The Nintendo 3DS
At the end of March, I picked up a Nintendo 3DS. I wasn’t initially sure whether to get one up at launch, but in the end I went for it. This post is an attempt to come to some conclusion regarding how I feel about the device, and why I bought one.
The 3DS keeps the same form-factor as the original DS which shipped back in 2005, although it’s closer in shape and size to the DS Lite which followed in mid-2006. The DS Lite has been my favourite portable console since the day I got one, and I think it’s too early at this point to tell whether the 3DS will take its crown.
The console itself has a pretty solid feel and I like the finish on it. I picked up the ‘Cosmos Black’ model, which is ever-so-slightly metallic and has a gradual black-to-grey gradient. The weight and size of it are just fine to me; I don’t notice a difference between it and my DS Lite. However, I can’t help but feel that in general the 3DS feels a little rough around the edges (not literally; that paint job is silky-smooth) and to me looks a bit like prototype hardware. It has three different coloured body sections, several different textures, numerous joins and seams, six small holes dotted across the device (four of which might be for microphones, but they look messy), a large black block for the IR port (infra-red? Really? In 2011?), three hardware sliders (although one is a switch that just looks like a slider), and four indicator lights (one of which just illuminates the word ‘3D’ constantly, for no apparent reason, even when 3D is turned off). In short, it feels unrefined. I also think the dual cameras on the lid look ugly, but I have no suggestions for how they could’ve better hidden them.
Add to this the seemingly arbitrary repositioning (from their previous locations on the DS Lite) of key controls: the power on / off button, volume slider, and stylus are all in entirely different places which is jarring when you first switch over from using a DS Lite. I’m sure there are design constraints due to the layout of the internals which meant things had to be placed like this, but in particular the new stylus position is just plain bad. It sits at the back of the device next to the game cartridge, so it’s very hard to locate and remove without looking. On the DS Lite, the stylus just slotted into the side and was really easy to get to.
The battery life is also not good. Most quotes seem to be between 2.5 and 5 hours, with a ~3 hour charge time. Nintendo provide a nice charging cradle, however, which makes it super easy to charge the 3DS. You just drop it in and off it goes. No doubt this is partially due to the 3D screen technology, the fact there are two screens to illuminate, and the wifi radio, but the battery life is rather disappointing when we have tiny devices like the iPhone 4 whose batteries last forever (even when playing games). It’s already affected me a few times, where I’ve taken out the DS to play on (having left it ‘asleep’ and with charge left) only to find it totally drained. I hope Nintendo can improve on this in the future.
I feel at this point like I’m being overly harsh. The 3DS does have some nice hardware additions and improvements over the previous version, which it would be remiss of me not to mention.
- There’s an SD card slot built in for storing images, music, and game data, and the console actually comes supplied with a 2GB card (not bad at all, when most consumer electronics devices that use SD cards come with totally useless ones).
- The stylus is metal and extendable. It feels much nicer than the old plastic one.
- The 3DS is the first of Nintendo’s portable consoles to come with with an analogue control stick, and it’s fantastic. It’s actually more of a pad than a stick, and it slides around as you push it, rather than tilting. It’s compact and feels great to use.
- The screens have had a resolution boost, but in my opinion not enough. I think my main criticism of the old DS was simply how terribly low resolution the screens were - text and graphics just didn’t look at all crisp and the whole thing felt very dated1. Perhaps I’m just spoilt by the incredible screen of the iPhone 4, but the 3DS still feels blocky and behind the curve. It’s likely that the somewhat low resolution is a tradeoff on account of the 3D display (which is in actual fact 800 pixels wide, but only 400 are visible to each eye). I think it’s probably acceptable that Nintendo sacrificed resolution for their new-fangled no-glasses 3D tech (if that’s indeed the tradeoff they had to make).
- Last but not least, the actual graphics hardware inside has gotten a significant boost. This manifests itself mainly through software, so I’ll discuss it more in that section of the review. Needless to say, though, 3D graphics (as in computer-generated 3D, not stereoscopic 3D) are streets ahead of the old DS.
The 3DS feels more like an entirely new device that just happens to share a form-factor with its predecessor than a simple hardware revision. Despite its shortcomings, I think the 3DS hardware feels much less like a toy than previous versions. However, the DS Lite felt much more refined. Perhaps this is simply a symptom of this being the first generation of 3DS. Knowing Nintendo, there’ll be numerous revisions of the hardware in the future.
That 3D thing
So, the 3D, then. I mean, that’s what this whole thing’s about right? It is called the 3DS after all.
I’d like to preface this section by laying out my opinion on some similar technologies, so you know where I’m coming from as I discuss the 3D aspect of the 3DS.
- I don’t like 3D films. In a minority of places I think it adds something - Pixar do it pretty well as it’s used subtley to give the film extra depth, and Avatar actually felt a bit more immersive in 3D. However, I really dislike having to wear what are essentially sunglasses over the top of my normal glasses, I really dislike 3D being used as a thinly veiled ploy to get cinema-goers to fork over even more money (don’t even get me started on cinema food!), and I can’t stand it when 3D is needlessly shoehorned into films where it has no place whatsoever. So, I’m not a big fan and I find it largely a gimmick intended to get people to go to the cinema more, pay more and pirate less. I also have absolutely no intention to buy a 3D TV.
- I’m not big on the whole motion-gaming thing. The Wii was fun and a novelty when it first came out. Wii Sports is still pretty fun, and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess actually used it quite effectively for controlling ranged weapons. Other than those, I can’t really think of a single Wii game I own where the motion controls really add something. Many are downright terrible (Red Steel and Goldeneye being just two examples), and my favourite Wii games tend to be those that use little to no motion control at all. What’s wrong with buttons?
Because I really dislike cinema-3D, you’d perhaps expect me to dislike the 3DS’s 3D, and write off as a gimmick too. Only, I don’t. I like it.
First up, it’s just plain impressive. The adverts are right when they say you’ve got to see it to believe it, and you’ve never seen anything like it. Everyone I’ve shown the 3DS to (and people I’ve spoken to who have otherwise seen one themselves) have that ‘wow’ moment. It’s a bizarre feeling when you look at this little screen with your naked eye and see a scene that appears to stretch away into the distance. It’s just… cool. In some ways the screen looks like a little diorama that you’re peering into, and displays an impressive amount of depth.
I don’t like 3D films because it’s is often used where it doesn’t belong. Pixar films use it well and appropriately, and perhaps in some ways it feels like a better fit because the films are already sort-of-3D anyway. I think this may be one reason I like it on the 3DS though: the majority of games are already 3D. They’re already computer generated and artificial and 3D is just an extra visual filter to try and add an extra level of realism.
The tech is obviously still very early on, but I think it shows a lot of promise. The effect is achieved by the screen having a doubled horizontal resolution in conjunction with a ‘parallax barrier’, which blocks out particular pixels. In short, you can see a slightly different image from each eye which, when combined, form a 3D image. There’s no need for special glasses and you don’t need to go cross-eyed. It just works. This diagram roughly shows how the 3D screen works if you can’t quite visualise it.
The main downside seems to be that there’s a pretty limited viewing angle. If you’re just a few degrees outside of the optimum area where your eyes see the right images, you start to get a double image or a dimmed screen. In reality though, it doesn’t seem too difficult to keep yourself in that sweet spot - although I definitely see some occasional ghosting.
The other downside, of course, is that some people can’t see it (for example if they only have vision in one eye, or have a bad astigmatism). Fortunately, the 3DS features a ‘3D slider’ which lets you increase or lessen the 3D depth, or turn it off altogether. This is a big help if you want to play socially (for instance, Hannah and I have played through the Professor Layton games together in the past, and that just wouldn’t be possible with 3D on). I’ve read a number of reports of people leaving it turned off all the time, but for me it’s a big draw of the console and I enjoy how it looks.
The 3D is really going to prove itself as more games come out. At present, there’s a very limited range of launch titles, and I only own one of them: Ridge Racer 3D. I think it was a good first choice, however, as the tracks and cars feel solid, the 3D really draws you in to the first-person viewpoint, and there’s a good mix of distances to show off the effect. I can only imagine how awesome some of the upcoming titles are going to be. In particular, I really hope Super Mario 3DS introduces some new and interesting gameplay elements based on depth (although there are rumours that it won’t, so that people who can’t see the effect aren’t left out). Even if it doesn’t, it should make jumping between platforms a lot easier.
In summary, I really like the 3D effect. I think it’s clever, it’s something new, it’s innovative, and to me it doesn’t feel like it’s a gimmick (although I’ll be the first to own up if I’m proved wrong at a later date). You can certainly get by without it, and certainly the 3DS has enough of a hardware / graphical boost (and great titles coming in the future) it to warrant the upgrade without it, but I don’t see why you’d want to.
The 3DS’s menu system feels much improved over the DS Lite. In some ways it’s similar to the Wii’s channel system, but overall is bit more modern and refined. There are, however, a few places where it does still feel somewhat outdated. For example:
- You can only store settings for 3 network connections, when other modern mobile devices let you store as many as you want.
- You can now ‘suspend’ a game and access the main system menu. The only problem with this is that if you want to access anything via the menu, such as system settings, you lose the suspended state of the game. What, then, is the point of ‘suspending’ it in the first place?
- The system software is still very modal. You can do one thing at a time, and one thing only. Want to check for a software update? You have to sit there watching a progress bar, and you can’t do anything else until it completes.
I don’t really want to spend too much longer on the software, as this review is already gargantuan and I’m not sure how much of value I can add. The system software does its job, but I wouldn’t say it’s anything special. There are a number of features missing (a web browser and downloadable software / games are the main ones), but these are due to launch in the next few months. It’s yet another example of the system feeling rushed to market, though.
There’s not yet much to discuss regarding games. The 3DS’s launch titles were largely not worth bothering with and were one of the big reasons I wasn’t sure whether to buy the system on launch. Since owning it, I’ve played Ridge Racer 3D (which I got with the console) and Rayman 3D (which I rented). Ridge Racer is pretty good fun and shows off the 3D well, but is just a fairly generic racer. Rayman 3D is a lazy port of a 12 year old game which was fun when first released but feels tired today.
I really bought the 3DS based on the promise of what’s to come. There are a number of exciting titles due out this year: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Star Fox 3D, a new Mario title, a new Mariokart title and a new Metal Gear Solid title among others. I really hope they can live up to my expectations. Ocarina of Time and Star Fox are both remakes (hey, this is Nintendo after all), but the originals were great, so I can’t wait. Mariokart DS still remains the best in the series, so there’s a lot of potential in a new DS title. And any new 3D Mario game instantly has my attention.
The 3D brings something new to the table. I feel it’s currently let down by rushed first generation hardware, rushed and incomplete system software, and a poor lineup of games. However, I bought into it because of the promise of how it may evolve over the coming months. In June we’ll have Ocarina of Time which may well justify the purchase all by itself. The original DS was host to some great games, and some truly original concepts and as a Nintendo fan, I hope that upcoming titles deliver on their promise. The 3DS has a lot of potential, but if I’m completely honest I currently feel some amount of buyer’s remorse as the 3DS sits on a shelf gathering dust.
Your move, Nintendo.