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Nintendo 3DS review

See that greenish blue thing up there? That might look like this greenish blue thing over here that we reviewed a few weeks back, but actually they're not the same. No, sir. This thing up there is the genuine, guaranteed, red-blooded American version, ready to tear a $250 hole in your gaming budget and make you go all googly-eyed for 3D. Naturally there isn't an awful lot different here compared to the Japanese version we already looked at, but we have had the opportunity to spend a good bit more quality time with this one than with the other one. Plus, being able to read all the manuals doesn't hurt.

What you'll find below is a full review of the American console including more game impressions, more in depth battery life tests, a dazzling demo of the thing's augmented reality gameplay, and some surpring performance results with good 'ol DS carts. So, join us, if you would, for a rather more in depth exploration of this, the next dimension in handheld console gaming.


Hardware


Owners of either a Nintendo DS Lite, DSi, or DS XL will feel right at home with the 3DS. It has the same clamshell design, a bit chubbier than the Lite but almost identically dimensioned compared to the DSi. It's something of a chunky, hefty thing, taking up an entire pocket but certainly not putting too much of a dent in a backpack. Flip it open and you're greeted with the second-biggest change here compared to Ninty's previous portable offerings: an analog thumb slider. Nintendo calls it either the Circle or Slide Pad and, regardless of which moniker you prefer, you'll find it to be quite comfortable.

3dsIt cossets your opposable digits with a subtle indentation and a tactile rubberized coating that ensures your all-important left thumbprint will not suffer damage whilst jet packing Pilot Wings. That, of course, can't be said about Sony's 30 grit analog sliders on the PSP. The 3DS slider is rather strongly sprung, but it moves with precision -- not to mention grace.

To make room the D-pad has been displaced, moved down about an inch and put at something of an uncomfortable position. This is of course most notable when you're playing an older DS game or a game like Super Street Figher IV: 3D Edition, which is better done sans-analogue. However, the slider pad can be used for the DS games too, naturally minus its pressure-sensitive ways.

You cannot, however, use the analog slider with older Game Boy or Game Boy Advance titles, simply because there's nowhere to put them. Like the DSi, the 3DS makes do without a bigger cartridge slot, and that's a shame, because Super Puzzle Fighter II still hasn't seen a DS release. We just can't make it through a flight of any substantial duration without choosing Dan and burying our enemies with red crystals.

The A, B, X, and Y buttons are in their familiar diamond pattern on the right, L and R up top where you'd expect them. Those two are a bit thin, but protrude enough that they fall to finger quite handily. Much more handily than the new Start, Select, and Home buttons, positioned beneath the (yes, still resistive) touchscreen. They look like capacitive numbers of the sort found on many a slabby smartphone these days, but despite being flush with the screen they do depress. They're all but impossible to find by feel, which is a little unfortunate, but you'll rarely be reaching for them in a panic. The stylus, too, is hard to find by touch, hidden on the back next to the cartridge slot

Up above them is the new three-inch touchscreen, resolution boosted to 320 x 240 -- a nice step up from the DSi's 256 x 192. But, of course, the real story is the non-touchy, non-feely screen up above that.

Glasses-free 3D at last

Inside the lid of the 3DS is the display that will bring all the gamers to the yard, the glasses-free, parallax-barrier 3D screen that we think is from Sharp, but nobody's confirming yet. It's 3.5-inches on the diagonal, containing an array of 800 x 240 pixels. That's quite high-res for a portable Nintendo system but, because of the way things work here, each eye has to have its own columns of pixels, meaning the effective resolution of 400 x 240. Still quite good, and an even bigger step up from the 256 x 192 displays on the DSi.

When displaying 2D content the image is bright and crisp, and while viewing angles are perhaps a bit disappointing (there's a sharp decrease in contrast after about 45 degrees) that's not really a problem here, because you'll be spending most of your time front-and-center. At least, you will be if you want to make use of the system's highly-tauted glasses-free 3D mode.

To make the most of this you have to hold the system at a point right around 12 inches from your face. It has to be almost perfectly flat relative to your eyes -- any deviation from there of more than a few degrees and the screen's built-in lenses that split one picture into two won't send the right photons into the right peepers.

The further away you hold the screen the harder your eyes have to work to put things together, which is where the little silver slider on the right comes in. This intensifies or reduces the 3D effect, basically shifting the two virtual cameras in the game further apart or closer together.

If you're the type of gamer who can't sit still while playing you'll find yourself reaching for this dial as often as the A or B buttons. The closer your face to the screen the higher you can raise that slider. But, move the system away with that slider too high and you're just asking for a headache as your brain tries to re-assemble two perspectives that are a little too far out of whack.

So, to get the maximum effect you have to hold the 3DS perfectly still, hold it close, and make sure the 3D dial isn't cranked too high. A pain? Yes, it is, but it quickly becomes second nature and, once you perfect it, it actually is worthwhile. The screen provides a very compelling effect and, while 3D adds absolutely nothing to the gameplay itself (you won't be peeking around corners or better-judging throws) it genuinely improves the perceived quality of the graphics in the system's games. Plus, it's pretty neat.

Battery life and DS compatibility

For the Japanese system we reviewed, battery life was our chief complaint. Sadly that continues with the US version. Again we're looking at somewhere between three and three and a half hours of 3D gaming bliss with WiFi turned on. Switch it off and you can add about another half-hour to that total. Enough for most commuter flights, but parents hoping to tackle I95 in its entirety with fully-occupied kids will want to invest in a car charger.

There are various theories out there that disabling the main screen's 3D mode results in greater battery life, but we didn't find that to be the case, so play with as many dimensions enabled as you like.

While 3DS games won't work in older DS consoles, a wee tab sticking out of the side ensures they won't fit, DS games most certainly do work here. And they work well enough, but we were surprised to find that load-times for these games is considerably slower than on a DS. Titles like Professor Layton and the Curious Village and Mario Kart DS hit the white Nintendo screen about two seconds on a DS Lite, yet took between eight and 10 seconds to get there on the 3DS.

That's certainly not the end of the world, though, and once you do get there we're happy to report you'll see greatly increased battery life when playing DS titles. We clocked about six hours with WiFi disabled, so nearly twice the longevity when playing dedicated 3DS titles -- but still about half what the DS Lite can manage.

Internal hardware

We don't have firm performance figures for the 3DS but it's clearly capable of better graphics processing than its predecessors. Obviously the original DS had no shortage of games rendered in 3D and, while the few 3DS we've seen thus far don't exactly make them look stone age by comparison, there's a definite step forward. Sadly, though, those 3D titles for the DS cannot make use of the display's trickery -- they'll all be flat.

The 3DS also features both an accelerometer and a gyroscope. This enables augmented reality games like Face Raiders and some other nifty options we'll discuss in just a moment, but it's hard to not question the practicality of such games on this platform. Remember, you have to hold the 3DS in just that perfect spot, and so if you're moving around at all it just doesn't work.

Stereo speakers still flank both sides of the top screen, and they seem to handle slightly more volume and do it slightly more capably than the speakers in the previous DS models. We're still not talking high-fidelity here, though. Storage is achieved onto an SD card that slots in the left side. 2GB is provided, plenty enough to start, but should you find yourself going crazy with downloadable titles you can get yourself an 8GB monster for about ten bucks these days. Ain't progress grand?

Cameras and amazing augmenting reality

The 3DS has not one, not two, but three cameras scattered about its unfortunately turquoise exterior and black-painted interior. Together they offer a combined resolution just short of one megapixel. But, since those pixels are spread across three VGA sensors each the pictures coming out of this thing are flat-out bad.

Lower-resolution sensors often take higher-quality pictures than their mega-megapixel successors, but that's not the case here. Light sensitivity is poor, colors look muted, and needless to say you won't be using the 3DS to capture your next globe-trotting adventure -- unless it's trip to Murky Pixeland.

That said, the pair of cameras on the lid do enable two interesting things. First is 3D picture taking, but the novelty of that will quickly wear off. Second, and rather more impressive, is the suite of augmented reality tricks. The system comes with six cards but not a single stick of bubblegum. Most of them let you look at boring 3D models of Mario, Samus, or other characters who must be counting the days to retirement at this point. But, it's the card with the unassuming "?" on it that'll really blow minds.

Whip that sucker out of your deck and the 3DS paints an amazing overlay on top of whatever table or surface you place it on. Then, a series of boxes appear to rise out of the ground, each one representing another fun AR title. Archery is probably the most involving, forcing you to move the 3DS around to find targets hidden behind obstructions that, like the targets themselves, aren't really there.

It's rather more compelling than it sounds, so be sure to check out the video above if you can, but as genuinely impressive as that is these are little more than tech demos, games that will take you no more than a couple of minutes to best and get bored with. It remains to be seen whether other developers can pick up this tantalizing ball and really run with it or whether these demos will live on like Wii Sports: the first, simplest, and still the most fun game for the Wii. We're hoping that's not the case here, as we really want an AR strategy game that will let us cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war across our dining room table.

Games

Since spending time with many of the Japanese launch titles we've now been able to get to know a number of the American releases too. As ever we'll leave the detailed reviews to our pals at Joystiq, but here are some brief impressions.
  • Face Raiders - For a game that's built into the 3DS, Face Raiders is surprisingly fun. You take a 3D picture of a friend's mug and it's layered over what can only be described as a disembodied head held aloft by a beanie. In an augmented-reality twist these heads are superimposed over whatever the cameras see, and as they hover about, winking and smiling at you, you're asked to shoot them. To aim you simply move the 3DS around, ensuring this is a game you won't be playing much of in public. It also ensures you won't be playing this game with the 3D effect turned on, but it is still good dumb fun.
  • Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars - Yet another excellent Lego game set in the Star Wars universe, this one offering some 3D fun that doesn't add anything to the gameplay but does help to spice up the game's graphical flare. Perhaps the most purely enjoyable to play of all the launch titles, but the lack of multiplayer is a baffling disappointment.
  • Madden NFL Football - It wouldn't be a console without a Madden game, but since this one comes about six months after Madden NFL 11 and, presumably, about six months before Madden NFL 12, it must make do without any annual designation. Still, it sports a full NFL license and all the teams, but mediocre graphics that don't make use of the 3DS's graphics performance nor, surprisingly, did it do much to tickle our 3D sense.
  • Nintendogs + Cats: Toy Poodle and New Friends - It's another Nintendogs game, again with cats and this time focusing on mostly foofy little pooches, only a couple of breeds in here having any chance of standing up to that bossy Cocker Spaniel at the dog park. Nothing revolutionary in terms of gameplay, though the 3D effect does work quite well in the simple environments, a good sense of depth acheived with your little buddy romping off to fetch a ball or frisbee or potted plant.
  • Pilotwings Resort - Probably the premier launch title for the 3DS and a proud, long-awaited return for the Pilotwings series. It is much like the games before, offering a suite challenges that start off easy and end up, well, challenging. The graphics are clean and the 3D effect reasonably good, but since most of the things you're looking at are rather far away there's honestly not that much immersion here provided by the fancy screen.
  • Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D - Depending on your proclivity for European sporting distractions the latest installment in the long-running Winning Eleven series may not have even hit your radar. But, if you're looking for a good exhibition of the console's 3D effect, this is it. Something about the flat green grass and the players rendered atop it results in the cleanest, most eye-friendly visual pop of any of the titles we sampled. It's also, quite simply, a great game of footie.
  • Ridge Racer 3D - Yet another entry in the storied sideways racing series. Little is new here, including recycled tracks, but polished graphics and visual effects make it a bit of a looker. It's not necessarily the best at exhibiting the system's 3D effects, however, something about the speed of the visuals forcing us to keep the 3D slider a little lower than usual.
  • Steel Diver - The submarine genre is still sadly underutilized, though even more sadly Steel Diver doesn't do much of anything to fulfill that potential. It's a slow, plodding, side-view strategy game with unnecessarily clumsy touchscreen controls occasionally interrupted by fun but brainless turret sections. In these sections you must spin about as if you were looking through the periscope, which is great fun -- particularly for anyone watching you play. The 3D effect here is reasonably good, better than the game itself.
  • Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition - Lots of fighters are collected, some of which you'll have long-since forgotten about since the endless SF releases of yore, and all rendered in 3D and presented in 3D too. The extra depth does serve to make the highly polished graphics look even better, and the way the status bars and round timer hover over the action is a neat effect. There's also a new, over-the-shoulder view to help augment the illusion of depth, but it won't take long for serious gamers to revert to the traditional side-view.
  • Samurai Warriors: Chronicles - Somehow the feudal lords at Koei keep finding more brainless goons to fill their armies, so yet another Warriors game is needed to manage their population. It's hack and slashery galore here, as ever, and the 3D effect doesn't do much to make the gameplay more compelling than it has in the past eleventy iterations.

The future

Before closing we should mention that, according to Nintendo, this is just the beginning. The company has yet to exactly clarify exactly how its new 3D downloadable offerings will be consolidated in with the existing DSiWare stuff, but we're expecting a healthy amount of downloadable content, including 3Dified versions of retro classics from the TurboGrafx 16 and Game Gear. Right now, though, you can't download anything except for Download Play multiplayer levels.

Intriguingly Nintendo is promising Netflix support for the 3DS as well, which could be quite compelling -- particularly should Netflix start offering 3D content. Finally, there's a web browser built-in to the 3DS, sitting right there in the Home menu and taunting you from behind its icon. But, tap all you want and you won't get a bit of WWW, just a message that the browser will be enabled in a later software update.

Oh, and sadly the 3DS is indeed region-locked. American games won't work in the Japanese system, Japanese games won't work in the American system, though we didn't have a problem playing American DS titles in our Japanese system. So, there is at least hope for the older games.

Wrap-up

Now it's time for the big question: is the 3DS worth the $249.99 that Nintendo is currently offering? That's a tough sell, especially knowing that in roughly 18 months we'll probably be looking at a thinner, lighter, prettier 3DS that offers better battery life and could be yours for a cheaper price. But, that's not here yet, and you have to ask yourself whether those 18 or so months of gameplay are worth whatever cash you'd potentially save by waiting a whole year and a half -- or thereabouts.

For cutting-edge gamers, particularly for big fans of Pilotwings, the 3DS is not a bad investments. The AR games are a lot of fun, for a little while at least, and the 3D effect is genuinely compelling. Some people recoil in horror long before their eyes have adjusted, but most folks who've tried the system really like it once they find their own personal sweet spot.

But still, it's a lot of money for a handheld gaming system with just over three hours of battery life, especially when you can get a brand new DS Lite for $130 that will last three times as long in a charge -- and that comes in a rather more compelling set of colors. None of the launch titles are really compelling enough to make the 3DS a must-buy for casual gamers, but if Nintendo can get Netflix lined up and, more importantly, if it can get third party publishers to really make use of the system's assets and not just release crummy ports, by the time this holiday season rolls around the 3DS could be a genuinely hot property -- much, much hotter than Nintendo's last attempt at 3D domination.

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