RANDOM REVIEW: Nintendo 3DS

3DS, charge cradle and AC adapter
The Hardware

UPDATE: The system update I mention at the end of this review has dropped, an update can be read here.

I first saw the Nintendo 3DS at last year’s E3. I had to wait an hour and a half in line with a bunch of other attendees in order to do so, but it was totally worth it.  The 3DS was my first experience with what could be called “modern” 3D, meaning something beyond the old red-and-blue glasses.  I thought it was pretty cool and looked forward to getting one at launch.  Not even a year has passed since then, and I now have a 3DS in my hands.  Was it worth the wait and the cash?

HARDWARE

The 3DS is just a little bit larger than a DSi, though not quite as large as the original ‘fat’ DS.  I opted for the Aqua Blue model instead of the Cosmo Black, and despite its glossy finish, the 3DS isn’t the fingerprint magnet that the DS Lite was.

The 3DS’ controls have been rearranged just a bit compared to the DSi.  Some things have been improved, and others, not so much.  The Power button is now on the right side of the screen where the Start and Select buttons were on the DSi.  I discovered that pretty early on when I went to pause a DS game and ended up shutting off the system instead.  D’oh!

The new Circle Pad control sitting above the familiar D-pad is a nice addition and feels good to use.  When playing DS games you have the option of using either the Circle Pad or the D-Pad which is also a plus.  Another welcome addition is the Wireless slider on the right side of the unit.  Previously, turning on or off the WiFi meant going to the Home screen and then to the Settings screen which was pretty annoying.  Holding up the slider turns on and off the DSi’s wireless, and a handy LED just above the switch lets you know if it’s on or off.  On the downside, the DSi’s volume buttons have been replaced with a slider.

The 3D screen at the top of the unit is slightly larger than the DSi’s screen, and it appears to be slightly more rectangular too.  To its right is the 3D slider which allows the 3D effect to be adjusted or even turned off entirely.  There are three cameras: two facing outward capable of taking 3D pictures, and one facing the player.  An LED on the top-right corner serves as a notification indicator.

Talking about the ‘guts’ of the 3DS, it has a built in motion sensor and gyro sensor, and a custom CPU from Nintendo which makes it capable of producing much better graphics than the DS, as evidenced by launch titles Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition and Ridge Racer.

When in sleep mode, the 3DS can also act as a pedometer, and every 100 steps earns a Play Coin that can be used to purchase items in some games.

The extra horsepower and 3D come at a cost: the battery life of the 3DS clocks in about 3-4 hours; not even enough for a long flight.  Third-party extenders and replacement battery packs are available, but folks on the go may want to invest in a car charger.  Another bad thing that has crept onto the 3DS are load times, it is not unusual to now wait just under 10 seconds for a game to start, and even the internal software takes a little while to get going.

BUILT IN SOFTWARE

The 3DS comes with quite a few built-in games and apps, some which have been carried over from the DSi.  The Home screen has been upgraded from the DSi’s version. Across the top of the screen is row of buttons for adjusting brightness, arranging icons, Game Notes, Friend List, Notifications and the internet browser. In the middle of the screen are the icons for games and apps, and buttons appear across the bottom of the screen that change depending on what is selected.

It bears mentioning that as of this writing, not all of the software is available: the Internet Browser and System Transfer (which allows users to move stuff over from a DSi) should be available soon, as well as the eShop, which will allow the purchase of games and apps, including Netflix and a video service from Nintendo.

The carryovers from the DSi are the Camera and Sound apps.  The Camera app adds the ability to take 3D pictures and increases the functionality of the camera, such as a timer and manual controls, but Facebook integration and some of the funny lenses that were on the DSi’s Camera app are gone.  The Sound app is fairly untouched; the new ability to play MP3s is a welcome addition as is the ability to create playlists.

Miis have found their way onto the 3DS, which includes its own version of the Mii Maker.  It’s the same one on the Wii, and Wii owners can even move their Miis back and forth between the two systems.  So far, Miis are only used in the Streetpass Mii Plaza app and Friends list.

Streetpass is a new function where you can share data with other 3DS users wirelessly.  Streetpass is activated if the system’s wireless radio on while it is in sleep mode.  Game data like Mii characters, high scores, and custom characters is be exchanged with other 3DS owners you pass by that also have Streetpass on. The user control what data is exchanged, and data can be exchanged for multiple games at once.  You’ll either find that really cool or really creepy.

Streetpass is a neat idea that is a bit ahead of itself right now, but that’s mainly because of the limited number of systems that are currently ‘in the wild.’  The Streetpass Mii Plaza app allows you to look at Miis you have picked up and you can even use them to play a silly little game called “Find Mii” and collect pieces of 3D pictures in “Puzzle Swap.”

Rounding out the 3DS built-in software are two augmented reality (AR) games: Face Raiders has you spinning around using the 3DS to shoot at faces that you take with the camera.  It’s a quick dose of silly fun and does a good job of showcasing the system’s AR abilities.  AR Games are played with several cards that are included with the system, you place a card on a flat surface, point the 3DS at it, and the system then allows you to play some mini games.  The AR Games aren’t terribly compelling, but on a technical level they are impressive.

Like other systems, the 3DS also has a Friends list, though in the interest of Protecting The Children, Nintendo has kept their silly Friend Code system, which means instead of being “Randomizer9” I am “0044-2809-7081.”  Whether this will hamper Nintendo’s online plans remains to be seen, but given the Big N’s indifference to online play thus far, I’m not holding my breath.  Right now the only things you can do with your 3DS Friends are see that they’re online, see what their favorite game is, and a short quote.  Yippee.  Nintendo promises that more functionality is on the way, so the jury is still out on that.

GAMES

Players have come to expect limited launch lineups whenever a new system drops, and the 3DS is no different.  There was not much to pick from at launch, and we’ve only seen a trickle of games released since then.  Street Fighter IV and Ridge Racer 3D are probably the best of the bunch so far, but it is comforting to see games come to the 3DS that weren’t possible or that just were not done well on its older sibling.

Sadly, it isn’t going to get much better anytime soon, especially since Nintendo is once again pulling the re-re-re-release bit again: Pilotwings, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Starfox 64 are some of the early titles coming from Nintendo.  Come on, y’all, how about something new already!  The system does play DS games, though, which gives it an impressive back catalog.

CONCLUSION

The Nintendo 3DS gets 3 out of 5 pairs of now-obsolete 3D glasses.  I want to give it a 4 out of 5, but the game lineup is just too weak and the battery life is way too low for a Nintendo handheld.

Should you drop the $249 to get one?  I think the answer for most folks is going to be a big fat ‘not yet.’  Its not that 3DS is a bad system, far from it.  It is a really neat gadget with glasses-free 3D, enough horsepower to pump out good graphics, and there are lots of other cool things to do with it besides play games.

Unfortunately, this is a game system and in terms of games, the 3DS is lacking as of this writing.  There are just not enough 3DS games to justify the purchase right now.  If you do not already own a DS, there are plenty of great DS games right now to keep busy until more 3DS games start coming down the pipe.  If you already own a DS system, you should probably stand pat and wait for the inevitable price drop.

ADDENDUM

The latest system update, which adds the eShop, Internet Browser and System Transfer functions, has just dropped, so I will be updating this review soon once I get a chance to check those items out, so check back for that.  Nintendo’s 2011 E3 press conference is also coming soon, so hopefully they’ll have more game announcements, but even then, anything they announce won’t be out for awhile, so the ‘lack of games’ point still stands.

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