Friday Slide: What Does the Nintendo 3DS Mean for Apple Gaming?

E3 2010 is winding down. This year’s audience has already assured the blogosphere that the show met the “three F’s:” Fun, Fast, and Frenzied. Nintendo’s unveiling of its DS successor, the Nintendo 3DS was arguably the highlight of the show. Oh, and Sony and Microsoft did some stuff involving waving things around and there was a tiger or something.

The Nintendo 3DS’s most prominent features are its glasses-free 3D display (which can be adjusted for depth or turned off entirely), its tilt sensor, and the spark of life it aims to bestow upon the long-dead Kid Icarus franchise. It has a long list of fascinating features, but it’s the tilt and gyro sensors that are relevant to this column. Nintendo has been hot and cold about its opinions on the iPhone as a direct competitor to the Nintendo DS, but it’s hard to deny that the 3DS is a response.

And it’s great. Nintendo has developed a handheld system that’s already capturing the hearts of portable gaming fans. This is what competition does for the industry. The Wii has made Nintendo the King of Waggle, but would the company have bothered with a tilt sensor if not for the iPhone’s own tilt-based games? Would the company have bothered with the 3DS at all if not for looming competition from Apple? The Nintendo DS is certainly not in trouble in terms of sales numbers; if it really wanted to, Nintendo could ride on the DSi for a while longer, until saturation is total.

Regardless of the DS’s success, maybe Apple is making Nintendo uneasy, even if Nintendo would never admit it. What about Apple’s response to Nintendo? Will we see glasses-free 3D from the iPhone and iPad in the future, or will Apple dismiss Nintendo’s new 3D hardware as a “gimmick?”

It’s probably not wise to wave away Nintendo’s 3D technology. Like it or not, 3D is going to become part of gaming. Sony’s plan is grand, sweeping, and expensive; Nintendo’s plan is a bit more subtle and will doubtlessly be more affordable. Apple would do well to take notes on Nintendo’s strategy: “Oh yeah, we have some 3D effects going on here, if you want them. No need for glasses, and just turn them off if you want. But hey, look how awesome this game looks with a pop-out foreground!”

On the other hand, maybe it’s Apple’s turn to act like it’s too cool to pay any attention to the competition, then turn around and start drawing up frantic plans for the iPod’s next step as a gaming machine.

This may well wind up turning into history’s most fun cold war.