Nintendo 3DS review: seeing double

3D

The 3DS, Nintendo’s latest portable gaming platform and the first with a 3D display, made its U.S. debut on March 27th. Nintendo moved 400,000 units on launch day in Japan, and Amazon U.K. said the device broke console pre-order records as well. So, being the subway riding gamer that I am, I knew I had to find out what all this hype was about. I took it for a spin over the last week, staying up late trying to beat games and carrying it in my backpack to rock on the subway. And now, after a week of 3D gaming, it’s time to drop the hammer and see if the 3DS really is worthy of all that hype.

In the box

The Nintendo 3DS comes packed with everything you need to get started right out of the box. In the box you’ll find the console itself, a charging cradle that you can easily drop the 3DS into on your desk, a 2GB SD card, an AC adapter, a stylus, and some augmented-reality playing cards that you can use to start gaming right away. It’s actually pretty neat — when the camera on the 3DS sees one of the cards, it launches one of a few mini games that are stored internally on the unit.

It might have been nice if Nintendo finally dumped its proprietary charger and instead opted for a standard microUSB port so I could carry one less adapter in my bag, but that’s definitely not a deal-breaker.

Hardware


Is the Nintendo 3DS portable? Yes, if you’re 10 and wear baggy sweatpants. But mobile gaming isn’t just for kids and a $199 iPod touch offers both cheaper games and a far more portable form factor. Measuring in at 2.9 inches x 5.3 inches x 0.8 inches, the 3DS is a pocket hog. Seriously, good luck getting anything else in your pocket if you’re planning to carry the 3DS around everywhere with you. I chose to carry the 3DS in a backpack all week because of its size, and if you plan to do the same, you’ll be fine. Even still, however, I see no reason for a gaming system to measure any fatter than a deck of cards — and even that seems too thick at times.

Given its size though, it feels relatively light at about 8 ounces. While the hinge feels sturdy and like it will last a few years, the device itself felt cheap and like a toy, not a $250 gadget. Nintendo: please use better build materials and make your devices more portable. This isn’t 1989 and nobody wants a Game Boy.

The top of the 3DS is home to two cameras capable of snapping 3D photos at a 640 x 480 resolution. That resolution is pretty pathetic and the photos weren’t anything to write home about, but as a novelty or a way to keep your kids from nagging you during the NBA finals, the 3DS’ camera functions are perfect. Most phones pack a 3 to 5-megapixel camera these days, though, so I see no excuse for Nintendo to include such low-quality sensors in an expensive flagship gaming product.

You can’t email images from the device unfortunately, nor can you share them with any social networks. That’s pretty mind boggling in 2011 when any device with a Wi-Fi connection should include those features. The volume toggle button and SD card slot are on the left side of the 3DS, and the SD card is protected by a plastic hatch that was easy to remove. A wireless toggle button is on the right side of the system, and there are two power indicator lights and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom front. As usual, game cartridges are inserted in the top back of the 3DS and that slot is flanked by left/right shoulder buttons, a charging port, and the stylus.

3D Display

The 3DS is equipped with two displays: The top 3D display measures 3.53 inches and has an 800 x 240 pixel resolution. Nintendo says that 400 pixels are allocated to each eye, which allows for the 3D effect. The secondary, lower display is a bit smaller — it measures 3.02 inches — and has a lower 320 x 240 pixel resolution.

I found the 3D display to be a bar trick at best; I was usually able to play games better with 3D turned off (there’s a toggle switch directly to the right of the display), and the viewing angles were so bad I felt like I was looking at a hologram from a Crackerjack box. Again, for a younger demographic the novelty will definitely be enjoyed, but teens and above into casual gaming will likely turn 3D off most of the time. Also, I would recommend using the 3D feature in short bursts rather than for hours at a time since it really seemed to strain the eyes after a while. Beyond that, however, the screen gets bright enough for gaming in most conditions, though I did find myself squinting while playing under direct sunlight on a park bench.

Gaming Controls

The 3DS also sports a new circle pad that allows for 360-degree analog input, which I loved. It slides around well and it made navigating with my characters in Pilot Wings much easier. I generally preferred it to the cross pad, which is still an option as well. To the right of the lower display, there are the standard A/B/X/Y buttons, and there are Select, Start, and Home buttons directly below the screen.

It’s strange that none of the buttons were backlit, though, and I think the Select, Home, and Start buttons could use a bit more travel. They also feel cheap.

Software and User Interface

Nintendo spiced up the original and boring user interface on the DS. It’s definitely more exciting now with 3D effects and animated icons, and it’s dead easy to use — but that’s all it has going for it. The UI is slow to execute almost any command; it takes 5 seconds just for the 3DS to back out of the camera application, for example.

There are 11 default icons to choose from on the main menu, including your current game cartridge, Health & Safety Info, Nintendo 3DS Sounds, the camera, Mii Maker, StreetPass Mii Plaza, AR (augmented reality) games, Face Raiders, Download Play, Activity Log, and System Settings. At the top of the screen there’s also a notepad for taking notes on games, a message alert icon, a Web browser icon (the Web browser will be activated in a future update), and a friend list manager. As you select each option, the top screen displays more information in 3D. I found myself turning off the 3D regularly, but especially while navigating around the home screen.

The Health & Safety application warns that the 3D feature should only be used by children aged 7 and older, as it could cause eye damage in children 6 and under. If you’re worried, the 3DS reminds you from time to time to take a break. The Nintendo 3DS Sounds application is cool in theory, but it’s pretty useless unless you’re a little kid. If I wanted to record myself making weird noises, and then loop them back as some sort of music, I could, but I think this feature will generally be used to drive parents mad. You can also use this application — and I’m using the term “application” loosely — to play MP3s loaded on an SD card, but it doesn’t display album art and you have to dig through folders to find songs, which definitely isn’t user friendly for young children.

The settings menu was easy to navigate for applying a system update, as well as for finding and connecting to a protected wireless network. Face Raiders and AR Games are two augmented reality style applications that allow you to game with the 3DS right out of the box. I booted up Face Raiders, which prompted me to take a photo of myself, and then proceeded to move around my room shooting little flying balls with my face plastered on them.

AR Games takes advantage of a small pack of playing cards that come with the system. Simply place a card on a wall-lit desk and point the camera at it, and it suddenly comes to life. On one, my desk spawned a large monster that I needed to defeat by firing dozens of arrows. It’s a pretty fascinating feature, and it was fun seeing inanimate objects pop to life.

Also, if you’ve ever used a Wii than you’ll be right at home with the Mii Maker, which is basically just used to create a custom avatar of yourself. You can automatically create a Mii by taking a photo of yourself, but I thought mine was pretty inaccurate.

Lastly, there’s an Activity application that monitors how many steps you take while traveling with your Nintendo 3DS. As you walk, you can earn up to 30 “Play Coins” per day, which can be spent inside the StreetPass Mii Plaza on mini games. At the time this review was published, I had walked 18,684 steps with the Nintendo 3DS and earned 38 Play Coins. Don’t pretend you’re not impressed.

Nintendo included a Web browser on the 3DS but it doesn’t currently function. While it is coming in a future update, I have a hard time believing it’s going to offer a top-notch browsing experience. Flash support? That will never happen. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. Why hasn’t Nintendo jumped on board with app providers like Netflix to add support for streaming video? Why isn’t there an App Store? And why include a forward facing camera if I can’t use it for video chats? The 3DS feels so bare boned that it’s angering. Casual adult gamers could get much more use out of the device if Nintendo focused on these areas, but instead it’s rendered more of a child’s toy.

StreetPass

Nintendo’s StreetPass feature allows you to leave the 3DS idle as you walk around. If you pass within 150 feet of someone else with the StreetPass feature active, you can opt to have it automatically add that person to your Mii Plaza Community. I picked up six different people walking around New York City during two days, but I don’t really understand the purpose of this feature. I have no desire to see what other people’s 3DS Mii characters look like, and as far as I can tell, the only thing you can do with it is exchange puzzle pieces to complete a 3D puzzle. Does Nintendo really think people want to go walking around cities to meet people in an effort to complete an imaginary puzzle picture?

Games

The biggest problem Nintendo is going to face with the 3DS is the price of the games. At launch there were 18 games available, and the BGR team bought three games for my 3DS review: Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition, Pilotwings Resort, and Ridge Racer 3D — each costing roughly $40. That’s $120 for three games on top of the $250 you’ll have to drop on the 3DS itself. How can Nintendo possibly think that this system will compete with the iPod touch (or Android personal media players, even), where games cost just a few bucks and still offer hours of game play? Street Fighter IV for iOS costs just $4.99, for example.

Worse yet, I found the 3D display actually inhibited my ability to play games well. In Pilotwings I was required to fly through loops and land accurately on floating targets. My scores were better every single time when I completed a course with the 3D off. Similarly, I crashed in Ridge Racer 3D so much due to the poor viewing angles that I put the game back in its package and never want to see it again. Admittedly, I enjoyed the 3D effects in Super Street Fighter, but it’s still not worth the premium to me.

Battery

The battery life of the Nintendo 3DS is pretty awful. With 3D on I was lucky to get about 3 hours of battery life on a single charge. I need a personal gaming system that can get me through a long flight, and that’s not even getting my halfway there. To be fair, Nintendo does admit that battery life should fall between 3-5 hours for 3D games and 5-8 hours with Nintendo DS titles.

Wrap Up

Sure, you’ll have a fun time gaming on the Nintendo 3DS because there are a number of attractive titles out there, but I’d think long and hard about buying a game when they cost upwards of $40. I can’t think of any reason I’d buy the 3DS over an iPod touch, for example, which costs $50 less. Had I done that in the first place, I’d have spent $200 and had another $170 left over for buying iOS games, many of which are cheap or even free.

The 3DS falls short in so many ways. It doesn’t (yet) have a Web browser, the battery life is terrible, there’s not an app store for installing more apps, the camera isn’t great, it’s not comfortable in the pocket, it’s bulky, and the 3D display’s viewing angles are so bad that it’s hard to game properly. While the device does offer some features that very young gamers will potentially have a lot of fun with, older casual gamers and even teens are going to be put off by the missing features and the sub par quality of some key elements.

Nintendo needs to realize that the old portable gaming console market is dead. It needs to adapt to an app store formula, and it needs to create well rounded devices with decent cameras, email clients, and more. As it stands, the 3DS seems like a half baked product that should have hit the market 5 years ago.

Now that you know what I think about the 3DS, check out the video below to see how a few other New Yorkers felt after handing the 3DS for the first time.

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