Nintendo: Another console winner?
Los Angeles: When I last came to E3 I made a big mistake about Nintendo. It was in 2005 for the launch of Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360, and once we had finished filming I rang home and talked to my then 14-year-old son, an expert gamer. "Dad," he told me, "be sure to go to Nintendo's press conference, they're bound to come up with something special."
In my best patronising Dad tone I told him we had no time for the number three in the console market, a company now sure to be left behind by the stunning graphics capabilities of the high-end machines just launched by Microsoft and Sony. How wrong I was, as the Wii's emergence as the hottest console of the moment went on to prove.
So on the day I flew out of Los Angeles, I made sure I went along to the Nintendo press conference. Even though it involved standing in a queue outside the venue from 7 am, then going through airport-style security to get in.
Inside I found the same kind of slightly scary crowd you get at an Apple keynote, oohing and aahing, cheering and wowing at every demo, though it's Mario and Zelda who get the warmest welcome rather than a guy in a black turtle neck. The Nintendo demonstrators even managed to repeat Steve Jobs trick at his iPhone 4 launch, blaming wireless interference from the crowd of bloggers when things went slightly wrong.
Reggie Fils-Aime, the splendidly named boss of Nintendo's US division, welcomed us with a useful summary of his firm's philosophy. Yes, we'd seen all sorts of exciting new tech at E3, from 3D to HD to motion control, but that was only part of the story:
"It begins with technology - but technology is only a tool. The thing that matters is the experience."
We then got quite a show - when an American game demonstrator appeared to be too clumsy, Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's presiding genius, was magicked off a screen and onto the stage to loud applause to demonstrate how it should be done.
We raced through a series of new games for the Wii, accompanied by a blizzard of statistics designed to dispel the false assumption that it was now losing ground to its rivals. More games had been sold for the Wii than for any other console in a comparable period, Wii users played more game than other gamers, and the new crowd it had attracted certainly didn't just play a bit of Wii Sports or Wii Fit and then give up on it.
Fine, but we hadn't come to hear about the Wii, we wanted something new, and that of course was the Nintendo 3DS, the first 3D handheld games console. it seems an amazing feat of technology, promising not only 3D games but a camera which takes 3D pictures and the ability to show movies like Avatar without the need to wear special glasses.
"Wow" went the crowd but I couldn't help returning to what Mr Fils-Aime had said about the importance of the experience rather than the technology. We will have to wait and find out just how much 3D adds to the experience of playing or viewing on the small screen of a handheld console - but I'm just a little sceptical.
But what do I know? I contacted a real expert, my son, who is now a student and had watched the Nintendo press conference from his college room while revising for exams. He wasn't convinced that many of the new games would interest the casual audience that had been attracted by the likes of Wii Sports - but he was impressed by the new handheld console:
"The 3DS looks very exciting. It seems like they're trying to head off Apple, who've been trying to get into the game market with the iPhone and iPad. I'll definitely be getting one!"
Hmm, top quality analysis I'm sure. But wouldn't the meagre resources of a student be better spent on books - and maybe beer - than yet another gadget that will be obsolete within a couple of years?
Still we've seen over the past few years that Nintendo seems to have a better understanding of what gamers new and old really want from the experience than Sony, Microsoft or ageing technology journalists. So parents beware - next Christmas, or whenever the 3DS goes on sale, expect to be standing in a long line or spending many hours online trying to get hold of another must-have present.