The New Nintendo 3DS and the death of the screen

It had been a shock when Jean-Luc Godard announced that his latest film, Goodbye to Language, would be in 3D. The acclaimed director of Breathless and Week End had made about a movie per year for almost four decades, but only released four since 1996, adopting the measured pace of a man entering his 80s. Now here he was, adopting the language of Transformers and superheroes. The title of the film seemed apt, if dismaying.

But the ensuing work proved that he still had the power to shock, and it was accomplished not in spite but because of the 3D. This was due to a sideways technical innovation. Three-dimensional glasses normally use different lenses in each eye to filter out portions of the screen, so that each eye receives a slightly different image; this tricks the brain into perceiving depth. While Godard did utilize this technology for much of Goodbye to Language, in one shot he did something surprising: he broadcast a completely different scene to each eye. Thus the viewer could switch between the scenes at will by opening or closing one eye. “It’s montage taken to its logical extreme: in-eye editing,” the film critic Calum Marsh wrote at The Dissolve.

Now, I want to be clear: I’m deferring to Marsh because I have not seen Goodbye to Language. I might never see it! But that’s partly my point. Three-dimensional movies have an access problem. You can only really see them at the theater, large theaters are unlikely to play 60-minute experimental films like Goodbye to Language, and experimental filmmakers themselves are unlikely to have access to 3D cameras in the first place. It’s a delicate ecosystem of unavailability. The Nintendo 3DS, which has recently been re-released in a new model, is often viewed as a case in point for the failure of 3D to catch on in homes, but it was once an antidote. When it debuted in 2011, the press was abuzz with heady proclamations of 120% year-over-year 3D TV sales increases, but those sales have slowed dramatically in the ensuing years. Many new TVs still feature the capability as an afterthought, but movies and channels that avail themselves of the tech are dwindling. (Do you have a drawer full of 3D glasses somewhere, or a friend with one?) Dedicated 3D blu-ray players are almost nonexistent, and thereafter you either need to buy the movies, rent them from off-brand specialist services, or stream nature-porn pablum from Netflix.

And so into this empty room vaults the New Nintendo 3DS, to the sound of crickets and head-scratches: a lightly rejiggered model of something that many people already thought outdated. Its competitors are not talking about their 3D plans, and people are not quietly plotting larger 3D TV purchases the way they once might have been. Its manufacturer has even produced a separate model called the 2DS that punts the 3D effect entirely. Nintendo has a long history of tweaking products gradually over time, perhaps most famously with the Wii, which was released with “motion controls” that only really worked when paired with a peripheral that came out years later. The New 3DS’s revisions are along similar lines. The addition of an eraser-like nub on the right-hand side, which functions as a second joystick, is surprisingly nimble, and essential for many games. The added eye-tracking functionality prevents the system from slipping out of 3D and into a muddy wash; it still operates with a defined sweet spot, positionally, but that sweet spot is much larger.

If you liked the 3DS before, you will like the New 3DS more, in other words. And there’s a lot to love: available only in extra-large in America, it weighs damn-near as much as the original Game Boy (329 grams versus 394 grams). It is a big thing that you are using for the exclusive purpose of playing a three-dimensional videogame. This is odd, but assertive. Portable games are more popular than ever, but hardware devoted exclusively to playing them has a bit of a disadvantage when compared to products that are also telephones and browsers and social appendages. The New 3DS bucks this disavantage  by underlining it, reifying its essential gameness. The result is unquestionably the greatest 3D videogame system ever made; much more interesting is the fact that it might also be the last one.

For those with a taste for it, the experience of playing a game in 3D remains a delight, like watching claymation after years of watching Dreamworks computer animation. Mario still looks downright edible here—I can envision the marshmallowy give of his flesh—and a dungeon in Majora’s Mask or Shin Megami Tensei 4 feels darker, longer, deeper than it might otherwise. One of the flagship titles of the New 3DS is a game called Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate—which, after having played for a dozen or so hours, is a game I believe to be designed by and for crazy people—but it looks marvelous, my avatar a lovingly crafted action figure and the titular prey her enormous biological assailant. On the big, crisp new screen, it’s like watching a dog rampage through a child’s closet.

Much of this would be true on the Nintendo 3DS; it’s just truer of the new model. And so the device sits at a strange point in the rapidly evolving 3D entertainment landscape. The system initially solved the problem of access—everyone who had a 3DS was using 3D—but that has been undercut by the release of the 2DS. I spoke to several developers about the difficulty of designing in 3D, and all said it’s remarkably easy and intuitive, which cuts another direct contrast to 3D movies. This is an important virtue of the system, especially as the future of videogames once again looks three-dimensional, if not in the way the 3DS envisioned it. In the past week, I strapped on the HTC Vive for a few minutes, and it was the sort of transformative, transportative experience that VR has been building toward for years. It was as if overnight the technology lurched forward by a decade. When time starts moving like that, something is bound to get left behind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was stereoscopic 3D. The “screen,” as we think of it, is disappearing, and the 3DS is almost nothing but a screen. It may not be long for this world, but it is an important step on videogames’ path toward learning a new language of aesthetic and mechanical design. And, as Godard proved, saying goodbye to language can still be an act of great beauty and awe.