Nintendo's 3DS, which hits shelves on March 27, is a pretty stellar handheld device. From its physical design to the build-in software, from its spectacular in-game visuals to the glasses-free 3D, I feel confident in saying that the 3DS is easily Nintendo's best handheld to date.
It almost every way it exceeds the capabilities of the original Nintendo DS and the DSi. The keyword here is "almost," because there's one area where the 3DS can't quite compare to the DS: playing DS games.
Nintendo has kept its long-standing tradition of handheld software backwards compatibility with the 3DS. That current DS software library you have doesn't have to get tossed aside for the new hotness. You can play your current DS games right on your new handheld. But as I found out, it's not an optimal experience, so you're probably not going to want to.
Last night, I decided to finally crack open my copy of Pokémon Black and take it for a whirl. Given that I've been carrying my 3DS everywhere (I'm earning coins for my steps, everyone!), it seemed like a given that's the handheld I'd play it on. Immediately after popping it in, I noticed something was off. The images on the screens -- both top and bottom -- looked blurry, the colors muted and dull.
Concerned it was just my eyes playing tricks on me, I popped the same cart into my DSi XL. My suspicions were confirmed: it looked a hell of a lot sharper on the older handheld, the colors deeper and the image crisper.
[Note: All images were taken in the same lighting conditions with the same camera on the same settings. I did my best to take images that would demonstrate how it looks when using the handhelds. It should be noted that the differences -- which are visible here -- are more pronounced when viewing in person.]
Pokémon Black on the 3DS (default)
Pokémon Black on the DSi XL
A few Twitter complaints later, I learned that you can force Nintendo DS software to display in their native resolution by holding down "Start" and "Select" when launching the software from the Home screen. Nintendo explains this in the 3DS manual, too.
"Nintendo DS/Nintendo DSi titles have a lower screen resolution than Nintendo 3DS software and are stretched to fit the Nintendo 3DS screen," it explains in a note found under the "Starting the game" section on page 31.
Fair enough, so I gave it a go. The good news is that the game does look markedly better, at least in terms of that "blurry" effect I was getting on the default stretched setting. The colors, however, still looked dull to me.
Pokémon Black on the 3DS forced to display original screen size ratio
As you can imagine, you also end up wasting a bit of the 3DS screen when not stretching the image. The problem is that it's a rather significant loss. The 3DS screen is already pretty tiny as it is (at least compared to the DSi XL, for sure), and forcing the original screen size ratio dips dangerously close to Game Boy Micro territory. [Note: I've marked where the 3DS screen is with white and the displayed DS software image in red to better demonstrate.]
Dale North (who has been using a Japanese 3DS since the handheld's launch) says he's never noticed the problem until I brought it up.
"I mean, I've played maybe 20 or more DS games just to try them out," he says. "Never ever noticed. Ever. Like, never thought of it."
Hey, maybe it's just me, but I figured if you had intended on trading in that old DS for the latest and greatest, you'd probably want to know.
The Nintendo 3DS is a remarkable machine; that's definitely going to be reflected in my final review (which will be coming later this week -- along with game reviews of every launch title we can get our hands on -- with help from Dale North). For fans who like their gaming on the go or have had longtime love affairs with Nintendo's portables, owning this is inevitable. You just might not want to get rid of your old Nintendo DS just yet.