Friday, 18 June 2010

Tech Report: How Powerful Is The 3DS?

So, the 3DS is finally out of the bag and the first screens and videos of some visually impressive titles are making their way across the interweb. Tuesday’s unveiling of Nintendo’s latest hardware entry couldn’t have gone better, with a crowd-pleasing assault of titles aimed squarely at the ‘core’ gaming market, and some solid tech backing it up.

This tech is what we’re going to be looking at here today at IQGamer, uncovering the details behind the visual mastery in the various screenshots doing the rounds, and assessing just how powerful the 3DS really is. Of course, without actual hardware specs there isn’t much to go on outside some released screens, and poorly captured internet video. However pictures do tell a tale, and in the 3DS’s case, a significant amount about the underlying hardware. Definitive conclusions you won’t find – this isn’t really possible at the moment – but an insight into just what we can expect from Nintendo’s latest is something we can clearly provide.

Many people were quick to point out in their initial impressions that the 3DS appeared to have PS2 or GameCube quality graphics. A bold statement indeed, as that would make the hardware incredibly powerful, matching the iPhone in pure polygon capability whilst lacking some of the mobile device’s advanced shader effects. In reality that doesn’t seem to be the case, with the system’s current performance looking to be in between the Dreamcast and the PS2, but with liberal use of bump-mapping and specular effects. Better than the PSP? Yes, but maybe not in terms of raw geometry pushing power.

Another thing to consider is the fact that the machine is rendering everything on screen in 3D, and this means rendering each frame twice. This takes up far more potential processing power than just rendering a single frame for 2D display, and more than likely impacts on the level of polygon performance the 3DS is capable of.

In addition the 3DS also allows you to adjust how much of the 3D effects is displayed in real-time using a slider next to the screen. The reduction or increase in the effect appears to be calculated on the fly by the processors inside the system, so clearly for it to do this eats up whatever power could have been used for something else.

Maybe if the 3DS didn’t have to render every game in 3D, then it would more than likely exceed the PS2 in terms of graphics overall, matching it with regards to real-world polygon performance, but completely topping it in the visual effects stakes. As it is, not so much so.

Using screens for comparison we can see just how the 3DS holds up against other formats, and whether or not claims of the machine being close in power to a PS2 or like an enhanced Dreamcast are really true.

It’s pretty clear from the offset that the 3DS’s polygon pushing power is nowhere near that of the PS2 or the GameCube in mid or high level scenarios, instead it does resemble some low end, low key GCN and PS2 style graphics but with a greater amount of visual effects.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is a good example of this. Here we have a title that is perhaps pushing around more on screen that of a Dreamcast – with lots of bump-mapping, specular highlighting, reasonable texturing, and some nice lighting – but that clearly falls short of a high-profile PS2 game, geometry wise at least. Instead polygon counts look very similar to top end Dreamcast games, but with a far more liberal use of special effects. Use of programmable shaders are also very apparent, clearly putting the hardware ahead of the PSP, PS2 and GCN in the effects department.

The same thing can be found with Resident Evil: Revelations, a game which initially looks strikingly next-generation but hides its low poly make-up under a veil of bump-mapping and shading. You can see that the character models are in fact a little blocky, lacking the kind of intricate geometry detail to be found in most PS2 and GCN games. Instead the game manages to fool you into thinking it is more high-end than it actually is by cleverly using a healthy amount of bump-mapping, and good use of texturing and lighting, which allows smoother edges and more detail with less geometry being needed.

To emphasize just how important bump-mapping can be to creating a smooth image, lets talk about Activision’s Call Of Duty for a second. In an interview with developers Infinity Ward it was said that the characters in Call Of Duty 4 were made up of less polygons than in COD2, but that they actually looked noticeably more detailed as a result of improved use of certain effects. The developers pointed out that by using improved normal mapping (a more advanced technique with similar results to bump-mapping) and better texturing, that they were able to create more detailed characters with less geometry cost. It’s this very same thing that is happening here with Nintendo’s 3DS.

Compared to Sony’s PSP, the 3DS does appear to be approaching it for the most part with regards to real-world polygon counts in games, with the exception of top-tier titles such as GTA and OutRun 2 which seem to be pushing closer to the PSP’s technical maximum of around 6 million polygons per-second. Other than that, the 3DS competes remarkably well but demonstrates a clear effects advantage over Sony’s machine.

It’s these effects that make some of the 3DS titles look so much better than what is available on the PSP. Strangely, it appears that it is mainly third-party titles that are pushing the hardware using a wide range of effects the new machine seems to offer. Nintendo’s own games instead, seem far more basic in comparison using the standard textured and shaded approach to graphics rendering. Of course it doesn’t help that most of their titles shown were either N64 ports or what looked to be enhanced DS games.

Capcom’s Super Street Fighter IV is a good example of this. The game appears to have polygon counts approaching PSP levels, but with much more detailed texturing, and more advanced use of lighting/shadowing, plus some evidence of advanced shader effects too. It’s noticeably better than anything on either the PSP or the Dreamcast, and like with Resident Evil shows signs of visual effects normally found on the original Xbox.

Particularly impressive is the use of self-shadowing, an effect absent from the original PS3 version of SFIV, but later included in the ‘Super’ version. This is not something you’d expect to see on a handheld title, that’s for sure.

As you can see in many of the screens, it looks like the 3DS clearly has programmable pixel/vertex shaders, like with the original Xbox, or the PS3 and 360. Initially some people pointed out that Nintendo’s machine could simply be using older fixed-function type effects, ones that aren’t programmable in any way but give off a similar look. There are many fixed variants of common shader effects, and it could be that is just what 3DS games are using. However it has since been confirmed in an interview with Miyamoto that the hardware is fully capable of using shaders, thus putting an end to such speculation.

What this means, is that although it is pretty obvious that the 3DS is similar in power to Sega’s Dreamcast in terms of polygon rendering capabilities, and pretty close to the PSP, it is substantially more powerful than either of those two machines, or even the PS2, GCN and the Wii with regards to effects. Supporting shaders, the 3DS goes beyond what any of those machines can do in this regard, but how about against the iPhone?

Comparing it to the iPhone is perhaps a little more difficult, not least of all because few developers have actually tried to push the hardware, but also because there is a heavy software layer hiding direct access to the machine’s graphics hardware preventing devs from fully exploiting it. However, we do know that the SGX535 GPU inside the iPhone 3GS is clearly capable of better visuals than the 3DS regardless of the software restrictions. Developers using the Open GL development environment have access to the full range of shader effects the SGX535 Shader Model 4.0 core provides, whilst also being able to push similar levels of geometry to lead PS2 games around on screen.

The question with the iPhone, is whether or not developers have enough incentive to do this. After all, the iPhone is hardly a hotbed for bleeding edge games development, and there’s also the case of making games look good with the limited resources you have on offer, neither of which seem to be happening on Apple’s platform. In this case it really is an example of one platform being vastly superior (iPhone), but in which there is little software to showcase this fact. So with this, it’s safe to assume that most third party 3DS titles will look better than some of the best iPhone games, but not because the actual hardware is more capable, but because it is in the developers best interests to do so.

At the end of the day it looks like we can expect graphics quality in between Dreamcast and the GCN, but with the added use of shader effects seen on the original Xbox and beyond. Is it possible for the 3DS to do more? Maybe, but without seeing the specs sheet we simply don’t know, and it would be foolish to try and make such assumptions so early on.

In terms of what hardware lies inside the 3DS, we don’t really know for sure as nothing has been confirmed. But we do know that there must be some kind of ARM-based CPU inside the machine to maintain compatibility with the old NDS - enhanced and clocked at a faster speed to also handle the new stuff too – And, that the GPU is looking likely to be one provided by Japanese firm DMP, seeing as the company already has a chip powering another portable 3D display.

All things considered, the 3DS is a pretty powerful piece of kit sitting somewhere in between the Dreamcast and the original Xbox in terms of overall graphical performance. It might not be able to push polygons around on screen like there’s no tomorrow (less than PS2, GCN and XB), but with a range of impressive visuals effects made possible through the use of shaders, it doesn’t need to. In that respect, Nintendo’s latest handheld appears economical in its hardware design, yet perfectly capable for the task at hand. And for a successful handheld that really is all you need.

As more information surfaces, and developments occur we shall endeavour to revisit our look at the hardware inside the 3DS, updating you with what we hope will be the most informative and accurate report of its technical capabilities around. For now, this little insight into what is possible will have to do.


  1. your article is sooo wrong. LOL.

    First of all, are MGS3D character models dreamcast like? they're better than the PS2 ones for god's sake. Detailed ears for instance, and like you said better texturing. get your head out of your ass and see.

  2. I have created a game that pushes the iPhone 4, called Zombies : The Last Stand. It has parallax normal mapping, detail textures, dynamic lights, and shadow mapping. I hope more developers will push the hardware like this.

  3. Omg all this info is so wrong, if you were to go on a real review and do some research resident evil and metal gear is better in graphics on the 3ds. Like wow dude what fairy tale land did you get this info from, all false and bogus. I mean give credit where credit is due smh.