A History of 3D Graphics in Video Games

videogametrivia3D graphics – as in the type used in movies with glasses, not 3D models – has been a target that video game developers aimed at for years.

Though one might think that the ability to produce 3D models is a necessary prerequisite to creating 3D visuals, that is not the case. The Sega Master Drive, which came out around the same time as the NES and had similar power, came with an optional accessory released in 1987 that allowed a small subset of games to be played in 3D – despite the games being entirely sprite-based [1]. It’s not a surprise that Sega did it, though; they already had experience with the technology from Subroc-3D, an arcade game they released in 1982. Furthermore, Nintendo released a very similar add-on for the Famicom, the Japanese equivalent to the NES, the same year the add-on came to the Master Drive. Both systems used something called an LCD shutter to produce the 3D effect. These worked by blocking the view to one eye and allowing the view of the other to take in the image on the screen. The blocking disk in the glasses quickly rotated from the left eye to the right eye in sync with the images on the screen to create a fake binocular parallax (retinal disparity) [2].

Sega tried to continue this legacy of 3D games with their next console, the Sega Genesis, through a similar add-on called the Sega VR. With a form factor and function similar to the Oculus Rift, it’s not a surprise that they were interested in such a system. Unfortunately, the state of technology at the time meant that some users reported motion sickness and headaches, and there was fear that prolonged 3D video could damage the eyes of users. As a result, it was quietly canceled sometime in 1994 [3].

These reactions didn’t faze Nintendo, who came out with the Virtual Boy in 1995, a system that could produce stereoscopic 3D all on its own, not as an add-on to a preexisting system. It was essentially a set of goggles on a stand that the user peered into. It worked through vibrating mirrors that reflected a single row of LEDs,2 and its graphics were red and black only due to the high cost of other color LEDs at the time [4]. Unfortunately for Nintendo, their less-orthodox approach did not prevent the headaches and dizziness that users of the Sega VR had suffered [5]. Just over a year after it launched, Nintendo cut the price from $179 to $99, but even that failed to lift the console’s fortunes – they gave up on it not long after the price cut [6].

Though Nintendo had been burned by 3D with the Virtual Boy, they decided to experiment with it again when technology caught up with their ambitions. In 2002, they created an LCD screen for the Nintendo Gamecube that did not require glasses to achieve the 3D effect, and implemented the graphics into some games, notably Luigi’s Mansion. However, LCD screens were still quite expensive at the time, and the add-on was projected to cost more than the system itself. As a result, they shelved the idea [7].

A similar idea was tested with the Game Boy Advance SP, but the resolution of LCD screens at the time was too low for the effect to be convincing on such a small screen [8]. The idea remained dormant for some time, before re-emerging in discussions about the successor to the Nintendo DS.

Nintento didn’t want the DS’s successor to just be a more powerful DS, because that would not make it unique, so they revisited the 3D concept. After building a prototype, it became obvious that computing power and LCD resolution had both improved enough to allow Nintendo to fulfill its ambition: a true glasses-free, relatively inexpensive 3D system [9]. In 2011, the Nintendo 3DS equipped with realistic 3D effects came out, bringing things full circle.

[1] http://segaretro.org/3-D_Glasses
[2] http://www.pcworld.com/article/220922/the_history_of_steroscopic_3d_gaming.html?null
[3] http://segaretro.org/Sega_VR
[4] Ultimate History of Video Games, page 514
[5] Ultimate History of Video Games, page 515
[6] http://www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/1065/retro-scan-of-the-week-the-99-virtual-boy
[7] http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/how-nintendo-3ds-made/1/1
[8] http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/how-nintendo-3ds-made/0/2
[9] http://iwataasks.nintendo.com/interviews/#/3ds/how-nintendo-3ds-made/0/4