Nintendo 3DS Review

The Nintendo 3DS handheld arrived in stores around the rest of the world outside of Japan. At higher price than any of its predecessors, our review takes a long look at what you get for your money.


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.

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.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    March 31, 2011 9:30 AM

    Comment on Nintendo 3DS Review, by Garnett Lee.

    • reply
      March 31, 2011 9:43 AM

      SUMMARY: Shacknews gets all up in the Nintendo 3DS and gives you our impressions of the final hardware.

      • reply
        March 31, 2011 1:07 PM

        final hardware until the 3DS Lite am I right?

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        March 31, 2011 2:50 PM

        cute, garnett makes you do his summaries to show you who is boss

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      March 31, 2011 9:57 AM

      i'll wait for a 3DS SP / XL / i

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      March 31, 2011 10:19 AM

      great review, thanks

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      March 31, 2011 11:16 AM

      how much was Gamestop giving for trade value on a DSiXL?

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        March 31, 2011 12:45 PM

        Here in Canada they have a promo for a $100 credit towards a 3DS.

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          March 31, 2011 12:57 PM

          Same down here.

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            March 31, 2011 2:35 PM

            only $50 for ds lite :/ Yea, I don't think I'll be getting a 3DS for awhile.

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          March 31, 2011 2:50 PM

          125 bucks actually till april 3rd. i'm pondering it

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        March 31, 2011 1:40 PM

        If you don't have another version of the DS Lite/DSi I'd keep that DSiXL if you ever want to play non 3DS games.

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          March 31, 2011 1:49 PM

          I have lots of DSes :( I want to get rid of some.

          My son wants a 3DS but he just got an XL for his birthday in Dec.

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      March 31, 2011 11:55 AM

      I see you didn't mention the camera. I find the 3D camera an interesting feature, but the super low resolution really kills it for me. If it doesn't even look good on the tiny screen, why bother?

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        March 31, 2011 1:23 PM

        Make sure to adjust it if you're indoors - turning on the setting for low light makes a huge difference in quality.

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      March 31, 2011 11:59 AM

      I bought one and I'm definitely enjoying it, although I'll probably eBay it when the first hardware revision comes out and switch to that. Luckily Nintendo systems seem to hold their value pretty well.

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      March 31, 2011 12:00 PM

      Wow. Not quite the review I was expecting here. I love my 3DS and (almost) everything about it. The picky screen alignment is really the only thing that stands out to me as a huge flaw, and even that isn't THAT bad for most game. I have no problem playing Face Raiders in full 3D with little to no image distortions/doubles. For Mii sharing, I imagine you'll be able to upload the QR code as soon as the internet features are enabled in May (eShop, web browser, etc.). I love the look of the 3DS. It may not be a sleek thing, but it doesn't look unfinished at all. Almost all video game hardware does this. Start with a somewhat bulky device and slim and refine the looks down the road. I believe the 3DS is worth every penny, especially when some of the other games release and when the internet features are enabled in May.

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      March 31, 2011 12:21 PM

      Consumer electronics device of 2011 as far as I'm concerned. Hard to tell if 3d is a gimmick although I don't think it is. I've switched back and forth between 2d and 3d and 3d just looks more attractive for the menus and whatnot. It has a certain hard to explain quality about it. I believe in the future all consumer electronic devices will have 3d displays.

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      March 31, 2011 12:38 PM

      just played with it for some hours and all i can say that i fully agree to this review. i stick to my ds for now - it is slightly too expensive.

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      March 31, 2011 1:21 PM

      Believe it or not, I actually prefer the way some DS games look on the 3DS. I've been playing Dragon Warrior 6, and the game just seems harsher on the DS.

      While there is notable blur, it's done well enough that it's hardly a major negative to me - When the DS came out I kept my GBA SP for GBA games, but I see no reason to keep my DS around with the 3DS - It's being donated to my little nephew.

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        March 31, 2011 1:23 PM

        If a DS game is in 3d (you know. rendered with polygons), does the 3DS apply the 3d effect to it? I am guessing not, but it would be cool if it did.

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          March 31, 2011 1:35 PM

          No, they run exactly as DS games, with the exception of optional screen scaling.

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      March 31, 2011 2:02 PM

      Garnett, I'm really surprised you didn't mention the total lack of a DSi/3DSi store at launch. I was soooo excited about that since I was upgrading from a DS fat

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        March 31, 2011 2:07 PM

        That said, Agrona was nice enough to explain that it's delayed because it's going to be TOTES AWESOME

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          March 31, 2011 3:51 PM

          The framework is there, and I'm excited for it. More than anything, I'm excited for an FPS with 3D. Specifically, I am pleading with id to get Quake or Doom on this with 3D support.

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          March 31, 2011 10:01 PM

          lol, I wouldn't go that far. I'm not working on it, just optimistic.

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        March 31, 2011 3:04 PM

        Any idea when the GBC/GBA game store will be available...I want to get Link's Awakening DX...since I only played it in monochrome on my GB original and never got around to buying DX...and I think that would be the ideal way to revisit that game!

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          March 31, 2011 3:17 PM

          Most of that stuff is coming online in May, but Nintendo hasn't said what will be available for it when it launches.

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      March 31, 2011 3:01 PM

      I bought one of these and my brother, who isn't a fan of portable devices (he inherited my first-gen DS because I bought the DS Lite), tried it...and he decided that he wants one now.

      I'm really liking it...I'm sure the iteration that improves upon it will be better...and I'll probably buy that one as well...I'm a sucker for cool portable gaming devices (there's a reason I own both a first gen GP2X and a GP2X Wiz, a GBA Lite, a DS Lite, and a PSP (my brother inherited my first gen PSP when I bought the second gen silver one). I'll almost certainly be getting an NGP on launch day as well.

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        March 31, 2011 3:16 PM

        Yeah, I'm sure we'll get a better one in a couple years, but I knew that going in.

        Given Sharp's recent announcement of intelligent 3D filters, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the next version has a "smart" sweet spot for the 3D that tracks your eyes and repositions it based on a front-facing camera. That alone would be worth the upgrade in time.

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      March 31, 2011 3:18 PM

      I have to agree with those that believe this is the consumer electronics device of the year. Love my 3DS, and I've find funny how after the 3DS came out everyone was in love, and now all of a sudden there are people freaking out about the tiny features.

      Only flaw I see is the fact that we have to wait till May to get features that should of been included. I highly recommend the 3DS for any DS fan. Pretty much everything on the system is a game hidden within a game, and it has that Nintendo spark to it.

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      March 31, 2011 4:13 PM

      It seems like the attraction of the 3D has become secondary, while a seemingly secondary attraction of the Mii/coin system has become a more attractive feature.

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        March 31, 2011 4:18 PM

        can u explain the mii/coin system?

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          March 31, 2011 4:34 PM

          You close the system.. take a walk, along they way (depending on where you live) you can connect to other 3DS's via Street Pass, exchanging information and little pieces of mini games, including Mii quest and a Mii game.

          Along the way you also earn coins as you walk. The coins can be used currently to buy AR games after you unlock that feature and to exchange them for Street Fighter currency for things in that game.

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            March 31, 2011 10:03 PM

            Any game can do this (for example, Street Fighter has a pretty cool System where you get trophies which battle other players when you pass them), the Mii Quest and the Puzzle thing are just Nintendo's example of using the tech (although they're pretty cool games).

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            April 1, 2011 10:58 AM

            sucks for people living in north dakota

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          March 31, 2011 4:34 PM

          oh my god, do you not know how to spell 'you'?

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      March 31, 2011 7:36 PM

      Wow, I'm surprised by your 3DS reviews, the first impressions was negative and it kind of stayed in "meh" territory throughout.

      I disagree with your assessment that a hardware review is hard because you have to take the games into consideration. I've always felt that hardware reviews are more about what was delivered and what the potential can possibly be because of it and less about what launch games they were able to release on the first day.

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        March 31, 2011 8:07 PM

        If there was a "one console/handheld" situation like there is for Blu-ray or DVD players, then hardware reviews would be easier.

        However the 3DS is a gaming device, and one that uses proprietary format (excluding backwards compatibility). This early on in the release, its too much to ask for if you want to judge by potential.

        What's the point in buying a new gaming platform if there isn't any games (or variety) to go with it? Are you buying it so that you can wait for more titles to come, or buying it for the sake of it?

        At least that's my take on this, which seems similar to PS3 launch reception to me where there wasn't really much beyond Resistance and Motostorm, but had to wait longer for VF5 and MGS4.

        Do you have one yourself?

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        March 31, 2011 8:25 PM

        hey if you are from a PR firm, you probably should take a less conspicuous name.

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      March 31, 2011 8:16 PM

      I actually agree with the review, especially when you consider what else you can buy with the money.

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      March 31, 2011 10:14 PM

      Money blah blah, it's a great follow up tot he DS. WHEN you former Ds owners get one you'll love it. granted, there's no rush.

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      April 1, 2011 2:59 AM

      Walked into best buy the other night they had it on display with I guess pilotwings? Anyways the 3d was shut off, so I turned it on and I quickly realized why it was shut off... It drove my eyes crazy trying to see it.. I just figured Im too old for this.. They had plenty of them on the shelves too

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      April 1, 2011 6:36 AM

      had a brief look at the 3d effect on somebody else's and i wasn't impressed. The effect didnt hold together very well and i felt like i was forcing myself to see it, rather than it just showing it to me.

      after getting tired of the extra effort involved in watching 3d films, i don't think i will be picking up the 3ds any time soon.

      Im still hoping for great things from ngp

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      April 1, 2011 6:43 AM

      I almost picked one up yesterday, but when I looked at the games I couldn't justify buying one right now. StreetFighter is good but I'm not a huge fan of fighting games, and PilotWings looked good but honestly I'm not paying $250 to play PilotWings, and a sub par sequel at that.

      Apparently Ocarina is coming in June and Star Fox in May so once those releases become official I'll make the jump. For now if I want immersive 3D I'll play Crysis 2 on my 55" 3D Panasonic plasma. Plus the 3D effect isn't that great, after having a 3D TV for almost a year, it's pretty lame to go to that. Sure it's on the go, but the sweet spot is too small.

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      April 1, 2011 3:11 PM

      I'm looking forward to Capcom support for 3DS. Hail to that Street Fighter... Also, does anybody know when Netflix goes live for it?

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      April 2, 2011 5:30 AM

      The worst part about the 3DS is the battery life. Also the edges on one side of the clamshell basically etch a line into a screen on the other side.

      It's really like nobody even thought about the overall design of the hardware.

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      April 2, 2011 7:08 AM

      My older brother bought it. I played it and top screen 3D hurted my eyes on Street Fighter 3DS!