DS games, proof that 3D in this medium isn't crap when it's thoughtfully planned and executed, evidence that it's worth the (potential) literal headaches because you just might see something you've never seen before.

Super Mario 3D Land's camera movement and positioning work in concert with the stereoscopic effect to help you gauge distances when leaping across platforms, create tension as spiked balls and other hazards chase you, and even trick you into believing that the cardboard cutouts you spotted with the binoculars earlier are bona fide 1UPs.

The game has Bullet Bills booming toward you, the brothers Mario skydiving away from you, Princess Peach postcards that pop with surprises, etc. And that Bowser boss fight at the end? Are you kidding me? I am shaking you right now to convey that this is neither the time nor the topic for two friends to be kidding each other. Real talk, that 8-8 set-piece played like something designed by Merlin himself, a glorious gift touched by the wisest of wizards.

Back to the Avatar comparison, the concern now is whether upcoming games will continue the system's 3D momentum, or if this is a unique release, a grand experience that won't see a repeat anytime soon. Will Mario Kart 7, Luigi's Mansion 2, or Kid Icarus: Uprising bolster this idea that stereoscopy in games is a perceptible advantage? Is there any hope for third-party developers ever creating a magnificent, polished game undoubtedly improved by 3D?

I believe more quality gameplay-enhancing 3D attempts are coming next year -- from Nintendo at least, and from a handful of other studios later down the line. But I'm also of the opinion that new ways of playing games in the third dimension are the least exciting aspect about Nintendo's handheld.

Despite my enthusiasm for the 3DS, I'm at odds with those who want 3D to primarily shape gameplay. I will argue that, like high definition or surround sound (or smell-o-vision), the strength of 3D is its ability to enhance a title's presentation or immersion. That's enough for me. I don't need M.C. Escher-esque puzzle platforms or camera placement tricks to convince me that 3D can improve a game.

Take Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, for instance. This unassuming turn-based strategy title was, in my mind, the 3DS game that best used the portable's stereoscopic visuals before Super Mario 3D Land (and was the best original 3DS game before SM3DL, too). Who cares that its graphics seem ported directly from the DS? Shadow Wars' discreet use of 3D made your virtual battlefield look like a living board game, with pieces you could push around the topographic terrain to shoot someone in the face.

I don't need M.C. Escher-esque puzzle platforms or camera placement tricks to convince me that 3D can improve a game.

My most anticipated games -- and I presume the same goes for the majority of 3DS owners by now -- are not the titles I expect to experiment with 3D-enhanced mechanics. Just like any other platform, the most exciting games are the ones that promise a lot of fun, and an idea I always wished to see brought to life or never knew I needed before.

I want to play a portable Diablo/Torchlight clone that has robust online multiplayer support (Heroes of Ruin), an original action/tower defense game (Dillon's Rolling Western), a Final Fantasy-themed rhythm title by the developers of Retro Game Challenge (Theatrhythm), a huge franchise crossover (Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney)‎, and a crazy omnibus collaboration between Suda51, Yoot Saito, and Yasumi Matsuno (Guild01).

It might seem silly to buy a handheld marketed primarily for its glasses-free 3D, then ask studios not to worry so much about focusing their resources on that feature, but, to me, there are more advantages to the portable than just that. Please pardon another tally of items, but there's the eShop download platform (that could one day be not terrible!), improved online and community capabilities, StreetPass possibilities, augmented reality experiments, and the control option triumvirate of its traditional buttons, touchscreen, and accelerometer/gyroscope.

I would much rather see most developers design their games to best exploit these features, and make sure the presentation still looks slick in 3D, than try to match what Super Mario 3D Land has achieved. Let Nintendo EAD Tokyo and other companies with deep pockets and the time to polish those kind of experiences work on Avatar-level productions. Most 3DS owners will be happy to see a rare great game come out for their system, regardless of how it incorporates the 3D gimmick into its gameplay.

Eric Caoili is a co-editor at DS/3DS-focused site Tiny Cartridge, as well as an editor/contributor to various UBM TechWeb Game Network properties (GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, and You can follow him on Twitter at @tinycartridge.

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