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3DS more gimmick than game-changer

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Columnist / March 24, 2011

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I’ve never seen the movie “Avatar.’’ The trailer looked silly, and the promise of glorious 3-D special effects wasn’t enough to draw me in. So maybe I wasn’t the target customer for a new video game device from Nintendo Co. that puts 3-D gaming in the palm of your hand.

The Nintendo 3DS, which goes on sale Sunday, uses a screen technology that projects a slightly different image to each of the player’s eyes. As a result, the player sees a 3-D image without the need to wear special glasses. It’s pretty clever, and it works. I’m just not sure why video gamers ought to care.

The 3DS carries a price of $250. That’s $50 more than you’d pay for the Wii, Nintendo’s popular living-room game console, and $81 more than the current Nintendo handheld game unit, the DSi XL. The extra money gets you a device that is about the same size and weight as the DSi, but with a classier glossy finish and a lot more technology, like a motion-sensing gyroscope and a pair of external cameras that can shoot 3-D photos.

But the heart of the 3DS is its 3-D gaming feature. Moving a sliding switch on the 3DS activates an invisible filter that divides the onscreen image, so that each eye sees half of it. To get the full 3-D effect, you must hold the 3DS about 14 inches away and look straight at the screen. Also, because each set of eyes is different, each user must adjust the slider to suit himself. You can turn off the 3-D effect entirely, if you prefer.

The 3DS still runs the existing DS games. But the first batch of three-dimensional titles are pretty attractive. I haven’t gotten around to Madden NFL yet, but I had fun with Super Street Fighter IV, a new version of that arcade classic that lets you beat up a variety of men and women in cities around the world. I’m better at this game than I used to be. It might be the cunning that comes with age. More likely, it’s the new “circle pad’’ controller, a joystick-like gadget that makes game play far easier than on earlier DS models.

I also outdid myself on the car racing simulator Ridge Racer 3-D, and had a good time with Lego Star Wars III, The Clone Wars, though it’s not nearly as much fun as the original Lego Star Wars, released way back in 2005. Best of all was Pilotwings Resort, a relaxing, yet challenging, game where you fly a small plane, a hang glider, or a personal rocket belt through a series of increasingly difficult courses. No shooting or fighting here; it’s the kind of family-friendly game that Nintendo does better than anybody.

The 3-D effect gives each game a deeper, more immersive look. But when the feature was switched off, I hardly noticed its absence; indeed, the games looked a bit crisper in 2-D mode.

There was one exception: AR Games, a feature that uses the 3DS’s external 3-D cameras and, of all things, a set of playing cards. Aim the cameras at a card, and the 3DS screen displays a three-dimensional arena with a variety of contests. One such augmented reality game, which involves shooting at targets, is truly eye-popping. But with most 3DS titles, I found the 3-D feature more of a gimmick than a game-changer.

Besides, 3-D is brutal on batteries. The previous generation DSi claims between 4 and 17 hours of battery life, depending on your screen brightness setting. But the 3DS requires the use of an extra-bright backlight to deliver a sharp image to each of the user’s eyes. As a result, I found the 3DS ran out of juice after about three hours, not even long enough for a cross-country flight.

The 3DS is quite a good game console, and likely to get better. Later this year, Nintendo will issue software upgrades that will add a Web browser to the device, as well as the ability to view movies via Netflix. Still, $250 is a lot to pay for one extra dimension, when you can get along fine with only two.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.