Review: Nintendo 3DS

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The 3DS, Nintendo’s latest handheld gaming device, has now been in the hands of the public for several months– and while it isn’t perfect, it is definitely an impressive evolution of the DS line. The controversial 3D effect, while not a fit for everyone, can be an impressive tool when used by a skilled developer. The real star of the show, however, is the overall experience of the 3DS offers. The 3DS brings Nintendo into the handheld multimedia arena, offering a competitive device with a variety of useful and innovative features.

The 3DS is a sleek machine, with a glossy surface and three-toned design. My unit is a Cosmo Black variant with two shades of black for the top layers and a lighter gray for the bottom. The overall design is an evolution of the previous DS models, introducing more curves and angles for a slightly futuristic feel. It is virtually identical in overall size and shape to the earlier DS Lite but is noticeably heavier. This doesn’t impact gameplay, and In fact, the added heft makes the console more comfortable and substantial in use. In staying close to its predecessors’ design, the 3DS remains an ideal device to slip into a pocket on the way out the door.

When you open the system, two changes are noticeable: the asymmetrical screens and the new, lightly colored Circle Pad. The Circle Pad offers analog control as comfortable as on a console, and both screens boast higher resolutions than their predecessors. DSi owners will notice that the base screen size dropped from the DSi’s 3.25″ back to the Lite’s 3.01”. The horsepower behind the 3DS is more than up to the challenge, with graphics on that would have been difficult even on Sony’s PSP. There is one possible design defect on the 3DS, however, in that the ridge around the bottom screen sometimes comes in contact with the top screen. This did not happen for the first month of use. If it starts happening, this can deposit dirt and oils or even scratch the screen. It may be advisable to purchase a good screen protector to prevent this damage.

For many, the top 3D screen will be the 3DS’s killer feature. My impression is, unfortunately, that your mileage will vary- from person to person and from title to title. Some games, like Lego Star Wars, see little effect in 3D while others like Blazblue and Dead or Alive gain a strong sense of depth. Using 3D can be disorienting and cause some eye strain, but when it works well, it can be a remarkable change to the experience. Anecdotally, I have noticed that the eyestrain and disorientation seems to lessen depending on the title and how often you play. The more you play, the less it seems to affect you.

The most impressive features, for me, are Nintendo’s SpotPass and StreetPass programs. The ability to receive DLC wirelessly and unobtrusively is a real treat– it’s exciting to see new levels and costumes appear when you fire up a game after a few days or weeks. Similarly, the ability to exchange data with other 3DS owners and use it in the games gives players a reason to carry their 3DS with them as often as possible.

Another often-overlooked feature is the pedometer, which grants users Play Coins based on how many steps have been taken. These can be used to unlock features in any titles utilizing them, including the built-in StreetPass Mii Plaza as well as cartridges such as Dead or Alive: Dimensions. While not a feature that makes or breaks the experience, Play Coins add another integrated element of the 3DS experience to entice regular use.

There system does have two weaknesses: battery life, and limitations when using backwards compatibility. The 3DS only lasts 3 hours on a 3DS title with 3D on, or 5 hours without. 5 hours is a decent amount of time, but 3 hours can leave you uncomfortable when out for the day or going on a trip. Older DS games will last up to 8 hours, but with the caveat that StreetPass and SpotPass are disabled despite the wireless light remaining on. Wireless features in DS games will work, but the 3DS ones are completely unaccessible (as are the Home menu and built-in apps.) This leads to an unfortunate choice between using the connectivity features and playing DS games, which can be a significant one. I would love to keep the 3DS features on, even if it reduced battery life. Considering that the 3DS emulates the older DS titles rather than including old hardware as previous consoles have, I don’t understand why it isn’t at least an option.

With its summer 2011 updates, the 3DS has become a more fully-featured product. In addition to the original lineup of included software, the 3DS now hosts a web browser, the eShop, Netflix, and a marketplace offering 3DS software and most of the games and applications previously available on the DSiWare service. There are a number or interesting and high-quality titles available, but my impression is that prices are a bit too high. A $20 3DS card will only net two or three titles- especially once sales tax comes into play.

The browser on the 3DS is a customized version of NetFront, also seen on Sony’s PSP and Ps3 (previous Nintendo consoles used versions of Opera.) The experience is acceptable, bur not too competitive In a world where iPods and smartphones are common. It supports HTML4 (not 5, sadly) and ECMA Script, but no plugins like Flash or a PDF reader. Despite its limitations, it is a speedy but basic browser that is decent for mobile use and can run even when another game or application is suspended In the background. It won’t be replacing my iPod as my mobile browser of choice, but it will let me leave that at home a little more often.

Nintendo has also rolled out video features, including demo videos (3D and 2D) downloadable from the store, the Nintendo Video channel for short streaming 3D titles, and a Netflix client (2D only) similar to the ones available on home consoles. These, along with the built in 3DS Sound application, make the 3DS a useful media player on the road. A few small issues mar the 3DS media experience, as there is no way to play video files transferred from a computer, and the output from 3DS sound seems low when using headphones.

The 3DS represents a new evolution in the DS lineage, and proves itself a worthy successor. With improved hardware, a sleek design, and its variety of new features, the 3DS is a worthy upgrade. While it was a hard sell at the $250 launch price, at $170 I can give it a whole-hearted recommendation. Even if 3D isn’t for you, the 3DS has plenty to offer.

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