3dSEN – The NES Emulator That Plays With Power

I’ve been playing video games since 1983. Starting with my dad’s Commodore 64, ColecoVision and Atari 2600, I quickly became fascinated, and addicted, to this interactive electronic world that I was exposed to. When my parents bought me my own console in 1990, the Nintendo Entertainment System, my love for gaming skyrocketed to new heights. The NES is my second or third all-time favorite video game console, and for good reason. Not only are there some of gaming’s greatest experiences on the console, but it brings me back to a much simpler time in life, where my only worries in life were mostly isolated to finishing my homework and keeping my room clean. I can put on something like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, and immediately feel the nostalgia overtaking me, all while the game is challenging me in ways most current generation video games fail to do.

Like most gamers with access to the internet, I’ve also dabbled quite a bit with emulation over the years. This was the best way I could “catch up” and play some of these hits that I wasn’t fortunate enough to own (even after begging my mom to purchase some of those games for me from her job at Woolworth’s, regardless of the fact that my parents spoiled me with games at times), or discover fantastic gems that I never knew of before (Shatterhand, Power Blade, Little Samson). The older I got though, I started moving away from emulation and, at least for the PlayStation and Dreamcast, moved towards real hardware again. As small and sometimes uncomfortable as an NES and SNES controller can be at the age of 40, nothing replicates the feel of blistering my thumbs on them, trying to get to the next level of each game I played. Sure, you can basically use clone controllers on your PC and play that way, but the experience just isn’t the same, and as awesome and commendable as the NES/SNES game suites on the Switch are, it fails to replicate that authenticity as well. At this point, unless it’s real hardware or something like a SNES Classic/Switch (I really need to get a Retrotink 5X), it’s going to take something of significance to have me play old school games on my desktop.

Enter 3dSEN – a commercially available Nintendo Entertainment System emulator that brings the visual presentation of your favorite 8-bit games into the third dimension. Well, some of your beloved favorites.

3dSEN doesn’t attempt to change how you play each game – it gives it a new coat of paint that remains faithful to the source material, and manages to inspire an awe in me that’s only surpassed by the very first time I played these gems.

3dSEN (read backwards as NES 3D….well, NES D3, but you know what I mean!) is currently only available on Steam, GMG and itch.io, making it one of, if not the only NES emulator exclusively gated behind a paywall. For $9.99 (currently $6.69 via Steam Summer Sale which ends on July 8th, cheaper on itch.io), you get access to this long worked on piece of software. What makes this emulator stand out from the pack is the fact that you can play (a currently selected number of) NES games in 3D. It’s not stereoscopic 3D like the 3DS, but rather a bit of some graphical wizardry that gives stages and characters a third dimension. There’s also a VR supported 3dSEN that is available, however I do not own a VR headset, as the effects still make me too physically ill to invest in, but I digress.

The best way I can describe the visual experience is comparing it to something like a McFarlane Toys 3D Diorama set from the mid 2000’s. Each game has its own 3D profile and each handles the 3D in similar fashion, however certain games/3D profiles add a bit more to the visual experience (more on that in a bit). While many would scoff at the notion of paying for an emulator to a console that’s over 35 years old, especially given the fact that not every game is compatible “out of the box”, what 3dSEN brings to the experience overall is nothing short of thrilling.

Nothing involving the gameplay is altered – everything is cosmetic in augmentation. With the current number of titles supported hovering around 80+ (which includes a handful of “exclusive” titles to help legally demonstrate the 3dSEN‘s capabilities), there are a plethora of classics and hidden gems that that do not have 3D profiles yet (Double Dragon 1-3, Little Nemo, TMNT 1-3, StarTropics, to name a few). As this is a one person operation, those updates will still take time. However, folks are invited to help created 3D profiles for games that are not readily available in an official capacity, thanks to the 3dSEN Maker tool that’s available for free (though the everyday Joe Schmo will not be able to blueprint a 3D profile).

With each game supported, players can use their mouse to more or less rotate the screen, giving them different angles to play at, or just to view and gawk at. With a controller that has dual analog sticks, the right one will be auto-mapped to manipulate the playing field in the same way as the mouse. Some games may not be too mind-blowing (Bubble Bobble, Kung Fu), but there are a few notable games where the presentation almost breathes a new life into this timeless classics. The two Zelda titles are prime examples of where the experience is enhanced by how gorgeous the 3D implementation turned out. Then there are the augmentations that just feel too out of place (the polygonal piranha plant model in Super Mario Bros. 3), although many of the altered enemies and background elements don’t look too immersion breaking.

“Each game supported handles the 3D in similar fashion, however certain games add a bit more to the visual experience.

In seeing how well something like Zelda II looks, I can see and tell that vutruc80, the sole developer of this emulator, puts a tender loving care into getting these games to look as proper as possible in their 3D debuts. So much so that it’s plausible to believe that it (along with being a one man show) is the reason why official 3D profile releases come at a bit of a trickle. It’s awesome however, that there are tools out there for would-be 3D profile creators to help fill the gaps in an unofficial matter. This project is going to be a marathon for sure, and definitely not a sprint, so anyone interested in purchasing a 3dSEN should have that in mind before investing into it at this point. Even still, while there’s a myriad of classics that are still not available, there’s a healthy amount of profiles available currently, with a wide array of heavy hitters, so the investment right now is, IMO, very much worth it, and helps financially support vutruc80 to keep on working on it. For those curious as to what happens when you load an incompatible game in a random 3D profile – you get some kinds of 3D support, although there are some anomalies as well, like graphical errors, color issues, etc. If you see it for yourself, you’ll understand why each game has its own distinct 3D profile.

I’m going to cherry-pick a number of supported titles, and go over the visual augmentations, and how well it works for said title. Some games are breathtaking, and others are serviceable enough. None are meager, or feel lazily done.

Bubble Bobble

This is an example of serviceable 3D. Bubble Bobble is a game with a visual simplicity that’s endearing; the stage layouts will change each stage, but there’s not significant additions to them (clouds, trees, etc). The 3D doesn’t add much, but it’s still a treat to see Bub and Bob spitting bubbles at their enemies and popping them out of existence. It’s pretty damn neat to see the effect going on, but when you take a look at some of the other supported games, this will certainly be one of the least impressive 3D augmentations offered currently.

Metroid

There’s a little bit more going on with Metroid as a game, and the 3D profile does enhance a number of elements of the visuals. Metroid has a more seamless vertical layout that many games on the console did not have around that time, and that does lend its self to some pretty neat 3D looks. It’s a step up from Bubble Bobble in terms of the 3D use, but it isn’t a main event player in the 3dSEN scene.

Kung Fu

Much like Bubble Bobble, the gains of a 3D presentation with Kung Fu are minimal. Certain elements receive a bit more of a 3D boost, such as the globes and jugs that drop from the sky in stage two, but beyond that it’s done well enough. I did get a kick out of panning the camera around to watch my character walk up the stairs after defeating the floor boss. Probably the weakest out of what I cherry picked to showcase, but again it’s still awesome to see this kind of thing.

DuckTales

DuckTales has a myriad of graphical information going on, with lots of details abound. 3dSEN does a commendable job in making Scrooge McDuck’s travels through the game a feast for the eyes. These stages really feel like they are popping out, with so many items and set pieces canvasing the area. Transylvania looked neat, and I dug the polygonal model for the suit of armor, but the Moon stage is just a beautiful sight. One of the most visually busy, yet impressive, 3D profiles currently available.

The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda is easily the second most mindblowing 3D profile available. The title screen previews the items in game, and most are recreated into a 3D model, which all look gorgeous. Once you enter the game however, it’s almost as if I was playing 3D Dot Game Heroes again – the visual style was mighty impressive throughout. The perspective change kinda forces you to adjust the camera, but it breathes a very new and fresh life into the gameplay, again, without any gameplay alterations. The overworld and dungeons benefit greatly from the profile, and in such a way that it really does enhance the enjoyment, without necessarily detracting from the gameplay in any way. You could argue that this is the best 3D profile currently on 3dSEN, however I still feel one other game coming up just edges out The Legend of Zelda.

Super Mario Bros. 3

As a flagship title for the NES, I had high hopes for a 3D Super Mario Bros. 3. For the most part, it did exceed my expectations. The clouds under Mario’s feet on the platforms in the sky, the pipes, the blocks, all looks phenomenal. Certain elements received 3D upgrades as well, from the mushroom power ups and coins, to enemies such as goombas and piranha plants. The latter unfortunately is more of an eyesore, either compared to the other 3D models or on its own. It was pretty damn sweet to see world 4 in 3D; the enlarged sprites lent themselves well to the touch ups that the 3D profile gave them. There were a few minor abnormalities with the audio emulation, though unless you’re using headphones to play the games, you’ll likely be oblivious to it. Regardless, Super Mario Bros. 3 is definitely one of the best games currently compatible with the 3dSEN.

Mega Man 3

Along with Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario World 2, Mega Man 3 is my all-time favorite 2D platformer. You would think that any Mega Man title would lend its self well to a 3D augmentation, with numerous little and larger details abound offering themselves up to dazzle players, and in action, it more than delivers. Some enemies receive a 3D makeover, and for the most part, they don’t feel as visually misplaced as some elements in Super Mario Bros. 3. Health and alt. weapon refills look proper in their 3D unveiling, and just turning the 3D camera about really helps gives Mega Man 3‘s visual presentation that much more emphasis. This is one I would like to come back to, and do a complete playthrough, just to see how things look beyond the initial offerings.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

As with The Legend of Zelda, Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link has had a bit more love put into the 3D implementation. You’ll immediately notice this upon first glance of the breathtaking 3D modeling of the very first screen. The close pillars are brought into the foreground, the shadow work and sense of 3D is some of the best the 3dSEN currently has to offer. This is the kind of presentation I would have expected to see from Nintendo themselves if they were ever to embark on this kind of journey with their classic titles.

Beyond that, we have the overworld, ripe with foliage and a somewhat grander feeling of scale to the world. It’s not just that the world looks better, but it feels like there’s more of a grandeur to it. Once you enter the usual set pieces, the 3D effect is similar to what you see across the board, although a game like Zelda 2 just looks more pleasing with this style of visuals. This is head and shoulders beyond any of the compatible games on the 3dSEN currently, and it somehow gives the adventure of Link a larger sense of scale in its look and overall feel, without doing a single thing to the gameplay. I’d go as far as to say that playing Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link on the 3dSEN is worth the price of admission alone.

“This is the kind of presentation I would have expected to see from Nintendo themselves if they were ever to embark on this kind of journey with their classic titles.”

3dSEN doesn’t attempt to change how you play each game – it gives each game a fresh perspective that remains faithful to the source material, and manages to inspire an awe in me that’s only surpassed by the very first time I played these gems 30+ years ago. While I still do have the preference for real hardware, there’s no denying that 3dSEN provides something special, and I am more than glad to have chipped in to purchase this emulator. Official 3D profiles may never comes out in a speedy manner if this remains a one man operation, but it’s going to be a treat, and even an event, when they are released, and a few of them end up being some of your most anticipated. I’ll be waiting for each 3D profile update with bated breath, and I’m hoping to try and get some video previews of each as they become available.

Are there any games not officially supported yet that you’re eagerly anticipating a 3D profile release for? Let me know in the comments below! With so many options available, the three I’d love to see would be Little Nemo Dream Master, Double Dragon and StarTropics.

Addendum: Two quick things I forgot to go over – the first being that yes, you are able to play NES games in 2D, so this is not exclusively for games that are supported with 3D profiles. Finally no, 3dSEN does not come with any ROMS. That is the players responsibility to supply that themselves. 3dSEN is just an emulator.

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