With nonchalant 3DS reveal, Nintendo gets strange

nintendo3ds_mockAlright. The utterly strange Nintendo 3DS reveal has cooled a bit these past few days, but in that sentence lies the rub: Strange.

It’s completely, mind-bogglingly strange that Nintendo, known for Apple-like secrecy—especially concerning hardware—would just casually drop what is arguably the biggest advancement in their portable line since the boxy gray DS was revealed six years ago. In their latest newsletter, industry rag GamesIndustry.biz pics up on this:

Bombshell dropped, Nintendo proceeded to airily imply that we can find out more at E3 if we’re bothered, and wandered off nonchalantly, leaving the Internet and the mainstream press alike to implode under the weight of speculation, claim and counter-claim.

And the announcement was indeed a bombshell. Three-dimensional gaming is in its infancy, and yet here it is, the apparent cornerstone of Nintendo’s next disruptive strategy (hell, some, like myself, are critical that it will ever truly take off in the near term, as motion controls have).

But maybe we should focus on “apparent cornerstone” for a moment too. The mysterious, uncharacteristically early reveal lacked the one thing that’s differentiated Nintendo from its two main competitors: Pics or hands-on with the hardware. Indeed, while Sony and Microsoft have been content to stroke the traditional year-long hype cycle for their new devices, which includes showing off a prototype without much consumer hands-on until right before launch, Nintendo has always managed to have both hardware and software available from the get-go—again a la Apple—so that the most important people to their business, the gamers, could test out and decide for themselves whether that plastic and silicon was worth their money.

The one exception is the controversial Vitality Sensor, but even though it lacked software of any kind (wait til E3, 2010, cough, they say), the device was at least shown in mock-up format as Iwata detailed the intricacies of this new accessory on stage at E3 2009.

And then there’s the strange 3D “parallax barrier” tech rumored to be at the heart of the handheld. Again, picked up on GI.biz:

[T]o be blunt, parallax barrier doesn’t feel like a Nintendo technology. This is the company that shoved two low-resolution screens and ancient resistive touch technology into a cheap plastic case and created the best-selling handheld console of the decade, thrashing competition which invested vast sums of R&D in building a full home console experience into a sleek, compact handheld. It’s the company that boosted the processor speed of its ageing GameCube system, threw in a DVD drive and some fairly old-school position sensing technology for the controller, and wiped the floor with the world’s technology giants who had invested in new processing technology, vastly advanced graphics chipsets and cutting edge storage systems.

Note that GI is not criticizing Nintendo here at all. The company has wiped the floor with Sony and Microsoft, and will continue to do so for the remainder of this year, at the very least, but the peculiar use of such untested high concept tech at Nintendo is, as I keep saying, completely strange and even a bit out of character.

The conspiracy theorist in me thinks, half in jest, that the release was a feint. Nintendo has so utterly dominated, so utterly confused, and so out profited its rivals this generation that it’s gotten bored. The result is the teasing 3DS pseudo-reveal. It’s batting rivals about like a cat with a ball of string. I kid, of course. I think. Also, note that I’m not saying Nintendo is faking having 3D. This isn’t some game to them, and 3D will be in the handheld. It’s just that, I think there’s more to it than that.

Or maybe all these Apple comparisons are starting to seep into Kyoto as a negative thing. The iPad hype is undeniable. Something like 50% of first gen iPad software will be games-related. iPhone/iPad games now account for 20% of the overall games development pie. Could the 3DS teaser simply be Nintendo getting jittery? Public comments from the Nintendo big players—Iwata, Fils-Aime, etc—indicate Nintendo doesn’t care, but if that 20% becomes 25%, or even 30%, and as the PSP continues its non-competitive slide into obscurity, it’s going to get harder and harder to believe them.

That said, the 3DS, whatever it ends up being, was in development long before Steve Jobs got up on stage in January to reveal the iPad, or when Sony got on its soap box to crow that the PS3 was the way of the 3D future. I’d even argue that the device probably existed in prototype form(s) before Natal and Sony Move were making their first heavily scripted steps on stage last year. So I guess that leaves me right back where I started: Utterly confused and intrigued by Nintendo’s un-Nintendo behavior.

Like I said. It’s all just kind of…strange. And fascinating. I can’t wait for E3, in any event. Thoughts?