Remember the augmented reality (AR) games on 3DS? Go on, check your handheld, they're still there, quietly sitting on the home screen waiting to be enjoyed. Built into the system for all to experience whenever they like, taking an established technology and adding a hefty dose of Nintendo whimsy and charm. They were also quite a focus when the handheld was released — arguably because there was no eShop or "killer" launch game — with many using it as an early "look at what my cool new toy can do" demonstration. That little AR mascot — a yellow box with eyes — felt loved, cherished and like a valued part of the 3DS team.
Like a virtual Buzz Lightyear, however, it now sits near the bottom of the toy box, covered by an ever-increasing retail library and a lot of eShop downloads, disregarded and little loved. As for the AR cards themselves, that made the magic possible, good luck finding them — try looking in the bottom of a drawer.
What was supposed to be a major part of the handheld seems to have been lost to brief cameos and little more, with some download games even having the audacity to use the outer cameras on the system for real-world AR — different in that you can't view a 360-degree perspective, but the view is fixed and simply rendered on screen — so you don't need to find those cards. Spirit Camera: The Cursed Memoir tried using the tech with its own AR book, but was let-down by the fact that the experience was a bit rubbish, while Kid Icarus: Uprising has pocket-money-hungry collectible cards that play out pre-determined battles on your table-top — fun, but hardly pushing boundaries. Somewhat bizarrely Nintendo itself appears to have practically abandoned the concept beyond these simple examples, not even producing new or expanded versions of the built-in AR games, which would be something.
Which brings us to the NFC (near-field communication) capabilities in the GamePad, that little area marked out below the D-Pad on the left-hand side on the controller. Again it's simple, well-established technology, except this time Nintendo hasn't added its own unique flavour; launch day brought no equivalent mini-games, such as a simple collection that would use tiny mascot figurines, for example. There was nothing — no launch games use it, no upcoming games seem to use it; it's the feature that's been left redundant.
Perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised by NFC's irrelevance to date. As this entertaining Iwata Asks excerpt highlights, the team responsible for developing the GamePad apparently didn't even know the feature would definitely be included until it was announced to the public.
Iwamoto: We were supposed to be making a controller, but it has all the functions of a handheld!
Yamashita: Yes. And they all run wirelessly. We had to develop software for a lot of things—NFC, the TV control button, and the geomagnetic sensor — it was a lot of work! However, with regard to NFC, when we saw your announcement, Iwata-san, we were shocked. We were like, "Huh?! He's announcing that?!" (laughs)
Iwata: Is that so? Sorry about that! (laughs)
And until recently, we imagined a scenario where we'd speak to anyone at Nintendo and say, "so, what's coming next that uses NFC". Nintendo: (laughs).
Yet that may be about to change, with Shigeru Miyamoto saying in clear terms that NFC is on the to-do list within Nintendo.
With NFC, that's a feature that everyone that owns a Wii U can take advantage of. So that's what we're putting our priorities right now. We're hoping that in the near future we'll be able to show you something that will take advantage of the NFC on Wii U and people will be able to enjoy that.
What this will entail, and ultimately how much it'll cost, is a mystery until Nintendo reveals more, though we're a little cautious that bank loans may be required if a Skylanders/Disney Infinity approach is taken.
It's not as if the technology can't be used in creative ways, not just in games but also for practical uses — over a year ago we suggested ideas such as Smash Bros. figurines or cards that can be scanned on a rival system to transport characters or initiate battles, cards that integrate with built-in e-reading software or even the boring but useful prospect of eShop cards that apply funds with a simple swipe across the GamePad. This is easy to use technology that's been around for years and will be familiar to anyone with a travel pass on a modern underground train service, for example — all it needs is software.
If the will is there within Nintendo and others, perhaps we'll see some interesting ideas along the lines of those shown off in the 'leaked' Rayman Legends trailer of last year, though the inclusion of the concept has evidently been dropped with Ubisoft stating it "can't disclose" information on what was an internal demonstration.
So there's hope for NFC, though it seems that AR on the 3DS — by which we mean the card-using 360-degree angle kind — is still being quietly ignored. It'll be interesting to see what Nintendo produces to utilise the GamePad's NFC, and we certainly feel that a perfect home for software that uses the scanner, as well as the handheld's AR capabilities, is the eShop. The download platforms provide the perfect staging ground for small, experimental apps and games that make full use of the hardware tech available. Perhaps an approach similar to that at Game Freak and other companies can be the perfect method to make these experiences possible — staff get given a small percentage of time to work on and pitch their own ideas. Perhaps Nintendo does this, but if not then it'd certainly be a way to leverage the creative talent within its various teams.
Nintendo's hardware in recent times has had a core focus on innovation and gaming experiences that use off-the-shelf, affordable technology in fun new ways. It's an area where the company often flourishes, but in the cases of the 3DS AR cards and Wii U's NFC, there's still a lot of unfulfilled potential.