Hardware Review: Nintendo 3DS

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As the Nintendo 3DS launch window draws to a close (the post-launch era officially begins with the start of E3 next week), I’ve finally been able to get my hands on Nintendo’s 3D DS successor, and I’ve been putting the newfangled portable gaming machine through its paces for roughly two weeks now.

By now I’m sure you’ve already read plenty of reviews and impressions in the weeks and months since the 3DS burst onto the scene at the end of March, but for anyone still debating whether or not to take the $250 plunge, I’d like to share my thoughts and hopefully help guide you through the decision making process.

Let’s get started!

What You Get:

Out of the box, the Nintendo 3DS, in your choice of Cosmo Black or Aqua Blue, comes with a charging cradle, an AC adapter, a telescopic stylus, a 2GB SD memory card, a pack of six AR Cards and a wealth of on-board apps and mini-games to tinker around with (more on those later).

The Hardware:

Strictly from a hardware perspective, the 3DS tech is incredibly impressive. Its two gorgeous LCD screens, the top now a larger wide-screen display, are crystal clear, and the system’s graphics capabilities are far superior to anything the DS was capable of before it, going the next notch up from the PSP, and even putting many Wii games to shame. In some games, such as Super Street Fighter IV, the system pushes polygons that aren’t all that far away from what’s seen in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the same game.

All that extra horsepower does come at a cost, though. The 3DS’s main weakness, I would say, is its poor battery life. In the two weeks I’ve been using the system, I’ve spent 25-30 hours trying out different games, plus a couple more tinkering around with the interface and the various pre-installed apps. And except for two nights, I have kept the system running in sleep mode the whole time, which does gradually drain the battery. In that time, I’ve had to recharge it somewhere between eight and ten times (not counting the times I randomly docked it between sessions with juice still available), and unless my math is wrong that averages out to around three hours of gaming before it needs a refresh.

Of course, the charge time does seem to vary wildly based on the game you’re playing, how much you use the 3D, and the strength of the 3D when active. When barely using the 3D, I’m typically able to squeeze out four (maybe five on a good day) hours of game time before needing a recharge. Conversely, when leaving the 3D on nonstop, performance time has run much shorter. Like when I first started playing Super Street Fighter IV – the system was at 75% charge after roughly an hour spent on another game, but within another hour of gameplay at max 3D the battery light was already rapidly blinking red, warning me that power shutdown was imminent.

Even with portable systems I do most of my gaming in house, so it isn’t much of an issue for me. But if you’re out and about a lot, and do much of your handheld gaming on the go, the low battery life is a definite concern you should heavily factor into your thought process when deciding on a purchase.

Ergonomically, the 3DS feels fresh and new, yet surprisingly familiar at the same time. Constructed in the same clamshell design the DS family is known for, the 3DS has the same general shape, size, heft and hand feel as the DS Lite (I don’t have a DSi to directly compare those models). Button placement and feel, however, has been changed around a wee bit, not necessarily for better or worse – just different enough that you’ll find yourself reaching for certain buttons in the wrong places at times, the layout of the DS engrained in your mind and your fingers instinctively wanting to go one way when they should be going another.

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For me, the biggest hurdle has been getting a feel for the new Start, Select and Home buttons. I’m so used to the raised Start and Select dots just offset from the lower right corner of the DS Lite touch screen that the new arrangement, which has the three buttons encased into the face of the system just underneath the bottom edge of the touch screen, has been tough to get used to. Anytime I want to pause a game, my right thumb strays to the old placement first before my mind reminds it that things have changed. It’s all a matter of retraining the muscle memory that has been built up over the past five years of heavy DS Lite usage. I’ll get there eventually!

There are two specific changes that I don’t like about the 3DS, though. First is the stylus placement. On the DS Lite, the stylus slid indo the right side of the system, and was in easy reach of your right hand coming off of the face buttons. But on the 3DS, the stylus slot has been moved to the back ridge of the system right next to where you insert game cartridges. With the system open, you are now forced to reach around the back of the top screen and slide your finger along until you feel the correct notch, which is inconvenient and counterintuitive, especially when you’re playing something and touch control is suddenly called for. Its positioning right next to the game slot is also a poor design choice, as I’ve nearly popped a game cart out a couple times while fumbling for the stylus.

Another smaller issue I have is with the D-pad. It’s slightly smaller and feels a lot stiffer and clickier than the DS Lite’s, and generally doesn’t provide the same level of responsiveness and accuracy.

Fortunately, Nintendo has added what’s called the Circle Pad, an analog stick that takes over most of the D-pad’s most important former jobs, providing smoother, more natural control over 3D games in the process. Residing just above the D-pad to the left of the touch screen, the Circle Pad is basically a larger and more precise take on the PSP’s analog nub. The Circle Pad achieves an efficient balance of resistance and sensitivity that makes controlling games and whipping through menus an effortless task, and its smooth, concave surface comfortably cradles the tip of your thumb as you flick the pad to and fro.

In addition to the Circle Pad and the return of the DSi’s on-board cameras, the 3DS introduces other methods of control not seen in previous DS models, including a motion sensor and a gyro sensor. At this time there are very few games that actually take advantage of these new motion control opportunities, but THQ’s SpongeBob SquigglePants, a WarioWare-style collection of microgames, is an early example of how tilting and shaking the 3DS can be a clever control enhancement in certain situations.

3D Effect:

Given the branding and all the hype, the 3DS’ main selling point is supposed to be its glasses-free 3D technology. For the most part, the 3D works well enough, and does enhance graphical performance with the incredible depth it brings to existing 3D spaces.

But unfortunately the 3D effect, thus far, hasn’t proven to be anything more than a neat gimmick, and actually shouldn’t be a determining factor in your decision to buy or not. That’s not to say it won’t be in time as developers find creative ways to design games around 3D effects that directly influence gameplay.

Performing at its best, the 3D effect is a striking visual flourish that adds depth and atmosphere. But at its worst, the 3D causes unnecessary eyestrain and nauseating blur and double vision, with little, if any, benefit to make the strain worth the trouble.

This inconsistency is a serious hurdle for the 3DS to jump over. From game to game the 3D effect can be a cool bonus or it can outright impede your ability to comfortably enjoy what you’re playing.

Another more serious issue to consider is the 3D’s lack of portability. Viewing 3D from a small screen that you hold in the palms of your hands is far from ideal. Holding the 3DS too close, too far away or at an improper angle can throw the effect completely off (which also raises additional concerns about the 3D working with motion control games), and if you happen to be out playing on the go on a sunny day you’ll find that glare wrecks the experience entirely. I pulled the system out to experiment while taking a walk in the woods behind my house, and the 3D was so blurry and mirrored that I thought I had gone cross-eyed!

I suppose the silver lining in all of this is that the 3D is entirely optional. You can turn the 3D slider all the way down and not feel like you are missing out on anything. Yet when the conditions are right, you can jack the 3D up for that extra something special.

Interface & Apps:

Complimenting the hardware beautifully, the 3DS interface is absolutely exquisite. The home menu system, adapted from the Wii’s channel interface, is so inviting and easy to use, whether you choose to use the Circle Pad (or D-pad) to make your selections or glide and tap your way through the menus on the touch screen. At any time during a game, you can also press the Home button to suspend play, and with the game still running in the back ground you can open the notepad to jot something down, check your friends list and notifications, and, when it launches, pull up the Internet browser for a little web surfing.

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On top of the interface itself, the 3DS comes loaded with cool apps – most centered around the system’s cameras – that will be worth buying the system for alone for many users. There’s a note pad, friends list, music mixer, Mii maker and an Activity Log that keeps track of your system usage time per game / application, plus a whole lot more.

The 3DS itself functions as a competent digital camera capable of snapping, storing and editing both 2D and 3D photos. But the cameras also serve as a portal to augmented reality gaming, as demonstrated by two apps in particular: Face Raiders and AR Games.

Included with every 3DS is a pack of six AR cards which, when paired with the AR Games software, turns your real-life surroundings into a 3D game world. By placing one of the cards on a flat surface in clear view of the 3DS’ outward facing cameras, polygonal objects sprout up right before your eyes. Five of the cards merely allow you to interact with 3D models of mascot characters like Mario, Link and Samus, but there is also a card with a question mark block on it that grants you access to a variety of fun mini-games, like archery, fishing and graffiti painting. The only downside is that you have to be in a well-lit room or the camera won’t see the cards, and the performance is a little laggy.

Face Raiders is even more fun, and thankfully doesn’t have any of the performance problems. Using the cameras, you take photos of your friends, and then watch as their faces become flying enemies in a fun shmup game in which you physically move and twist your body, using the 3DS like a viewfinder, to spot and shoot at targets circling around the room. The best part is experimenting with different faces, because they don’t have to be of a real-life person. I was able to turn a photo of my pet dog’s face into a target, as well as different game characters simply by snapping photos of box covers.

Another cool thing about the 3DS is the way it makes itself a staple in your everyday life, even when it’s not being used. While in sleep mode, the 3DS stays connected to the outside world via SpotPass and StreetPass. Through SpotPass, the 3DS detects and connects to a nearby wireless hotspot to automatically download updates and special game content, such as ghost throwdown challengers and collectible figurines in Dead or Alive Dimensions. StreetPass, on the other hand, syncs your 3DS with any other 3DS it comes in range with, and mutual data, particularly Mii characters, are exchanged between users without you even knowing it. Then, once you flip open the system, you’ll see a notification that you’ve been StreetPassed (my word), and you’ll find other players’ Miis popping up in different games, including simple RPG and puzzle swap mini-games that come installed.

While closed, the 3DS also serves as a pedometer, counting your every step as you roam about your daily life with the system in your pocket, backpack, purse or preferred instrument of transport. Each step is then converted into a virtual currency (1,000 steps equals 10 coins, and the daily limit you can earn is 10) you can use to purchase in-game items. Again, Dead or Alive Dimensions uses this feature, allowing you to use coins to purchase collectible figures.

Because of these passive features, I now find myself habitually sticking my 3DS into my pocket whenever I get up to do something or go somewhere. I can’t say the same thing has ever happened with any other portable device I’ve owned (except for a cell phone of course).

The only things currently missing are the Internet browser and the eShop, but those two features will finally be activated via a system update this coming Monday, June 6. That’s going to be an important milestone for the 3DS.

The Games:

I can count on one hand the number of true standout games currently available for the 3DS…and probably still have a few fingers to spare! But that’s par for the course for video game launch lineups, and to be quite honest I think the 3DS ‘launch window’ game library is much stronger than it’s been given credit for. Plus, it’s backwards compatible with the established DS catalog, and a recent game like Okamiden is actually a better fit on the 3DS thanks to the new Circle Pad.

I’m just as guilty of undervaluing the game lineup as anyone. When I read a list of available games, I see no major franchise exclusives from Nintendo and a whole lot of ports, remakes and familiar third-party franchise games that always seem to jump on the bandwagon of new hardware launches. But now that I have the system in hand along with a stack of games (13 and counting!), I’ve been surprised by how much fun I’ve been having, and how neglectful the 3DS has made me become to my DS, PSP, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360.

While there may not be a single ‘killer-app’ yet, there are plenty of solid games to try across a wide spectrum of genres, and more than a few are worthy of building a personal 3DS game collection around.

These are the games I have been able to play so far:

Pilotwings Resort
Bust-A-Move Universe
Dead or Alive Dimensions
Samurai Warriors: Chronicles
Combat of Giants: Dinosaurs 3D
Asphalt 3D
Rayman 3D
Splinter Cell 3D
Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars
Rabbids: Travel in Time 3D
Dream Trigger 3D
Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition
SpongeBob SquigglePants

Of those, Pilotwings, Ghost Recon, Dream Trigger and Street Fighter should be your first choices, and I’ve also been having a blast with Rabbids, SpongeBob and Dead or Alive. And from that list, the only real duds are Splinter Cell and Bust-A-Move.

Up to this point I’ve spent much of my time sampling each of these games to first get a broad view of the hardware and software lineup, but I will be posting full reviews for each title in the days and weeks to come. So stay tuned!

Conclusion:

With its impressive graphics capabilities, multitude of control options, and compelling collection of on-board apps and wireless communication possibilities, the Nintendo 3DS is a fantastic piece of hardware with tons of potential to blossom into the next portable gaming sensation, especially if the 3D effect ever establishes itself as a must-use feature.

But, unsurprisingly, the 3DS isn’t quite there yet. The games, while diverse and enjoyable, are more good than great overall, and as of yet there isn’t one single showstopper to make you scream, “now THAT’s why I bought a 3DS!” Perhaps Ocarina of Time 3D will be that game when it ships in a couple weeks, but that too is merely an enhanced port of an N64 game, so the system’s first clear must-have may not come until Kid Icarus: Uprising, which continues to remain dateless.

Leading to the real question at hand: should you buy a Nintendo 3DS? My answer is equally simple: yes, you should – but probably not right now. If you’re a tech junkie and/or a serious gamer with the disposable income to throw at it, the 3DS is a great buy with enough quality content to keep busy with until the system comes into its own.

But, for the average consumer, the system’s feature set and game library clearly have some growing up to do, so the wiser option is to wait it out until the holiday season rolls around, then see what new games have come out and what the outlook is for the future, that of which we’ll likely have a better idea of after Nintendo’s E3 press conference next week.

Source: A Nintendo 3DS system was provided to VGBlogger by Nintendo for review purposes.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!