Nintendo 3DS Review

At $250 the 3DS hits store shelves at a price well above its DS predecessors. The larger number may also cause many to take a moment and consider where to spend their money. Though dated and also soon to be replaced, the PSP can be had for about half as much and boasts a larger screen, arguably better looks, and doubles well as a portable movie player. An 8GB iPod Touch, no gaming slouch especially with the retina display, also comes in for less with a $229 price tag. An Xbox 360, albeit the one without a hard drive, costs only $199. For that matter, so does Nintendo's own Wii. I could basically buy either of them and a game for the price of a 3DS. The cost of ownership also goes up. Games for the 3DS, at least those available at launch, cost $40. All told, glasses-less 3D comes in as a pretty expensive luxury.

The retrofitted DS look

But when I opened the 3DS box I didn't see something that looked like a premium device that would usher in a 3D revolution. No, I saw what looked like my trusty DS after someone had been playing around with it at an electronics shop. From the outside the 3DS looks innocuous enough. Roughly similar to the DS in size and shape, angular edges make the 3DS appear more like an earlier model than the latest and greatest. And the slightly different coloring between the base and lid gives the whole thing an unmatched look.

Inside, it boasts functional improvements but keeps the cobbled together look. The 3D screen looks sophisticated against the piano black bezel of the lid, but for a new screen size I don't get why it isn't as large a viewable area as could be crammed into the lid. It also looks out of place compared to the rest of the machine. The lower section returns to the classic DS look, but with two nice additions. The new analog thumbstick works well, with a firm action, but looks like a prototype part in plain gray plastic. There's also a row of buttons across the bottom of the screen that introduces a handy "home" function for easily suspending games on the go. Those features may wow in-the-know gamers, but I don't expect to draw many oohs-and-ahhs just from pulling out the 3DS.

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Pint-size 3D scores big early

It is a first generation device, though, and the real show-stopper is supposed to be pulling it out and showing off 3D right there in the palm of my hand. And for the most part, that garners the requisite admiration. Hand the 3DS to a bystander and the into-the-screen 3D effect makes a strong first impression with either the included games or the 3D camera functionality.

Play it for much longer and the practicality of 3D, at least this 3D, comes into question. The way the 3DS screen splits an image into 3D reminds me of lenticular baseball trading cards. There's a fairly narrow sweet spot at which the images discretely go to each eye and the effect works well. Outside of that, the image shimmers, blurs, goes into double, and the 3D effect is lost.

For a portable system, the tight tolerance required to see the 3D correctly poses problems. Just sitting still, maintaining the right viewing angle while pounding away at the controls with any sort of intensity gets tricky. Start playing a game that uses the motion sensors for control and it becomes all but impossible to maintain a good experience. Short of some sort of goofy brace, I can't see how one would keep the 3DS in the right spot in front of their face while spinning around shooting things. And while musicians might get away with a hands-free harmonica rig, I'm not likely to do the same with the 3DS any time soon.

So long as I kept it in the right spot, though, watching the screen didn't seem to cause particularly great eye strain. What fatigue happened seemed to be more a function of the jarring effect when I'd get out of alignment for a moment, breaking the 3D. The slider to adjust the strength of the 3D effect proved indispensible to my enjoyment of playing the games. For each one I found that I needed to take a moment and dial in the amount of 3D that felt right. While the ability to make that tuning is great, not having a way to save that setting means I have to rediscover the right spot each time I play. I'm seriously considering cutting notches into the case next to the slider to make some sort gauge.

Friend codes get friendly

Ironically, 3D might not even be the best reason to go out and drop the $250 on a 3DS. Nintendo takes some welcome steps for connecting with friends and works in clever encouragements for being social with the 3DS. Yet, at the same time, glaring omissions remind me that Nintendo remains blissfully ignorant of modern connected social interaction.

For starters, with the 3DS Nintendo finally institutes a single friend code that works universally across the system. It's still a random set of numbers, but once exchanged that's that; you're connected with your friend for any games and can see when they're online and what they're up to.

But somehow that doesn't include sharing your Mii. It baffles me that on the friend cards I see my friends' Mii faces, but to get them on my machine I have to separately import their Mii. And, of course, that can't be done online. To share Miis I either have to swap in person, or convert the Mii into a QR code which can then be scanned for sharing. Oh, and to share that QR code I have to take the SD card out of the 3DS to be read on another device. There's no way to upload it directly from the 3DS.

Keep it handy

There is a much better chance I'll have my 3DS handy if I do bump into a friend now. Besides adding their Mii to my Plaza, passed Miis can be used for two mini-games. Puzzle Swap is just a picture tile puzzle where each visiting Mii may or may not have a square to help complete a 3D picture, nothing too exciting there. Find Mii, on the other hand, uses visiting Miis as the heroes in a simplistic role-playing game where they fight monsters to rescue your Mii which is being held captive in a castle.

It's a great idea, but one undone by yet another misstep. For some inexplicable reason, Miis can only take part in the games for a short period after having been shared. So while the whole point of Street Pass is to be able to passively have shared experiences on the 3DS, if I'm not quick to play the games right when the swap happens, I lose the opportunity to play.

Another incentive to keep the machine on me throughout the day comes from the play coins to be earned by walking around. Using the motion sensor as a pedometer, the 3DS tracks how many steps I take each day. For every 100, it gives me a coin. These coins can be spent in a number of ways. In Find Mii, an AI hero can be brought in to help the quest for 2 coins each. The coins are also used to purchase additional modes in the included AR Games. It's a simple economy, but very effective at getting me to pick up the 3DS and put it in my pocket.

Who needs games beyond the ones the come in the box?

Besides collecting Miis and earning coins, some of the most fun I've had with the 3DS so far has come with the two included games. Both use a combination of the camera, the 3D screen, and motion sensing to play augmented reality games. By holding the 3DS up and using the screen like a window to the world, I see what the cameras sees, with virtual elements of the game layered into the scene.

AR Games uses a target card to spawn a fantasy world on just about any flat surface. Its shooting gallery and marbles crossed with mini-golf games are great pick up and play fun and a terrific way to wow people with the system. Playing them isn't all that practical, though. The card has to stay in the camera's line of sight at all times. So, while moving around to shoot things, the scene breaks when it gets out of range. Worse yet, the camera is not very light sensitive making it easy to lose the card in just the shadow of my body as I move around to shoot things in the game. To really play the game a well-lit, unobstructed table is needed.

Face Raiders is a little more player-friendly. Pictures of friends faces, taken with the built-in camera, become the targets in this virtual shooting arcade. The real world then becomes the playing arena as the disembodied heads attack from every direction and must be shot down. I grabbed some co-workers faces and had a great time spinning around in my desk chair fending off waves of their assaults. But, the fast-pace action also makes this one of those games where the need to hold the 3DS in just the right spot for the 3D became a real pain.

Ask yourself, is it worth it?

That's how my relationship with the 3DS has gone. It's not quite the classic love-hate situation. I find myself more bewildered, wondering why the thing can't stop getting in its own way of me loving it. Every part of the machine that gets me excited seems to come with a catch. Even basic features I took for granted suffer this issue, like support for all my DS games. Yes, the 3DS runs them but the new size of the top screen means I either run them stretched to fill it, which makes everything blurry, or remember to hold down start and select while opening the game to run it at original resolution, which now looks extra small in the larger screen.

There's absolutely a spark for a fun device here, and I imagine the inevitable second generation will address a number of the issues. Until then, though, I'd be certain that I was willing to take the bad with the good before dropping $250 on a 3DS.