The Nintendo 3DS ($163.99, Amazon) had a rough start when it launched earlier in the year. The launch line-up had little to offer besides ports, the eShop wasn’t ready, and the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3 Project pretty much killed my excitement for it. The result? The $250 asking price was a tad much. No, it was asking a lot for a little. Eventually, Nintendo slashed the price from $250 to $170, and offered 20 free Virtual Console games to early adopters who paid the original asking price. Not bad, but not exactly encouraging either.
Now, in the waning days of 2011, the 3D-enabled handheld is selling well and has what looks like a decent selection of first-party games with some promising third-party titles on the horizon. I recently got my hands on the 3DS, the first time I touched the device since January, and gave it a whirl. With the Vita a couple months away and mobile phone gaming on the rise does the 3DS still stand a chance?
Maybe if Nintendo fixes its questionable design. Holding the system, it’s kind of heavier than I’d like it to be. Combine that with hard angled edges and corners that dig into my hands, and I don’t want to play it for long periods of time. Compared to the Vita’s comfortable egg-like shape, it’s not the most ergonomic design. Maybe I just have big, soft American hands, but the 3DS feels too sharp and too small.
The top screen, the one that displays 3D images, is bigger than the bottom one. Without screen symmetry the whole thing looks off, and I had to constantly readjust my eyes to the 3D screen after looking at the bottom screen. With 3D as the major selling point I’m also worried that the bottom screen, the touch screen, will be ignored by developers when it comes to interesting gameplay. I don’t see a Kirby’s Canvas Curse 2 happening anytime soon.
The stylus dock, which was on the right side of the DSi, is now on the top left side of the 3DS, behind the top screen hinge and too close to the game cart dock for comfort. This is pretty annoying for the right-handed among us (the right hand is the default hand, don’t you know) who worry about accidentally popping out the game they’re playing while reaching for the stylus. It’s one of the more aggravating design choices here since it was in the perfect spot on the DSi. As if to make up for the placement of the dock, the new telescopic stylus is a nice and sturdy pointing tool.
Another downgrade is the 3DS system’s skin. It has a finish thirsty for oily fingerprints. Again, the DSi already got it right with its smooth matte finish, why choose something that attracts greasy prints? Definitely do not game with potato chips or garlic bread on hand. The top 3D screen is also prone to prints and marks, and though I didn’t force anything it seems easy to scratch as well. Screen protectors are a good idea.
Directional pad placement is pretty close to the bottom so, know, cramps. Heaven forbid you need to use the D-pad, face buttons and L and R buttons at the same time. Or, oh god, the circle pad, the stylus and the L button at the same time.
The circle pad feels good and comfy, but as we learned earlier in the year with the announcement of the attachable 3DS Analog Slide Pad a.k.a. the Circle Pad Pro, only one circle pad is a serious lack of foresight. Or present-sight really, since nearly every game these days uses two analog sticks in some fashion.
The A, B, X and Y buttons, as well as the L and R buttons on the top, are problem-free. The Start, Home and Select buttons, situated directly beneath the bottom/touch screen, feel cheap. They take a lot more pressure to press, probably to prevent the Home button from accidentally suspending gameplay. Their cheap, stiff feel really stands out on the 3DS. They feel like something that would belong on a Tiger Game.com, not a Nintendo product.
Let’s move on to the included software.
Little cards featuring Nintendo characters — Mario, Kirby, Link, etc. — come with the 3DS. Place these cards down on a flat surface, point the 3DS camera at them, and the cards come to “life.” Mario and the gang hang out in real-world settings using footage captured by the 3D camera. The Face Raiders mini-game does a similar trick by pasting pictures of you or your friends’ faces on flying doodads. Use the motion controls to look around for them and shoot them down. These were all fun little tech demos that could entertain little kids or grandparents. The rest of us are waiting for Augmented Reality to play a larger part. If the 3DS version of Smash Bros. uses it like the included character cards suggest, well, that’d be something.
The Mii Maker is a lot like the Wii version except it uses the 3DS camera to snap a photo of your face then recreates it automatically in Mii form. It’s not very accurate though, so I had to edit the Mii myself afterwards to get it juuust perfect. Once I did that I was satisfied. Your Mii can then do all the same things it does on the Wii: move on to other peoples’ 3DS systems via StreetPass, appear in certain games and go on tiny parades.
StreetPass is a very cool feature every game should take advantage of. Close the 3DS and put it to sleep, then carry it around and passively trade game data with other 3DS owners. It’s a great excuse to carry the 3DS around during the day.
After toying with the included apps, I went online to see if Nintendo learned a thing or two about online interfaces. Not yet. Navigating the eShop is annoying. Scrolling through icons horizontally is a cumbersome way to browse selections–not that there’s a lot to choose from. Just like on the Wii, the Virtual Console games still come at a trickle. The selection is very small at the moment and prices are pretty high considering some of the games’ ages. At least they’re not all the same price. , However, the different currencies used for the eShop and Virtual Console on Wii is absolutely something that shouldn’t have happened and no shared content across platforms is unfortunate, but here we are.
Now, the 3D! The whole reason this gadget exists takes some acclimation. It impressed the hell out of me and everyone else at E3 2010. It feels less impressive now that I’ve spent some time with it. You have to keep the system at a sweet spot angle in front of your face, a challenge given this is a hand-held system. When the 3D slider is turned all the way up, I did find my eyes tiring out much faster than usual. I found a nice zone for the slider in the middle, closer to the bottom, where it looked 3D but didn’t give my eyes a workout. And when it works, it works well. The illusion of depth is achieved. Mario Kart 7 uses it well, as do the simple menus in the Home screen, eShop and elsewhere.
Battery power leaves a lot to be desired. With the 3D effect on, brightness setting at max and a connection online it drains it after 3 hours on one charge. Otherwise it’s good for short bursts of play on the bus and subway. While playing at home I had it plugged in with the included AC adapter.
I also tried out some Nintendo DS games to see how they look. I was particularly interested in games that use both screens, so The World Ends With You was the first I tested. It was rough. The top screen made things too dark and blurry and battles were difficult to control with the D-pad located where it is. It wasn’t a good way to play. Sonic Rush had no noticeable flaws. Tetris DS worked okay, though the top of the bottom screen was a little cut off. Pokemon Black was dark and blurry, but more playable than TWEWY. Mario Kart DS was fun to play with the circle pad and the blurriness wasn’t as noticeable since it’s such a bright-colored game. And I played a few more and the pattern emerged: for the most part DS games are dark and blurry on the 3DS. You can hold the Start and Select buttons when booting a DS game to revert the game back to its native resolution, but then you’re not really playing the game in an ideal fashion. The original DS is still the best way to play original DS games.
In the end, the 3DS is a promising machine in need of a serious hardware revision, a renovated online presence and more variety in its game library. That last issue will be solved in time. So far the selection looks a lot like every other Nintendo system. That is, the only games worth owning are Mario, Zelda and other first-party titles. The problem with that is a few of them are games we played two console cycles ago. The 3DS needs fresh content, preferably of the third-party variety — an age-old problem for the company. The online store and other wireless capabilities shouldn’t be a difficult fix. They just need to look around and see that there are dozens of superior examples out there to emulate, from iTunes to PSN to Steam. It’s kind of unbelievable that Nintendo hasn’t figured out the online space at this point when just about everyone else has. The hardware revision has got to happen at some point. The original DS had three, there’s nothing to stop the 3DS from having a few for itself, and it already kind of happened with the Slide Pad Pro. They just need to make that thing a permanent fixture and, uh, address all those other issues I mentioned as well. It can be done! If anyone can do it, Nintendo can. The handheld arena has always been their realm. It’s just been encroached upon by Sony and Apple, and Nintendo needs to keep up.
I’m not saying the 3DS is a bust, in fact, if you got the cash or you know you’re about to get it from Santa, then awesome. New hardware is always cool and the 3DS definitely has a “wow factor” that its competitors don’t. It’s still a fun machine despite its flaws. It’s perfect for kids, Nintendo’s target audience. Adults with big, cramped hands and high standards may want to wait or borrow one. I hear that Super Mario 3D Land is totally tubular.