From the Famicom to 3DS: Nintendo’s Incredible History With 3D Technology Came Full Circle

by Marc Kaliroff
Published: Last Updated on

3D technology was never cheap, and Nintendo knew that more than anyone else in the industry. When Nintendo of America’s former CEO Reggie Fils-Aimé introduced the concept of the company’s next piece of handheld hardware at the Nokia theater in 2011, there was an important statement to be made. 3D technology at the time was the hot ticket to what was believed to be the next big form of entertainment. However, having that technology in the comfort of your own home came with some large drawbacks – of course, one being that it was undoubtedly pricy. 3D televisions were going upwards of a thousand dollars and content was sparse outside of a few major blockbuster hits available in special formats printed on even more expensive DVDs. Then you have the glasses which had to be bought in bulk if more than one person wanted to watch. Who could forget the way Reggie negatively referred to them as “those glasses”?

As the Nintendo 3DS turns a decade old this week, there is no better time to look back on the fascinating history of the company’s work to create and devise new innovative experiences of playing video games in the next level of depth perception. The original dual-screen portable device’s successor may have released in 2011, but far before its time, Nintendo was hiking on one massive trail to create the perfect 3D gaming device. While the long journey did bring us what is arguably one of the company’s most important creations, 3D technology brought out more than a successful product with a landslide of memorable titles. Nintendo’s admirable focus on righting their wrongs forged some of the industry’s most important relationships to date that would later change the future of the medium as a whole.

Playing with power: From 1987 to 2011, Nintendo’s history with 3D technology is nothing short of fascinating.

While many people believe the Virtual Boy was Nintendo’s first 3D gaming project, the company’s interest in that form of entertainment actually predates their uncomfortable commercial failure by almost a decade. Eight years before the red and black system could meet its lackluster rise and less than dramatic fall, in 1987 Nintendo released the Famicom 3D System. This pair of active shutter goggles would attach to the Famicom system via both a third-party port and the console’s internal extension slot. Like any other pair of these glasses, the visor came with all sorts of issues as screen darkening and rapid flashing were only the first few issues to be conquered in a long cavern of problems. The attachment never released in the west after it failed to gain any traction in its home territory along with its competitor the SegaScope 3-D Glasses. However, developers did try and implement artificial 3D in their games without the need of the system, as can be seen in titles that many Nintendo fans outside of Japan will know such as Rad Racer.

Nintendo knew that the technology of the Famicom 3D System was not completely ready to embrace the world. The company ultimately canceled the product’s production in less than a year of its release, but one incredible duo figured out a way to utilize the tech cleverly before it completely hit rock bottom. Whereas the public mostly associates 3D and Nintendo with Former President Satoru Iwata today, the visionary’s hopes for pursuing the technology in the future was all thanks to Shigeru Miyamoto’s interest in incorporating the device into a struggling HAL Laboratory title. When Iwata was working at HAL Laboratory as a programmer in 1987, a sequel to Grand Prix found itself in deep trouble as many of Nintendo’s staff stated the game to be bland, boring, and flat-out uninteresting to play. Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally was the first game that Miyamoto and Iwata developed together, and it was all thanks not to the game being bad by any means, but needing a stroke of individuality.

Nintendo Famicom 3D System Grand Prix II

Miyamoto and Iwata first decided to rebrand Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally with Mario and Luigi for marketability purposes. Fun fact- as the plumber brothers made their way into the game, Miyamoto and his fellow artist finalized Luigi’s iconic design with the title. The character’s lean look and distinctive mustache that differentiates him from Mario first came to be here- since the beginning, Luigi has always found his way into Nintendo’s 3D technology, though just remember that now as we will get back to that detail later. Incorporating Mario into the title was not Miyamoto’s only priority when repainting the game over with Iwata. Finding a way to make the gameplay entertaining in a way that stood out from the rest of Nintendo’s racers was a key element in his push to ensure that it was finalized and ready for release.

Miyamoto’s pursuit in properly finding a way to use the Famicom 3D System brought him to a moment of genuine innovation. The creator drafted up a way to perceive the racing game’s layout in a more immersive way by showcasing a different depth perception between the cars, hills, and roads. Not only did using the 3D make the game more immersive to play, but it made itself graphically stand out from any other racer of the time as the look of blended objects had been solved. Every action in the game had weight as jumps and turns gracefully looked unique thanks to that added field of perception. Despite being well-received from a technical standpoint the title was doomed to be not as successful as both HAL Laboratory and Nintendo had hoped. The combination of being part of two financially troubled pieces of hardware on top of exclusivity to the disc system quickly killed the game’s possible large appeal. The relationship that birthed from the game’s problematic development became nothing short of invaluable to Nintendo’s later years though.

The next step into another dimension was shuttered by the fans and beaten by critics: the Virtual Boy was Nintendo’s greatest failure.

Before Satoru Iwata could make the spotlight again, eight years after the Famicom 3D System fell into obscurity Nintendo was ready to take another crack at the 3D market- or so they thought. This time the company decided to embrace 3D through the newly developed idea of virtual reality while it was still in an indisputably primitive state. Reflection Technology pitched the idea of collaborating with Nintendo to make a video game console after being shot down by multiple manufacturers including Mattel and even Sega. Their latest idea called Private-Eye was the first stereoscopic head-tracking pair of glasses. The device was designed alongside a prototype of a tank game that ultimately impressed Nintendo’s R&D1 division who was led by Game and Watch and Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi.

While Nintendo and Reflection Technology were aware that the tech behind the in-development system codenamed “VR32” was troublesome, the former began developing titles for the project hoping that the health and safety concerns regarding its design would be flattened before release. It was always clear that the combination of a video game console and under-researched technology ultimately meant the system would be hit with various setbacks, but no one could have predicted how badly the result would pan out. Limited color palettes, resolution, size, battery life, controller connections, and everything else wrong with the Virtual Boy all came from cost-cutting on an already expensive device. Having red and black as the only color schemes available for the sake of keeping the price under the thousands was far beyond the system’s first problem as headaches and nausea quickly became playtester nightmares. Not even a twenty-minute break from looking into the dark void of the Virtual Boy’s eyes could solve the trauma the machine devised.

After the press and public instantly tarnished the system’s reputation before it could release, the Virtual Boy’s life ended within less than a year of being on the market. While it may have been a complete disaster of a release, the Virtual Boy was the halfway stretch to getting to the 3DS as Nintendo finally found their key point to focus on. What was wrong with the combination of Nintendo and 3D? Was the company just never cut out to use the tech? Were they not developing the right games for their systems and add-ons? Nintendo had lost their way in developing 3D technology because they did not stick to their greatest development philosophy that has catapulted them to the top of the gaming world: do not stick to the trends, be the trendsetter. The most important key to seeing 3D was having to wear a peripheral, yet that very same headpiece always drove Nintendo’s products to failure. The only next step for Nintendo was to find a way to conquer the parallax barrier: 3D without the need for glasses.

“No one said it was going to be easy [glasses-free 3D]. Nobody, but Nintendo.” – Reggie Fils-Aimé

Nintendo Press Conference E3 2011

Enter the age of autostereoscopic products: GameCube and Game Boy Advance’s secret feature was not ready to hit the public yet.

The origins of Nintendo’s desire to conquer the parallax barrier first came to be after their first real dive into the primitive world of virtual reality became one of their biggest financial flops. A need for redemption was born after a complete head trauma of an incident. After the Virtual Boy had bombed in its uncharted market space, Nintendo continued to invest in researching the potential of 3D technology as the topic was on the rise with new forms of media over the years. The main complaints of the Virtual Boy became Nintendo’s core focus when heading back into the same creative headspace as to how to innovate with 3D gaming. Fixing their original errors as they vigorously aimed to create better solutions led to the creation of third-dimension gaming’s most creative option: the need to escape the presence of bulky and annoying head peripherals. Nintendo needed to develop a system that did not require ten extra steps to getting their traditional experiences.

According to former Nintendo President Satoru Iwata who detailed the 3DS’s history in his “Iwata Asks” interview column, the company’s efforts to research autostereoscopic technology date back all the way to the GameCube and Game Boy Advance. There were multiple experiments and tests to make both systems work with glasses-free 3D technology. However, the results never came through with substantial conclusions high enough for Nintendo’s standards. That is not to say that Nintendo’s efforts to create autostereoscopic 3D were unsuccessful until the 3DS, though. The company had unlocked the secret to the parallax barrier and liquid crystal displays [LCD] far before their time of appreciation would come into fruition.

Iwata informed Shigesato Itoi in that very same interview that research and development teams at Nintendo had figured out the technology years before its public debut. The company had intended for the GameCube to be the first-ever console to utilize the technology, but they came across two significant caveats before going forward with bringing 3D gaming to life through both handhelds and consoles: one of their current system’s resolutions at the turn of the century were too low to see the full visual effect and the other was far too pricy for the average consumer. The Game Boy Advance’s 3D iteration had come across as too blurry to see the full effects of the games being tested. Meanwhile, Nintendo had Luigi’s Mansion running in full autostereoscopic 3D on GameCube through a screen attachment, but the company felt it was not yet ready to bring its fresh idea to the market due to the cost of the liquid crystals required to make it work.

Reaching perfection: with some slight tweaks along the way, the 3DS was Nintendo’s next dimensional knockout.

Nintendo 3DS

As Nintendo’s breakthroughs in 3D technology waited in the trenches to attack, a reignited spark of interest in handhelds came to be thanks to the causal and hardcore approach of the DS all while motion controls stormed the world as the Wii quickly became one of the best selling consoles in history. When the company decided the time was nigh for a new iteration of their booming portable device, both motion control and autostereoscopic aspects were incorporated into the next hardware – but those elements only served as the basis of the 3DS’s features. Nintendo’s need to push audiences’ visual perception and immersion even further led to the inclusion of a gyroscope, new forms of communication, an inner camera, and augmented reality through two front-facing cameras. While all of these aspects were being pushed into games and applications, it came at a price Nintendo underestimated.

The Nintendo 3DS launched at $249.99 in the United States and the public’s reaction was less than stellar. While the hardware garnered positive praise from all outlets, its lack of games at launch and its price tag quickly became a critical concern. On top of all of this, the 3D effect worked efficiently but was rather shaky when it came to positioning. If the system were not displayed from the right angle, then its picture would come off as distorting. To counteract the latter concerns, Nintendo continued to revise the technology as they released new deluxe models of the console. Eventually, the company managed to find a perfect solution to their previous error. That inner camera that was only utilized for Face Raiders, Mii Maker, and Star Fox 64 3D became the system’s technical savior. In 2015, the “New” Nintendo 3DS added face tracking to the inner camera. This allowed players to move comfortably with their system as the unit could efficiently cooperate with the player rather than locking itself to a singular position.

Nintendo 3DS Luigi's Mansion

Perhaps the detail to highlight here would be that Nintendo completed two goals with one handheld. 20 years after those breakthrough developments in the field of autostereoscopic and parallax barrier technology were made, the first intended game to ever hit the market would come to light in its fully realized form. While it may have sold poorly due to its ill timing with the Nintendo Switch already being out on the market, Luigi’s Mansion 3D finally saw one of the original game’s intended launch aspects come to life. Luigi’s Mansion on the 3DS may not have been a massive knockout title for the company like its original release, its sequel Dark Moon, or even 2019’s Luigi’s Mansion 3, but it does signify a noteworthy aspect about Nintendo as both a business and innovator of technology.

The mere fact that the original title was able to receive one of its cut development highlights after years on the shelf is a testament to Nintendo’s never-ending care of their products. As the company’s name explains, leave luck to heaven. Nintendo fought for their future as they continued to prove an idea could be substantial over the years. They never saw success coincidentally when pursuing 3D technology. They failed time and time again to provide the best possible third-dimension visual experience gaming has ever seen. Maybe 3D was a fad for the public as it has seen a massive decline over the last decade, but what lies beneath the 3DS’s successful legacy lies a 28-year battle Nintendo undertook to prove that it will never forfeit its philosophies and desires no matter what the market may say.

“We [Nintendo] do not run from risk. We run to it.” – Satoru Iwata

Nintendo Press Conference E3 2011

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