The most important words in a handheld developer’s lexicon? Ease of use, transparency, convenience. Handheld gaming is gaming outside its comfort zone, see, gaming up against it – shoved into the angle of a train door, overheated and badly in need of a piss, or bouncing around irritably on the top deck of a bus. Handheld gaming is gaming in the gloom of the staff sitting-room, through a haze of fatigue, or in the ruckus of the playground, with the entire world apparently intent on jogging your elbow and putting your favourite Pokemon to death.
Handheld games have to account for these shifting hostile circumstances, and that means certain design approaches – or luxuries, if you will – popular in the living room are less tenable. Complex menu screens are right out, for starters, to say nothing of gameplay formulae that set a lot of store by precision, like sniping sequences or point and click puzzles that tuck crucial clues behind individual pixels. Darker settings, too, are real no-nos: when you’ve only got four inches of display to fill, and the atmospheric fluctuation of a city commute to reckon with, it makes no sense at all to wrap three and a half of those inches in shadow.
Glass-less is more
Nintendo has been getting all this right for longer than I can remember. While many third party DS studios have muddled around in the realm of fuzzy photorealism, and Sony has turned out extremely high-quality but not quite travel-friendly PSP titles like Peace Walker and Resistance: Retribution, the House of Mario has always put its weight behind big solid colours, big solid sprites and fat unmissable button panels. But Nintendo has been trying new, exciting and potentially dangerous tricks of late. Nintendo is getting its groove on with 3D gaming.
Yesterday, I finally had a chance to see 3DS, the ‘glass-less 3D’ handheld over which such astonishing quantities of ink and fairy dust have been spilt, in action. The manufacturer had kindly put some of the test kits and demos aired at its E3 presser on show at London’s Millbank Tower. Even the attendant blondes whose Colgate smiles irradiated many a jet-lagged heart in June were back, crammed between two long white booths, looking for all the world like they’d been impounded by a lecherous traffic warden.
I quickly tucked into interactive demos for PilotWings, Nintendogs & Cats, Resident Evil: Resurrection, Ubisoft’s Hollywood 61 and Metal Gear Solid 3: The Naked Sample, garnished by static show-reels for Kid Icarus, the untitled Mario Kart game and a handful of painstakingly constructed, rotatable dioramas designed merely to test-drive the parallax top display.
Was I impressed? You bet your firmly muscled, on-the-go gamer buttocks I was impressed. At its best, thumbing the 3D effect slider up to the max felt like time-warping from one hardware generation to another: the view telescoped, objects near and far took on a sudden clarity and sensuality, particles flew dizzyingly past my ears and the urge to rip the little beauty from its mount, shove it into my bag and leap cackling out the window reached a nigh-unbearable pitch. But all that splendour comes at a price. We’ll get to the whys and wherefores in a few paragraphs: first, let the gushing and gesticulating commence.
Sinking to whole new depths
The stand-outs in the 3DS showcase were unquestionably Metal Gear and Nintendogs – the former for the cheeky delight it took in putting the handheld’s capabilities through the wringer, the latter for its quieter, workmanlike polish.
Naked Sample is a proof-of-concept movie created using in-engine assets and styled like gameplay, loosely based on the storyline of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It follows Naked Snake through the jungle of Cold War Russia to a climactic fistfight with nemesis/mentor The Boss in a petal-strewn meadow. The camera, alternately first and third-person, can be angled slightly with the analog slide panel (concaved to fit your thumb, and thus light-years away in the comfort stakes from the PSP’s ‘orrible nub), giving the viewer more room to appreciate the marvellous ways Kojima and his minions have found to riff on the unprecedented sense of depth.
Wherever there’s an opportunity to push some intricate, animated model to the fore, be it a wasp, a cobra’s gaping maw, a bent blade of grass or the long, tapering snout of an unexpected crocodile, Naked Sample does so. The jungle environment is the perfect place to flex 3DS’s muscles, stratified by hummocks, trunks and shafts of sunlight, and saturated with eye-catching particularities like blown leaves.