At first glance, the Nintendo 3DS looks and feels a lot like a DSi. It has the same basic clamshell design, and aside from the slight difference in colors, looks nearly identical to my black DSi. It's large enough to be a noticeable weight in your pocket but certainly not large enough that it hinders the system's portability. It's quite a bit smaller than the larger and heavier DSi XL.
The biggest change to the physical design is the inclusion of a "slide pad" analog stick in the usual d-pad location. The d-pad was moved below the slide pad, much like its placement on an Xbox 360 controller. This is good for games that use the slide pad, but using the d-pad is a little more awkward. The slide pad is very comfortable and feels more natural to the fingers than the PSP's uncomfortable analog nub. The slide pad is compatible with both new 3DS games and older Nintendo DS titles, although it obviously functions as a regular d-pad instead of a pressure-sensitive stick for the older games. Like the DSi, the 3DS also lacks the Game Boy Advance cartridge slot, limiting its backward compatibility to the original Nintendo DS.
The A, B, X, Y, L and R buttons are in their familiar positions and feel roughly similar to the DSi's layout. The L and R buttons feel slimmer and flimsier than their DSi counterparts; they're easy to click, but they don't provide very much resistance. If you hold the 3DS as it is intended, it feels like you're going to accidentally press the L and R buttons. The Start and Select buttons have been moved down to below the resistive touch-screen, and a new Home button has been added so you can return to the 3DS main menu at any time. Instead of being separate buttons, the new Start and Select buttons are part of a straight "line" of faux-capacitive buttons. There doesn't seem to be any benefit to this except for a slightly sleeker design. The stylus is hidden in the back of the system near the cartridge slot, not unlike where you'd find the DS stylus on an older model. The stylus is extendible, allowing you to use a smaller child-size version or extend it to something more akin to the DSi XL's stylus. My only problem is that it is positioned awkwardly for quick removal, especially when compared to the DSi. For games that switch between the stylus and buttons often, like Okamiden, it's rather a pain to use.
The biggest question on everyone's mind about the 3DS is, of course, the 3-D. On the 3DS, only the top screen is 3-D, with the bottom screen remaining a touch-screen like the regular DS, although with a slightly higher resolution. The 3DS has a small slider on the side that controls the intensity of the 3-D on the top screen. Sliding it down can turn off the 3-D completely, while sliding it to maximum provides a rather intense effect. Surprisingly, the 3-D is rather effective. At first glance, it can be a bit weird. You have to find the right "sweet spot" to hold the system for the maximum effect, and the 3-D visuals can be a headache when you start to use them. After a couple of hours with the system, though, I found that the nagging problems had gone away. I grew used to the visuals, and holding the system the right way became perfectly natural. You have to hold the system roughly 12 to 14 inches from your face and not jerk it around too much to get the proper effect, but aside from the games that insist upon that, this isn't an issue. It takes some getting used to, but it's worth it.
When the 3-D works, it's rather mind-blowing. I've found that the games that use it best are those that go for subtle effects as opposed to anything flying at the screen. Subtle usage of the 3-D effect to add layers or depth to the visuals gives them a distinctive and interesting effect. However, I also found it rather uncomfortable to use with some games. Anything that involves twisting or moving the 3DS to use the native accelerometer, like the built-in Face Raiders, seems pretty much worthless when combined with 3-D. When it works, the 3-D makes everything look better, and even simple-looking games gain a nice boost from the added depth. It has very little impact on the gameplay, at least in the games I've played. It didn't make it easier to judge distances or jumps, but it added a much-needed boost to the 3DS' graphics and made them distinctive. Once developers really get a chance to work out the quirks with the system, I expect to see some pretty impressive stuff, even if the 3DS doesn't have the horsepower of Sony's NGP.
There is, however, one glaring problem with the 3DS: the battery life. In our tests, the average life of the system with most of the features turned on tended to be around three to four hours. That's shockingly low for a handheld system. While it wouldn't be an issue for everyday play, it renders the 3DS a poor choice for plane rides or other lengthy trips, which is exactly when you'd want to have a 3DS available. Playing regular DS games on the 3DS fared a little better, and I got about 6 hours of playtime from a normal DS game. Surprisingly, turning off the 3-D on a 3DS game didn't have much of an impact on the battery life; I didn't see any noticeable difference between playing the game in 2-D or 3-D. Turning off the Wi-Fi added an extra 45 minutes to the battery life, which is nice in emergencies. The battery life is disappointing, and while it isn't enough to render the system unusable, it feels entirely too brief, especially if you're coming from the DSi XL. There are already reports about somewhat larger third-party batteries being made available for the 3DS, and prospective owners should seriously consider this. A minor increase in size would be an extremely worthwhile sacrifice to improve the 3DS' rather wimpy battery life.
The 3DS includes some rather nice built-in software. Like the DSi, the 3DS includes a built-in camera that allows you to take and edit pictures. The built-in camera is pretty weak, but it has the advantage of using two lenses to take 3-D pictures that you can view on the DS. This makes up for the otherwise low resolution of the photos, although it would have been nice for the camera to get a boost. Everything looks murky and pixelated when you take a photo with the 3DS camera, and no amount of nifty 3-D visuals can change that. It also chokes badly in anything but optimal lighting conditions. Storage shouldn't be an issue, as the 3DS comes with an included 2GB memory stick, and larger memory sticks are relatively inexpensive.
The real selling point of the camera is that it allows for new augmented reality games. The system comes with a pack of AR cards that can be placed around your house. Pointing the camera at a card causes it to project a neat little 3-D image of Mario, Kirby or other Nintendo characters. The coolest of the lot is the Question Block card. This is used for a special AR game, which makes the card twist and alter the surrounding landscape to let you play a series of simple minigames. It's a pretty basic tech demo, but it's genuinely impressive. Fans of collectible card games should be deeply excited about what the 3DS (and other systems) will have in store for them. As far as free pack-ins go, the AR cards are a pretty good deal, but they aren't really worth it on their own. They're a momentary diversion and serve as a convenient way to show off the system to others.
The real star of the show is Face Raiders, which is a simple AR minigame where you take a picture of someone's face. That face is then converted into enemies that you have to fight with Nerf balls as you use the 3DS to look around the room. It sounds silly, but it's quite fun and addictive. The only real problem, as mentioned above, is that it's entirely incompatible with the 3-D aspect of the 3DS. It's pretty much impossible to twist and move the system to shoot oncoming faces while maintaining the 3-D effect.
In addition to the camera, the 3DS also includes a bunch of built-in minigames. Like the Wii, the 3DS allows you to make and create your own Miis, who can then be traded or used in certain games. Mii trading can be done rather simply through the use of QR Codes, which the 3DS camera recognizes, or by the use of "Street Pass." Street Pass causes two 3DS to trade Miis when they pass by one another, assuming both are in Street Pass mode. Fortunately, Street Pass mode is such a minimal use of energy that there's no reason to not leave it on while your 3DS is in your backpack or pocket. Even with the 3DS' unimpressive battery life, I noticed no significant decrease when I left on the Street Pass feature.
Unfortunately, we're not yet able to review all of the 3DS features. A number of new features are due to be added the 3DS with future system updates. There is no web browser yet, and the 3DS virtual store is not yet available. The store is supposed to offer retro Virtual Console Game Boy, Game Gear and TurboGrafix 16 games and new software, but we can't really say how that works out until we can try it. Likewise, Netflix has promised 3DS support, but the full extent of that is still a question. The 3DS is, unfortunately, region locked. If you buy the North American system, don't expect to play games from other countries if you go on a trip. It's a pretty big disappointment considering that there's a large library of DS titles that were only available in Japan or Europe. Older DS titles will work on any system, though. I had no problem playing imported DS games on my 3DS. It's a small benefit, but at least you won't have to worry about that element of backward compatibility.
The Nintendo 3DS is a pretty neat little system. The 3-D visuals initially seem like a gimmick, but they really add a lot to the games that use them well. The depth provided by the 3-D more than makes up for the somewhat unimpressive graphics of the launch games. It's not the most powerful system on the market, but it certainly is a step up from the classic DS. It's hard to say if it's worth buying right away. While the 3D effect is cool, it isn't enough to sell the system on its own. There aren't any particular launch titles that anyone would consider a "must buy." At the moment, it feels like a lateral move from the DSi to the 3DS, as opposed to a full-fledged upgrade. This isn't helped by a lackluster launch lineup that doesn't show off the difference in power between the two systems, aside from the 3-D. In about a year's time, the 3DS will probably be well worth the money, but until then, it might be best to hold on to your old DS. If you've never had a DS and were looking for a reason to get one, the 3DS is a tempting target. The backward compatibility is perfectly adequate, and the long list of excellent DS games will keep you busy until the 3DS has a worthwhile library.
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