Version tested: 3DS
The 3DS is the latest, and possibly the most outlandish, handheld games console from Nintendo, a company which has dominated handheld gaming since the Game Boy launched almost 22 years ago.
There was much excitement at the first demonstrations of its remarkable screen, which allows players to view games in stereoscopic 3D without the need for glasses. But a seemingly lacklustre line-up of launch software and steep pricing of both the 3DS and its games have recently deflated the hype. It looked as if Nintendo was just adding gimmicky features – and a great deal of cost – to the DS without responding to the radical changes in mobile gaming brought about by the smartphone explosion.
In truth, both the 3D screen and Nintendo's conservative strategy have distracted us from one simple fact: for the first time in over six years, we have an all-new generation of DS. 3DS is the successor to the world's most popular gaming device. And that makes it a pretty big deal.
Here we bring you an exhaustive overview – and our verdict on – the final, boxed, European version of the 3DS hardware, which launches across Europe on March 25th. We've also factored in our initial experiences with an imported Japanese 3DS. But what about the important part?
3DS software is arriving in volume now. We'll be bringing you more reviews of European launch games in the coming days, and updating this article with links.
- Pilotwings Resort - 8/10 - review
- Ridge Racer 3D - 8/10 - review
- Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition - 8/10 - review
- Nintendogs + Cats - 7/10 - review
- Samurai Warriors: Chronicles - 5/10 - review
- Pro Evolution Soccer 3D - 7/10 - review
- Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars - 7/10 - review
- Super Monkey Ball 3D - 4/10 - review
You can also check out our previews of Kid Icarus, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Dead or Alive, Steel Diver, Asphalt 3D, Combat of Giants and Game Boy Classics Super Mario Land and Zelda: Link's Awakening, which will be made available on the 3DS' own Virtual Console.
Street Fighter is the stand-out launch game, while Pilotwings and Nintendogs offer minor Nintendo favourites with typical polish and Ridge Racer 3D delivers a solid version of a classic game. Whilst it's not the most exciting launch line-up we've ever seen, there's a surprising breadth of quality on offer here.
Even if you're not totally convinced by the games, however, 3DS comes with plenty to play with.
What You Get
3DS is supplied with a power adapter – exactly the same as that used by the DSi and DSi XL – a charging cradle, a thick stack of (excellent) manuals in several languages and a set of 'AR Cards' for playing around with the machine's augmented reality mini-games. It also has a 2GB Toshiba SD card already sitting in its SD card slot.
The charging stand is a small, lightweight and cheap chunk of black plastic. Plug your charger into the back of the stand and it will top up the 3DS' battery via loosely sprung contacts whenever you drop the console into the cradle. A flap at the back allows access to the stylus and card slot without unseating the device.
There's a fair amount of software pre-installed. Camera and Sound utilities are joined by a Mii Maker for creating Nintendo's avatars; the StreetPass Mii Plaza, where you collect other 3DS owners' Miis and participate in simple mini-games; a suite of AR Games; a shooting game called Face Raiders that shows off the machine's cameras and gyroscopic motion control, as well as its 3D visuals; and utilities such as an Activity Log, Download Play and System Settings.
What you don't currently get is a web browser, the Nintendo shop, or the system transfer utility that will allow you to transfer DSiWare games and save data across to the 3DS (if you download a similar utility for your DSi). These will apparently be added in a system update soon.
3DS has almost exactly the same dimensions as a DSi, the sleekest if not quite the smallest version of the clamshell handheld to date. It's a little thicker and very slightly heavier, but it's still an extremely pleasing form factor which balances compactness and comfort well.
There's been a radical change in styling, though. The DSi, with its clean lines and velvety matte finish, was minimalist and discreet. The 3DS is futuristic, flashy and slightly fussy, with a bevelled lid that bulges outward and a three-tone finish: plain gloss underneath, a deeper, sparkly gloss around the lower screen, and an even darker and deeper gloss on the lid that's almost mirrored.
In the vivid, turquoise-tinted Aqua Blue, it's attention-grabbing to the point of being loud and tacky; the black edition (actually more of a charcoal grey) is more subtle. It picks up fingerprints easily, but they're equally easily wiped away – and although it looks like it will scratch if you so much as look at it askance, we've yet to damage ours, despite chucking it unprotected in a bag.
You're not going to mistake 3DS for an Apple or Sony product, and it frankly doesn't have the sleek sex appeal most tech gadgets costing over £200 strive for. But it doesn't feel cheap, either. As you would expect from Nintendo, the materials and build quality are superb, and every action, from the buttons to the snap of the lid, has a pleasing solidity to it. It's clearly a tough little machine that will be easy to develop an affection for.
Many of the controls are familiar from previous versions of DS. The stand-out, of course, is the new "circle pad", a loosely-sprung analogue slider with a concave top and long travel that sits under your thumb. It's very smooth and precise, and even for menu control it's hard to imagine using the now-awkwardly placed and rather redundant d-pad. There's also a new stylus, a metal telescopic number similar to the after-market ones available for current DS models. It now lives in the back of the machine, next to the game card slot. Longer and slimmer than the DSi's stylus, it's great to use.
Game cards are identical to the DS' slim plastic cartridges, apart from a protruding notch (presumably so you can feel the difference in your pocket). We can confirm that the software is locked by region; inserting one of our Japanese 3DS games into our European machine produces no result at all – it's as if no card has been inserted. This remains a deeply disappointing decision for handheld devices which will be taking a lot of long-haul flights. (However,our European and Japanese 3DS consoles were able to swap data via StreetPass.)
The unit bristles with half a dozen bright, coloured LEDs indicating power and battery status, operation of the camera, wireless and 3D features and so on. Sound has been improved; the twin speakers don't offer much in the way of bass, naturally, but they're loud, bright and clear, totally free of distortion and capable of a quite eerily convincing "surround" effect.
The lower, touch-sensitive LCD screen is very similar to the DSi's, and with its slightly soft coating is still much better suited to stylus than finger input. The star of the show is of course the upper 3D screen, now in widescreen ratio and set into a black surround to highlight the depth effect. The inclusion of a slider to adjust the strength of the 3D is a typically Nintendo stroke of genius, allowing you to find a setting that's comfortable, turn 3D off easily as and when you prefer, and simply fiddle around with 3DS' marquee feature.
As for that feature, we urge you to try before you buy. Not everyone can see the 3D effect comfortably; on the other hand, some who struggle with 3D using glasses at the cinema are happy to discover that they perceive 3DS' effect just fine. If you wear spectacles, you might find that removing them improves or 'smooths out' the 3D effect, so bear that in mind. Also, it's not recommended for children below the age of six (you can adjust 3D access in the machine's parental settings).
You can only see 3D properly, without any ghosting or double vision, within a very narrow, absolutely head-on viewing angle. 3DS being a handheld, this isn't a great problem, but surprisingly fine movements of your head or the console in your hands can throw the image out of whack. After a while you find yourself adjusting for this unconsciously, but to begin with it can be quite frustrating and finicky.
Line it up right and the effect isn't startling, but it is deeply impressive – and "deep" is the word. Although items in the foreground seem to protrude from the screen a little, mostly the image appears to recede into the distance, and in games with a long perspective camera – racers, for example – it's very involving. Even the gentle layering in menus is lovely to behold. But 3DS handles those dramatic "out of the screen" moments much less well, the image fracturing easily in the extreme foreground.
Interface and Options
More so than any previous Nintendo – even DSi – 3DS comes loaded with quirky features. Most are quite disposable, but there's a thoughtfulness and playfulness behind them that make the machine both pleasant and fun to use.
Fire it up and the big, friendly text and calming sonic wallpaper will be instantly familiar to any Wii owner. You're whipped painlessly and quickly through a pointless "3D calibration process" and profile, internet and parental control settings before being asked to press Home.
This new button takes you instantly to the 3DS' Home menu at any point – even during gameplay, since whatever software is running is automatically suspended. (Although 3DS is backwards-compatible with all DS software, old DS games don't support this feature.) The Home menu is similar to the DSi and Wii front-ends, only much better – thanks to the suspension feature, if nothing else. It's all very chunky and colourful in a pleasingly Nintendo way, moving away from the wan neutrality of Wii and DSi.
Here you can browse and organise your software in either a DSi-style strip or iPhone-style grid on the touch screen, accompanied by 3D icons and dioramas above. You can also take notes with the stylus while viewing the paused game screens; check your friends list (at long last, Nintendo is offering proper friends management, where you can add friends to a permanent list using a code or a local connection, and view their online status); and view notifications from Nintendo, from your games and from StreetPass.
StreetPass allows sleeping consoles to exchange data – Mii avatars, say, or game-specifc data – as their users pass in the street. It can be toggled on or off on a per-game basis. Nintendo does love to picture its handheld users enjoying a healthy, active outdoor lifestyle, and another example of this is the cute pedometer which counts the number of steps you take with your 3DS while it's on. Walking earns Play Coins, which can be spent on in-game items in some of Nintendo's software.
Much of the software that comes with 3DS is designed to show off its kitchen-sink range of hardware features, and first of these is the stereoscopic 3D camera, with its two little lenses mounted on the outside of the lid.
Tapping a shoulder button will take you straight to the camera as well as taking pictures once it's fired up. It's not a high-resolution device and it doesn't cope with low light well – or anything less than a foot away from the lens. Taking and showing off 3D snaps is novel enough to get you past the poor image quality, for now.
There's a third, single "inner" camera lens located above the screen that you can use for 2D self-portraits, a wealth of silly photo effects to toy with, a good photo viewer with slideshow, a useful gyroscopic level meter, and for some reason, an animated budgie offering usage tips. The budgie returns with friends in the Sound program, which can be used to play music off the SD card as well record and tweak your own sounds. Pointlessly but charmingly, the budgies imitate anything you say when this program is open.
Mii Maker is a variation of the Wii's avatar creation suite that uses a photograph to define your features once you've selected a few basic parameters for your Mii. You'll want to tweak the result – it turns out that writing facial recognition software is not one of Nintendo's many talents – but it does speed the process along.
StreetPass Mii Plaza, meanwhile, is a diverting home for any Miis you collect from fellow 3DS owners on your travels. It's more interactive than its Wii equivalent; wandering Miis who visit your system will help you complete pictures in Puzzle Swap and can even be used as one-shot heroes to inch you through a basic dungeon crawl called StreetPass Quest. It's a trivial but somehow satisfying reward for harvesting Miis off passers-by.
There are two rather more substantial mini-games pre-loaded onto 3DS. AR Games allows you to play around with augmented reality using the supplied cards. By pointing the twin cameras at a small playing card on a flat surface, you can 'photograph' your Mii or Nintendo mascots standing on your desk, create 3D graffiti to move around the real world (animated cocks, then), or play three short score-attack games.
Shooting involves moving the 3DS (and yourself) around to find and shoot at targets in your room; AR Shot is a sort of virtual miniature golf that warps the real world into moving hillocks to punt a ball around; and Fishing allows you to reel salmon in from your duvet. They all end with a short but imaginative boss battle with a dragon. The novelty value is tremendous, although the combination of a 3D image with augmented reality proves to be a bit too much for both your brain (I had to turn 3D off to cope) and the 3DS (the frame rate frequently drops to single figures), while the games themselves won't keep you interested for more than a few minutes.
Face Raiders is probably the best thing preloaded onto 3DS. It's a completely deranged AR shooting gallery, in which flying heads bearing the faces of your nearest and dearest – or yourself, or whoever you can photograph off a magazine cover – appear to assault you in your own room. Using the 3DS' gyroscope to sense movement, rather than the unwieldy camera/AR card combo, you must move the 3DS around to trap them in your viewfinder and fell them with tennis balls, while the fabric of reality cracks and breaks free, revealing the void behind the physical world.
There are many such games available on iPhone 4, but none of them are made by Nintendo – still less the hilariously, dangerously surreal Nintendo that made WarioWare and dreamed up Tingle. Face Raiders is a riot, partly because you can shoot George Washington, William H Macy or Tom Bramwell repeatedly in the face and watch their features contort with rage (or race up and kiss the screen – ew!), and partly because its handful of levels are crammed with cunning twists and elegant, devious boss fights. Pro tip: play it on a swivelling office chair.
3D vision, two screens, three cameras, gyroscopes, StreetPass, Wi-fi – there's even an infra-red port on the back, as if anyone still used those for anything. All this comes at a cost, and that cost – apart from the obvious monetary one – is battery life.
In our test, a 3DS playing a game (Ridge Racer 3D, since you ask) with the screen brightness and 3D turned up to full and wireless turned on took almost exactly three hours to go from full to empty. That's less than its charge time of three and a half hours. Nintendo has at least included the wireless switch and a power-saving screen dimmer to help you manage your juice. On the plus side, snap 3DS shut at any point and it will keep going in standby seemingly indefinitely, even with StreetPass enabled.
As with DSi – only more so – 3DS has a quizzical, imaginative, entertaining but rather disposable feature set; it's very Japanese, very Nintendo. You're never going to use it as a media player and seldom as a browser or even a camera. You're going to laugh at Mii Plaza and AR Games and Face Raiders for a short while, and then move on.
It will be interesting to see if the StreetPass idea can take off now it's integrated at a system rather than game level. Nintendo has championed it for a while, and it has a lot of promise – in a way, the current fashion for "asynchronous" multiplayer gaming is just catching up with it. One suspects that it will in Japan but less so elsewhere, where population density and travel habits are so different.
On the other hand, 3DS does have Nintendo's most usable stab at an operating system to date – an area where the Kyoto company has lagged behind its rivals ever since gaming hardware went multi-purpose. In both hardware and software, 3DS is solidly and thoughtfully designed, right down to DS compatibility (games play very slightly bordered, but look great, and can be controlled with the circle pad as well as the d-pad).
And 3DS games themselves? It's rather early to say, and the launch line-up is arguably not the best barometer of the machine's capabilities. As with Wii and DS before it, 3DS uses misdirection and wizadry to side-step the technological arms race. Dial 3D down on most of the launch games and you could be playing a PSP title or an iPhone game from a year or two ago – although Nintendo's own software has a typically robust and vivid look about it. Squint, and you're looking at one of the better Wii games. Turn 3D back on and you really don't care that much.
Which brings us to 3DS' unique selling point. Is it gimmick or X-factor? Both, naturally.
The brightness of the unfiltered screen and the intimacy of the 3DS do make it a different experience to the one you'll have on a 3D TV or at the cinema. Holding the screen in your hands gives the world depicted an enchanting, miniature, toy-like quality. With no glasses, it's wonderfully immediate and fuss-free, but the tight viewing angle and movement of the 3DS itself makes it harder to maintain a solid image.
As those with 3D TVs are discovering, stereoscopic 3D is a subtle innovation when compared to, say, HD resolutions or 3D-accelerated graphics chips. It doesn't change the material quality of the image you're viewing at all, and it doesn't have any real potential to affect gameplay (not least because it can always be switched off). But it is fundamentally exciting to look at, and it possesses something all great videogames technology has done: magic.
In the serious world of productivity and multimedia and cutting-edge entertainment technology, gimmickry is a dirty world. For a toymaker – and that's what Nintendo still is – it's the difference between yesterday's plastic tat and tomorrow's must-have sensation.
With its 3D screen – and cameras, and StreetPass, and AR capabilities, and all the rest – 3DS is an almost irresistible toy. (Or perhaps it would be irresistible at two-thirds the price.) It's tactile and surprising and fun to use, and whilst it's not exactly pretty, its immaculate build quality ensures it feels great in the hands.
As a contemporary gaming platform, with its modest power boost and improved usability, 3DS does just enough to keep up – but only just. Next to the latest iPod Touch, say, or Sony's Next Generation Portable, it does look like yesterday's vision of the future.
So 3DS' ability to replicate the 150-million-strong triumph of its predecessor is far from guaranteed. But it's also worth remembering that Nintendo has never yet lost a bet by following a different vision to everyone else's – and many have lost betting against it.