Does 3D NES really improve old NES games?

A new emulator makes all your old NES games into 3D titles, but is this an improvement, or just a gimmick?
I have, it should be noted, something of a mixed opinion of console emulators. On the one hand, I do appreciate that they’re a respectable method of keeping games that might otherwise rot away into dust as part of the collected culture of human history years after they’ve been relevant.
On the other, emulators tend to promote the idea of downloading the entire library of a given console. You then give individual titles perhaps a second or two of your time, because hey, there could be a better game to play. There’s something satisfying about clunking an actual cartridge into an actual machine that tends to make you appreciate individual games more that way.

3D NES: I fought the law, and the law won (more or less

It’s also worth noting that Australian copyright law isn’t terribly emulator friendly. There’s nothing* (*I am not a lawyer) that I’m specifically aware of in Australian copyright law as pertains to the software contained in a given emulator per se. The moment you load a ROM into it, unless specifically allowed to — public domain games, in other words — you’re most definitely breaking copyright law.
I’ve written about this before a few times. The way it stands, even if you own the original game, you’re still not entitled to use a ROM copy of it. This is similar across digital video media, but not digital audio CDs.
Yes, Australian copyright law is a stupid mess, and the odds of you being busted per se for a single iffy ROM seem low. That’s especially likely if it’s for an out-of-print title from a company that no longer exists. Probably less so if you traffic heavily in Super Mario Bros ROMs, though.
Still, I’m certainly not aware of anyone being pursued in that way. For the purposes of this review I’ve used short sections of titles I already own for the purposes of critical review. Even that probably doesn’t have any legal weight. Proceed at your own risk, I am not a lawyer, etc.
The other thing about emulation is that by and large it tries to be authentic. With only a few exceptions, I actually still have my original machines. As such, all I’d be doing with most emulators is matching something I can already do, albeit with save states.
Still, my curiosity was piqued by this Eurogamer story, looking at a “3D” NES emulator. That’s something the original hardware could never do. So it’s actually taking older games and giving them a different perspective, quite literally.

3D NES: Nice party trick

As a technical achievement, that’s quite neat. It did leave me wondering if it were actually playable in any real way. The NES has a great library of games, but would a shift in perspective actually make a big difference to how you experience them?
Bravely dipping my toes into the murky legal waters, I set to testing out 3D NES to see if it was really worth bothering with.
3D NES allows you to load custom .3dn files that tell the emulator which screen sprites to stack in a variety of 3D styles; predominantly cube or rounded stacked polygons. You can build them yourself or tinker with others, or just leave the whole business up to the emulator itself.

Image: geod
Image credit: geod

What’s neat here is that for some titles, the visual difference is quite stark in 3D. There’s some upscaling in there as well, which helps too.  Using a gamepad controller it’s fairly easy to tilt the perspective around — another neat trick.
Actual editing is a little cumbersome, because ultimately these games weren’t built that way so full edits do require quite a bit of hit and miss checking and re-stacking of elements. Methinks that most folks will dabble, declare it too hard and see if anyone else has made the effort for the games they love. Outside the “big” titles — your Marios, Megamans, Zeldas and the like — your chances aren’t likely to be terribly good.
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Image credit: geod

3D NES: Not quite perfect

Here’s the thing, though: While many classic NES games have stood the test of time, adding 3D to them is still just a party trick for the most part. If you’re the type of gamer who would already enjoy older 8-bit classics — and I’ve argued before that every gamer should be a retro gamer if only to appreciate the history of the form if not the insane pricing — then adding 3D won’t change your view. If you’re not, it’s cute, but limited in some ways, with notable sprite flicker and some effects that work well in 2D that translate horribly when placed in a 3D plane.
That’s a limitation of the original hardware that the developers were well aware of, and in some cases worked around in clever ways that didn’t impact the 2D, CRT world of the mid 1980s. Fast forward to 2016 and an emulator trying to create 3D stacked objects with those files, though, and you can end up with a mess. Games that use scrolling show off their scrolling buffer quite badly when tilted especially.
3D NES is cute, and to be fair you don’t have to pay money to the developers for it if you’re not inclined to. Payment gives you access to the latest builds, for what that’s worth.
3D NES at this stage is ultimately just a gimmick. It’s still under active development, and I’m certainly willing to wait and see how it goes, but right now, it’s a party trick and tinker’s tool, not something that will really revolutionise how you actually play classic NES games.

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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