Originally published in The Daily Toreador.
It’s been about a month since Nintendo’s 3DS portable gaming system debuted in the U.S. I’ve spent a lot of time with the system and have reviewed several of the launch titles for The Daily Toreador. Now, I feel more than comfortable reviewing the hardware itself.
The 3DS is Nintendo’s successor to its immensely successful DS, and the relationship is immediately apparent. At first glance you might mistake the device for a DSi, with its two screens and inner- and outer-facing cameras. Both systems share the same number and placement of buttons.
But there are three primary differences here. One is the circle pad, which operates like a console controller’s analog stick. This works astoundingly well, and feels great on your thumb while giving you much more control over character movement than just a d-pad gives (though the 3DS also has a d-pad below the circle pad).
Another difference is the fact that there are now two cameras on the outside of the system, which allows you to take low-res 3-D pictures (the ability to shoot 3-D video is coming later via a system update).
But the main difference is the top screen, which is wide, beautiful and, oh yeah, 3-D.
The most important part of a 3DS review is probably this: The technology works as advertised. As long as you’re looking at the top 3DS screen head-on (not at an angle), you see an image in 3-D without needing to wear any ugly 3-D glasses.
The technology works by the same principles as a 3-D movie like “Avatar.” The screen sends a separate image to each eye in order to create the illusion of depth. So if you can’t see 3-D movies for some reason (for example, if you’re blind in one eye), then this won’t work for you either, which is unfortunate.
Most of the time, the 3-D gives you the illusion that you’re looking into the screen, providing an exciting degree of depth. But there are definitely moments where it feels as if the image is coming out of the screen and into your face. It really depends on what individual game developers want to do with the technology.
So the technology works, and is pretty magical when you first see it, but it has limitations. The “sweet spot” from which you have to be looking at the screen is very small. If you tilt the screen the wrong way, you lose the 3-D effect and instead see a blurry image.
You get used to it, but it’s a shame you don’t have more freedom of movement, especially since some games try to make use of player movement by using the device’s accelerometers (just like on those iPhone games that require you to tilt to play).
You can tune the 3-D effect to your liking, which is very nice. A slider on the side of the screen is easily adjustable, so you can decide exactly how much of the 3-D effect you want, and can even turn it off altogether if you so desire.
Even with the 3-D off, the 3DS is a pretty amazing handheld. It’s a more powerful DS (providing graphical power somewhere around the GameCube or the Wii), which for some people will be enough. The bottom screen is still a touch screen, and in fact you can play all of your old DS games just fine on the 3DS (after you get past an initial boot-up time).
Online capabilities have been drastically improved and are even better than the Wii currently provides. You still have to use Nintendo’s annoying Friend Code system, giving you a unique number to share with friends rather than letting you choose a username, but this has been reduced to only one code per system, rather than a separate code for each individual game, which was a gigantic pain.
You can still play against random people, too. Jumping into an online match in “Super Street Fighter IV” is actually quicker than it is on the Xbox 360 or PS3, and works very well.
And there are tons of cool features built into the machine, such as “Street Pass.” If your 3DS is on and closed, it will constantly search for other 3DS systems as you carry it around. If you happen to walk by someone else with a 3DS, the two of you exchange data without even being aware of it. The simplest exchange is of your personal Mii avatars (which are exactly identical to those on the Wii), but you can also exchange data like race times in “Ridge Racer” or have an automatic figurine battle in “Street Fighter.”
But there are downsides.
The biggest and most crippling is the battery life. When the wireless features are on, the 3-D slider is at max and your screen brightness is all the way up, you may be looking at a mere three hours of playtime. And that’s after taking about three hours for the system to fully charge.
The potential upside to this is the battery is easily removable — Nintendo’s own instructions even tell you how to do it. So there’s a possibility better batteries will come along in the future that provide more playtime.
Also, the system comes with a charging cradle, which makes it extremely easy to plop down your 3DS when you get home and let it charge without needing to mess with cables.
The other downside is one that hopefully won’t last long: the game library.
The 3DS launched with a wide variety of games for a wide variety of people. “Madden,” “The Sims,” “Pro Evolution Soccer,” “PilotWings,” “Street Fighter,” “Ridge Racer” … A ton of genres are covered. Unfortunately, most of the games that have been released so far are average at best.
But the original DS had one of the largest and greatest libraries of games for any game system ever released. The 3DS could easily meet or exceed that precedent, especially considering old DS games can be played on the device. If you wait a little bit, there should be a lot of outstanding games for you to choose from. A remake of “Zelda: Ocarina of Time” and an action-oriented “Resident Evil” game are both coming in June, and the future past that already looks really bright.
The system’s $250 price is a lot of money, so you would be justified in waiting for more quality games to ship before investing in the hardware. However, I think the system itself is extremely solid and should have a really bright future. If you’re serious about playing video games, chances are you’ll need to own a 3DS at some point in the future.