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Image: Nintendo DS Lite, Nintendo DSi, Nintendo DSi XL
Nintendo
The super-sized Nintendo DSi XL (right) launches Sunday. The portable gaming gadget is a larger version of the DSi (middle) with screens 93 percent bigger than the DS Lite (left). But will consumers pay $190 for the DSi XL now that Nintendo promises to launch a new 3-D game device within the next year?
By InGame reporter
NBC News
updated 3/26/2010 8:57:19 AM ET 2010-03-26T12:57:19

This Sunday, Nintendo will launch its newest portable gaming gadget — the Nintendo DSi XL. This latest version of Nintendo’s best-selling DS game machine is large and in charge with not only an expanded waistline but two super-sized screens.

But while the DSi XL hasn’t even had a chance to sashay out of its box yet, another portable gaming gadget is already hogging its spotlight. And it’s another portable gaming gadget from Nintendo.

It’s called the Nintendo 3DS … and it doesn’t exist yet.

On Tuesday, as Nintendo was gearing up to roll out the new Nintendo DSi XL in North America, the company stunned the gaming world by issuing an unexpected and unusually brief announcement: It will launch a brand new handheld game machine sometime in the next year that will play games in 3-D without requiring gamers to wear those funny glasses.

The cryptic and oddly-worded 10-line press release was unusual not only for its lack of details and its timing (big revelations like this are usually saved for big industry shin digs like the Electronic Entertainment Expo or the Tokyo Game Show). But it was also unusual because Nintendo was touting the successor to its DS line of game machines … when it hadn’t even finished launching its latest DS.

“I’m still kind of speechless as to why they chose today, especially with the launch of the DSi XL coming to North America, to make such an announcement,” said Jesse Divnich, a games analyst with EEDAR, after hearing the 3DS news.

Certainly this week’s 3DS revelation combined with next week’s launch of the DSi XL means that gamers who want to buy a portable game device have a lot to consider. Is the Nintendo DSi XL worth dropping $190 on? Would it be better to wait for Nintendo’s mysterious DS successor to arrive on store shelves? Or should they, perhaps, think about buying something else altogether?

3D knockout … or another Virtual Boy?
Despite the odd timing … or perhaps because of it, one thing Nintendo’s surprise announcement did was get people talking — and speculating. How will Nintendo pull off 3-D gaming not only without the fancy glasses but on a portable machine? What other features will their new gadget include? Will this device be the answer to the growing threat posed by the iPhone, iPod Touch and even the soon-to-launch iPad ?

Though Nintendo executives aren’t talking about the 3DS, just about everyone else is.

Some have speculated that Nintendo’s abrupt announcement was a way to pre-empt a 3-D related announcement from Apple or another competitor. After all, Sony has made no secret of the fact that it’s been working on 3-D gaming for its PS3 console. Meanwhile, there’s been talk about glasses-free 3-D for mobile phones which a few Japanese phones already offer.

“3-D gaming has certainly gained a lot of buzz over the last couple of months,” Divnich says. “And if I had to guess what Nintendo’s thinking was, I think they really want to be known as the first company in the gaming space to really introduce or announce 3-D technology in their products.”

Image: Nintendo Virtual Boy
Courtesy of PC World
Beware the lessons of the Virtual Boy. Way back in 1995, Nintendo got the world excited about 3-D portable gaming. But when consumers got their hands on the clunky, goofy Virtual Boy, they were less-than-impressed.

Divnich believes the 3DS could be exactly the kind of unique offering Nintendo needs to combat Apple’s aggressive move into handheld gaming.

“The iPhone has been a tremendous threat. It certainly has stolen a lot of market share from Nintendo over the last couple of years,” he says. “I think many were expecting Nintendo to try to replicate upon the iPhone’s success and include things like tactile screens or an accelerometer which are features that still might be included. But Nintendo always tends to prove us wrong. They went very original with the announcement of this 3DS.”

But games analyst Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities is skeptical about the kind of 3-D tech Nintendo will ultimately deliver, and points to the press release’s unusual wording. To be exact, the release says the 3DS will be a device “on which games can be enjoyed with 3D effects.”

“‘Games can be enjoyed with 3D effects’ — what does that mean? It doesn’t say that the games are 3D. It says they ‘can be enjoyed with 3D effects,’” Pachter points out. “The odds of it working the same way as what people see in the theater are pretty slim.”

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Games blog Kotaku has written about a couple of handheld games that already offer the illusion of 3-D play without using groundbreaking technology. A Japanese game called “Hidden Image: There It Is!” manages to create a pretty spectacular 3-D effect on a current generation DSi. Meanwhile, iPhone game WordFu pulls a nifty 3-D trick on players.

“I think the PR risk is that they’ve got everybody believing it’s something revolutionary and if it’s not, they have a great potential to disappoint,” Pachter says.

He makes a good point. The last time Nintendo got the public this excited about portable 3-D gaming was way back in the Middle Ages of gaming — 1995 — when they launched the Virtual Boy.

The goofy gadget — complete with goggle-like eye wear — was supposed to offer players a stunning virtual-reality like experience. But instead, the cumbersome device offered players uninspiring graphics and headaches. It was a commercial failure and quickly faded away to punch line status .

About that super-sized DSi …
Nintendo has promised to reveal more about the forthcoming 3DS at the E3 trade show in June. Until then, all the excitement about Nintendo’s mystery machine is making it hard to remember that another iteration of the Nintendo DS is about to hit store shelves.

The DSi XL is the fourth version of Nintendo’s enormously successful DS game device (more than 125 million DSs have sold worldwide). The original DS — with its clamshell design, two screens and touch interface — launched in 2004. In 2006, Nintendo slimmed and trimmed it down to create the DS Lite.

A year ago, Nintendo launched the DSi , which added two cameras, access to the online DSi Shop and some other tricks and treats. The DSi XL is essentially the same as the DSi but it comes in a larger size and with significantly larger screens — 93 percent bigger than the DS Lite screens. It also comes with a heftier price tag. The DSi XL is $190 while the standard DSi is $170 and the DS Lite is $130.

Going bigger seems an unusual choice — especially for a portable gaming device. But then again, smaller isn’t always better as Sony recently discovered. In October, Sony released the PSPgo, a slimmer, sleeker version of its PlayStation Portable machine. But sales of the pocket-sized PSPgo have been downright sluggish.

Nintendo has been touting the embiggened DSi XL as a more social gaming device — one with screens designed to be clearly viewed by friends watching nearby from any angle.

“It starts to bridge the gap between the very personal experience that has tended to be associated with handheld gaming and the more social experience that we’ve all come to love on Wii,” says Cammie Dunaway, Nintendo of America's executive VP of sales and marketing.

I’ve spent the last few days playing around with a DSi XL and it’s certainly … chunky. With so many gadgets these days slimming down, it felt strange to pick up a gadget that had gotten bulkier. In fact, the DSi XL weighs more than the first Nintendo DS launched back in 2004 (the girth of which earned it the nickname “DS Phat”).

After playing with the XL for a while, I found the weight a little off-putting. You’d definitely want to rest the XL on something rather than hold it in your hands if you planned to play for any length of time. However, I liked the more spacious screens. Though Nintendo didn’t increase the screen resolution when it increased the screen size, the larger display still makes games pop nicely. Playing is easier on the eyes and definitely easier to share with others.

Image: Nintendo DS
Nintendo
Big is back. The original Nintendo DS (above), released in 2004, was a sizeable thing, eventually earning the nickname "DS Phat." In 2006, Nintendo trimmed it down and introduced the DS Lite. But everything old is new again. The DSi XL is slightly heavier than the DS Phat.
While Pachter believes the DSi XL’s larger screen size may appeal to some older gamers, ultimately he predicts the machine’s beefy price point, the competition from Apple and the 3DS revelation will doom Nintendo’s newest device.

“I think the DSi XL is going to be probably their biggest failure of the last few years,” Pachter says.  “With the iPod Touch now within $10 dollars of the DSi XL and with the 3DS announced, I think the DSi XL is going to have trouble establishing itself as its own product.”

But Divnich disagrees. The DSi XL was launched in Japan in November and has done well there. And he expects the XL to be a success for Nintendo in North America as well … despite the 3DS announcement stealing its thunder.

Ultimately, going bigger when everyone else is going smaller, says Divnich, “is just Nintendo being Nintendo — which is being original. They always tend to do the opposite of what we’re thinking, but it works because they create the trend.”

Super-sized writer Winda Benedetti is large and in charge right here on Twitter.

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