January 12, 2012

Nintendo 3DS: Worth Buying?

The Nintendo 3DS: the point of a lot of discussion and controversy this last year. It had a rocky start and some thought it would never make it. The terrible launch lineup, no eShop, and $250 price made it a tough sell in early 2011. Then came word that this year would bring Zelda, Mario, Mario Kart, Star Fox and Kid Icarus along with the launch of the eShop. Unfortunately, two of those were remakes, two more wouldn't be out until the year's end, and Kid Icarus would be pushed to a release almost a year after the system's launch. The eShop didn't have much going for it early on either, with no original games and only Super Mario Land worth buying. No one expected what would happen next. The surprise $80 price cut was like cutting the weight off a balloon. Sales jumped 260% and by the end of the year and the system ended up selling over 4 million units in the US alone in 2011. Nintendo didn't stop there with the craziness. They threw in 20 free games for early adopters, and soon announced the circle pad pro which adds a second c-pad. It's been one crazy first year for the machine.

If you didn't pick one up at launch, after the price cut, or for the holidays, you may be asking yourself if it's worth getting considering the PSVita is right around the corner (though it's having similar launch troubles in Japan). Read on to (hopefully) reach a verdict.

The first thing I noticed about the 3DS was how sleek it looked. Nintendo nailed the high-end design with this one, especially when you compare it to the DS's launch model that looked like a big plastic toy. This thing is glossy. Oh so very glossy. Hell, you could use it as a mirror. It most certainly attracts dust and finger prints. The bottom of the system says "Nintendo 3DS", but the top lacks any sort of markings. I kind of miss the metallic Nintendo logo of the SP and DS.

That shiny top half of the system is home to two cameras and a very subtle gradient color to it, darkening the farther you get from the shoulders. It's also got a clear plastic "lip" that outlines the edge, making the system easy to open. The back right part of the hinge has a notifications light on it that glows green for streetpass notifications or blue for spotpass. The 3D depth slider on the right of the system can be accessed while it's closed, but I'm not sure why you'd need to do that.

Immediately apparent is the 3-tone color scheme. The bottom half of the 3DS is essentially to parts sandwiched together. The middle is a shade lighter than the lid and the bottom (and back) is the lightest shade. It's an interesting choice and I think it generally looks good, although the bottom third looks kind of strange on the red and blue units because of its almost pastel color. I have the black and it looks great in black.

Three-tone color.

Anyway, the middle has a volume slider on the left with a wifi switch and notification light on the right. The center middle has a power light, charge light, half of the headphone port (it's between thirds two and three), and half of a wrist strap hole. The strap goes in through the bottom and comes out the middle on either front corner. It's in a much better location than the original DS where it was in the back.

The bottom layer has a bunch of icons and text to identify the various indicator lights above as well as an SD card slot in the upper left. The back has a log going on with an IR port, game card slot, stylus slot, AV port, and several notches for accessories.

Opening the system up you'll find that the top half is colored black regardless of the rest of the unit's color. You'll also find the front facing camera, speakers, 3D depth slider and indicator light (to let you know if the game you're playing supports 3D), and the upper screen which is noticeably wider than the lower one. There is a significant amount of wobble with the top half of the system. It seems to have gotten either worse since I got it or more noticeable because I've been playing games with motion controls. I don't feel like it's going to fall off, though, but it can be a nuisance if you're moving the system around. If your unit has this issue, you won't even notice while you're holding it still playing in 3D. I got used to it on my SP and I can get used to it here. Still, I wish it had one of those immovable rock-solid hinges like the original DS.

The bottom has the touch screen with three buttons below it: select, home, and start. To the right is the c-pad and d-pad and two the left are the face and power buttons.

As far as basic design goes, the 3DS is not the most comfortable thing to play for prolonged periods of time. The ergonomics can be improved a lot. Playing a game that requires frequent use of the shoulder buttons can, quite literally, be a pain. Coming from a first model DS, which is significantly larger all around, the 3DS is too small for me. Being thinner and less deep, my fingers are usually bent in all sorts of crazy ways.

The d-pad being offset in an odd place puts your thumb in a weird position, but I guess it was really the only option. I was hoping it would be of the "softer" variety like on the DS Lite or Wii. Instead, it's back to the clicky feel of the SP and DS (Does the DSi have this, too? I've never used one.). It's not bad, but I prefer something with more... give.

Luckily, its replacement, the circle pad, is perfect. It sits in just the right place and has a great, soft-touch feel with a nice concavity to it. This is what the DS always needed. After playing hours and hours of Zelda I can say that it works just as well as an analog stick. It has just the perfect amount of range and resistance. In fact, playing with the 3DS's circle pad has sold me on the idea of them being on the Wii U controller in place of analog sticks. They work just as well and allow the system to keep its slim, clamshell design. Plus, it makes controlling a lot of old DS games easier, even though it'll only input 8-way movement in those games.

Face buttons
These are standard Nintendo size and also clicky like the d-pad. They're more rounded than DS and Lite buttons, however.

Shoulder buttons
The shoulder buttons are functional but poorly designed. They're really, really thin and a bit on the short side. I can deal with the length provided that they have enough surface area to hit (see the SP) but these just don't. They're only as thick as most of the system's third layer. They don't extend very much over the edge or on to the back of the system at all. Using them is really not comfortable with the rest of the systems dimensions. The way they're designed, the system should either have more bulk, more depth, or both. As a side note, they can be used to snap pictures.

The lame shoulder buttons.

Function buttons
The select/start/home buttons under the touch screen are not really buttons at all. They actually sit completely flush with the surface. I though they'd be hard to use, but they're actually not. It does take some getting used to the fact that they're not touch buttons as they appear. The power button sits by itself in the spot where the d-pad is on the left side. Nintendo really should have moved that elsewhere and put a second c-pad in this wasted space. Apparently, either only realized that recently or rushed the thing out the door before they could add that in.

Touch screen
Works as well as it always has. I fail to see why people complain about Nintendo's use of resistive touch screens. They're far superior to capacitive screens at least as far as gaming is concerned. They're more accurate and you can use a stylus instead of your fat, screen-blocking finger.

It's got a telescoping metal body! Fantastic pack-in sylus.

3D screen
The main event. People want to know: Does it work? Yes. It works perfectly. The viewing angle is terrible, however, so you have to look at it in from a rather small sweet spot for the effect to work. But it most certainly does work. And it looks fantastic. It adds an extra layer of immersion to the experience and I supposed it's Nintendo's answer to Sony's high-res super screen on the Vita. Some will prefer HD and some will prefer 3D, but there's no questioning the fact that 3D can be used as a part of the gameplay. Super Mario 3D Land has already done this to an extent with some of its puzzles (they're an optical illusion solvable in 3D). The real head-scratcher here is why Nintendo would push both 3D and motion control on the same system. A lot of the gyroscopic functions are really cool and also add to the gameplay, but moving your system around in 3D just plain does not work. You need to stay pretty still for that 3D sweet spot and have to constantly turn the 3D off to move your system around (unless you have a swivel chair– try it!). This communicates to me that Nintendo wasn't really sure what to do with this thing when they were making it. Lets have 3D and motion controls and only one circle pad! Yeah!

The cameras are terrible. You'll never want to take pictures or video with them even if it is in 3D. However, the augmented reality feature that they bring is really awesome. The system comes preloaded with software to put games and characters into the real world and it's pretty cool to go virtual fishing in your yard, or blast holes in spacetime. The system also has a microphone that's used for... something. The only thing I ever use it for is spinning around the icons on the main menu by blowing into it.

The other big question you probably have is about the battery life. Most estimates I've read give it between three and five hours. I haven't timed it myself, but it seems to be better than I expected. There's also a bunch of options for power-saving in the menu if you want to use them. I don't typically have the brightness or sound up all the way and I don't usually play with 3D on max, if I have it on constantly at all (I usually switch it on and off... that is, if I remember it's on). I find that battery tests tend to always measure unrealistic conditions (max ALL the things!) and that average players never use these settings. So I'd expect better-than-expected battery life out of this thing. That said, it's more or less the kind of longevity you'd find on a run-of-the-mill laptop if you're going to play nonstop.

Fine. I wasn't even going to mention it because I didn't think it was worth mentioning, but I don't want people complaining that I forgot about it or something.

Thankfully, this works very well. My DS Fat had the biggest trouble connecting to wifi, and I had similar issues with my Wii. Luckily, now, I simply flip the switch and it works. It also effortlessly communicates with nearby 3DS systems, which is pretty cool.

Game Compatibility
In an unprecedented move by Nintendo, the 3DS is region locked. It does, however, function as a region-free DS so your DS import collection is safe. Coming from a DS fat, my opinion is that the 3DS makes DS games look fantastic. The c-pad goes a long way towards making games that should have had analog movement (Metroid Prime, Mario 64 DS, etc) more playable. In fact, it happens to work really well with Mario 64, although you still have to hold down a button to run.

This is fantastic, but it needs two.

Here's the good part. If you buy a 3DS now, Nintendo will throw in a lot of stuff for free. You get:
  • A charging cradle so you can place it down for a quick charge when you get home.
  • Augmented reality games (and cards that go with them)
  • Camera app (now with video!) and sound app (for playing music)
  • Mii maker and Mii plaza (for creating, viewing, and playing with Miis)
    • You get a puzzle collection game, Puzzle Swap, and a lite RPG, find Mii
  • eShop for downloading games and other content.
And that may not seem like a lot, however, Nintendo offers a ton of free downloads:
  • Pokedex 3D
  • Netflix
  • Nintendo Video
  • Swapnote
  • Nintendo Zone
  • Four Swords Anniversary Edition
  • Internet browser
I'm pleased to say that the eShop is quite an improvement over the Wii store (never tried the DSi store). There a quite a lot of sorting options to search through available games as well as a "wishlist" that you can add games of interest to for easy access. The pages for individual games have information, user ratings (though, sadly, not reviews), and media. It's great that 90% of the games have a trailer you can stream right there from the store before you buy. Unfortunately, it there seems to be a three screenshot limit, but that's less of a disappointment with the video. I wish you could demo games before buying them, but it seems like Microsoft is the only one that requires this of all their games. Also of note: Nintendo has done away with "points" for shopping and has opted for real money transactions now. This is great, but can be a bit confusing because they now sell DSi points cards (won't work on 3DS) and 3DS prepaid cards (don't work on DSi). I assume in the future that they'll simply have prepaid cards that work on both the 3DS and Wii U. The one downside about the eShop is the navigation. It's not bad, but everything is presented in a horizontal scrolling list (like the new Xbox dash) and you have to do a lot of scrolling. It's made easier because of the touch screen, but it would be nice to have different display options like the system's home screen which can be made into a grid of different sizes. Downloads seem very fast– at least with my wifi.

The system didn't launch with the eShop, but thankfully has it now. All DSi games are compatible and can be transferred to the 3DS if you have the old system. The 3DS also has its own set of exclusive games as well as its own virtual console with NES, Gameboy, and Gameboy Color titles (GBA games were ambassador only). TurboGrafx and Game Gear titles are expected at a later date (lets hope for Blazing Lazers!). The 3DS already has some standouts like Pushmo and Mighty Switch Force.

User interface
The 3DS UI is simple but functional. You won't be spending a ton of time here anyway. By default, it's a horizontal gallery of thumbnails that can be made into a larger and larger grid (with smaller and smaller thumbnails). It's too bad there's no way to create folders to organize your "apps" because, like the Wii home screen, it can involve a lot of scrolling. I've also noticed that there's no easy way to reorganize your apps because they can only be dragged into an empty space, unlike on smartphones where you the two icons will switch places. New downloads appear as presents on your homescreen and apps with new content will have a dot in their upper corner. Pressing the home button in a game will bring up the full home menu instead of a watered down version such as the Xbox guide. This is a nice touch. From here, you can open up another program (closing the current one) or perform simple functions like writing notes. Your game will suspend in the background during this whether you pause or not.

StreetPass and SpotPass
I haven't made much use of SpotPass yet. SpotPass allows the system to download content while in sleep mode over a wifi signal. The 3DS includes free access to AT&T hotspots. StreetPass allows for the communication of 3DS systems while in sleep mode. I've made extensive use fo the latter and it's pretty cool. You can download other player's Miis to use use in games as well as messages and game data (such as racer ghost data for Mario Kart). 

3DS sitting in the included cradle.

Included software
The two SpotPass games are pretty neat. One allows you to collect puzzle pieces to complete 3D images of Nintendo characters. Each system comes with some random tiles and you can collect the tiles other people have when you meet them. Find Mii is a lite RPG which allows you to use other people's Miis to battle through dungeons in order to rescue your own Mii. This game is pretty tough because you only get one turn per Mii and they'll become unusable if they're attacked or they don't defeat the opponent. However, if you tag the same Mii more than once, they'll level up and become stronger. Miis also have special abilities, based on the color of their shirt, which are affective against different types of enemies. Clearing dungeons gets your Mii a new hat, which is both useless and awesome at the same time. 

The system has a pedometer built in that rewards you with "play coins" for every 100 or so steps you take. These coins can be redeemed for content in games (though the only ones that come to mind are the built in Mii games).

Your friends are still managed with codes for some reason, but the system makes it easy to find yours on your little gamer card thing in the friends menu. Unfortunately, I don't have any friends, but I hear you can hold up to 100. You can also share statuses, messages, and, if you have the free SwapNote software, doodles.

In addition to a Mii maker, you can also connect the 3DS up to the Wii and transfer your Miis over. I actually did this because the pieces for both are slightly different and I ended up making a better version of myself on the Wii. That and I had a pretty sweet Marcus Fenix Mii that I made on there. It's too bad there's not a Mii showcase on here like there is on the Wii. I liked having the ability to view and favorite other people's Miis. And the Mii creation contests were pretty cool too.

The AR games are neat, although they mostly consist of blasting things. Face raiders, in particular, is bizarre yet satisfying. You can essentially steal the faces of your friends and family and then shoot at them. My favorite is probably fishing, though. I think it's awesome that you can make a pond out of a shag rug.

The rest of the stuff that comes with the system is pretty barebones, including the music and video players, an activity log, help and settings, etc. The internet browser is serviceable I suppose, but really slow. You'll probably never use it and, indeed, I'd rather browse on my phone.

Downloadable software
The 3DS has Netflix and, although it's not in 3D and the screen isn't super high-res, I'll tell you why I love it. Netflix is now available on a range of mobile devices, but it's tricky if you don't have one made by Apple. For the most part Netflix will run just fine if you have one of the newer iPhone models. Basically, the only other option is Android and there are literally hundreds of these. Chances are, your phone will either not run it or it won't support a future version of the program. At least with the 3DS Netflix is guaranteed to always work. And you can watch it at one of those free AT&T hotspots! It takes a minute for the content to load up, but streaming was smooth after that. 

Pokedex 3D is, well, exactly as it sounds. It's a neat thing to have except that 1) you can find more detailed info online and 2) it only has Black and White Pokemon.

Swapnote seems interesting, but I don't have anyone to test it with. It allows you to send doodles and notes to your friends. 

At this point, the 3DS is an excellent piece of hardware. It works as advertised, has a solid lineup of games available with tons more on the way, and includes a lot of free goodies. The downside is that Nintendo didn't make some the best design decisions. The shoulder buttons are poorly designed and uncomfortable, the battery life is on the short side, and the console should have had a second c-pad from the start. All that aside, though, I'd still recommend it. It's a system brimming with potential, though some of you may want to hold off until that potential is fully realized.

No comments:

Post a Comment