Nintendo 3DS review

A deep-dive into the company's latest 3D handheld.
Tim Stevens
T. Stevens|03.21.11

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Nintendo 3DS review

See that greenish blue thing up there? That might look like this greenish blue thing over here that we reviewed a few weeks back, but actually they're not the same. No, sir. This thing up there is the genuine, guaranteed, red-blooded American version, ready to tear a $250 hole in your gaming budget and make you go all googly-eyed for 3D. Naturally there isn't an awful lot different here compared to the Japanese version we already looked at, but we have had the opportunity to spend a good bit more quality time with this one than with the other one. Plus, being able to read all the manuals doesn't hurt.

What you'll find below is a full review of the American console including more game impressions, more in depth battery life tests, a dazzling demo of the thing's augmented reality gameplay, and some surprising performance results with good 'ol DS carts. So, join us, if you would, for a rather more in depth exploration of this, the next dimension in handheld console gaming.

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Pros

  • Compelling 3D screen
  • Interesting AR game demos
  • Analog controls

Cons

  • Costly
  • Poor battery life
  • Screen requires exacting precision

Hardware

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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 games rendered in 3D 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 all be flat.

The 3DS also features both an accelerometer and a gyroscope. This enables augmented reality games like Face Raiders and some other nifty options we'll discuss in just a moment, but it's hard to not question the practicality of such games on this platform. Remember, you have to hold the 3DS in just that perfect spot, and so if you're moving around at all it just doesn't work.

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. Storage is achieved onto an SD card that slots in the left side. 2GB is provided, plenty enough to start, but should you find yourself going crazy with downloadable titles you can get yourself an 8GB monster for about ten bucks these days. Ain't progress grand?

Cameras and amazing augmenting reality

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Since spending time with many of the Japanese launch titles we've now been able to get to know a number of the American releases too. As ever we'll leave the detailed reviews to our pals at Joystiq, but here are some brief impressions.

  • 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.

  • Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars - Yet another excellent Lego game set in the Star Wars universe, this one offering some 3D fun that doesn't add anything to the gameplay but does help to spice up the game's graphical flare. Perhaps the most purely enjoyable to play of all the launch titles, but the lack of multiplayer is a baffling disappointment.

  • Madden NFL Football - It wouldn't be a console without a Madden game, but since this one comes about six months after Madden NFL 11 and, presumably, about six months before Madden NFL 12, it must make do without any annual designation. Still, it sports a full NFL license and all the teams, but mediocre graphics that don't make use of the 3DS's graphics performance nor, surprisingly, did it do much to tickle our 3D sense.

  • Nintendogs + Cats: Toy Poodle and New Friends - It's another Nintendogs game, again with cats and this time focusing on mostly foofy little pooches, only a couple of breeds in here having any chance of standing up to that bossy Cocker Spaniel at the dog park. Nothing revolutionary in terms of gameplay, though the 3D effect does work quite well in the simple environments, a good sense of depth acheived with your little buddy romping off to fetch a ball or frisbee or potted plant.

  • Pilotwings Resort - Probably the premier launch title for the 3DS and a proud, long-awaited return for the Pilotwings series. It is much like the games before, offering a suite challenges that start off easy and end up, well, challenging. The graphics are clean and the 3D effect reasonably good, but since most of the things you're looking at are rather far away there's honestly not that much immersion here provided by the fancy screen.

  • Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D - 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.

  • Ridge Racer 3D - 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.

  • Steel Diver - The submarine genre is still sadly underutilized, though even more sadly Steel Diver doesn't do much of anything to fulfill that potential. It's a slow, plodding, side-view strategy game with unnecessarily clumsy touchscreen controls occasionally interrupted by fun but brainless turret sections. In these sections you must spin about as if you were looking through the periscope, which is great fun — particularly for anyone watching you play. The 3D effect here is reasonably good, better than the game itself.

  • 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. There's also a new, over-the-shoulder view to help augment the illusion of depth, but it won't take long for serious gamers to revert to the traditional side-view.

  • 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 striking than it has in the past eleventy iterations.

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Now it's time for the big question: is the 3DS worth the $249.99 that Nintendo is currently offering? That's a tough sell, especially knowing that in roughly 18 months we'll probably be looking at a thinner, lighter, prettier 3DS that offers better battery life and could be yours for a cheaper price. But, that's not here yet, and you have to ask yourself whether those 18 or so months of gameplay are worth whatever cash you'd potentially save by waiting a whole year and a half — or thereabouts

For cutting-edge gamers, particularly for big fans of Pilotwings, the 3DS is not a bad investments. The AR games are a lot of fun, for a little while at least, and the 3D effect is genuinely interesting. Some people recoil in horror long before their eyes have adjusted, but most folks who've tried the system really like it once they find their own personal sweet spot.

But still, it's a lot of money for a handheld gaming system with just over three hours of battery life, especially when you can get a brand new DS Lite for $130 that will last three times as long in a charge — and that comes in a rather more appealing set of colors. None of the launch titles are good enough to make the 3DS a must-buy for casual gamers, but if Nintendo can get Netflix lined up and, more importantly, if it can get third party publishers to really make use of the system's assets and not just release crummy ports, by the time this holiday season rolls around the 3DS could be a genuinely hot property — much, much hotter than Nintendo's last attempt at 3D domination.

Update: We made a slight tweak in the text above as we've had a chance to compare the two consoles and it seems like the US version has a slightly different hinge. The Japanese one was virtually silent and smooth but the US one is a bit more jarring and has a louder click with popping into place. It's a very minor point, but FYI just the same.

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