Cover art credits: NES–still-the-best
Disclaimer: I love Nintendo! I grew up playing many NES, SNES and Nintendo 64 games and I have always appraised them. Nonetheless, I also have some criticisms to make about some of the company’s decisions regarding their games. Today I write to talk (rather complain) about the virtual console and give my 2 cents on how Nintendo could have improved upon the player’s experience with NES games on the 3DS system.
Since the release of the virtual console, which is a platform both for 3DS and Wii systems where a player can buy old games and play them on their respective consoles via emulation, it has brought players with their classical and beloved games from the 80s such as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Zelda (besides many others). And for those who own a new 3DS they have the capability of playing SNES games as well. Neat! But at what cost (literally)?
Looking at what Nintendo did is quite remarkable: get old games which were lucrative many years ago and keep them to generate new profits, without even making any substantial improvement upon! Well played big N. And let’s not forget about how they have re-reinvented the concept pushing once more NES titles to consumers with their new scarcely released NES Classic Edition, packed with 30 games, by the suggested price of $60. That’s $2 per game if we ignore the cost of the hardware, but of course, most of the price regards the hardware.
So, let’s suppose each game costs $1. What a deal, right? And the NES classic even includes the games’ manuals, four save slots, a neat menu to navigate throughout the games, three different modes for the TV screen, one even simulating the old CRT TVs, and much more. But I am not here to talk about it today. Let’s move on…
Now, how about the price for such games on the Nintendo eShop? Each NES game is sold by $5. Not too shabby. However, may I be frank with you: one could just download all roms and hook up a PC provided with a decent emulator to a television and the experience would probably be better than on a handheld system. Would you pay $5 for a single rom packaged onto an emulator? So, dear reader, you could be thinking how Nintendo could attract players to buy such games besides the nostalgia factor? I always thought about releasing them with snazzy 3D graphics.
That’s right. Make the NES games in 3D! Well, actually they exist and they are known as 3D classics. Unfortunately, only seven games have been released like so, and it seems that no others are to come out. One of them is Excitebike by the way. So, what have gone wrong with all the others? Why not more NES games with 3D capabilities? I am not requiring anything fancy, only that some of the sprites would pop up when I slide the depth slider up.
According to Wikipedia about the matter:
They underestimated the amount of work required to add stereoscopic 3D to a 2D game, requiring much more work than a simple port. Arika attempted a 3D Classics version of the NES/Famicom game Tennis because the background had perspective, but found it looked unimpressive in 3D while requiring re-coding collision detection almost from scratch.
Iwata and Nakano also talk about the difficulties found during development of the games in 3D.
Nevertheless, I am still not convinced of that impossible dream, for one simple reason. Watch the following video and you will see my discontentment.
As you can see, 3DNes ‘magically’ transforms the games in 3D yet it needs human assistance to know exactly how to proceed with every sprite. The Megaman games look really nice on that revolutionary emulator, though.
Surely there is not a silver bullet for ‘3d-fying’ games flawlessly and many will flick out here and there, but just stop for a moment and consider this: independent programmers have achieved such marvellous results without official support from Nintendo. So, if they can do, why cannot Nintendo do? Big N holds the specifications of hardware and developers the specifications of games. The 3dNes emulator even has an on-the-fly editor to tell how sprites should behave!
I own both Mario 3 and Zelda on my 3DS. They are fun to play, the virtual console has a save state which is handy, and Mario 3 can even be downloaded to a friend’s console to be played together. Yet, it feels like Nintendo just threw an emulator + rom there.
I understand the limitations of the hardware at its time. NES games couldn’t benefit from modern features like multi-layered sprites. It could only have one foreground and one background layer. Developers had to be really clever to achieve visual effects back then, especially for parallax.
I am not necessarily saying to turn the game in 3D like the 3DNes does, but if the emulator can create such interesting results based only on the background displays and foreground sprites, I guess it wouldn’t be too much difficult to make the virtual console games stereoscopic capable by applying similar techniques.
Based on what I read about NES games and sprites, my guess is that the emulator assigns for each sprite one different level of z-index. It makes sense since sprites are recycled throughout the game for the same purposes, therefore creating a consistent depth experience for the most cases. If the sprite is used in a HUD as well as in the game, though, it would be more difficult to assign one magical solution to the sprite alone.
Take for instance the Castlevania image above. The tiles which make up for the floor are always used to compose the floor. Thus, giving one higher z-index value to them will make the floor appear closer to the camera than the sprites of the player and enemies because different z-index values could be assigned to them. So you see, despite the limitation of only having two depths of layering in the original console, such smart tricks can make up for the good results.
As the interview of Iwata points out, not every game would automatically classify for ‘3d-fication’ simply because they would not feel natural because of their camera perspective.
Megaman, for example, would have had problems with sprites of large bosses. For the NES system, if more than a certain number of sprites were displayed at once on screen, it would cause the game to flick. One strategy was then to render the boss as the background instead of using multiple sprites. This would clearly break the strategy of assigning different z-index numbers to sprites, for now, the boss is not a sprite but rather the entire background. Megaman would feel as living in a different plane than the boss. Yet, keep in mind, this is one exceptional case of the game. I agree rewriting code is tedious, but that would be only a small portion of the game to be rewritten I believe. One remarking thing about the interview between Iwata and Nakano is, as Nakano says, Xevious had the graphics redone and was programmed from scratch. My point here is that you would achieve good results with probably a lot less of code rewriting .
Super Mario Bros. 3 seems like a reasonable game to ‘3D-fy’. Again, I am not suggesting that everything has to have the same depth applied on the emulator, but rather use it as a reference to see what would be possible to be done. For example, its title screen is all messed up likewise the select stage map. In those cases, you could just display the game without any 3D.
Sometimes the sprites appear awkward, but that is because the emulator also applies techniques such as creating blocks and applying sprites as texture, besides creating shadows. That is also impressive but not ultimately necessary.
In conclusion, I believe Nintendo could have exploited better the library of virtual console games for the 3DS by taking full benefit from its most appraised hardware feature: A 3D screen that requires no special glasses to play with. This would have surely brought that refreshing feeling to the old-school games which many love so much up to this day.