When Nintendo of America's President and COO, Reggie Fils-Aime, says that the company's latest handheld, the Nintendo 3DS, is in a "category of one," he's not kidding.
When it ships on March 27, Nintendo's handheld will be the only gaming device on the market that provides glasses-free 3D. Along with upgraded hardware and software that builds on the strengths of its previous blockbuster handhelds, Nintendo is confident that it has a "game changer" on its hands.
We have it in our hands: I've personally been playing with a North American Nintendo 3DS, along with a handful of launch titles, for about a week now. Dale North picked up his 3DS back in February when the system launched in Japan.
Settle in -- we're about to tell you what we think, and we've got a lot to say.
Getting to know the 3DS for the first time
Nick says... "My first impression of the system is that it's too small. This is coming off of using the monstrous DSi XL, of course. Size aside, I'd say this is Nintendo's best handheld yet. I think Dale's mentioned it before, but it feels less like a toy than previous Nintendo handhelds; it's easily the company's most sophisticated piece of portable hardware to date.
"The form factor is not entirely dissimilar to the Nintendo DS, so you know what to expect here. The big upgrade, at least on the controls front, is the circle pad. This mini-analog stick runs circles around the nub Sony decided to tack onto its PlayStation Portable. With your hands gripping the 3DS, your thumb sits in the perfect place to reach the circle pad for a full range of movement. The rubber material gives you a nice, firm grip when playing.
"I've heard some talk about 'loose hinges,' but I feel like we hear that every time Nintendo releases a dual-screen portable. While it may be an issue for some, I haven't had any hinge issues with my handheld."
Dale says... "The 3DS is a fine piece of hardware, though I found myself wanting a less floppy top half. I suppose there's a lot of weight there with the larger screen, cameras and electronics, though. The rest is solid. I called it 'impressive' in my unboxing, and I stick to that.
"Unlike Nick, I feel that it's plenty big enough. Users of previous DS or DSi systems will feel right at home. The new buttons are a welcome addition -- especially the new analog pad. I can't wait to finally get to use this thing in a platformer or adventure game. I love the plus D-pad and buttons, as they're very responsive."
Now in mind-boggling, glasses-free 3D!
Nick says... "While Nintendo seems to want to sell the handheld on its revolutionary glasses-free 3D capabilities alone (it's in the name!), that shouldn't be what pushes you to reach for your wallet.
"The 3D effect is, in fact, quite stunning in person. The effect is less 'things popping out as you' and more of a sense of added depth. It's almost as if you were looking into a diorama, with little people moving around and living inside a box.
"How you view the 3D is going to vary based on a number of factors, including your own eyesight (if you're wearing glasses or contacts, your distance from the screen, the game in question, and more). Fortunately, Nintendo has put an easily accessible 3D slider on the top screen, allowing you to adjust the strength of the effect on the fly. The simple fact that it's so easy to adjust is not only brilliant, but completely necessary, given how nearly every game seems to utilize 3D differently.
"Not all 3D games on the 3DS are created equal, it seems. For me, a few games were virtually unplayable -- completely blurry, some giving me a double vision effect -- when the 3D slider was cranked up to the max. Others handled it quite nicely. I noticed that this was different depending on whether or not I was wearing my glasses, my contact lenses, or nothing at all. (I'm nearsighted, so I can generally play handhelds without assistance.) Personally, I found that moving the slider up just a touch was the sweet spot -- it gave me a nice sense of depth without becoming too overwhelming or distracting.
"Of course, the question remains: is the 3D really necessary? Of the launch games I played, there wasn't one for which I felt the 3D effect truly added anything to the gameplay experience. With the exception of Pilotwings Resort (an argument could be made for that extra sense of depth making landing aircraft easier), I didn't find I needed the 3D to play any of the games. In fact, after a while, I ended up turning the 3D off entirely. It's not that I was getting headaches (a common concern, but nothing that I experienced) or even that I found it distracting. It's that after a while, I hardly notice it's on; instead, I'm more focused on the activity of playing the game itself."
Dale says... "The 3D effect is really cool, especially in some of the Augmented Reality minigames that Nintendo has included in the system. It also looks great in proper 3DS games, but not great enough for me to leave it switched on. I'm going on a month of 3DS ownership now, and I have barely used the 3D. I 'check' to see how a new game looks in 3D, and then I shut it off. It's not that I don't like it or don't feel that it looks neat, but I just find that I'd rather play the game without it. Again, it doesn't really get in the way, but I do usually feel like it's something not needed for most of the games I've played."
Battery life... or lack thereof
Nick says... "It's been no secret that the 3DS' battery life isn't quite on par with what gamers normally expect from a Nintendo handheld. The company itself says you'll get between three and five hours, depending on your usage of various functionality, like the 3D or the system's Wi-Fi.
"During my usage, I didn't have any battery issues, placing the 3DS in the charging cradle every chance I got. Of course, only using the handheld around my house has that advantage -- I can constantly charge the device, between and even during usage. Traveling with it will be a different story; most flights I take exceed the battery life of the handheld, which means I probably can't expect my 3DS to be my main form of in-flight entertainment.
"Ben Kuchera from Ars Technica actually put the battery through its paces and confirmed what we already knew: it basically kind of sucks. Still, how much this is going to impact you depends on what kind of handheld gamer you are. If you use it on short commutes or just around the house, you should be okay. While that will probably be fine for most gamers (and it has been for my own use), battery performance is clearly the 3DS' biggest problem."
Dale says... "I've been everywhere with my 3DS. Day-long trips, overseas flights, road trips -- this little system has some major miles on it already. I can safely say that the standby battery life is awesome. It's really fantastic, even with Wi-Fi on. It's the gaming life that's not as great. You only get a few hours out of your 3DS battery on the go at max brightness, and with the sound, 3D and Wi-Fi on.
"I don't feel like this will be a problem in most gamers' day-to-day life, though. The handy cradle makes your portable gaming life really easy."
Rock the charge cradle of love
Nick says... "I have to admit, I couldn't initially figure out why Nintendo bothered to include a charging cradle with the handheld. The 3DS actually uses the same power adapter as the DSi, with a similar port on its top side as well. But with the dock, you simply plug the adapter into the dock, and gently place your 3DS into the little plastic shell to begin charging.
"What I appreciate so much about the dock is its convenience in practice. I simply set up the cradle on my desk, and every chance I get, I plop the 3DS down like it's a habit. Given the battery situation, I think this was a smart move on Nintendo's part -- it really encourages you to keep the handheld juiced up, because doing so is as simple as putting it down."
Dale says... "I joked that I was going to give away my cradle in my unboxing, but I've come to love and rely on the included dock. It's just so handy!"
Shooting you in the face with my Augmented Reality games
Dale says... "Face Raiders aside (not a great game), the Augmented Reality stuff is really going to knock people's socks off. I've shown off my 3DS to many people now. While most were mildly impressed with the new display and the glasses-free 3D, almost all were really excited by the Augmented Reality cards and applications.
"The ability to overlay graphics on a real-time camera display is nothing new, but it's certainly more fun with Nintendo's touch. Seeing your favorite Nintendo characters in your real-life environment is a trip, and it really gets the imagination going for future 3DS titles. Adding 3D to the AR was a nice touch. I think younger gamers are going to flip out when they see this stuff in person."
Face!: The Mii Maker
Nick says... "I'm not a huge fan of Miis; the novelty wore off for me only a few days after I got my Wii at launch. Still, it's nice to see Nintendo trying to tie its products together with the little buggers, and they've done a pretty nice job of bringing them to the 3DS.
"Of particular note is the ability to take a picture of yourself using the 3DS camera, and having the system auto-generate a Mii for you. The results vary wildly from person to person -- I don't think my Mii (picture in this article) looks anything like me -- but it's nice for those who aren't artistically inclined. As with the Wii, the parts that are included for your Mii are varied, and with some skills and a good eye, you can make some pretty wild-looking characters."
Dale says... "I could get all camera-nerd on you and talk about lens distortion, or I could nitpick and talk about how basic the facial detection is, but that would be silly. The Mii Maker is a lot of fun, regardless of the end result. I can't believe how many people thought I was serious about my Mii complaints in the demonstration video we ran. Yes, it's not even close, but I'm sure Nintendo wasn't going for close. They were going for fun, and they succeeded."
Is that a 3DS in your pocket or are you just happy to see my StreetPass data?
Dale says... "Where has this been all along? Most of the fun I've been having with the 3DS relates to its StreetPass functionality. Being able to walk on the street and 'pick up' data from other 3DS users sounds impossible, but it works beautifully, not to mention effortlessly. Later, when you open your 3DS, you'll find that you can enjoy the Mii Plaza games, see new Miis and find even deeper interactions in many 3DS game titles.
"With your 3DS on, or in standby with Wi-Fi switched on, the system will do all the work. The 3DS will notify you of new interactions when they happen. Game-specific ones are the best. In Super Street Fighter IV 3D, you will be able to use your personal Street Fighter trading figure collection in battle, going up against the people you've passed on the street. You pick your line-up of five characters and watch them go head-to-head. In nintendogs + cats, you'll be gifted free items to use in your game, as well as pictures of other people's pets. It's like an extra social game for every game you own. They're not deep experiences, but they're definitely fun.
"This stuff is so fun that I've found myself going Mii-gathering in the real world. It's to the point now where I'll walk slowly in front of someone just to be sure that I get their Mii exchange. Some just look up and grin, like they know exactly what I'm doing."
Nick says... "I don't have quite as much to say about this functionality as Dale, so forgive me if I'm not quite as excited. While Dale spent the better part of the last month living in Tokyo with his 3DS, I've been less fortunate. In fact, seeing as how the system hasn't been available in stores this past week, there was little to no chance that I would pass someone on the street, in my car, or at the supermarket who also had a 3DS in their pocket. (Believe me, I tried.)
"Even so, I'm still not entirely sold on how successful this will be for many gamers who own a 3DS. If you live in a large commuter area like New York City, for instance, I suspect you'll probably pick up some decent StreetPass stuff. If you're in school (college or otherwise), there's a good chance you can expect a decent volume of data, too.
"But for working adults who drive to and from work, it seems the cards are stacked against you when it comes to gathering StreetPass data. For me, outside of bringing the handheld to gamer-centric events (PAX, E3, and more), I'm not sure I'll see much -- if any! -- StreetPass data on a day-to-day basis. I'd love to be proven wrong, though, because I love the concept."
Mii Plaza, You Plaza
Dale says... "I'm really enjoying the Mii Plaza on the 3DS, even though it's not quite what I expected it to be. I guessed it would be a place where I could see the Miis of all of my friends walking around. Instead, it's a visual collection of the Miis of all the real-world people I've encountered via StreetPass. It's also a sort of hub for playing the two included social games, Find Mii and Puzzle Swap.
"Find Mii is a game that sees your Mii trapped in a dungeon. The Miis of people you encounter are enlisted to spring you out in a classic turn-based role-playing game. You'll use these Miis as playable characters in your party, commanding them to attack or use magic spells to defeat sub-bosses in each of the dungeons leading up to the one in which you're being held captive. It's really basic, but it's fun knowing that everyone else is using your Mii at the same time.
"Puzzle Swap is exactly as it sounds. There are several 15-piece picture puzzles to reveal, and the only way to get pieces is to encounter others via StreetPass. The people you encounter offer up any of the pieces they've already acquired, and you do the same for them. In other words, the more people you meet, the more puzzles you'll complete. When completed, these puzzles form a 3D figure that you can view and manipulate in 3D space. I became so addicted to this game that I'd constantly check my 3DS indicator light to see if I had another opportunity to earn another piece.
"If you're a lonely person but still want to play the Mii Plaza games, you'll need to take a walk. The 3DS has a pedometer built in. After taking so many steps, you'll earn a Game Coin. These game coins can be spent on the Mii Plaza games, which will give you combatants in Find Mii, or puzzle pieces in Puzzle Swap. Note that there's a daily limit of ten coins, so you'll really have to work to build up your count. Finding friends is much easier."
Nick says... "Given my tale of StreetPass woe, you can imagine I didn't have much fun with Puzzle Swap or Find Mii. I was able to get a nice chunk of coins by taking my 3DS to the gym and running with it, but that can only get me so far. In order to get the most of these games, StreetPass data is essential.
"Oddly, your Mii Plaza will only be populated by those you've 'met' through StreetPass. Connecting with buddies via the 3DS' friends list functionality allows you to see their Miis, but those Miis won't show up in your Plaza. Nintendo really wants you to leave the house, and really wants you to go hang out in places where people own and carry their 3DS systems, I guess."
Sound Off, or "If You've Always Wanted to Sound Like a Parakeet"
Nick says... "The built-in sound manipulation program from the DSi returns here. As far as I can tell, it's mostly identical software, which isn't exactly great news. You can record short sound clips and then modify them in various ways, like adding effects or changing the tempo and pitch. On its own, this stuff is pointless outside of being a diversion; this is about as basic as audio tools can get. Sure, it's fun to record your voice and then alter it in silly ways, but this novelty only lasts for a few minutes.
"The good news is that the 3DS supports MP3 files, something the DSi did not. What this means is that in theory, you can use your 3DS as a portable music player. Problem is, the file sorting and playback is so miserably basic that I can't imagine using it as a dedicated music player. The program does have some cool 3DS-specific StreetPass functionality -- trading song info of strangers and such -- which is nifty in its own right. But considering the low cost of competent portable media players and the fact that most cell phones can play MP3 audio, this is a feature I'll never touch."
Take a picture; it'll last longer
Nick says... "The 3DS features both front- and forward-facing cameras, just like the DSi. You can use both cameras to snap photos, which are saved directly to the console's inserted SD card in JPEG format. On the 3DS screen, these images appear passable, but viewed on a PC monitor (or anywhere else, for that matter), the quality is unpleasantly poor.
"Taking advantage of the glasses-free 3D capabilities, you can also take 3D photos with the camera. Depending on how you set up your shot -- with reasonable distance between objects to take advantage of depth -- 3D photos can look kind of 'neat.' But 'neat' is about as much credit as I can give them, and when you consider the low resolution of the images, this isn't really taking photography to the next level. I took a bunch just to test out the functionality, but I doubt I'll ever be using it to document my life.
"Also missing is the Facebook integration found on the DSi, and Nintendo offers no other way to share images with others -- even folks you've added to your 3DS friends list -- from the handheld itself. While there's a chance this functionality could come to the 3DS in a future system update, it seems like a strange thing to omit from the jump."
Dale says... "Indeed, there's nothing nice about the 3DS' photo quality, and that's a real shame. It's also surprising, as the image quality on the screen -- before the photo has been taken -- is really nice. I didn't even know it would be so bad until I stopped my initial photo-taking frenzy to check out the images.
"I'm hoping Nintendo also brings back Facebook functionality, or at least some kind of friend sharing ability, as these photos are near-useless when they just sit on your SD card."
Hey, wanna swap Friend Codes?
Nick says... "Along with Miis, a friends list also comes to Nintendo's handheld. Those irritating Friend Codes are still here, unfortunately, but you have to navigate fewer menus to input them than on the Wii.
"Once a friend is added, you can see things like their Mii, the game they're currently playing, and a short 'status' message. That's about it, really. There's no way to send a message to your friends. There's no way to see their progress on games, or which games they have in their library. The list does come in handy for games that support online multiplayer, like Super Street Fighter IV 3D, as you can easily find and connect with friends in private rooms.
"It's nice that Nintendo is offering a friends list, but the included functionality does feel a bit shallow, at least when you compare it to other offerings on consoles and mobile operating systems."
Dale says... "We've been in the Stone Age so long with Nintendo systems' online functionality that I was probably too excited to see the status of my friends online on my 3DS for the first time. I feel like we're finally getting somewhere by even being able to see that!
"I don't know Nintendo's plan, but I feel like they're going to beef up the Friends functions as time goes on for the 3DS. It's still early, and there's always firmware updates."
Nintendo Handhelds: Extreme Home Makeover Edition
Nick says... "Everything about the front-end software for the 3DS is a step up from the DSi. Essentially, it's the Wii home screen, but better. From it being cleaner and better organized, to some of the software suspension functionality, everything that came before it feels like a beta in comparison."
Dale says... "Yes, the 3DS menu is very Wii-like, but only in the best ways. The Home button is great. Being able to peek in at your main menu is really cool. You can see Wi-Fi status, on-going connections, Game Coin count, step count and more at a glance, at any time. It's clear that Nintendo has been listening to gamers."
About those games...
Nick says... "Few platforms knock it out of the gate at launch with their games, but the 3DS' initial offerings seem particularly weak. And while your mileage may vary depending on your interests, I don't think there are any 'must-have' games that are hitting shelves alongside the platform, at least based on the batch I've played.
"That's not to say there aren't 'good' games; Pilotwings Resort and Steel Diver are two decent first-party offerings, and Capcom kicked it out of park with Super Street Fighter IV 3D. But it's hard to recommend running out and buying a 3DS based on any of this starting line-up; there really isn't a 'killer app' available just yet.
"The games that are available do show the potential of the handheld, though. From a visual standpoint (even ignoring the 3D capabilities), titles look stellar on the 3DS screen; it's an immediately obvious step above the DS. The analog circle pad also adds quite a bit to the potential of experiences, which is particularly obvious in the third-person action of LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars."
Dale says... "I love Nintendo and own everything they make, but I've never been happy with a system launch line-up. nintendogs + cats is still my most played game, if that tells you anything. As Nick said, there's no must-have for the system. Yet.
"That said, all the games look great. Even the half-assed ones, like Ridge Racer 3D, still look nice, and far better than any DS game before them. Super Street Fighter IV 3D looks fantastic. I'm sure there's even more in store for us. I'm really looking forward to E3's 3DS showings."
The bottom line
Both Dale and I agree that the 3DS is an amazing device, despite a few concerns and gripes. Nintendo has made great strides in both the quality of the hardware as well as the usability of the built-in software. While the glasses-free 3D technology is impressive and on the cutting edge, neither of us are entirely sold on the notion that it's going to change how we play games.
As with any platform, it comes down to the available software. While there isn't that 'OMG must have' title on shelves just yet, there's little doubt that some are coming. Just the tease of a brand-new Mario game at GDC earlier this year had us foaming at the mouth.
If you're a gamer who enjoys playing a broad range of titles, you'll eventually want to own a 3DS. The question of 'Do you wait?' is something only you can answer for yourself. At $249.99, it's Nintendo's most expensive portable to date, which might make it a hard sell. With no 'must-have' software available right now, the only thing you'll really be missing is collecting valuable StreetPass data. But if you do pull the trigger at launch, we're both pretty confident it's not something you're going to regret in the long run.
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