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.