Nintendo 3DS review: Depth, charge

Nintendo released its next-generation handheld console, the 3DS, in Japan last month. North American and European releases are scheduled for late March, but we went ahead and imported a unit so we could inspect all the new features -- and, of course, that screen.

After the break, find out all about the 3DS hardware and its built-in software, along with our impressions of each component. We might not be able to present the review in 3D, but that hasn't stopped us from going in-depth.

The hardware design

The 3DS is very shiny. Very shiny. This has the effect of making it sort of a fingerprint magnet, sure, but it also makes it seem more futuristic. It also feels heavy for its size, compared to a DS Lite. Its buttons, including the D-pad, feel "shallower" than those on previous DS units, like they don't travel as far. That D-pad, by the way, is fairly inconveniently placed, giving a clear indication of how Nintendo would like you to control your games (using the circle pad). The circle pad feels pretty much like a PSP analog nub -- it slides away from the center freely in any direction, and snaps back -- but with a much more comfortable top than the tiny, ridged PSP nub. It's quite comfy.

The stylus -- which is now stored on the top left side of the unit, and I'll never get used to that -- is now a telescoping metal pole with a big tapered piece of plastic at the end, as opposed to the small plastic styli with tiny nubs that came with previous DS systems. It feels ... solid. A definite upgrade. The touchscreen at which you poke with this new stylus remains the same kind of resistive touchscreen you know from the DS, so if you were dreaming of a multitouch DS interface or something like that, you might be disappointed to find it identical to the current DS.

I can clearly see where Nintendo is going to concentrate its tweaks for the inevitable next iteration, though. There are some elements that seem out of place for Nintendo's minimalist hardware design. The wireless connection gets its own slider switch on the side, which could just have easily have been handled in software. The 3D Slider has a glowing green "3D" indicator next to it when 3D is active, which seems unnecessary. The manual warns that you can pinch your fingers in the hinge, an odd, and utterly avoidable, design flaw.

The other big design flaw, of course, is the battery. While I didn't leave it on next to a stopwatch, 3-4 hours is a reasonable estimate of how much time I got out of each charge. Luckily, the charging dock is super nice. You can just set the 3DS down on it and charge. If you're traveling, you can just take the AC adapter and charge the system without that bulky dock.

The 3D

I've mentioned it on the site before, but amblyopia prevents me from seeing stereoscopic 3D effects. So I experienced the 3DS's namesake feature vicariously through my wife, who spent time playing AR Games, Face Raiders, the 3DS Camera app, and generally messing around with the system in 3D.

And her reaction was that it just worked. Some things -- like reasonably close-up pictures -- looked more convincingly like things popping out of the screen than others, while some looked like multiple layers of flat objects in space, but the 3D effect was, according to her, easy to see and effective. For my own part, I can confirm that the 3D slider does a great job of turning the 3D off.

AR Games

The system ships with "AR Games" on board, which use a set of six included cards. To initiate the program, you have to put the ? card down and hold the camera about 12 inches away, at which point the card "opens up" into the menu. Games include a time-attack shooting gallery (which, in the last stage, becomes a dragon boss), a sort of bomb minigolf thing, fishing, and photography apps that allow you to pose your Miis or flagship Nintendo characters in the real world. By putting the Kirby card down, you summon a Kirby you can move around and cycle through various poses. In addition, more modes can be purchased with Play Coins.

(Yes, that's my washing machine.)

As long as the camera can see the AR card, the effect is seamless. You can move the 3DS around and the perspective of the rendered character will change with it. However, it's all too easy to lose sight of the card -- remember, you have to be around one foot away or closer at all times, or it'll lose its position. I can't imagine this AR app will have long-term appeal (though it's pretty fun to work on improving your time in the shooting game) but it fulfills its purpose as a gee-whiz feature to sell systems, with aplomb.

Activity Log

In a rather cool touch, the 3DS keeps a record of everything you've done, sort of like the Wii's Message Board. You can look through a virtual "book" showing you everything you've done with the system, in order, and for how long, with crowns ranking the most popular uses of the 3DS.

This is also where "Play Coins" live. The 3DS acts as a pedometer, exchanging every 100 steps for a "play coin," which can be used in games to buy extra content. For example, it unlocks additional modes in AR Games, and virtual figurines that can be used in StreetPass fighting in Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition. It's a pretty neat way to reward you for carrying the 3DS around. In my case, I totally forgot about it until I opened the system later and found that some virtual currency had accrued.

3DS Camera

The 3DS Camera app allows you to snap 3D pictures using the two outward-facing cameras of the device, or 2D pictures of yourself using the inside camera. You can also do some silly, gimmicky stuff like take simultaneous pictures of yourself and someone else using both cameras, and morph them together to surprisingly seamless, and horrifying, effect. You can save your pictures, both 3D and 2D, onto an SD card, and view the 3D pictures using any device that can open MPO files.

The weakest part of the 3DS Camera experience is the actual 3DS cameras. They're all the same 640 x 480 resolution as the DSi cameras and that cell phone you had five years ago, and they look pretty crummy. The 3D effect works, but that'll be the only reason you'll want to show any pictures taken with the cameras.

3DS Video Player

Shortly after the release of the system, the Japanese 3DS got its first firmware update, which added a 3DS Video Player app, complete with an included clip of Koji Kondo and a band of musicians playing the Super Mario Bros. theme at the recent Nintendo World 2011 event. There's not much to say here -- it plays video, in 3D, and is easy to use. It's worth noting, however, that the video played smoothly and instantaneously, which has never been true of the Wii's Nintendo Channel.

Mii Maker

The Mii system from the Wii has been expanded to include a few more facial options, including different hairstyles and eye shapes. In addition, Nintendo has added a feature that builds a Mii based on a picture it takes of your face. After it snaps the photo, you can choose from eight generated Miis to find the one that looks most like you, and then tweak it as you see fit.

Or, as in my case, you can give up and make one from scratch, because the photo feature does not work. At least, it didn't for me. My auto-Mii came out looking a bit like Lurch from The Addams Family.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the Mii Maker is that you can share Miis not only by passing by others' 3DS systems and catching them with StreetPass, but you can send them out to others via QR codes. There's a bit of potential confusion here, though, as QR code-acquired Miis will only go into your Mii Maker for editing purposes, and not the Mii Plaza that collects all your friends' Miis. It's weird.

Face Raiders (aka the best thing to ever happen to handheld video games)

I don't want to oversell this simple game, so I'll just say it's the most wonderful thing to be included with a handheld system since Tetris. The gameplay itself is compelling: you move the 3DS around in space to find flying enemy heads attacking you, and shoot projectiles at them with the A button.; occasionally, they'll break the fabric of reality and throw it at you, leaving a hole in the world. Six increasingly difficult levels have you spinning around in 360 degrees, blasting away at flying faces.

But the gimmick makes it absolutely dumb and irresistible: the enemies' faces are all animated versions of your or your friends' faces. Why is this so great? Here's my cat as a boss:

Yeah. I also tried my Dragon Quest Slime plush, action figures, and even a picture of a face on my computer screen, and all were animated hilariously. Add that to what is a genuinely interesting AR shooting game, and you've got the 3DS's secret killer app.


Unfortunately, I wasn't able to try the StreetPass feature, which beams Miis and game data to other nearby 3DS systems automatically, because there aren't any other 3DS owners anywhere near me, that I know of.

In addition, I wasn't able to explore the eShop or play Virtual Console games because that doesn't exist yet! The download shop will be added in an update in "late May," according to Nintendo, leaving the 3DS without the ability to download games at launch. Because of this, I also wasn't able to test the DSiWare software transfer. It's a noticeable omission, especially if, say, you have a Japanese unit and want a convenient way to get games on it.

The biggest negatives to the 3DS (besides the absent eShop) are the battery life and the DS emulation. You'll need to get used to charging the system every time you come home, and while the DS display isn't bad enough to necessitate carrying another system around, it's at least worth playing DS games on a real DS at home.

The real measure of a system is its software lineup, which it's too early to evaluate -- but given Nintendo's dominance in the handheld space, expect the 3DS to be pretty well-supported. In general, looking at it as a gadget, I'm pretty impressed. The 3D feature works as advertised (if you've got two working eyes, of course), is quite pleasant to behold and to hold, and it's loaded with built-in content that is actually worthwhile.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.