How do you create a successor to the DS, a video game handheld that seemingly “prints money?” Well, if you’re Nintendo, who’s sold 146.8 million Nintendo DS handhelds over a little more than six years, you launch the Nintendo 3DS – the world’s first glasses-free 3D video game handheld and you tell everyone it’s unlike anything they’ve ever used before.
With the 3DS, Nintendo is hoping to once again revolutionize video games. Similar to how the Japanese video game giant made its return to the top with the dual screen Nintendo DS and motion-controlled Wii, Nintendo’s betting that it can win the hearts of gamers young or old with 3D. Read on for Ubergizmo-style comprehensive Nintendo 3DS review.
To say reviewing an unproven technology (the first of its kind on a mass level) is easy would be arrogant of me, but seeing as I consider myself a gamer who fits in between the casual and hardcore, I’d say I’m a pretty darn good example of the mainstream gamer mold.
I’ve been on journeys with plumbers saving princesses for as long as I can remember. I struck it big with the original bricky Game Boy and have owned every Nintendo videogame handheld to date, with the exception of the Game Boy Pocket (Game Boy Color was better anyway). Now, that doesn’t mean I’m a Nintendo fanboy. I own and still play my original PlayStation Portable and know my way around the scene. I game on the go, whether that is on a train, bus, at home or anywhere pretty frequently. To make it short: I am a portable gamer.
Ever since the disaster that was the GameCube, Nintendo’s strategy has been all about creating “blue oceans” in a sea of red. Nintendo doesn’t follow trends, because its ingrained modus operandi is to create the trend. In creating a successor to the incredibly popular Game Boy Advance, Nintendo could have simply went with “bigger, better, faster,” but it didn’t.
Attempting to reinvent the wheel – or in Nintendo’s case video game controls, Nintendo completely blew everyone’s minds with the DS in 2004 – a handheld with dual screens (the lower one being a touchscreen). Meanwhile, Sony was busy preparing its PlayStation Portable – a handheld with near PS2-quality graphics, a large screen and multimedia playback. Despite being significantly less powerful, the DS went on to destroy the PSP, selling over 140 million units worldwide. It later spawned a DSi model with dual cameras and the larger DSi XL, prompting internet memes to suggest the handheld “printed money.” Nintendo of Japan’s president Satoru Iwata and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto laughed all the way to the bank.
Again, trying to repeat its successful new approach, Nintendo launched the Wii in 2006, a console that was pretty much a GameCube stuffed into a slim case. Up against the Xbox 360 and the PS3, the Wii looked completely infantile, but its revolutionary motion controls proved unstoppable, netting Nintendo over 80 million units sold worldwide, putting it back on the top of the home console podium.
By now, it should be pretty clear Nintendo knows what it’s doing.
So, it’s not odd at all with the 3DS, Nintendo’s chosen again not to go down the route of shrinking a powerful home console to fit into a portable device, but to add a new “experience” – a 3D layer that doesn’t require glasses.
3DS Design (Excellent)
When Nintendo officially revealed the 3DS, I thought it was second to the original DS in terms of ugly design. The departure of the DS’s smooth curves and mini MacBook-esque exterior turned me off. After wrapping my hands around the device, its “cake layer” design actually grew on me as I stopped noticing it, focusing on function over form. Size-wise, the 3DS has roughly the same dimensions as the DS Lite, which is a good thing in terms of portability (it fits in your jeans pockets!) and is a snug fit in any old soft DS Lite pouch. The DSi and DSi XL always felt a bit too large to be considered “portable.”
The first thing you’ll notice is that the 3DS is super glossy – this thing is a fingerprint and dust magnet and feels like a step back from the DSi’s lovable matte rubber finish. You’ll either love it, hate it or just learn to live with it. I’m with the latter.
On the outside, there are dual VGA cameras (640×480 resolution) for taking 3D pictures and scanning augmented reality (AR) cards. Around near the rear hinge are very clickable L and R triggers, a 4.6V charging port, slots for the game cartridge and retractable stylus (really wish Nintendo didn’t move the stylus from the right side back to the rear), as well as an IR beam port. From the left side is a volume slider and SD card slot, a 3.5mm audio jack on the bottom and on the right is a switch to toggle the wireless on and off. Opening up the 3DS, you’ll find another VGA camera, stereo speakers and the 3D depth slider.
Button-wise, there are more than there were on DS. The new Circle Pad and standard D-pad flank the left side of the lower screen, while the A/B/X/Y and Power button dominate the right. Below the screen are the Select, Start and Home buttons (more on these later). The buttons feel a bit stiff (anyone’s who’s ever used a Game Boy Advance SP or a first-gen DS will know what I mean), but are overall usable – never feeling flimsy.
And of course there is the 3.52-inch widescreen (800×240 resolution) on the top and the 3.02-inch touchscreen (320×240 resolution) on the bottom. In general, the 3DS feels very solid and sturdy. I never felt the system’s hinge would snap after extensive opening and closings or it would slip out of my hands despite its glossy finish. The 3DS is another Nintendo system built with quality and durability in mind.
3D: Viewing 3D content is a hit or a miss – it’s a personal preference that will be different for everyone. There’s no way to say whether it’ll be right for you or not – you have to test it for yourself. To create the desired 3D effects, the 3DS is equipped with a parallax barrier screen. Viewers can see 3D without glasses because the screen uses a series of slits to split the 2D image into two – shifting different pixels to the left and right eye – creating 3D depth.
The 3D might impress at first, but you’ll quickly find it’s flawed. Like most 3D technology, there is a “sweet” spot – dead center of the 3DS’s upper screen. Shift away from the center of the screen and the picture gets blurrier. Don’t count on being able to enjoy 3D games, photos or video with friends watching over your shoulders – all they’ll see is a hazy mess.
While some people have reported bouts of headaches and dizziness with the 3D turned on, I didn’t notice any of these effects (Though, I did get a few slight headaches while watching Avatar and Alice in Wonderland in 3D in theaters). On the contrary, my eyes quickly became accustomed to the 3D after a few hours and I can now easily see it without having to recalibrate my eyes each time. As I said, you’ll either enjoy the 3D or you won’t. I found many of my friends and family split on the feature. In my completely unscientific observations, I noticed many regular gamers went straight to dialing down the 3D, others refused to give it a chance – citing eye discomfort, while surprisingly my mom loved it. She called the added depth a truly immersive experience that made things such as draw distance in Ridge Racer 3D more noticeable.
It’s also worth noting that although the 3D can be seen with the 3DS held normally, all 3D effects are entirely negated when the system is held like a book (used in games like Brain Age and Ninja Gaiden DS).
Interestingly, with the lights flicked off, I perceived the 3D to have greater visual depth. Now I’m not an expert, but I liken it to watching a movie in a theater or playing a home console in the dark. Your senses become heightened – in this case your eyes remain strictly focused on the 3D, holding the effect without any optical obscuration from the clutter of reality.
Again, the 3D is great, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. Traditionalists can easily use the 3D depth slider to turn the 3D off and revert the image to 2D. As a precaution, Nintendo recommends the 3D to be turned completely off (can be locked in the system settings) for children under six-years-old and advises players to take regular 10-15 minute breaks every hour or so. My two cents: take the breaks or your eyes WILL feel the strain.
There’s not much to talk about here. The speakers on the 3DS are clear, but not particularly loud while playing games. Although the speakers are capable of producing “pseudo surround sound,” they don’t rival that of a real living room setup. Its low sound is especially noticeable when playing music from the system without headphones.
An 800×240 sounds good on paper. In actuality, it’s not quite as sharp with 3D turned on because the image is split into two (one for each eye) so the actual resolution is really 400×240. If you’re playing in 2D then you’ll get the full resolution, but it still looks subpar because of all the low vertical pixel count. Don’t get me wrong, the 3DS’s screen is a huge improvement from the DS, but when games look uber jaggy and don’t have anti-aliasing tricks to cover it up, the lower quality shows. In a world with high-dense Retina Displays (iPhone 4), large 4-inch smartphones and the Sony NGP getting a big beautiful 5-inch OLED screen, the display on the 3DS will look even more last-gen real quick.
After years of handhelds with only a D-Pad, the 3DS finally gets an analog stick – the Circle Pad. It’s matte, rubbery and it feels really good. There’s also only one of them just like on the PSP. However, no matter how great it feels or how much more precise it is over the D-Pad for diagonal movement, only including one Circle Pad already makes the 3DS feels old because its main competitor, the NGP, will have dual analog sticks. To make matters worse, the rubber finish on the Circle Pad is already starting to wear off after a week of intense, but gentle steering and drifting in Ridge Racer 3D!
Faux-Multitasking: The 3DS had a chance to shine with this and it blew it. When one app is open, hitting the Home button will bring you back to the main menu, but when you try to open another app, it pretty much forces you to close the previous app. I’d have greatly appreciated being able to suspend a game, jump into the camera app, snap a shot and then hop back into the game, but sadly you can’t. Oh wells, maybe next time.
Connecting to the Internet is still as unfriendly as it was on the DS. Unlike the Wii that can connect to Wi-Fi via WEP and WPA2, the 3DS connects through WPS or AOSS. I’m no ubergeek when it comes to setting up wireless home networks, but after failing to be able to connect to four home Wi-Fi networks including my own, due to different wireless protocols, I gave up. I’ll look at it again when the 3DS’s web browser and eShop are available in a future firmware update.
Forgetting about Wi-Fi for a minute, the new wireless feature in the 3DS is StreetPass. In a nutshell, StreetPass is a peer-to-peer wireless protocol that is always on, running in the background. Pop the 3DS into your backpack and it when it “passes” by another 3DS in StreetPass mode, the two devices will exchange data. At the moment, StreetPass is limited, but one fun thing is using the StreetPass Mii Plaza app. With Mii Plaza, you can exchange and collect Miis from total strangers, racking up virtual “coins” which you can then use to play a puzzle game or a mini RPG-like game that has your Miis fighting ghosts and collecting hats. Sadly, even living in New York City, with chances to pass millions of people every day, I have only been able to nab two Miis with StreetPass – one from a kid at the Nintendo Store and one Mii I suspect came from Best Buy. When more games that use StreetPass in creative ways arrive, I’ll give it a second look. In the meantime, I’ve decided to turn StreetPass off in favor of longer battery life (and the 3DS does appear to last longer).
Built-in Software (Excellent)
There’s a lot of included software in the 3DS – really good stuff. Included is a camera app, a music player, a shooting game called Face Raiders that has you taking down – you guessed it – your face in augmented reality settings, the AR card games and an Activity Log.
You and I might look at the 3DS as a gaming-focused device first, but Nintendo considers it an “entertainment experience” in your pocket. Much like Sony’s PSP and Apple’s iPhone, the ability to be more than just a gaming machine gives the 3DS added value. And as you’d expect, Nintendo manages to put its own special touch into the 3DS’s software. Everything from the music player’s old-school StarFox and Excitebike visualizers to seemingly boring logs in the Activity Log oozes of Nintendo history, whether that’s from the NES era or Wii. You won’t find this type of video game tribute anywhere else!
The Launch Games (Weak)
For the time being, there aren’t a lot of games to choose from. In North America and Europe, there were only nine games at launch, with many of them not worth a second glance. Even I had a hard time picking out a game. It was either Street Fighter IV 3D Edition or Ridge Racer 3D. Being the huge racing game fan I am, I went with the latter even though I’ve played it on virtually every system ever created.
With no major titles like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time 3D, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D or Dead or Alive: Dimensions not set to arrive for another few months or even until the holidays, it’s going to be slim pickings when it comes time to choose games to play on your shiny new 3DS.
In my opinion, the best looking 3DS game appears to be Street Fighter IV 3D Edition (it really looks nearly as good as the Xbox 360 and PS3 version). But in terms of buying this game again (if you didn’t already pick up the first version or the “Super” version) and playing it for the sake of 3D on a smaller screened device, I can’t whole heartedly recommend it. After all, it isn’t a new game, but rather a ported one with some extra 3DS features tacked on.
Thankfully, the 3DS is also compatible with old DS games, so if you haven’t blasted your way through all the great games available on the out-going handheld, you still can for years to come. I’m going through Golden Sun: Dark Dawn right now!
As already mentioned, all three cameras (two on the front and one inside) are VGA, meaning they have 0.3-megapixels and take pictures with a terrible 640×480 resolution. Even the crappiest cheapo cellphones today have at least a 2.0-megapixel camera. Including three mediocre camera sensors, none of which have autofocus is unacceptable in 2011. The 3DS’s camera app allows snaps to be taken and stored on the 128MB of internal memory or on the included 2GB SD card (3DS can take up to 8GB SD cards). The dual cameras on the back can take 3D photos while the single cam on the inside can only take 2D ones.
After pics are taken, you can edit them with the graffiti filters, adding stamps (that make cute sound effects), 3D textures, add text, etc. It’s an adorable little feature that I thought I’d get more use out of (being a huge camera buff and all), but after only a few hours, quickly got bored of because of the grainy pics the sensors produced, no matter what how well lit the conditions were. I can only imagine fans of those Japanese sticker-pics will probably enjoy it more than I did.
Nintendo rates the official battery life at 3-5 hours. In my rigorous tests, I managed to squeeze about 2:42 minutes out of one charge, while playing Ridge Racer 3D with the 3D on full-blast, Streetpass on in the background and the brightness at its highest setting. Comparing the 3DS to its predecessors, the DS falls completely short. Where the DS/DSi and DSI XL were able to get an average of about 8-10 hours of gameplay (my own personal tests), the 3DS can’t last more than a few hours – a huge drop off for a Nintendo handheld.
Of course, these are my figures. Your actual battery life configs, including but not limited to lowering brightness settings, turning the 3D off, limiting StreetPass, etc. might yield the five-hour battery claim. Charged to the max, I was only able to wiggle by a two and a half hour commute to and from the city before rushing home to pop the 3DS on its docking cradle. But that’s just how I use the 3DS (usually playing it on the Subway), but for folk who plan to game on the 3DS during a long road trip or any intercontinental flight, you’re out of luck, unless you have access to a spare battery pack or an outlet.
The 3DS is a slick and worthy successor to the DS, but I can’t faithfully recommend it right now on account of its weak battery life, poor selection of launch games, and hefty $250 price tag. Launching without a Super Mario game was a mistake (my eyes turn to the GameCube). As it stands, the 3DS is a good peek at the future, but it’s missing all the goods (at least until a firmware update comes): web browser, eShop, Game Boy Virtual Console games, 3D movies and trailers, etc. Bloggers suspected that the 3DS was rushed out the door in order to meet quarterly quotas and stave off competition from Apple’s iOS devices and Sony’s upcoming NGP and I have to agree – it feels like it. The 3DS might very well end up being the must-have gadget of the year by the time the holidays roll around, but it’s not something you need to buy right now. Once Nintendo addresses the battery issues (hopefully sooner rather than later) and lowers the price, everything will be kosher. Until then, your DS will probably still do the trick.
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