Nintendo 3DS Review

Author’s note: This post ended up being considerably longer and going in a different direction than originally planned, hence the lack of pictures. There will be pictures added tomorrow.

The Nintendo 3DS has been out for five days now; the initial “ooh, shiny!” effect is over and reality is starting to set in. Early adopters of the 3DS have spent $250 on a handheld with poor battery life and even worse launch titles; has buyer’s remorse set in?

Stereoscopic 3D

The selling point of the 3DS, the system offers stereoscopic 3D, adjustable at the touch of a slider, without the need for glasses. The 3D present on the top screen is surprisingly well-done; it provides a decent viewing angle and adds considerable depth to games’ visuals. Despite the excellent implementation, launch games make poor overall use of the 3D effect. Nintendo is loathe to require 3D for gameplay elements because of some peoples’ inability to see 3D, reducing the ceiling of these effects to little more than a showy gimmick. The 3D looks awesome, it is great to show to friends, but in the end it adds nothing to current games.

Hardware

The 3DS is the next iteration of Nintendo’s portable hardware, adding features accordingly. The addition of an analog slider is a welcome addition; this slider feels great beneath the thumb, works well for both DS and 3DS games, and is overall more usable than the D-pad. Speaking of the D-pad, the addition of the slider has forced the D-pad to the lower half of the left side, making it awkward for extended use; fortunately the slider is so good that even in Super Street Fighter 4 there is little reason to use the D-pad. The touch screen is exceptionally responsive (particularly compared to the DS Lite), responding quickly to even finger presses. The processing power of the 3DS also eclipses that of the older consoles, leading to more graphical capability even without the 3D effects. Overall, the hardware of this system is excellent; Nintendo has set the bar high for their inevitable refresh.

Launch titles

While not unusual for recent Nintendo systems, the 3DS suffers from an almost complete lack of good launch titles. Nintendogs + Cats appeals to the younger audience to which Nintendo has recently been appealing and Super Street Fighter IV offers solid Street Fighter gameplay in a portable form. The rest of the launch titles have been either uninteresting or have suffered from too-significant flaws (e.g. being extremely short). Early adopters always pay a premium, but they usually expect at least some sort of advantage for doing so.

Despite the poor launch titles, there are plenty of promising 3D games on the horizon, such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Starfox 64 3D, Paper Mario, Dead or Alive Dimensions, and likely a Super Mario Bros 3D. Many of these titles have still-to-be-determined release dates, but the promise cannot be denied. While a perception of focus on remakes is certainly possible, one cannot blame Nintendo for re-releasing two of the most classic games for the Nintendo 64 (and perhaps of all time). Poor launch titles have likely reduced potential zero-day sales figures, but it can be counted on that the release of quality games will be in full swing by the time Sony releases their next portable.

Backwards compatibility

The Nintendo 3DS is backwards compatible with Nintendo DS games, though support for Game Boy Advance titles has faded away. Nintendo is also releasing a virtual console marketplace that will allow users to download Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Gear, and TurboGrafx 16 games to their 3DS. It has been said that some games will even be retrofitted as “3D Classics” to take advantage of the 3DS’s stereoscopic 3D screen. With all of this potential for playing old games, how well does it fare?

DS games

Playing DS games on the 3DS has been previously covered in this post. While the 3DS is certainly capable of effectively playing DS games, it is not the optimal way to do so. The best experience for those games is the $170 DSi XL with its large screen. Even the $150 DSi and $130 DS Lite provide at least as good of an experience as the 3DS for these games; there are no color or upscaling issues and the older systems get better battery life than a stock 3DS. If one plans to only play DS games then one could buy a DSi XL and 2-3 games for the cost of just the 3DS and get a better experience.

Virtual console

Coming the end of May, the virtual console has the opportunity to more than make up for the loss of Game Boy Advance compatibility, particularly if the advertised “3D Classics” become available. Unfortunately, until the virtual console is released, there are few reasons to expect that the gameplay will be superior to that of DS games on the 3DS; washed out color palettes and upscaling issues are certainly still a possibility. If the virtual console experience can at least match that of DS games and there are plenty of good titles available, however, it could be a real selling point for the 3DS, particularly if the virtual console manages to implement Game Boy linking over Wi-Fi (I’m not holding my breath on this one, however).

Portability

In most regards, the 3DS is no different than the DS Lite or DSi in terms of portability. It is of similar size and weight and provides the same feature set: a convenient headphone jack, wireless (WPA/WPA2 supported), and a place to hold a stylus (less conveniently located but adjustable in length). Where it falls flat on its face, however, is in battery life. Battery life tests by most reviewers have the 3DS lasting between three and four hours for a 3DS game, as much as five in a best case scenario. DS games are supposed to be better; however, still no more than eight hours of life is available (a worst-case scenario on previous handhelds). For people who travel frequently, this can be a deal breaker. Fortunately, there are options.

Charging cradle

In addition to the proprietary AC adapter, the 3DS comes with a charging cradle. The idea is that the 3DS will be placed on the charging cradle when not in use and therefore will always have a charge when one wants to play. The cradle is a sit-in variety; the system does not snap in, making it impossible to play while on the cradle (though the 3DS can certainly be played while plugged directly in) but very easy to drop in after use. Unfortunately, charging time is equally as bad as play time; a full charge from empty takes between 2.5 and three hours. These times are unacceptable for a sizable segment of the portable market; expect them to be improved in the inevitable system refresh next year.

Nyko Power Pak +

Thankfully for the traveling masses, Nyko has already released an enhanced battery for the 3DS. Replacing the stock 3DS battery as well as the system’s backplate, the Nyko Power Pak + advertises double the battery life of the original. Some torture testing by Ars Technica had this battery lasting five hours and 40 minutes under absolute worst-case usage, a much more acceptable figure. In addition, the Nyko Power Pak + adds some depth the the 3DS, possibly making it more comfortable in larger hands, though also making it not fit in the standard Cradle. Nyko is releasing a version of the Power Pak + next week that comes with a new cradle. Right now the Power Pak + is available for $20; the version with the cradle will retail for $30.

Final words

The Nintendo 3DS is a powerful portable system, providing even more features than the DSi. In addition, it provides security in knowing that game releases in future years will be playable; purchasing a DSi or DSi XL might result in missing out on that killer game (such as Ocarina of Time 3D). It certainly has its faults, particularly the battery life, however there are options available to make the most out of that situation. The system’s biggest fault is the price tag; the $250 MSRP matches the release price of the Wii and almost doubles the current price of a base DS Lite, a hefty price to pay for a handheld.

If there are killer launch titles or upcoming games that you just have to have, the Nintendo 3DS likely will not let you down. If you are content with regular DS titles and have no interest in 3D, then you might be better suited with a DSi or DSi XL. If you do purchase a 3DS, however, you should feel content in knowing that you will be able to play new releases for years to come, including some 3D remakes of all-time classics.

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