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Console Review: The Nintendo 3DS

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Just about four and a half years ago, Nintendo got a big win in terms of the “cool” factor with the release of their current generation home console, the Wii.  The system, with its incredibly unique and wholly intuitive control scheme, impressed nearly everyone and certainly brought those who weren’t traditionally considered “gamers” into the fold.

Now, with their latest handheld release, the Nintendo 3DS, the company again takes home a massive “W” in terms of cool.  The portable system is not only backwards compatible with DS and DSi titles while sporting better graphics’ capabilities, it features glasses-free 3D play.

Okay, unless you don’t follow anything about gaming at all (and have a tendency to ignore all technology stories in general), you probably already knew that glasses-free 3D bit.  There has been talk about the 3DS since before Nintendo released the latest updated to the DSi, the DSi XL, in March of 2010.  But, while buzz has been at a maximum for the system, visibility hasn’t.  Now that is all changing, the system is releasing in the United States this Sunday, March 27, with a suggested retail price of $249.99, which happens to be what a Wii cost when it was first released.

Before we delve into what it all works like, let’s take a look at some facts about the new handheld.  The 3DS most closely resembles the look and feel of the DSi, not the DSi XL.  The two systems (DSi and 3DS) boast nearly the same length (5.3 inches for the 3DS and 5.4 for the DSi), are both 2.9 inches deep, and closed a 3DS is .8 high whereas a closed DSi is .74 inches high.  In terms of weight, the DSi is 7.5 ounces and the 3DS a negligible half-ounce heavier. 

The screens on the DSi are both 3.25 inch displays boasting 256×192 resolution (and the bottom, of course, is a touchscreen).  The 3DS does not sport such uniformity of display – the 3D top screen is wider than the DSi one, measuring 3.53 inches on the diagonal with aNintendo 3DS resolution of 800×240 (3.02 inches wide x 1.81 inches high).  The bottom touchscreen (which is not 3D) is in roughly the same proportion as the screens on the DSi, but only measures 3.02 on the diagonal.  However, the 3DS’ bottom screen resolution is greater than either of the DSi’s screens (320×240 on the 3DS) and whereas the DSi only supports 260,000 colors, the 3DS touchscreen has the same 16.77 million color capability that the 3D top screen can produce. 

In terms of controls and other doodads on the 3DS, the system comes with a motion sensor and gyro, a telescoping stylus, a 3D front camera (which means that there are two lenses on the front), and an analog pad for your left hand.  Gone from the DSi is the incredibly annoying sound toggle on the left side of the case, it has been replaced here by a slider, and another slider exists on the edge of the top screen so that you can adjust the level of 3D you’re seeing (it goes from full-on 3D to perfectly flat 2D).   There is also a home screen button on the 3DS so that you can instantly be brought back to the console’s main menu.

Available in two colors, aqua blue and cosmo black, the handheld comes with a 2GB SD card (for all your save file needs), and a charging cradle (you can also connect your AC adaptor directly to the system).   Plus, better than that, it can be charged with your old DSi/DSi XL AC adaptor, and that’s a good thing because you’re going to need to charge it… a lot. Battery life, sadly, is relatively short, approximately five to eight hours if you’re playing in 3D.  The device also supports wireless, allows you to create a Mii, and has good old stereo sound (which is still a little tinny, but really not bad) as well as a headphone jack.

There are a couple of games and other fun things included in the box as well.  We’ll get into them more later, but as a basic rundown, there’s a sound application that lets you listen to music and sound effects as well as play with them, something called AR Games (AR standing for “augmented reality”) which has a little game pop up in the real world based on your pointing the camera at an included card, a game called Face Raiders, and perhaps most notably StreetPass.  When activated, StreetPass can send your Mii to another 3DS should you get within a certain distance even of other 3DS systems even if your device is in Sleep Mode.  Some save data from games can also be transmitted using StreetPass.

So, that’s what it is – sleek and pretty and with some really fancy updates from the traditional DSi.  Well, it’s that and it’s an incredibly cool idea, but is it functional?  Mostly.

The way that glasses-free 3D works, essentially, is by creating a “sweet spot” where the two images the display is producing converge. The method Nintendo is using to create the image is apparently  a “parallax barrier,” but we’re not going to get into the specifics here about just how the technology works, Nintendo 3DSinstead we’re taking the Arthur C. Clarke quote “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and referring to the technique by which Nintendo has made the device function as “Nintendo Magic.”  So, with the Nintendo Magic being employed, in order to see a single 3D image, the user needs to be positioned at that sweet spot.  If they are not in the right spot the user either gets a fuzzy image (because it’s a little of both but not exactly in the right proportion or not converging at the correct spot) or entirely one or the other of the 3DS’ pictures and not 3D.

That all sounds complicated,  but it isn’t.  The truth is that with just a few minutes of practice, and figuring out where that 3D slider ought to be positioned for you, you’ll know exactly how to hold the 3DS comfortably and so that it produces the correct effect. 

Okay, big question time – does it work; does the new 3DS produce an enjoyable gaming experience?  Yes and no.  As with the Nintendo Wii, while the company has proven themselves hugely adept at creating a great, new, different, and potentially wonderful way of gaming, they’ve left a whole lot in the developers’ hands as it relates to the games themselves. 

No one would suggest that producing a videogame is an easy thing to go about doing – there is far more than you might think required to produce a “good” game (or even a bad one).  Developers and publishers though know and understand the requirements to put out a game for a traditional, 2D, regular old controller setup.  As we saw however with the Wii launch (and the original DS one with its touchscreen component if we’re going to be honest), it took some time for everyone to really get up to speed on how best to utilize the motion sensing controls so that it didn’t simply feel like a gimmick.  

Now, with the 3DS, there’s going to be a whole new learning curve for developers and publishers.  And, if the half-dozen titles we have checked out on our 3DS are any indication, while it is unquestionably possible to make a really great title on the 3DS, Super Street Fight IV 3D Edition is a must-have if you’re anything close to a genre fan or simply want to really see what a 3DS can do, whereas other titles like Pilotwings Resort and even Madden Football prove wholly unremarkable.

Super Street Fighter IV looks utterly fantastic, with several different depth levels, crisp images, and smooth action.  It also doesn’t require you to change your focus between the 3D top screen and the 2D bottom screen that much, games which required a lot of up and down—like if you want to choose your plays in Madden—proved less successful in our initial testing. 

Super Street Fighter IV also, as a 2D fighter in a 3D world has characters moving left and right, as opposed to in and out of the screen, which the majority of other titles we saw opted to do.  Not having seen a ton of titles, we don’t yet know if the reason SSFIV works better is simply Super Street Fighter IV 3Dthat it’s a better game or if there is something inherently more enjoyable about playing games on the 3D screen which don’t constantly bombard you with in-and-out of the screen movements (please note, do not consider these proper reviews of the titles, just first impressions based upon our experiments with the 3DS).  SSFIV also sports better graphics and creates far more background images than any of the other launch titles we saw which too may be the reason it succeeds to a greater degree than the others.  There are, in short, any number of factors which may result in a better or worse 3D gaming experience and it will take time to work out the best ways to go about making a title.

Moving on, while the inclusion of the motion sensing controls and gyrsocope may initially appear puzzling when one considers just how small the sweet spot for viewing is, as the included game, Face Raiders, actually proves that the concept is workable (as does AR Games which is based on the same idea).  Face Raiders, while not truly a stellar title, simply shows the capability of the cameras and the ability to stay in the sweet spot while moving.  The game requires you to take a picture of a face and then superimposes that face on a little floaty alien creature.  You then shoot at the creature before they destroy your reality (rendered using a live feed from the cameras on the 3DS. 

The question of whether or not developers will be able to use the gyroscope and motion sensing in order to create a real, full-fledged game is slightly more murky.  Face Raiders and AR Games are more a proof of concept than full titles. 

On the whole, the issue in combining a motion sensing or gyroscope controlled game with 3D images is this – the user’s head will have to stay perfectly aligned in the exact relationship and attitude to the screen at all times in order for them not to get a fuzzy image so they can actually play the game.

If it doesn’t make sense why that might be difficult, we’ve concocted a little at home experiment for you.  Grab a book, pick out a single word on a single line and then spin, tilt, and otherwise manipulate the book while keeping your head in the exact same position in regards to the book as it was when you started all the while maintaining your eye focus on that single word.  You’ll find that doing so can be exceedingly difficult.  Hopefully developers realize the exact same thing and do not ask more of the gamer or the system than it is possible for either to successfully achieve.  AR Games and Face Raiders show that such an interactive experience is possible (and AR Games is truly an amusing time), but how long until the principles displayed in them can be successfully recreated with a dungeon crawler or RPG or FPS or sidescroller or sports title remains unclear.

We hate to be so middling about it, but what we see right now is an incredible amount of potential that hasn’t yet been fully harnessed in a game.  The 3DS has a ton of stuff going for it and could certainly be the next big thing.  If developers are able to successfully utilize what the system has to offer, the handheld could be just as groundbreaking, and just as successful, as the Wii.

What we can say about the 3DS unequivocally at this exact moment is the following – the screens look great and can produce exceptionally pretty graphics, the move to a sound slide over a rocker is a wonderful change from the old DS, the inclusion of an analog control and a telescoping stylus too are good changes, and the 3D effect works provided that you’re sitting in the right spot. 

Oh yeah, and it’s cool, the 3DS is exceptionally cool.  We said a while back after the first time we held a 3DS that it was going to be on your kids’ Christmas list this year (although we’re told you should speak to your doctor before you allow a child under seven to play with 3D turned on) and now that we’ve been able to examine it more, we’d like to amend that – the Nintendo 3DS may just end up on the Christmas list of every kid, no matter their age.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.