We went with the more colorful of the two 3DS units that Nintendo released in Japan, a hue the company calls Aqua Blue in the US. That's false advertising if you ask us, because whatever palette entry was selected here definitely falls closer to the G than the B in the visible color spectrum. It's a distinctive shade and the metallic sparkles definitely lend a high-class look, but the three-tone effect is a bit unfortunate.
On the bottom it's a light green, a sea foam. The middle is the straight, darker metallic green, and up top the lid has been given what looks to be an extra layer of clear plastic. It's a nice effect and creates a little lip, flipping the console open is made even easier, but the coating creates an even darker hue than the other two layers. That's three shades of green plus a random splotch of silver paint 'round the back, a combination that makes the two-tone '80s design of the original, chubby DS look positively minimalistic.
Inside that door you'll find a 2GB card by default, plenty for game saves and enough to get you started with downloadable titles down the road. 3DS game cartridges slot in around the back, where they have since the original DS, and of course there's nowhere to fit your old Game Boy Advance carts here -- just like on the DSi.
To one side of the cartridge slot is the AC input, the same port used on the DSi and sadly still not microUSB, so make sure you don't lose that proprietary charger. On the other side is the new telescoping stylus, tucked away in a notch that's a little hard to find -- we usually just resorted to just tapping away with a fingernail.
Flip 'er open and it's the analog stick that jumps out at you, what Nintendo calls a circle or slide pad. It stays flat and shifts about, much like the one on the PSP. This one, however, has a comfortable indent and rubberized coating that feels good to use. The D-pad has been shifted down to make way, not so far that it's a reach but if you prefer you can now use the analog stick in classic DS games -- without the use of its analogue sensitivity, naturally.
Buttons spring well and feel responsive, all except for the new Select, Home, and Start buttons beneath the screen. They look like capacitive-touch inputs of the sort you'd find on an Android or WP7 handset, but that's an illusion. They're actual, physical buttons that depress when stabbed and are a little hard to find quickly, something that, admittedly, you won't often have to do.
The only other physical controls are the volume slider on the left (headphone jack is located front-and-center on the bottom half of the unit), a wireless radio toggle on the right, and a little silver shuttle to the right of the main screen. It doesn't have a label, other than "OFF," but is still worth discussing on its own.
The main screen
The greater the angular difference the more immediate the illusion of depth and the harder your eyes will need to work to piece things back together again. We found that in order to comfortably use the console at maximum 3D impact it needs to be held in reasonably close proximity to your face, something like 12 inches or so.
When lying prostrate on the couch and holding the console above you that's totally fine, but other times, like sitting in coach -- or even in business class -- a comfortable gaming position has the console much further away. In these situations we needed to drop that 3D slider down, lessening the overall effect but giving our eyes a much easier time of it all.
Drop the slider all the way to its minimum and the 3D effect is completely disabled. At this point the screen is purely 2D, the lenticular trickery is overridden, and your eyes are free to focus and align as normal. We're happy to report that, in this mode, the screen shows no signs of its previous 3D prowess -- it looks just like any other LCD. Better, in fact, thanks to the higher-resolution and wider aspect ratio.
That's important to note, because a lot of people are going to buy a 3DS and find they don't really care for the 3D effect at all, or that it causes too much eyestrain when using it, or maybe due to a freak stylus accident they no longer have stereoscopic vision in the first place. In 2D mode the system still looks very good.
To be clear: the screen is always in 2D mode for older DS games, and given its greater size and higher resolution, those titles are played letterboxed. Thanks to the giant black bezel you actually hardly notice it. The bottom does without the letterbox action, despite the extra resolution three-inch touchscreen (320 x 240 vs. 256 x 192 in the DSi).
We don't have firm performance figures for the 3DS but it's clearly capable of better graphics processing than its predecessors. Obviously the original DS had no shortage of 3D titles and, while the few 3DS we've seen thus far don't exactly make them look stone age by comparison, there's a definite step forward. Sadly, though, those 3D titles for the DS cannot make use of the display's trickery -- they'll be flat.
The 3DS also features both an accelerometer and a gyroscope. This enables augmented reality games like Face Raiders, which we'll discuss in a moment, but it's hard to not question the practicality of such games on this platform. When you're using the screen's 3D feature you have a specific sweet spot that you need to stay within. Move an inch in any direction and you lose the effect. Since most motion-sensitive games require motion of at least one inch you can surely see the problem.
Stereo speakers still flank both sides of the top screen, and they seem to handle slightly more volume and do it slightly more capably than the speakers in the previous DS models. We're still not talking high-fidelity here, though.
Charging and battery life
Realizing that the battery life and charging situation is less than ideal here Nintendo thoughtfully included a charging base. Simply throw the 3DS into it and it starts the electrons flowing, the idea being you'll plop your console in here whenever you're not using it -- or when it's playing a video or the like. When we first saw photos of it we got excited about Nintendo jumping onto the inductive charging bandwagon, but the reality is much more simple: the weight of the console pushes down a lever that causes two conductive prongs to swing out. They touch the back of the console and the juice will flow.
Camera and multimedia
Low-res would be fine if the quality was good, but it isn't. Light sensitivity is poor, so turn on those lamps, and color reproduction disappoints. As of now there's no way to capture moving footage from those VGA monsters, but Nintendo has promised that's coming soonish. 2D photos are stored as JPEGs onto the SD card, while the 3D images get written as .MPO. There's also a simple paint application built into the 3DS and the results of your artistic handiwork likewise get written as JPEG -- at a mere 320 x 216. Finally, the onboard microphone is paired with a simple voice recorder app for sending yourself reminders or for leaving little audible surprises for your nephew.
- Face Raiders - For a game that's built into the 3DS, Face Raiders is surprisingly fun. You take a 3D picture of a friend's mug and it's layered over what can only be described as a disembodied head held aloft by a beanie. In an augmented-reality twist these heads are superimposed over whatever the cameras see, and as they hover about, winking and smiling at you, you're asked to shoot them. To aim you simply move the 3DS around, ensuring this is a game you won't be playing much of in public. It also ensures you won't be playing this game with the 3D effect turned on, but it is still good dumb fun.
- Ridge Racer 3D - Ridge Racer 3D, or Riiiidge Raaacer 3D! as it's also known, is yet another entry in the storied sideways racing series. Little is new here, including recycled tracks, but polished graphics and visual effects make it a bit of a looker. It's not necessarily the best at exhibiting the system's 3D effects, however, something about the speed of the visuals forcing us to keep the 3D slider a little lower than usual.
- Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition - Lots of fighters are collected, some of which you'll have long-since forgotten about since the endless SF releases of yore, and all rendered in 3D and presented in 3D too. The extra depth does serve to make the highly polished graphics look even better, and the way the status bars and round timer hover over the action is a neat effect.
- Samurai Warriors: Chronicles - Somehow the feudal lords at Koei keep finding more brainless goons to fill their armies, so yet another Warriors game is needed to manage their population. It's hack and slashery galore here, as ever, and the 3D effect doesn't do much to make the gameplay more compelling than it has in the past eleventy iterations.
- Winning Eleven 3D Soccer - Depending on your proclivity for European sporting distractions the latest installment in the long-running Winning Eleven series may not have even hit your radar. But, if you're looking for a good exhibition of the console's 3D effect, this is it. Something about the flat green grass and the players rendered atop it results in the cleanest, most eye-friendly visual pop of any of the titles we sampled. It's also, quite simply, a great game of footie.
Intriguingly Nintendo is promising Netflix support for the 3DS as well, which could be quite compelling -- particularly should Netflix start offering 3D content. That's mere speculation, but Nintendo itself is pledging to offer 3D video downloads of some sort. We're hoping for best-of collections featuring a variety of madcap Japanese game shows.
Oh, and sadly we're told to expect region locking on all 3DS titles, though naturally we don't have any American carts yet to verify. American DS titles play just fine on this Japanese system, though.
Even ignoring that screen altogether, the 3DS is a solid evolution of handheld console design that Nintendo started ages ago. The addition of analog controls makes gaming feel more modern, the increased graphics horsepower makes games look more modern, and the reduced battery life will make gamers feel the all-too modern pangs of battery anxiety. It's not a perfect console, but it's safe to say it's no Virtual Boy.