Nintendo And Sony Didn’t Invent 3D Gaming, You Know

Nintendo And Sony Didn’t Invent 3D Gaming, You Know

With the PS3 able to play games in 3D and Nintendo about to launch a 3D handheld, it’s easy to get carried away with the “latest big thing” in gaming. And forget we had 3D games the 1980s.

Yes, long before Sony added 3D capabilities to the PS3 and Nintendo unveiled the 3DS, two companies made pioneering efforts in the field of 3D gaming. And while both systems ultimately proved to be failures, the lessons learned from their departure and the technology they employed nevertheless played their part in paving the way towards a future that – whether we like it or not – seems destined to involve 3D technology, at least for the foreseeable future.

In 1982, a company called Smith Engineering developed a strange little video game console called the Vectrex. Unlike other machines, which plugged into an existing monitor or TV set, the Vectrex was an all-in-one solution, consisting of a console that had its own screen built into the front of it.

It needed to take this step because the whole point of the Vectrex was that it promised to display vector images in 3D, something that at the time wasn’t possible on regular television sets. Using a series of cheap optical illusions and high-speed image swapping, the Vectrex was able to provide glasses-free 3D viewing by tricking the player into thinking a rapidly moving object was in fact appearing in 3D space.

While it was an incredibly advanced piece of technology, the Vectrex had the poor luck of being released just prior to the great North American video game market crash of 1983, and thus never found much commercial success (though it is still treasured by collectors and game historians to this day).

Six years later – and six years before Nintendo released the 3D Virtual Boy – console and arcade gaming powerhouse Sega unleashed the SegaScope 3D, a 3D glasses system for its existing 8-bit Master System console (which unlike the Vectrex was connected to regular TV sets.

If the Vectrex’s 3D technology was pioneering, the SegaScope’s was visionary, employing the same basic techniques that you’ll see used in a 3D movie playing in a cinema today. They worked using a pair of “shutter” glasses, which would rapidly black out one lens at a time in tandem with a flickering image on the user’s TV set.

For the time, the effect was impressive, however due to the complexity involved in making games compatible with the SegaScope system, titles had to be specifically coded to take advantage of the 3D effects. As a result, only eight games were ever released for the SegaScope, though many were classics, including 3D versions of Sega hits like Out Run and Space Harrier. Most of these games were also, in a nice touch, also coded to play in 2D.

While the SegaScope never found much commercial success either – blame the peripheral’s $US50 price, the lack of games and the fact it was not compatible with the Master System II, Sega’s updated version of the console – the advanced nature of its technology showed that 3D gaming on a home console wasn’t just possible, it was in many ways a step up from “regular” gaming.

While the Vectrex was entirely pitched at 3D gaming, and Sega’s solution was with first-party hardware, Nintendo gamers were not entirely left out in the cold. Square Enix, the developers of the Final Fantasy series, released three games for the Nintendo Entertainment System that, thanks to dedicated programming, were able to make use of “anaglyph” 3D, which is the simple kind that uses the red and blue glasses so synonymous with 3D viewing.

Then, in the early 1990s, Sega would return to 3D gaming with its “holographic” arcade cabinets (which really just used mirrors to create the illusion of 3D), for which only two games were ever released, fighting game Holosseum (above) and FMV disaster Time Traveler. Both were awful, which may be why most of you have never heard of them or the cabinets before.

In 1994, of course, Nintendo would follow in these company’s footsteps and release the doomed (and famous) Virtual Boy, a 3D “handheld” that was about as portable as it was easy on the player’s eyes. It, ironically, can be deemed a failure, its lack of games, lack of sales and lack of and real technological contribution to the industry meaning its only use was in showing Nintendo what not to do when planning the 3DS.

So the next time Sony or Nintendo try and sell you 3D gaming as the 21st century’s next big thing, remember: it was once the 20th century’s next big thing, too.


  • The vectrex was not a glasses free 3D system at all. It was a vector based home console with built in XY screen (like an Asteroids arcade machine)

    It did however have a 3D add on, similar to the Sega add-on.
    Instead of LCD shutter glasses, it had a spinning disc that rotated in front of your eyes, blocking the left, then right view synchronised with the left/right views being displayed on the screen.

    The sega system ( I have about 20 of ’em) used the same glasses tech that Nvidia and 3DTVs use, LCD shutter glasses, except that it was locked at 50 or 60Hz, (25/30 per eye) so it was flickery as all get-out and only worked on CRT televisions and projectors. The glasses were popular with VR homebrew people and were often hacked to watch field-sequential 3D movies, and can still be used to get 3D from CRT monitors.

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