As the 3DS launched, I found myself reading heaps of hardware reviews. Even though I had already bought the system on launch day, I wanted to find as many different perspectives as I could. The reviews generally agreed on the same things: it’s a surprisingly powerful machine, with nice screens, a solid pseudo-joystick, and lots of interesting software installed. After having two months to really play with the system, it’s time look at the lasting impression it leaves. There are a lot of hooks that are immediately apparent, but I’m reviewing the actual feel of the system, the things that aren’t obvious in time for a launch review. As with any hardware, there are parts of the 3DS that continue to impress, and those that irritate upon constant use.
The 3DS looks much like its predecessor, the wildly successful DS Lite, but it’s a very different gaming system. The whole thing feels more modern than you may expect from Nintendo by now, even if most devices aim to look futuristic. The screens are higher resolution, with the top (3D) screen having a luxurious widescreen-style display. The home screen is laid out like a smartphone, with adjustable tiles representing all of the features. There are pleasant animations that change speed based on the noise the microphone picks up, and the whole thing is crammed with fun details and surprises.
The machine has some horsepower, too. It feels like a true generational leap, with some launch titles giving us a very promising look at its graphical power. It should never be thought of as a DS Lite with a fancy screen; it truly is a next-generation handheld system, one that gives you an entirely new set of display options. The system actually runs at a higher framerate when the 3D is turned off, with some games (I’m thinking Dead or Alive: Dimensions) promising a smooth 60 frames-per-second in 2D. In addition, the upcoming Resident Evil titles are showing gorgeous character models that could not have been remotely possible on the previous system. As the game library expands, this system is going to surprise people with the visuals it’s capable of.
The speakers on the 3DS need to be mentioned as well. They are considerably louder and clearer than those on the DS Lite, or any current portable for that matter. With the speakers spaced out on either side of the top screen, you can really notice the stereo sound separation, possibly the first time I’ve had that experience on a handheld without headphones. In addition, games with actual speech, like Pro Evo Soccer, are very clear, allowing the dialogue to pop over the sound effects. Combined with the significantly increased storage size of the cartridges (two gigabytes, although there are rumours that they can actually hold up to eight), there is a capability for much more advanced audio than the previous generation had. Not only does it make me crank the speakers every chance I get, but there are enough upcoming games promising actual voiceovers (Devil Survivor Overclocked, Resident Evil) that I am optimistic that we will see significantly better-sounding games than the DS had.
I also like that Nintendo is using standard SD cards for storage. The DS had no extra storage, and the worst part of Sony’s PSP was the overpriced, proprietary memory sticks, which felt like gouging from a consumer standpoint. Not only does the 3DS use an extremely cheap, highly available storage medium, but it comes with a 2 gigabyte card. Classy move.
The shoulder buttons on this system also deserve mentioning. Many early reviews noted that these buttons seemed poorly designed, as they are raised to stand out from the system, feeling out of place. But the buttons have a second function, which is as a hotkey to the 3D camera. There are little cameras imprinted on the buttons to remind you that whenever you are at the home screen, pushing L or R will launch the camera application. You can even do this while suspending your current software in the background, allowing you to quickly snap photos before returning to the exact spot in your game.
Suspending your game is definitely appreciated, and it works well. Returning to the home screen is smooth, although you are limited in what can be run without closing the active application. You can suspend any software and still run your notepad, quick camera (but not the full camera app), and possibly the web browser, although that remains to be seen. I do take exception to the power button, though. Pressing it only suspends your software and brings up a list of reasons why you should leave the system in standby. A second press will turn off the machine, but there is be a lag before that second press can be accepted, making the process feel too long. I just want to shut the system off and go, not wait for it to suspend my game and try to convince me to leave it on. This needs to become optional in a future firmware update.
Nintendo’s reluctance to embrace online drove me away from the Wii, because no one should be expected to play Mario Kart without the ability to talk to their friends. I’m not unsympathetic to Nintendo’s intentions; they want to keep children and inexperienced gamers safe from online creeps, and that’s commendable. But they need to make an online structure for the mature player, and that requires putting some of the responsibility onto users (especially parents) to activate safety controls. Nintendo has also stated that “friend codes” will no longer be needed for each game, just to initially register a friend’s system. The friends list itself works nicely, showing you if your friends are online, what they are currently playing, their favourite game, and any statement they have entered.
Whether the 3DS will support voice chat while playing remains to be seen, and a lack of it will be a deal-breaker for some. However, Nintendo does seem to be making steps to catch up to current online expectations. The 3DS works better with my router than the DS did, and it will have most of the features we expect from an online gaming system, such as downloadable content (including games, demos, and videos) and honest-to-goodness online play. Super Street Fighter IV already supports world-wide matchmaking, even with those scary strangers Nintendo is so worried about. It’s a promising first step for a company new to mature online offerings.
As insignificant as this may seem, I actually find the lights to be the most annoying part of the 3DS. There are a lot of them on there, and some of them blink at you. Nintendo’s DS Lite had some very nice lighting placement, with just two parallel lines running around the hinge. In contrast, the 3DS has separate lights to indicate power, wireless, power-supply, StreetPass notifications, and the 3D camera. These are scattered across three separate surfaces, and three fifths of those lights are labelled with an icon. Finally, there is a light-up, green “3D” beside the depth slider, to let you know if a 3D signal available for the top screen. These lights are surprisingly crude adornments to such a mindfully-designed system. They can also be distracting, since you can’t turn off the “3D” light beside the top screen, and the yellow wireless light blinks when connected to the internet. And good luck playing a game when the battery is low, as both the power light and the StreetPass light turn red and start flashing.
Of course, if those red lights start flashing you better stop playing and find your charger. They will sometimes turn solid red first, but a flashing red light means you may only have a few minutes before the system dies. It’s annoying, but it’s really just a symptom of the short battery life. I have an entire upcoming post about my feelings on the battery, so let’s agree that the battery life is too short when 3D and wireless are on, although it’s not as bad as iPhone gaming. To save battery life, you can turn the brightness down without any negative impact to visibility, and the system remains a very powerful, full-featured machine when played in 2D.
To wrap this all up, I really like the Nintendo 3DS. With so much focus on the 3D itself, as well as the obvious fun of the built-in software, it is sometimes overlooked that this is a significantly upgraded gaming system. It has the hardware and the features to take it through the next handheld generation. Although we can only wait to see how the software turns out, there are perhaps more interested developers than the DS had, and that system had a very robust library.
Both Nintendo’s 3DS and Sony’s NGP seem like logical evolutions from their respective predecessors, and both companies have felt the sting of a less-than-successful iteration (PSP Go, DSi). But while Sony’s next gen machine has already been turning heads with its serious visual chops, I think that the 3DS will slowly surprise people as developers show us what they can really do on this hardware. There certainly isn’t enough software to justify a 3DS purchase yet, but I believe that the games and firmware updates will ultimately make this a successful system. Let’s not forget that the DS initially seemed like a strange child’s toy compared to the slick PSP, and the 3DS may experience a similar trajectory, having to wait for both software and its audience before it is properly appreciated.