3D gaming won’t hit stores until 2011

Nintendo's portable 3DS to U.S. stores in March

Despite indications it was right around the corner, 3D handheld gaming won’t hit store shelves until next year.

Nintendo announced Wednesday that its 3DS portable system, which lets owners play videogames in stereoscopic 3D without the need for special glasses, will go on sale in Japan next February — and will hit U.S. and European stores in March.

The move is later than both the company and industry observers were hoping for, but Nintendo said it was necessary to ensure there is an adequate supply of 3DS units available when the system goes on sale.

When it does arrive, the 3DS won’t be cheap. U.S. pricing hasn’t been announced, but customers in Japan will pay ¥25,000 — roughly $300 — for the system on Feb. 26. That’s more than twice the cost of existing DS systems.

While Nintendo is forecasting sales of 4 million units through the end of its fiscal year, which wraps up in March, execs said they realize the system could face significant challenges.

“We are not taking the success of the 3DS for granted,” said Nintendo prexy-CEO Satoru Iwata. “The value of the 3D experience can be understood only by getting people to try it out.”

Gaming is the bread and butter of the 3DS, but Nintendo is branching out with the system, talking with major studios about offering versions of 3D homevideo releases, letting people watch 3D wherever they want.

In June, the company showcased several film trailers on the 3DS, including DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” and Disney’s “Tangled” — which drew an enthusiastic reception from the media on hand.

By doing away with the cumbersome headgear, the system has an upper hand even over current 3D TV sets (and films), in some ways. That’s a milestone other manufacturers are still a long way from achieving.

Rick Dean, senior veep at THX and chair of the 3D@Home Consortium, told Variety in April that he expects it will be at least five years before consumers will be able to buy TV sets that don’t require glasses.

“You must ensure the same experience for everyone viewing, and that’s a tall order,” he said. “More than one person usually watches a movie at home, but right now, you can’t necessarily see the same quality image as the person next to you.”

Nintendo isn’t the first gaming company to jump on the 3D bandwagon, but it is the one doing so with the most enthusiasm. Sony has issued a firmware update for the PlayStation 3, allowing the system to play games in stereoscopic 3D — but a 3D TV set is, of course, required. Nintendo’s new system is a complete package.

A filter on the new 3DS enables users to change the depth of the image to 2D. Device also enables 3D photos to be taken with a built-in camera.

First games to bow on the handheld will be Capcom’s “Resident Evil: Revelations,” Namco Bandai’s “Tales of the Abyss” and Konami’s “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater,” as well as Nintendo’s own “Nintendogs Plus Cats.”

The DS has long been Nintendo’s biggest moneymaker outside of the Wii console and has dominated hardware sales in the videogame biz since its launch six years ago.

In fact, the 3DS is Nintendo’s first major upgrade of the DS since 2004.

(Mark Schilling in Tokyo contributed to this report.)