I’ve had my Nintendo 3DS for around about three weeks now, but I’ve waited until now – the last possible moment, really – to write these impressions. I wanted to squeeze every drop of use out of it to give all you guys the best possible lowdown on Nintendo’s latest hardware.
You’ll all have seen photos of it, and from the outside it looks more than a bit like a Nintendo DS, and the same design aesthetics that have dominated the Nintendo handhelds since the DS Lite have continued here with great success.
The machine’s nice to hold, and feels like it’s of a denser construction than any of the DS line. It feels like there’s more inside the 3DS – and with good reason, as it’s packed with quite a bit of technology compared to its predecessor.
It’s so light that holding it for long periods of time isn’t an issue, and the machine, while thicker than the DSi, is slim enough to slip into your pocket and carry places and make use of that new Step Counter – but more on that later.
The outside of the machine has a three-colour shading setup going from darkest on the top to lightest on the bottom and a glossy finish. I’m of the opinion that it looks great, though the glossy finish does scare me a little – I’m thinking it could be easily scratched – but it has also survived so far.
Of course, the real differences on the Nintendo 3DS come when you open up the lid. There’s a new, crisp widescreen display on the top that is at a huge resolution compared to the DS family – and it’s 3D too, of course.
The player-facing camera has moved from the hinge to above the top screen, too, but the bottom screen remains largely unchanged from older DS consoles. The power button is still on the inside of the machine like the DSi, and there’s a volume slider and Wireless On/Off switch on either side of the outside of the machine.
The wireless on/off switch is a welcome addition as turning Wireless off is required in some places such as on a plane or in a hospital, and turning off the Wireless can also reduce the battery usage, vital on a machine with already lacklustre battery life.
The biggest change of all in terms of control schemes comes in the form of the Circle Pad, Nintendo’s solution for the inability to put proper analog sticks on the machine. In games like Pilotwings Resort and Ridge Racer 3D the Circle Pad is definitely the way to go, and it works wonderfully as an analog stick equivalent.
The surface of the pad is concave so your thumb sinks right into it, and the balance on it as it moves about feels just about perfect. It’s responsive, comfortable and works damn well in games – three things which Sony’s Analog Nub on the PSP struggled with.
The D-Pad and other face buttons seem to be largely familiar if you owned a DSi. The button layout is the same, they have the same spring and click, and they work well. The shoulder buttons are less defined than on the DSi, but are also a little more sensitive this time around.
The other major addition is the new “Home” button, which functions similarly to the identically named button on the Wii or the Guide Button on the Xbox 360 controller. Hitting it at any point – even in a game – pauses the action and brings up the main menu, allowing you access your friends list and key settings like Brightness without having to quit out of your game. That’s a huge improvement.
The ability to multitask even with minor tasks is a major moment for Nintendo, who don’t even have that feature on the Wii. Being able to pause Street Fighter and see what my friends are playing or tone the Brightness down to help conserve battery and then immediately go back to the game is absolutely fantastic.
Speaking of friend lists, Nintendo hasn’t exactly been the best friend of online gamers over the past few years – but they’re making major steps forward with the 3DS. You have one 12-digit friend code that should be the only friend code you’ll ever need to dish out to play online, and with that friend code comes a persistent friends list.
There’s even a little GamerCard of sorts which shows your Mii, favourite game, currently played game, a Status Message and so on. Anywhere else this would be a tiny thing, but for Nintendo this is huge.
The 3DS comes with a selection of built-in software ranging from the slightly boring to the totally awesome. There’s the camera, which can take 3D photos and also has all the editing filters and tricks from the DSi. The 3D photos look cool, but the effect is always more subdued than those in the actual proper 3D games.
There’s also a music player which can record sound using the built-in mic or play music you’ve got on your SD card, a notebook, Download Play – which functions similarly to how it did on the original DS – and the “Activity Log”, a record of what you’ve been up to with your 3DS.
The Activity Log is a really cool feature, tracking things like what you’ve been playing, how long you’ve been playing them, and how long each play session of that game is. My software library tells me I’ve booted the System Settings application 9 times, for example, but more interestingly it shows me I play Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition for an average of 32 minutes per session.
You can check out ranks of how games compare to others in certain categories of your usage and see graphs of your play time for each individual day – showing when you play, and for how long.
The Activity Log also tracks your steps, using the motion sensors inside the 3DS to sense each step you take with it on your person. Each step helps you to unlock ‘Play Coins’ which is a currency that can be used to purchase unlocks in actual games.
Street Fighter lets you exchange the coins for collectable trophies, for instance, while some of the built-in games let you exchange coins for things you’d otherwise have to StreetPass to get.
StreetPass is essentially the feature which lets you unlock new features in games by allowing your 3DS to interact with other 3DS consoles as they pass them – even when off. How much this feature will matter is going to depend on how individual pieces of software make use of it, but this could turn out to be a game-changer later on.
The built in software merely uses StreetPass to swap Miis via the “Mii Plaza”, but it could be something really cool with games like Pokemon in the future. The problem lies in how viable StreetPass is in the West – past events like E3 and GamesCom, I can’t help but question how many 3DS users I will pass in the street to use this feature. Again, only time will tell.
You actually make your Miis using the aptly named “Mii Maker” which functions largely as it does on the Wii with one major exception – the ability to make your Mii from a photo. Snap a photo of yourself or a friend and the 3DS will scan their facial features and pick from the limited Mii parts for you.
I found it did an okay job for some people but ended up incredibly inaccurate for others. It’s a fun distraction, but the problem with the Wii system remains the same – there are not enough Mii pieces, and few new elements or settings are added here to remedy the problem.
There’s two actual games built into the machine, too – AR games and Face Raiders. We’ll be running a separate feature on these, but I’ll say right here that they’re fun but limited.
The graphics on the machine are far in advance of what the original DS could do and at a guess probably sit somewhere between the PSP and the Wii. Compared to the upcoming NGP that’s actually pretty understated, but the way that power has been put to use in some of the launch games and the tiny size of the screen means I found many of the games to be better looking and less jaggy than their Wii counterparts.
That’s all the built-in features covered – what about that 3D effect? Well, that, like many things, is dependent on the games you’re playing – and we’ve got full reviews of launch games including Street Fighter, Pilotwings, Nintendogs and Ridge Racer 3D incoming – but there are some things we can say about the 3D effect overall right now.
The 3D effect is toned up and down using a volume-style slider at the right hand side of the 3D screen. It’s easy to turn stuff up and down on the fly, and it allows you to change the 3D effect from full-on to a subtle 3D pop very quickly.
Subtlety is what makes the 3DS’ use of 3D impressive – few games throw crazy, over the top 3D effects right in your face – instead it deliberately uses more understated effects. Street Fighter’s traditional side-on view looks great in 3D, for example, even though nothing is flying towards the screen dramatically.
There’s been a few moments when the 3D effect has really clicked for me, like when a helicopter flew towards me overhead in Ridge Racer or when I used it to judge the distance when to begin braking for the perfect landing in Pilotwings. It just works.
The downside? It requires you to look at it from a very specific angle and from a very specific distance in order to look decent – there’s a very tight sweet spot you need to try to line yourself into to see everything right with no weird ghosting on the image. That angle is relatively natural for where you’d hold a 3Ds sitting up, but playing the machine in bed or on the bus or anywhere where your posture isn’t quite as perfect will leave the 3D effect often getting lost.
While that can be a problem the important thing about the 3DS is that the 3D effect is always optional. In those situations I was able to turn it down or off – I found that the lower the 3D effect was the wider the viewing angle became for me to use.
One final consideration – that elephant in the room – battery life. I ran a few unscientific tests and it seems like on full brightness with the 3D effect on playing Street Fighter Nintendo’s estimate of 3 and a half to 5 hours seems to be pretty accurate, though I found it tended to trend towards the lower end of that.
The good news is that if you turn the brightness down or the 3D off and that battery life improves significantly. You can also turn off Wireless, StreetPass and other features to increase the battery life. In standby mode, my machine still had life after almost two days.
The battery life isn’t excellent, but it’s something that is going to vary wildly depending on how you use the system. Hopefully some larger batteries show up online soon that allow hardcore users to swap it out for a larger one; I don’t like the idea that I’d need 3 to 4 fully-charged 3DS consoles to get through my flight to LA for E3.
The games I’ve been playing so far are great, and the graphics are great-looking, especially coming off the back of the DS. The 3DS is a really competent handheld machine that seems to show Nintendo are learning important lessons from what was wrong with the DS and even the Wii – but even the best machine won’t stand up without decent software – and that’s what we’ll look at next.
More to come.