Following up the most successful game handheld in history is no easy task. That's exactly what Nintendo is doing starting today. The future begins now.
Note: This is a hardware review. A review of the system's pre-loaded software is forthcoming.
The Basics The Nintendo 3DS is a portable gaming system able to run more realistic graphics than any of the DS consoles that went before it. The 3DS is backwards compatible and can play DS game cartridges as well as newer 3DS ones. The consoles itself is about the same size as the DS Lite. It's heavier than the DS Lite and the DSi, but not the original DS. The 3DS's top screen, where the 3D effects are displayed, is bigger than the DSi's, but not bigger one of the DSi XL's. The bottom touch screen is bigger than either of the DS Lite's two screens. Like the DSi, it has a front 2D camera. Unlike the DSi, it has two 3D cameras on the top lid. Other new additions include an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a circle-shaped "slide pad" above the directional pad. The stylus is retractable, a new feature when compared to the touch pens of the DS line-up.
Using It If you've played a Nintendo DS or, better yet, a DSi, you should be on familiar footing. There are two screens, with the bottom being a single-touch touch screen. The top screen shows The 3DS is able to play both 3D and 2D games, and there is a slider that can amplify or completely shut off the handheld's 3D effects.
While the DS Lite and the DSi had the Start and Select buttons were on the side opposite the directional pad, they've been relocated for the 3DS. Below the touch screen, there is a rectangular panel with "Select", "Home" and "Start". Start and Select are self explanatory — as Home should be. Pressing "Home" takes players back to the menu screen where they can choose from different pre-loaded applications and, in the future, downloaded software as well as play whatever game they have in the cartridge slot.
What We Liked While Nintendo launched a truly ugly piece of hardware with the original Nintendo DS, the Kyoto-base game maker gets things mostly right with the 3DS. There are some truly surprising and lovely touches here, such as the layer cake design. The top lid is covered with a translucent plastic that is supposedly fingerprint resistant and that protrudes out. For the Aqua Blue 3DS, it gives the handheld a candy-type feeling that is reminiscent of the "Bondi blue" Macs from the late 1990s. The 3DS's middle layer is a different layer and edges in ever so slightly. The bottom layer, once again juts out, but not as far as the top layer. The layer cake look is not only striking, but does make it easier to open the 3DS. What's more, the different layers help separate various input switches and slots, both tangibly and psychologically. It's all works very well.
Interface-wise, the buttons also have a nice clicky feel that are must welcomed after the gummy mush the DS and the DS Lite offered, while the DSi was somewhere in the middle. They feel responsible and sharp as does the directional pad. The wide-screen up top contrasted with the smaller touch screen also makes the buttons seem smaller than they actually are. I measured them, and they do appear to be the same sized buttons for what that's worth. There are two shoulder buttons that stick out much more than the DSi's shoulder buttons. They are a good place to rest one's fingers and just beg to be pressed.
The machine is capable of powerful graphics. Let's not kid ourselves, it's not where Sony's new portable game machine will be, but it's more than sufficient and seems to have enough poke to offer visually striking experiences. The 3D slider does what it is required, allowing players to "blast" the 3D effects or turn them down to a dull murmur. And the inclusion of two cameras on the front, while their pixel count might be low, does making for an interesting device.
There's an abundance of coloured lights throughout the 3DS. So far, I've counted seven lights. They blink or remain static and generally work well in a dark room. There's a constantly blinking amber light for the WiFi, there's a static orange light while charging, there's a snoozing blue light for sleep mode, there's a green light for 3D, there's a purple light for when the camera's in operation, and so on and so forth. All these lights are not necessary, and I'm racking my brain trying to think of other portables that are this cuckoo for flickering lights. The DS Lite and the DSi both had coloured lights, but the 3DS is a bit on the extreme side. And I just love it.
Another welcomed touch: While major electronics makers are making it damn near impossible for electronics owners to remove the batteries from their devices, Nintendo isn't. It's possible to open up the bottom of the 3DS with a screw driver and remove the battery. Nintendo's instruction manual even provides a walk through on how to do it. Thank you!
What We Didn't Like If you are paying the same amount Nintendo used to charge for its home console, you want a sturdy handheld. And the 3DS's upper lid doesn't quite seem to pass the mustard. Don't get me wrong, it's sturdy in that sense that kids can (and will) chuck it in the bags and knock it about. However, sturdy calm-shell design has long plagued Nintendo. Remember the DS Lite and the broken hinges? And how they'd eventually flop open and shut like wet noodles? The 3DS doesn't seem that bad, but there's already some give and some flop when it's opened. That worries me.
Another fussy bit the 3DS has is the Home input panel directly below the touch screen. There are instances when players select choices from the touch screen, but then might need to press either Select, Home or Start from the input panel just below it. But you cannot use the stylus to press buttons on that input panel, and since it's so close to the touch screen, it all becomes mushed together. The initial instinct is to use the touch pen because of its location, but you can't. Its location is entirely counter intuitive.
Another location issue is the position of the directional pad and buttons, which doesn't quite match up with the directional pad below the slide pad above it. Of course, players can simply use the slide pad because it lines up with the buttons. Does this mean its the default choice? But Nintendo games are traditionally been Dpad games, and playing it on a lower plane than the X,Y,A,B buttons makes everything cockeyed.
The touch pen is also a concern. It's location is in the back on the left side — annoying for a righty like me. It also fits firmly into place, which will prevent lost pens. However, it makes getting the stylus out a hassle, compounded by its location. The touch pen for the original DS was located in the back, too. But that's a bad location — it reeks of a PDA from the early 2000s. Future upgrades moved the touch pen to the side, and the current location is regressive. The fact that it's retractable isn't a plus. In its retracted state, it's too small to be comfortable — it feels like a pencil nub. So it's necessary to extend the touch pen to its full length, which is another hassle. It's as if Nintendo said, let's figure out how to make this as complicated as possible. And then did just that.
The Bottom Line The Nintendo 3DS is a grown-up piece of hardware. And it does the grown-up stuff well. It is stylish and has an array of truly nice touches. There are quibbles, quibbles will either fade over time during the 3DS's life span. That, or be addressed in the inevitable hardware revision — whichever comes first.
The Nintendo 3DS was manufactured by Nintendo, released on February 26 in Japan. Retails for ¥25,000. A unit was purchased by Kotaku for reviewing purposes.