The handheld 3DS becomes available March 27

3D is just two months shy of taking its biggest step into people’s homes.

Nintendo announced Wednesday that its 3DS handheld gaming device would go on sale March 27 in North America for $249.99. The system allows users to play games in stereoscopic 3D without special glasses.

Move into 3D is the most aggressive yet by the videogame industry. Sony has several titles that are playable in 3D on its PlayStation 3 console, but users need to own a 3D television set to see the effects. The 3DS is an all-in-one device.

The system will be supported by a robust lineup of games. Nintendo said that during the launch window — the period from when the system hits shelves through early June — more than 30 titles will be available, including “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D” and “Super Street Fighter IV.”

“This is the next big step in the modern era of videogames,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America. “The Nintendo 3DS is 3D games, plus 3D video, plus 3D photography. There are no special glasses or skills required to enjoy it. And above all, the Nintendo 3DS is distinct. It’s a breakthrough. There’s nothing else like it. It is truly a category of one.”

The company did not follow up on hints it dropped at E3 about working with Hollywood studios to offer 3D theatrical releases for viewing on the 3DS — with Fils-Aime saying only, “More to come” when asked after the event. However, Nintendo made it clear that gaming was not the end of its aspirations for the 3DS.

“While Nintendo is recognized by so many people as a game company, we’ve always seen ourselves as a part of a much larger entertainment industry,” he said.

Beyond traditional games, the 3DS will also support Alternate Reality titles. Users will place an AR card on any surface, point the 3DS at it and engage in a game that will include real world objects in the background.

Boasting a 3D screen that’s 10% larger than the screen of the existing DS, along with backward compatibility for Nintendo DS games, the 3DS includes a 3D camera and 3D video playback capabilities, perhaps hinting at future Hollywood tie-ins.

The system is also much more social than previous Nintendo offerings, optionally exchanging data with passers-by on the street who also have a 3DS to add depth to gameplay and offering Wi-Fi capabilities, letting players compete against players around the world.

“The system … offers more than enough for people who have never played a videogame before,” Fils-Aime said. “Right off the bat, it’s mass market ready.”

Nintendo has held a dominant position in the gaming industry so far this generation, with the Wii and DS handheld system ruling the sales charts. In 2010, though, the company stumbled noticeably.

DS sales were off 23%, with such devices as the Apple iPhone stealing away the audience base. (Even existing DS owners were buying significantly less software for their systems.) The Wii, meanwhile, saw its lead among consoles falter. Sales of the device were 26% behind the 2009 numbers as Microsoft very nearly took the hardware sales crown with the Xbox 360.

The 3DS is the first of several new portable game devices expected to be announced this year. Next week, Sony will unveil details of its second generation PSP — PlayStation Portable — device, which is rumored to have graphics on par with the PlayStation 3 console. And Apple will refresh its line of iPhones, iPads and iPods in the coming months as well.

Like the 3DS, though, the PSP2 is likely to be at something of a disadvantage vs. smart phones that can double as gaming devices, media players, GPS devices and more.

And the software for those devices is much cheaper as well. Pricing for 3DS games was not announced but is expected to be no less than $35 — and possibly more. Gaming apps, meanwhile, typically sell for between 99¢ and $5.

“We’re getting to the point where devices that are dedicated to playing games are going to be increasing challenged by convergent media devices,” said Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst for M2 Research. “We’re just seeing a lot of innovation there.”

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