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We Review: Nintendo 3DS

So it’s finally here. The Nintendo 3DS is at last available for purchase locally, and with Nintendo already boasting about initial launch sales figures exceeding all their previous efforts, it seems the 3DS is off to a rollicking good start. Further to my very limited hands-on impressions at a recent pre-launch event, I decided to give in to my slightly frivolous and impatient nature to bite the bullet and shell out the recommended retail price for a shiny new Nintendo handheld. I have no idea why I always give in to purchasing new gaming consoles on launch day, but part of it is certainly the wonder and excitement of where gaming may be headed next, what are the innovations being brought to the table, and what place in gaming-history said console will take once the eventual successors are released. So having had the console for about a week now, my impressions of the hardware after the jump.

The first thing you’ll notice after carefully removing the packaging is perhaps the shiny finish of the console. I opted for the Cosmos Black flavor (I’m just manly that way) and the top panel is a sexy gradient of shiny black and grey, the gleam of reflected light only marginally obscured by freshly placed fingerprints. Yes, unfortunately the console is a fingerprint and dust magnet, including the interior and I’m already on the lookout for screen and console covers to minimize excessive layers of dust and possible scratches to it.

Folding the console open, I immediately found the hinges to be sturdy, defaulting at a single click when fully open, instead of having the additional midway-click the DS models sported. It also comes pre-loaded with about a 50% charge, which means you can immediately jump in and start messing about with it. The nifty new circle pad located to the left of the bottom screen works great — definitely substantially better than the PSP’s analogue nub — and navigation can be performed with either the circle pad or the D-pad located just below it. The circle pad is responsive, with just the right amount of resistance when toggling it around, and a concave rubbery surface ensures your thumb is not constantly slipping off. The top screen is the only 3D screen and has a resolution of 880×240 — wider than the lower screen on the old DS — which means that games are finally displayed in more standard, wide-screen mode. After a few fairly quick setup and calibration tutorials, I was finally ready to get down and dirty with the 3DS.

Some menus have a layered effect (an uncluttered back and front layer, with the menu options crisply highlighted against a dark distant background), which works extremely well as far as menu design is concerned. Others are slightly more flashy, with colorful moving objects rotating and lifting out of the screen towards you. It’s highly effective, wonderful to look at, and I adjusted in no time to the 3D effect. The main menu is similar to the DS’ with icons containing the various applications lining the screen. These can be rearranged to stack multiple icons on top of each other, negating the need for excessive paging to get to the required application. To the right of the top screen is the 3D slider for adjusting the 3D effect, but I had trouble really finding different variants in the 3D with the slider. It seemed to me to be simply a case of being either off or on, and if the slider provides a middle ground, I could not perceive it. My only software purchase went to Pilotwings, and the 3D effect here genuinely assists with the gameplay. Judging distances to targets or landing pads are more precise, and flying around Wu-hu island at sunset in 3D is a gorgeous site to behold. The speakers produce a great pseudo-surround sound effect — it may not be extremely loud, but it’s crystal clear, and manages to effectively project the sound, creating the illusion of having invisible speakers to your left and right.

The next application I tried out was the 3D camera. The two cameras in its outer lid enables you to take 3D pictures that you can choose to save on the included 2Gb SD card, or in the system’s memory. The pictures work surprisingly well, considering the rather sub-standard resolution of the cameras: 0.3 megapixels to be exact. Naturally, with no flash included, low light pictures are a no-go, even with the low-light setting activated, but take the camera outside or into a well-lit room during daytime and the 3D effect is wonderfully prevalent, eliciting a substantial quantity of “ooohs” and “aaahs” from family and friends.  Photos can be altered with various graffiti options, and I’m hoping for an option where one would be able to immediately transfer or e-mail these photos to other players on your friends list.

Speaking of which, adding friends is still unnecessarily complex. Less so than the DS, but still far from optimal. A small icon at the top of the screen brings up your friends list, and instead of having multiple friend codes to keep track of per game, a single friend code is now tied to your 3DS console. Each console has a 12-digit friend code, and if you want to add someone to your friends list you’ll need to know that person’s friend code and manually add the code. The catch is that the receiving person has to do the same thing from their side, which means there’s no notification being sent, and the person will only actively appear in your friend list if he’s also added you. Hardly user-friendly, and slightly baffling since it’s such an easy process on the HD consoles. Is it really that hard to implement something similar, where perhaps the code is intrinsically linked to the User ID for the console? Perhaps a future firmware update has the answer, but as it stands, the whole friend process, while marginally improved, is still a bit of a bother.

The new sleeker, silver, extendable stylus is also awkwardly placed at the back of the console — another slight irritation. The DS had it just below the right side of the screen, easily removable in an instant, and could just as easily be replaced. Now it’s a bit of fumble to first locate it, which may involve pausing the game and having to turn the unit around to find the exact location. The new stylus is great, but the placement is simply an annoyance.

Next I decided to test some of my DS games on the system. Unfortunately 3DS games are region locked (at least for the most part) — probably the biggest disappointment to me personally, since I imported most of my DS games. The good news is that regular DS games from all regions can all be played on the 3DS. Since region locking is built into the games and not the hardware, your imported DS games will run just fine. Naturally the images are slightly stretched on the wider screen, but you can also opt to display the game in its original resolution simply by holding down the select button until the software icon does a little spin, and then starting the game. The result is that the images are crisper, but you might have to do a fair amount of squinting to read all the text on the smaller image.

There are a few pre-loaded games on the system, all of them again being more novelty ideas than fully fledged gaming experiences. The Augmented Reality (AR) games use cards that contain mini-games or characters. Place a card on your desk and watch it transform into, for example, a dragon that you’ll need to shoot down by moving the 3DS around, or an image of some of Nintendo’s most beloved mascots. It works really well and is great to show off to curious relatives. Without the depth of gameplay to support it, however, it’s something that I’ll rarely feel the need to look at again.

Another feature is the StreetPass option. In theory it’s supposed to transfer game-related data between 3DS consoles passing each other while being switched on, or at least in Sleep Mode: things such as high scores and, eventually perhaps, additional maps, weapons, user-generated puzzles, etc, but I can’t comment on how well it works, since I’ve not passed anyone yet with another 3DS. At the moment, I’m carrying it everywhere with me in the hopes of passing someone, but have not received any hits yet, as could be expected. It’s an idea that has potential, but I doubt will get much local exposure.

The 3DS also comes with Wi-Fi and IR, and after quickly setting it up to connect to my wireless router I was able to download the latest system update — an update that seemingly only added a short 3D video nature clip. The downside to all these features is, of course, a battery life that’s nowhere near that of the DS. You will need to recharge after every three to five hours of gameplay. My first fully charged session lasted around four and a half hours, and then it needed another three hours to recharge it in the charge cradle that comes with it. Hardly what you’d expect from a portable gaming system, and this is definitely something Ninty should improve upon in the inevitable upcoming revisions.

Many things are still not available: no web browser or online store, for example. Sending messages to friends is also not currently supported; you can only send a message to ALL your friends. Apparently, these issues will be sorted out with future firmware updates (Nintendo’s promised a big one for May), but as it stands, the online side of things definitely feels incomplete.

So, should you buy one?  The short answer is yes. Considering the fantastic software library the current DS has, and knowing that so many great franchises are Nintendo-only, I can only see this system going from strength to strength. The hardware is sturdy and really well assembled, and the 3D effect actually works and works well.

The long answer is that you should probably wait a while. With a meager current software line-up, and many features still to be patched in, it’s definitely something you don’t immediately need to acquire. It all really depends on how soon Nintendo can improve the online-side of things, and how quickly the software library of good games can grow, but once that happens it’s a no-brainer. The Nintendo 3DS has arrived, and if you don’t already own one, it’s only a matter of time. Nintendo has once again packed so much charm and magic into its latest little handheld that trying to resist it would be futile. (Ed — So it’s like the Borg, then?)