Ever since savvy manufacturers realised that gamers were prepared to pay top dollar for pieces of near-useless plastic that claim to improve their gaming experience, there's been a flood of largely pointless peripherals for home consoles. Right now, countless Wii Remote tennis racket attachments sit gathering dust in cupboards the world over, waiting forlornly for that dreaded day when they are unceremoniously recycled as landfill.
Traditionally speaking, these regrettable money-wasting exercises are largely confined to domestic hardware. Attempts to augment the functionality of portable consoles have proven largely unsuccessful in the past (remember the D-pad cross attachment that came with the Neo Geo Pocket Color port of Pac-Man? Didn't think so). The problem is that handheld platforms are all about convenience and mobility - nobody wants to strap extraneous chunks of plastic to their console if they can really help it, as additional bulk defeats the object of the device; these machines are supposed to be pocket-sized and effortlessly transportable.
Which is no doubt why the revelation that the Nintendo 3DS would be getting a secondary analogue slider pad via a bulky and downright ugly accessory caused hoots of derision from some sectors of the industry and rampant face-palming from others. Many hoped that it would prove to be an elaborate hoax, but the 3DS Circle Pad Pro is very much a reality - and we've put this controversial product through its paces to prove it.
"There's no easy way of putting this; the 3DS Circle Pad Pro is hideous. When strapped to the console itself it looks almost laughable and far more nightmarish than any cheap Wii Remote accessory you could mention."
Looks Only a Mother Could Love
There's no easy way of putting this; the 3DS Circle Pad Pro is hideous. When strapped to the console itself it looks almost laughable and far more nightmarish than any cheap Wii Remote accessory you could mention. Any notions of aesthetic symmetry are dashed completely, with the right-hand side of the device ballooning out awkwardly from the main body of the 3DS. Unless you own a black console, you'll also have to endure mismatched casing hues, as the Circle Pad Pro only comes in that colour.
Nintendo has decided against employing a complicated locking mechanism to fuse the 3DS to the Circle Pad Pro; instead, grip is offered by a series of rubber pads located around the edge of the gaping aperture into which the console is docked. This limpet-like construction means that many of the machine's controls and ports are obscured by plastic; it's impossible to switch game cards, remove the stylus or toggle the wireless connectivity switch. The volume slider is barely accessible, but thankfully you can still plug in headphones and charge up the machine using the standard 3DS wall-charger. Needless to say, utilising that natty desktop dock that was bundled with the console is now well and truly out of the question.
Connectivity and Battery Life
"Another eyesore is the long, thin block of plastic which juts up along the top of the Circle Pad Pro. Its purpose is vital, however - it provides the peripheral's sole means of communication with the 3DS, via infrared."
Another eyesore is the long, thin block of plastic which juts up in an unseemly fashion along the top of the Circle Pad Pro. Its purpose is vital, however - it provides the peripheral's sole means of communication with the 3DS, via an infrared connection. It's this element of the controller's design that necessitates the need for a single AAA battery, which resides in a slot directly beneath the console.
Reported to offer almost 500 hours of stamina - a claim we've sadly been unable to verfiy during our review period - it's something you hopefully won't have to change all that often. That's a definite bonus, as the battery compartment is secured with a tight metal lock which can only be opened using a coin or knife.
Despite boasting its own power source, the Circle Pad Pro sadly cannot be called upon to bolster the disappointing stamina of the 3DS' own internal battery. Although keeping the cost of this add-on as low as possible was obviously a prime concern for Nintendo, we can't help but feel that a trick has been missed here; a small rechargeable power cell inside the accessory would have granted additional hours of play time (and could have connected to the console via the metal charging plates on either side of the machine's 4.6V socket), drastically improving the 3DS' credentials as a mobile device.
Ergonomics and Control
Once the 3DS is in place and there's a compatible piece of software slotted snugly in the card slot, the initial feeling of repulsion towards the Circle Pad Pro slowly recedes. Games such as Resident Evil: Revelations are enriched almost beyond measure, and the increased bulk ironically solves one of the 3DS' biggest problems: its unwelcome habit of inducing hand cramp in anyone with paws larger than a small child's. It may come at the unfortunate expense of the machine's overall portability, but the Circle Pad Pro's ergonomically-shaped rear delivers an almost perfect gaming grip.
As well as adding that all-important second slider, the Circle Pad Pro introduces two all-new shoulder buttons (ZL and ZR) as well as a substitute R trigger (the one on the 3DS itself is almost impossible to make contact with when the accessory in place). The ZL and ZR buttons are digital inputs, yet they are shaped more like the analogue triggers found on the PS3 and 360 pads. Despite the lack of proportional control, they're comfortable to use and easy to hit; the only genuine complaint you could level is that they feel a little on the spongy side.
Compatibility with the Circle Pad Pro is achieved entirely through software - there's no way of enabling the add-on in the 3DS Home menu. Resident Evil: Revelations - the game we used to test the controller during this review - pops up a helpful message prior to starting a new game which asks if you wish to make use of the Circle Pad Pro.
From that point onwards it will always check the peripheral is present before commencing a game, and if you extract your console from the accessory during play, a message flashes up stating that the infrared link has been severed and that the default control method has been reverted to. Reconnection is achieved manually by dropping back into the game's options menu. It's a clunky system and we hope that future games will simply auto-connect, but it's unlikely to bother most people unduly.
3DS Circle Pad Pro: The Verdict
"Despite being a ludicrous spectacle, it's near-indispensable for any 3DS owner who wants to get the most out of what we suspect will be an ever-increasing range of must-have titles."
You need only play Resident Evil: Revelations with (and for comparison's sake, without) the Circle Pad Pro to appreciate just how essential that second analogue slider is. In that regard, this is a purchase that every 3DS owner is advised to make; games such as Kid Icarus: Uprising and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater 3D are confirmed as supporting the controller, and no doubt many other titles will follow suit in the future.
Yet providing such a resounding recommendation for this device leaves a bitter taste in the mouth; simply put, the Circle Pad Pro is a totally unnecessary afterthought that reduces the console's aesthetic appeal and drastically impacts its portability. It feels like a stop-gap product, too and only a fool would bet against Nintendo shortly announcing a revised 3DS console that incorporates the myriad interface improvements witnessed here.
When that inevitable day comes, many Nintendo followers will look upon the Circle Pad Pro as a totally avoidable misstep, a retro-fit that ranks as the most embarrassing episode in firm's history since the ill-fated Virtual Boy. Had Nintendo got the design right for the 3DS in the first instance then we would have been spared such a ludicrous spectacle, but for now, it's near-indispensable for any 3DS owner who wants to get the most out of what we suspect will be an ever-increasing range of must-have titles. The Circle Pad Pro is a hack-job that has no right to exist, but for the time being at least, we're thankful that it does.