Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Nintendo 3DS, or: This Is Officially The Future

Sometimes you just have to buy a thing.

Therefore, this weekend I joined the ranks of Early Adopters and helped myself to a Nintendo 3DS.  On one hand, it was hardly an impulse purchase: I budgeted around the $250 price-tag, and I'd been considering buying one for at least two weeks prior. On the other, though, given the lean launch-title roster and the fact that I already own a DSi, it seemed like an indulgence more than anything.

This is the fundamental obstacle Nintendo is faced with right now, having saturated the market with new editions of their handheld console: The original DS was released in 2004, the DS Lite in 2006, the DSi in 2009 and the DSi XL in 2010, almost exactly a year to the day prior to the 3DS' release date.  These are all essentially the same device, with the exception of (primarily) cosmetic alterations - the DS Lite was smaller, the DSi XL had considerably larger screens, and so forth - but in basic form and function, every system released under the DS banner has operated in an identical fashion.

The Nintendo DS is the best-selling handheld of all time, which may be accounted for by the near-yearly re-launches of the system.  There has always been a shiny new version of the DS on the market, boasting a flashy redesign and extraneous "features", and each release has been accompanied by a potent marketing campaign. 

What's strange about this is that Nintendo has earned itself a reputation as an innovator in the current gaming industry.  Motion control with the Wii, the eponymous dual screens and touch-screen of the DS, and other intuitive, player-immersive features have made Nintendo an industry leader (heck, even the light gun that came with the original Nintendo Entertainment System was astonishing in its day).  From an empirical standpoint, they have introduced new ways of gaming to players which have subsequently been aped by their competitors.  So there's this strange duality to Nintendo, where on one side of the coin they regularly alter the face of videogaming with their clever and brilliantly-implemented ideas, and on the other side, they are content to slap a new coat of metaphorical paint on their existing devices and repackage them as the latest and greatest.

All of this is to make the point that the 3DS straddles the line between these two facets of Nintendo.  It most certainly is, at heart, just another Nintendo DS with all-new bells and whistles, but one of those bells and\or whistles is so revolutionary it almost validates the hefty price tag.  Not to mention the fact that the hardware is, allegedly, souped-up and next-gen (Nintendo has not officially released specs on the 3DS).

I'm not going to lie: the 3D feature of the 3DS is impressive.  It's so novel I couldn't NOT own one.  Even if the market saturation backfires and the 3DS ends up a casualty alongside the Virtual Boy and R.O.B. The Robot, it's going to look good doing it.  But for the average handheld aficionado - especially the younger set, who are simultaneously more concerned with the immediate wow factor and harder to keep interested, in the long run, than grown-up nerds - it's a tough sell, especially considering the DSi XL is only a year old and there aren't a ton of device-specific games that take advantage of the feature just yet.

Here's my run-down of the Nintendo 3DS, what was promised, and what we actually got.


The overall design of the 3DS differs from its predecessors in a number of ways.  To begin with, let's go over the purely cosmetic changes.  The stylus, which is now metal tipped with plastic and telescoping, resides at the top rear of the device instead of on the side.  It's a bit more of a pain to remove, especially if you're playing a game where the stylus is not constantly needed; whereas on previous models, the side-slotted stylus could easily be popped in and out, the 3DS stylus now requires a bit more attention to extract or replace.

The lower touch-screen of the 3DS remains unchanged from previous iterations.  The upper screen is wider than that of the DSi, though still smaller than the DSi XL, and while it is a tiny bit less aesthetically pleasing than the mirror-image dual-screens of older models, that screen space is put to good use with the 3D effect.  Both seem to offer significantly higher resolutions than the DSi, although given the use that I'm currently putting the device to (ie: playing DS games) the effect is negligible at this stage of the game.

I purchased the black version of the 3DS, and I had a black DSi.  The 3DS comes with a glossy, slightly sparkled finish compared to the DSi's matte finish; on the plus side, this makes the 3DS look and feel a lot flashier and of a higher quality, but on the negative side, the reflective finish - particularly on the top screen - is distracting in direct lighting and detracts from the 3D effect, not to mention just looking at that screen.  I've already noticed that it picks up fingerprints and dust like crazy, and my attempts to rub these off with my shirt-tails have been largely unsuccessful so far.  Considering the beating that my DSi took in its two-year lifespan, I'm treating this 3DS with kid gloves.  One thing that annoyed me perhaps more than it should've was the lack of protective film over the screens when I first took it out of the box: I don't know if this was just a fluke, but I really would've liked to keep that film over the delicate screens for as long as possible.

The d-pad has been positioned lower down and an analog 'thumbstick' has been added above it.  Although I'm accustomed to using the d-pad on my DSi, the addition of the thumbstick is, in my opinion, one of the better design changes Nintendo could have made.  It's more of an analog pad than a stick, and my thumb naturally settles into its depression, so it makes for a very natural transition and is far from intrusive.  Overall, the casing for the 3DS is a lot rounder and smoother than that of the DSi, sloughing off the sharp corners and boxy appearance for a more sleek and organic feel.

Finally, the 3DS comes with a cradle for charging.  Although not strictly necessary, it's a nice addition: for reasons I'll go into below, the 3DS is going to spend a lot more time powered on, so having a cradle to rest it on and keep it from getting knocked about is a small, but appreciated, gesture.


Obviously, the biggest selling point for the 3DS isn't something that can be effectively conveyed through a commercial or a blog review on the internet, but I'll try anyway.  The glasses-free 3D feature of the 3DS has been highly touted as a game-changer, and despite a few inherent flaws, I can guarantee that this is absolutely true.  There has never been anything quite like the 3DS' 3D.

Let's start with those flaws.  To begin with, the 3D can only really be experienced by one person at a time - which makes its inclusion in a portable device somewhat sensible.  Further to this point, the 3D can only be experienced if this one person is positioned just so in front of the screen, and does not shift their viewing angle to any significant degree.  Finally, the 3D must be adjusted to that person's specific visual dimensions.  When I first started playing with the 3DS, I found the 3D far too strong, and I wasn't able to fully achieve the depth of the effect.  After a bit of playing around, I found a setting for the 3D slider that was comfortable, about halfway down.  I would imagine that most people are going to be twitching this slider incrementally for the first few days of using their 3DS before they find a setting they like.  Once you do find it, though, you'll be amazed.

The 3D on the 3DS is not exactly like the 3D that you might see at the movie theatre.  Whereas 3D films pop out at you and seem to literally emerge from the screen, the 3DS shines instead when it's creating the illusion of depth and interior space.  In the few cases where objects have tried to extend outwards from the screen (and I say "few" because Nintendo clearly understands the limitations of the hardware here and is playing to its strengths) my eyes have been unable to focus on it properly and it hasn't so much popped out as hit an invisible plate-glass window.

My 3DS came pre-loaded with a music video for OK Go's "White Knuckles", and so far this has been the best example I've found to show people what the 3DS is capable of in terms of its signature effect.  Besides being an awesome band and a great song, the video is centred around very clean lines and direct movements, with its white Ikea-furniture motif and trained dogs.  Although there are a couple of places where someone is running directly into or out of the screen and the 3D goes a bit wonky, it's a fantastic showcase for the hardware and Nintendo was smart to include it - it's a glimpse into the kind of video quality and effect the 3DS will eventually offer once Netflix and other sources provide 3D movie downloads on the device.  On the other hand, once it's been watched all the way through once, it announces that it will be deleted on the next system update.  I'm hoping that I get another music video to take its place... Although honestly, I'd really just like to keep the damn thing on the system.  There's something fundamentally incorrect about a company deleting data without the user's express direction from a device that user has paid for in full.


In addition to the 3D screen, the 3DS offers three cameras (two external cameras which are used to take 3D photos and one interior lens), a mic, a decent pair of stereo speakers, and a headphone jack.  The volume control has been changed from an incremental push-button to a slider, which is considerably better at managing volume levels - one of my complaints of the DSi was that volume would jump from a little too quiet to just a step too loud with a single button-press.  Not unlike the Wiimote, the 3DS contains an accelerometer and gyroscope, which offer another level of game control that was missing from the DSi.  The wireless connectivity capabilities are largely unchanged, but the 3DS does include both an external switch for turning off wireless and an IR port.  It also comes bundled with an SD card.

The quality of the 3D camera is, perhaps not that surprisingly, pretty terrible.  It's grainy and doesn't do well in extreme lighting conditions, but it gets the job done, given that any pictures taken are ostensibly only viewable on the 3DS itself.  In short, it's a neat feature to play around with, but there isn't a whole lot of practical application.

Finally, I should say something about the battery.  There's been a lot of talk about how the 3DS' battery life compares to its predecessors.  The DSi boasted an official 13-17 hours of battery life on the lowest brightness setting and 4-5 on its highest setting.  The 3DS, in contrast, offers 3-5 hours at best, "depending on screen brightness, Wi-Fi, sound volume and 3D effect".

My experience with the DSi, which I typically kept at about medium brightness and with the Wi-Fi off, was that it provided a consistent 3 hours of battery life after a year and a half of use.  The 3DS (which, admittedly, hasn't had its battery broken in just yet), as promised, provides about 3-5 hours with the 3D and wireless on and brightness set to 4 out of 5.  On top of this, it seems to draw almost no battery power while closed and in sleep mode.  In all, I have no real complaints as of yet regarding the 3DS battery. 


In theory, the AR games included with the 3DS could have just as easily been accomplished on the DSi, but the 3D effect absolutely complements the experience.  The 3DS' AR feature is centred around a set of AR Cards - literally, playing cards printed with images the device is programmed to respond to.

The primary AR card, a yellow box with a question mark on it, launches AR play.  Initially, there is only the option to view the AR Character Gallery (which allows the use of the other five AR cards: Mario, Link, Samus Aran, Kirby and three Pikmin) and the Archery game.  Eventually unlocked are a number of other games and features, including a fishing game, a sort of billiards\shooting\puzzle game, a Mii Gallery (which is similar to the AR Character Gallery, only with Miis the user has created) and a shop.

This AR thing is an amusing diversion, but the novelty is a bit short-lived and the various games and features are a bit inconsistent.  Archery and Fishing have the most replay value, but even they suffer from the 3DS' biggest drawback: they've all been designed to rely on device movement, but must remain a consistent 12 to 15 inches from the AR card (not to mention consistently pointed at the card).  This makes playing the AR games somewhat frustrating as you twist and stretch trying to accomplish these two opposing goals, and - according to my girlfriend - makes you "look like an insane person having a fit".

It does offer a more interactive experience with the device's 3D feature, however, and in that regard is more successful than not.  There's nothing here that will provide hours of gameplay, but it does at least offer a chance to show off your new toy.


This is something I haven't had much of a chance to explore, mostly because, as of yet, I have not passed anyone carrying their 3DS in sleep mode.  In theory, the idea behind StreetPass is that every 3DS owner will carry their 3DS around in sleep mode, and when they come within wireless range of one another, the devices will swap data, including Miis.  These Miis may then be put to use in various ways: they can be collected, they can be used in Face Raiders, they can be put to work in Find Mii!, and so forth.

There's another reason to carry your 3DS around in sleep mode, however: the system has a built-in pedometer and counts how many steps you take per day, awarding you up to 10 coins daily.  The first couple of days I had my 3DS it was the weekend and I didn't really take it anywhere, so I didn't see much in terms of coin earnings, but since I've been bringing it with me to work all week, I've been maxing out the 10 coin limit on a daily basis.

It's a minor feature - so far, these coins can only be used to buy into two or three unlockable features, though presumably future updates will introduce more options and unlockables to purchase - but the 10-coin-a-day limit makes sense, as it turns what would otherwise be a forgettable or easily achieved feature into a much longer type of investment.  Along with StreetPass, every time you open up your 3DS, you might find you've been rewarded with something: a puzzle piece, a new Mii, or just your daily allotment of coins.  It keeps the novelty of the 3DS going for a lot longer than it might otherwise.

Naturally, the 3DS has a Mii creator as well, which doesn't differ from the Wii's in any significant sense.  I've never particularly liked the look of Miis with their knobbly hands and Fisher-Price simplicity, but that's an old and tired argument that I've been having ever since the Wii first came out and it doesn't really bear repeating at this stage.

What is worth mentioning is that I have not yet figured out how to delete or reset data on the 3DS without completely resetting back to the system's default.  This has come up in regards to Miis - I can't seem to get rid of my primary Mii, or switch that primary designation to another Mii so I can delete the original one - but it also applies to my collection of faces in Face Raiders.


As far as built-in games go, Face Raiders stands up well.  Again and not surprisingly, it makes effective use of the device's hardware, including 3D, the multiple cameras, the accelerometer, and so forth.  The idea is that the user takes pictures of their own and other faces, which are then applied to the various 'Raider' enemies, who burst out of the world around the unit (again taking advantage of the whole Augmented Reality thing) and must be shot down, FPS-style, by the player.  In the process, these Raiders make ridiculous faces, stick out tongues, and effectively (if cartoonishly) express emotions.

That's all well and good, and I have so far probably spent the most time playing Face Raiders than with any other feature present in my 3DS.  Unfortunately, I got drunk at some point over the weekend and, when the device demanded a face to be sacrificed to it, I took a picture of my overflowing ashtray instead.  I spent a few minutes shooting down ashtray-faces and then regretted taking the picture and adding it to my collection, but I've found no way of removing it - or any of the other faces, for that matter - thus far. 


I don't think we'll really be able to grasp the impact and legacy of the 3DS for a few years, and its success is ultimately going to depend on the catalog of titles for it which is right now, three weeks after launch, disappointingly slim, but one thing that I can definitively declare about the device is that is has a huge amount of potential.  Not just in terms of games that make effective use of the 3D, accelerometer, thumbstick and so forth, but in eventual features like downloadable 3D videos and applications which expand on its Augmented Reality aspects. 

I should mention that although I do not officially condone piracy, I own an AceKard 2i for homebrew purposes and with a minor update from the manufacturer, I've had no problems running it on my 3DS (though, of course, minus any 3D effects).  Considering the dire threats Nintendo has made about bricking 3DSs running 'piracy devices', I'm admittedly a bit wary about future use.  This is, in my opinion, an extreme and appalling position for Nintendo to take, and I can see that it may land them in hot water if they do carry through with their threat, if for no other reason than that these 'piracy devices' they're so adamant against also have a legitimate fair-use application.

The truth is, I'm taking a bit of a leap of faith.  I nearly decided against buying a 3DS when I first got wind of this bricking threat, but - while I don't want to poke the dragon here - I'm inclined to view it as mostly bluster.  Remotely destroying a bought-and-paid-for piece of hardware is a pretty thick line to cross, and if Nintendo decides to do so, they'd better damn well have a rock-solid case to back them up.  My gut feeling is that this sort of action would result in a widescale backlash against Nintendo, and given the 3DS' less-than-stellar sales thus far, that's something they probably won't want to risk.  So while I'm hardly endorsing breaking out your R4 or AK2i cards and plugging them into your 3DSs for any reason - piracy or homebrew or hacking or what have you - I think I can say with some confidence that the robust homebrewing community that has grown up around the DS and DSi will continue to exist on this next generation of handheld.

As for the 3DS itself, should you buy it?  It's not an immediate must-have, if for no other reason but that the current catalog is somewhat on the weak side, but that promises to improve as time goes by, if previous members of the DS family are any indication.  The novelty factor is high - probably the highest I've ever encountered in any gadget, ever - and should sustain itself for at least a couple of weeks after purchase, depending on your attention span.  And it really is a very solid little piece of hardware, brimming over with various and sundry things like cameras and screens and accelerometers.  If you already own a DS\DS Lite\DSi\DSi XL, you're going to eventually need to replace it (after just a year and a half of use, my DSi touchscreen was scratched up and cloudy) so sooner or later, you're likely to end up with a 3DS...  probably once the price drops from the currently-daunting amount of $250.

If you don't currently own a DS, then the 3DS might be just the thing to get you into portable gaming.  That said, wait a few months until there's a crop of games to choose from - there are new Kingdom Hearts, Dragon Quest, Kid Icarus and Professor Layton titles lined up along with a re-release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, not to mention the usual rogue's gallery of Nintendo franchises: Final Fantasy, Mario Kart, Mega Man Legends, Paper Mario, Super Mario, and so forth.  And since the 3DS is fully backwards-compatible, there's a plethora of DS games that deserve a playthrough, and the 3DS is guaranteed to perform that task admirably.


  1. NDS is allow to play 3d games without use additional flash cards and home brew application. I have bought NDS and inserted R4 card into my NDS which allow me to play hardcore game as well. I am still 3d Mario Karte on my NDS.

  2. Yes, I use my Acekard 2i on my 3DS without any major issues. Still waiting for a proper 3DS flashcart to show up though... Chances are it'll be Crown3DS (http://www.crown3ds.com/) who appear to be the furthest along in development, but as of right now it's anyone's game.