While the WiiU continues to struggle to gain a user base, Nintendo’s other current generation console, the portable Nintendo 3DS, is at last gaining traction and a solid following in both eastern and western areas of the world. Even though the device has been around for a couple of years now, there are still plenty of potential customers out there who are finally finding the growing 3DS library of games enticing enough to consider a purchase. For that reason I figure is still beneficial to release a review so that interested parties who (like me) weren’t brave enough to be early adopters can get a feel for the device to see if perhaps after a couple of years it is now the right gaming device for them. Let’s get started!
The Nintendo 3DS XL does not conform to recent standards set upon other new technologies, but nevertheless right out of the box it feels like a high-quality product. Yes, it’s thick and the screen operates on a snap hinge, but the matte plastic body feels solid and comfortable to the hands. The XL features more rounded edges than its smaller counterpart which makes a noticeable difference in comfort as well. The buttons all seem a bit loose to the touch, but it does not affect gameplay or dramatically cheapen the feel of the device. More solid controls would have given a premium feel to be sure, but Nintendo has never really targeted the premium market demographic. The lack of a second analog stick is also slightly disappointing, but (as we’ll discuss later) creative developers have mostly figured out ways to make sure you never miss it. All in all, Nintendo has struck a nice balance of affordability and aesthetics. The console ships in a variety of colors, so you can go all black for a more mature look or take your pick of brighter combinations.
Considering this is a game system that sells itself on its glasses-free 3D capabilities, it’s worth giving the screen its own section in a review. To those of us spoiled by modern smartphones the screen initially feels pixelated and low resolution, however in retrospect its no worse than the handhelds of past generations and in fact is significantly better. The 3D effect works nicely on the XL’s 5-inch screen, but there is a very noticeable sheen when tilting the device that can be pretty distracting at first. Thankfully it becomes easily tuned out by other visuals that take over during gameplay. Switching the 3D effect off cures this problem completely and is likely what many users will resort to early on, however I would encourage gamers to give the 3D effect a chance for the first week or so and see if it doesn’t become much more natural by the end. It certainly did for me. The one issue with 3D is that the stronger the effect, the closer the screen must be to the player’s face. Focusing on something so close that appears so far away can definitely cause eye strain, so a healthy balance certainly must be struck.
The lower touch screen (not to imply that the upper screen is touch capable as well) is notable for being resistive, not capacitive like smartphones. While it sounds like inferior technology, the resistive screen actually ends up being terrific for gaming. You can easily rest a finger on the lower screen without triggering an action until you intend to, which gives it a very natural, button-like feel. This is especially great for games like Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate which rely on the touch screen to provide camera controls in absence of a second analog control. Of course the tradeoff is that the screen isn’t so hot for entering text or other precision operations, but for that Nintendo includes a very comfortable stylus that sits flush with the device in its slot on the bottom when not in use. Again, a stylus may seem like old tech, but it works so nicely here that it’s hard to complain.
Could both screens be better? Yes. Do they need to be? Not really, and considering the added cost that would come with making the device powerful enough to run two screens at higher resolutions, Nintendo’s decisions on screen quality were wisely made.
Part of the Nintendo charm is how there’s always little touches of creativity and fun to everything they do. In the case of the 3DS, there are many such additions all over the hardware and software alike. Does the 3DS really need a 3D camera on the rear and a 2D camera on the front? Probably not, but they do allow for some unique fun like augmented reality (AR) character cards and games, or creating a Mii look-alike from a self portrait. And of course both cameras are at your disposal for taking pictures and videos (in both 2D and 3D) as you please. There’s even motivation to take your 3DS with you throughout your day, as the built-in pedometer keeps track of your steps and awards points for them, and StreetPass allows you to trade information with other 3DS owners as you walk by, and then compete with them in online games next time you get a chance to sit down and play. The console boasts great stereo audio, good graphics just a step ahead of the Wii, and even includes an SD card to get you started with all the digital content available on the system.
The 3DS’s growing library of games is a refreshing departure from all things Mario. Sure, the plump plumber and his gang are there for those who want them, but the 3DS is not just a handheld for Mario fans. Everything is here from pinball to shooters, puzzlers to fighters, and everything in between. That being said, the pickings remain slim in the hardcore action category–there’s no real equivalent to competitor Playstation Vita’s Killzone or Uncharted games. However, Nintendo has struck it big for more involved genres, such as the much-beloved JRPG, where conversely the PS Vita has little to offer. Also, the 3DS is the handheld to beat for original games unique to the platform. While Sony has managed to get some of its most popular IPs onto the Vita, they offer little to distinguish them from their PS3 counterparts. Crossplay is an interesting Vita selling point that I’d love to see in future Nintendo titles, and they do plan on incorporating it between the 3DS and WiiU in the future, but at the same time a handheld needs games that are designed just for it–not designed for a more powerful system and then scaled back. There’s reason to own a 3DS even if you own a Wii/WiiU. Lots of reasons.
The Nintendo 3DS is not without its shortcomings, namely in the screen resolution department, but it’s a terrifically fun handheld with lots of features and a growing library of fantastic titles. In comparison to the Playstation Vita, the 3DS is currently by far the better value, especially for those that already own a PS3. It’s a shame Nintendo didn’t include a second analog stick, as this would have secured the 3DS’s superiority in the minds of many gamers, but creative solutions from developers have really overcome this problem–so long as everyone gives these solutions a chance. Whether you’re a Nintendo fan or not, there’s a lot to love about the 3DS XL, and very little to hate. For just $200 it’s a very solid buy that will land you many many hours of fun no matter what kind of gamer you are, but the handheld is especially great for fans of JRPGs. The message from Nintendo is abundantly clear: despite what people say, smartphone gaming still can’t even come close to replacing a proper handheld gaming system. Put down the Candy Crush, folks–there’s something infinitely better out there.