Much improved graphics that expand gameplay types.
A few good launch titles.
Good hardware controls.
Easy interface beyond games.
StreetPass and SpotPass good for getting outside.
Short battery life.
Much costlier than an iPod touch.
Not as flexible as the iPod or other multi-role handhelds.
No browser or online game store on launch.
A cursory look at the 3DS is immediate proof of just how evolutionary its design is. In many ways, it looks and acts like a power user's DSi. That extends to the relative bulk of the design. It's not as big as a DSi XL, but it's definitely thick and not what you'd want to put in a pants pocket. We would give it a pass mostly because of how much it's fitting into the space it uses.
The controls will be uncannily familiar to DS veterans, with one major exception: an analog pad. To say it was overdue would be an understatement. The pad finally allows subtle, more precise movement and moves that would be difficult or impossible on a basic directional pad, such as the sweeping motion for a hadouken in Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition. Even in games like Pilotwings Resort, it was a relief to have that much control. It's a much better implementation than the PSP's almost nub-like stick, too, and there was no fear that we'd overshoot or lose grip.
All the button controls fall easily to hand, if almost too easily: we were somewhat annoyed with the shoulder buttons. They're too easy to press by accident when you're not in a gaming position, and because they invoke the camera app when in the main menu, they can be a nuisance. We generally like the metal stylus; it's more reassuring than plastic and has a telescopic extension for adults who need bigger hands.
Expansion and ports are for the most part easy to reach, as you'd hope for in a gaming handheld intended for everyone from kids on up. We do wish the stylus holder were on the side, though, and it's slightly irksome that you have to shut the 3DS down completely to swap SD cards.
Color choices for the 3DS aren't exotic, or at least not yet. They're currently limited to black and an aqua-tinged blue. Of the two, we'd opt for the blue rather than the black of our review unit. While the black might be more socially acceptable for an adult, it's almost too conservative and more prone to showing dust and fingerprints.
The glasses-free 3D display
Before we get to the centerpiece feature of the 3DS, we should quickly touch on the display below it. The bottom screen will be very familiar to those who've had a DS Lite or DSi. It's reasonably large for touch input and generally enjoyable to use, though not spectacular to look at. The panel is still resistive, requiring pressure instead of the sensitive capacitive screen you'd see on an iPod, but it's reasonably precise for finger input. Most of the 3DS touch interface is designed to work smoothly with fingers, though the keyboard and some games like Steel Diver absolutely need the stylus to work.
The top display is a genuine break for Nintendo. At 3.5 inches across and an 800x240 resolution, it's much higher resolution than the 320x240 screen on every DS model before. Its party trick is of course the ability to draw 3D without needing stereoscopic 3D glasses. While Nintendo hasn't ever identified exactly how it works, it's believed to be a close relative of a Sharp-made display that uses parallax to send out two separate images at the same time.
For the most part, it works well. Using the 3D effect at full tilt has images pop out, sometimes subtly (characters offset from the background, for example) or sometimes very obviously (a character floating out in front). It's very sensitive to your eye position, however. There's a relatively narrow cone of vision in which 3D looks right, and while it's in the most natural position for holding the system during play, looking even moderately off-center breaks the illusion. It's not a constant problem but is ironically paired up with a system that now has a gyroscope and a motion sensor; try to use both 3D and motion at the same time and you'll lose the visuals.
There are also eyesight issues that Nintendo can't avoid with its current implementation of 3D. While we didn't have problems with long-term play, we've heard multiple reports of gamers experiencing eye strain, and in extreme cases nausea, from playing in 3D mode for a long time. This also assumes that you can see the 3D in the first place. Just as a fraction of people can't see stereoscopic 3D at the movie theater or on a TV, some are biologically incapable of seeing the 3DS' effect. Whether it's a lazy eye, "weird eye," or even just an unusual brain wiring, a few of our friends and even celebrities like Johnny Depp will only just see a regular 2D picture when they're the 3D sweet spot.
Thankfully, Nintendo has put in a slider to dial down the 3D effect, either to reduce the strain for those that can see the 3D or completely off for those that can't or don't care for it. In 2D-only mode, the screen is actually slightly brighter since it's not splitting the backlight. You'll admittedly be wasting the 3DS' headlining feature, but as every game is designed to work properly in 2D mode as well as 3D, it can still work as a greatly upgraded DSi.
Home screen interface, built-in apps, and the camera
The more the DS line of handhelds has advanced, the more they've had to become very nearly computer-like and cater to those times you're not in mid-game. That's truer than ever on the 3DS. Its interface centers around a size-adjustable icon grid of apps but also has a range of shortcut icons for game notes, your friends list, and notifications. There's even a basic level of app management: most games and utilities by default go into suspension rather than quit entirely, so you can make notes about a game or check your Mii avatar without losing your place.
Jumping around the interface is, understandably, quite simple. Again, Nintendo has to cater to everyone from eight to eighty, so controls wouldn't always be as quick as they would be for a hardcore gamer but are always easy to understand. We imagine the youngest gamers might still get confused about concepts like suspending apps or why you shouldn't remove the SD card while the system is on, so it may be best to keep the 3DS to kids close to or already in their double digits.
A good chunk of the preloaded apps are actually mini games. You can play augmented reality games using a set of cards, and we had a surprisingly good time playing Face Raiders, which maps your face on to flying enemies and has you shoot them down by spinning around in the real world to aim. Media apps are quite basic, though. The audio app is almost exclusively intended for simple voice recording, and the camera app is equally uncomplicated. Both are great for kids, but they unfortunately leave the 3DS as still incapable of doing double-duty as your media player; that's not what Nintendo needed to fend off the iPod.
Image quality from the camera is, understandably, not that spectacular given the price Nintendo needs to hit. Photos look relatively good on the 3DS display itself; when you get them to a computer using the SD card, though, you can tell they're overly soft and are prone to blown-out highlights. No one would buy a 3DS for the camera, but it does mean you'll mostly be using it to take photos for the sake of games. A note on 3D photos: they're captured in the MPO format used by the current batch of 3D cameras like the Fujifilm Real 3D W3 and can be shared around, but you'll need special software or devices that can read them.
Existing DS owners will be disappointed to learn that, as of this review, there are two missing features. The Opera-based web browser isn't there and is teased with an icon on the home screen promising an update. You also have no access to an online game store so far, so neither 3DS-native nor DSi downloadable titles are available to fill things out. Nintendo is also promising an update here, but it's a sign along with the browser that the console was rushed to get into stores, even if everything else is very polished.
We'd add that Nintendo has taken a number of steps, almost literally, to encourage gamers to go outside. Along with StreetPass, which we'll touch on later, there's an automatic pedometer function and an activity log to keep track of your activity. Both are for more than just show. If you travel frequently, you're rewarded with game coins to spend against virtual items. Even if it's a feature that some might never notice, it's nice to see Nintendo taking on some social responsibility.
Putting everything into practice, we tried three of the 3DS launch titles: Nintendogs + Cats, Pilotwings Resort, and Steel Diver. We would have most wanted to try Super Street Fighter IV -- we know it's a system seller for many -- but it would have been an expensive proposition.
Nintendogs is designed for the most universal appeal and, being a first-party game, is not surprisingly designed to make the most of the 3DS hardware compared to the other two we tried. If you've played an earlier game in the series, it's not a revolution. You raise a dog (and now cats) and learn to both keep it fed as well as happy by playing and rubbing it with the touchscreen. However, we liked both the extra immersion of the 3D when your pet jumps up against the screen and the need to train your pet through spoken instructions.
That speech component makes it awkward to play in public, and the game is ultimately just a very advanced Tamagotchi, but there's a certain appeal to a game whose emphasis is on nurturing over competition.
Pilotwings Resort is an example of a much more conventional game that tests the analog stick; the touchscreen is virtually unused as you're navigating waypoints and dodging obstacles. More than anything, it's a good example of the performance upgrades that came from a brand new processor and graphics. We'd say the graphics are roughly on par with those of a GameCube but with the added pop of 3D and a surprisingly good ability to show a large amount of detail at once without bogging down, such as the view of the whole island. Like we mentioned earlier, the solid analog pad gives a genuine amount of precision and didn't interfere with some occasionally tricky flying.
The title is somewhat emblematic of most early 3DS games, though. As fun as it can be, it has a fairly repetitive game structure and could run out of steam if you get bored with the idea or hit a wall in game difficulty. At $40, it's not the worst use of money but feels more like a $10 iPod game.
Steel Diver, of all the titles, was the one we enjoyed the most, even if we've seen some lukewarm reviews. Its game mechanic is also repetitive, but it's a much more demanding affair that keeps you on your toes. Your goal is always to navigate a sub through underwater tunnels and either destroy or avoid rival ships. Rather than rely on hardware buttons, though, it has a fun and involving imitation of submarine controls on the bottom touchscreen with handles to drive, fire torpedoes, pivot or use special features.
It's perhaps too expensive at $40 for what it does. Nonetheless, it's still entertaining and an example of a game that couldn't be done on another platform, or at least not as well.
The common thread among all the games, other than that they're relatively expensive if you're used to download-only platforms, is something symptomatic of traditional handheld gaming systems: you have to load physical copies. In spite of what some would say, it's not a fatal flaw, but it does mean also having to lug around a pouch of games or else remembering to load the one game you want to play before you leave home.
StreetPass, SpotPass, and battery life
We mentioned that Nintendo was encouraging gamers to get outside with the 3DS, and the most conspicuous way to do it is through StreetPass. At its heart, the approach puts the Wi-Fi radio into listening mode when it's not already connected to a local network, even if the handheld is technically sleeping. You can pick up other Miis from nearby 3DS owners, and if they've played the same games, even pick up extra objects or have in-the-background 'battles' that affect your characters. Since the 3DS is so new, we only had limited success testing it and picked up a single Mii. Even so, it's impressive that you can open your 3DS after a trip to the food court and suddenly know a number of new players or rank up a character.
There's a few limitations to how StreetPass works. There's only so much you can do with them outside of certain multiplayer games and the Mii Plaza. Also, Nintendo hasn't given a way to easily identify which of the people in a crowd is the one who gave you a Mii. Unless they clearly have their 3DS out or you're in a small group, most StreetPass Miis will be strangers outside of knowing they live near you.
SpotPass we didn't get to try ourselves but borrows the same concept. A public Wi-Fi hotspot can be set up as a SpotPass and will automatically send content to a 3DS, again even while it's sleeping. The aim is really just to drive gamers to stores like the local GameStop or McDonald's, but it should still be a treat and could encourage gamers to leave home.
All of these do have an impact on something of a sore point for the 3DS: battery life. The system officially lasts for only about three to five hours of non-stop 3DS gaming, and that bore out in tests where a large slice of the remaining charge disappeared after each game session. Games for earlier DS systems last for five to eight hours, but even so, it's pretty telling that a charging cradle is included in the box -- you'll need to plug the 3DS in virtually every day to make sure there's enough power for tomorrow. StreetPass and SpotPass can add to it by draining the battery when you're not looking, too, although it wasn't extreme for us.
Wrapping up and the iPod question
It's easy to like the 3DS as what it is, a dedicated game system. Enjoying it depends on getting the right titles; if you manage that, it's a pleasure to pop it open and play. The initial launch lineup wasn't outstanding, although that's due to change soon with a new Mario Kart game and ports of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Starfox promising some fairly immersive games that weren't always options on the DSi. Nintendo has nailed the hardware controls and has an interface that's fairly powerful but still accessible to much of its audience.
The 3D feature can be fun, but to us it's actually only a fraction of what makes the system appealing. For us, it's just that it's a huge leap forward in technical prowess; it's the kind of games you can play on it, like Splinter Cell and Street Fighter, that make it worth the upgrade. DS owners have often either been limited to 2D or basic 3D games, so just getting games that previously would have tied you to your TV is in itself a positive. StreetPass might also encourage gamers to meet each other face to face in a way that PlayStation Network and Xbox Live have usually discouraged.
By itself, the 3DS' only real flaws are its battery life and minor issues like the handling of the stylus location and the SD card slot.
It's when you put the handheld in the context of other platforms that Nintendo starts to hurt a bit. We'd gladly pick a 3DS over a DSi or a Sony PSP. An iPod touch, however? We're not so sure. At $250, the 3DS is $20 more expensive than an 8GB iPod touch and has just a 2GB SD card in the box. Moreover, 3DS games are often at least four to eight times more expensive than a professionally made iPod game at $5 to $10. If you mount a substantial game library, the 3DS will be much more expensive in the long term.
And if the buyer (or intended owner) is in teenage years or older, the question of intended use should also come up. With the 3DS, you'll still need a dedicated media player for music, and even when the promised web browser and downloadable game shop arrive, it still won't be as well-suited to those purposes as what Apple makes. Anyone old enough to buy one for themselves should monitor their own gaming habits, or lack of them, before they jump in.
Having said this, there's no question that the 3DS is going to be the go-to game system for kids, or even those who are fans of long, professional games. There's just some game types that a touchscreen-only device can't replicate, and even the slightly awkward friend code system Nintendo uses for online play (now thankfully not specific to any one game) is probably safer and more effective for a younger player. The $250 asking price is a lot to spend for a narrow-purpose mobile device, but Nintendo still has the edge in serious mobile gaming for now.