The 3DS has finally hit British shores. In terms of power, specs and features, it's Nintendo's most powerful console to date - and competition has never been greater in the fierce handheld market. Will this plucky little machine have what it takes to face down its rivals... and justify its staggering volume of preorders?
Introduction & Build Quality
Whilst the 3DS externally resembles a DS Lite right down to the dimensions of the case, Nintendo's newest handheld is a very different beast. The clamshell hides two screens; the uppermost being the all-important 3D screen with its lower (and smaller) counterpart providing the touchscreen. The new Circle Pad supplements the D-Pad with responsive, comfortable movement and a perfect amount of resistance. A recessed strip of buttons now lies beneath the touchscreen, with the traditional Start and Select keys nestling around the new central HOME key that brings up the main menu when pressed.
Naturally there's a lot more grunt under the hood. Processing power has been significantly beefed up since the DSi thanks to the increased demands of 3D gaming, along with the ability to render much more detailed action and output at a stable framerate. Pleasingly, it also contains 2GB of onboard storage space via the included SD card. Arguably the most subtle addition, however, is the built-in gyroscope that provides for motion/tilt-controlled gameplay. It's integrated very well indeed, with most applications providing perfect sensitivity on the default settings.
The new telescopic metal stylus feels much sturdier and more comfortable to hold compared to the original plastic prodder, though it's worth noting that the location has inconveniently changed to the top of the device. Ho hum.
The entire unit feels solid without being clunky, light without being fragile and... well, put simply: it's absolutely gorgeous. You can mug up on the full specs here, if you're interested.
Unless you've actually seen a 3DS first-hand, you'll likely be surprised by just how impressive it looks. Rather than a plasticky finish, the shell has a metallic lustre that simply can't be conveyed by photgraphs. Even the aqua blue version looks like an expensive piece of professional gaming technology rather than a child's toy. The downside, as you'd expect, is the fact that fingerprints will soon cover every square inch of the device.
Setup & Initial Impressions
Once you've switched on the 3DS for the first time, you'll be taken through a short tutorial, 3D calibration, internet connection setup and the ability to activate parental controls (a must for when the web browser functionality hits). We'll get onto exactly how the three dimensional calibration works in a moment, but for now, it's worth noting that the 3DS does an excellent job at introducing you to each concept when necessary rather than bombarding you with new information.
Each application explains itself the first time it's used, and makes you learn by doing rather than watching. You'll be set up and ready for action within scant minutes of hitting the power button... and ready for your first taste of glasses-free 3D.
The 3D Effect
I'm delighted to report that not only does the portable three-dimensional technology work, but it's absolutely astounding. The sensation of true depth is breathtaking, even when it's used as simply as overlaying the main menu 0nto another program once you've pressed the Home button. It's more subtle than you might expect - and you certainly won't get the sensation of things coming out of the screen - but the illusion of paradoxically deep environments in a tiny handheld is a genuine game changer. The three dimensional effect improves the experiences in which it features; making them more immersive rather than just providing an alternate way to view them. Score one for parallax barriers.
A depth of field slider sits next to the top screen, allowing you to change the intensity of the 3D effect or even deactivate it completely. The 3D Calibration tutorial will teach you how to use this simple tool with a hands-on demonstration - and it's well worth paying attention. More on exactly why later.
Whilst increasing the depth of field makes for a more mind-blowing experience, it also narrows the viewing angle. Regardless of the setting, you'll also need to the keep the device around thirty centimetres from your eyes in order for it to work... which is surprisingly easy to do. Don't worry, your arm won't get tired.
Headaches and Nausea? Take It Slow.
Many of us made a big deal out of Nintendo's insistence that we should play the 3DS in 15-minute bursts, as well as multiple reports of the device causing headaches or waves of nausea. And yes. It can. If you're prone to motion sickness or migranes, you'll likely have to spend some time getting used to the visual chicanery - and even I was afflicted by a brief yet debilitating headache (which is impressive considering that I spend well over 14 hours per day looking at a screen of some sort).
It is very easy to avoid any ill effects whatsoever. The key is moderation: not of the time you spend playing the device, but of the intensity at which you play. The 3D depth slider (discussed earlier) allows you to set the depth of field at the intensity that's comfortable for you, meaning that it's important to start low and find your optimum setting.
Personally I'd recommend a sweet spot of between a quarter and a third. You'll get the full effect while being able to play for hours at a time, though naturally you should lessen or even deactivate the 3D intensity if you feel sick or sore. Or put the console down and go for a walk.
GUI And Menus
The 3DS is Nintendo's smartest console to date (including home consoles), meaning that they can't get away with half-assed interfaces any more. To this end, the 3DS packs a customisable scrolling menu that's vaguely reminiscent of the iPhone display. Individual applications are accessed by tapping a single square icon, and you can choose how many display on the screen at once. You can have a single scrolling line of icons or several dozen simultaneously on the screen; placing the camera, online functionality and friend settings all within easy reach.
A single program or game can be suspended while browsing the HOME menu, meaning that you can browse your menu or notifications without having to quit your current application.
Camera & Music
The 3DS packs three cameras: two forward-facing and a single reverse. This allows users to take 3D pictures (with impressive depth of field) for use in augmented reality games or just for your own personal amusement, but they're also extremely low resolution. It's noticeable even on the small screen, though as noted above, the three-dimensional effect is excellent.
You can also store music on the 3DS' flash card, with even several obscure file formats being supported. Speaker quality is excellent, though you'll need a decent pair of headphones to listen on the move. Scoff if you will, but Nintendo have leaped into the 'multimedia device' arena and done it rather well.
3D films and a web browser will arrive in a future update - and we'll keep you posted.
Ah. Right. You knew this was coming. All of the 3DS' bells and whistles come at a steep energy cost. With full screen brightness and WiFi enabled, you can expect as little as three hours of battery life, with a more conservative estimate running about 4.5 to 6.
The bundled charging cradle helps to mitigate this problem by providing a central place to store and charge your unit (meaning that it effortlessly stays topped up when not in use), but even so, this is absolutely pitiful. A number of third party manufacturers are reportedly working on beefier batteries - and frankly, you'll need them. Bad Ninty. Bad.
Onboard Software: Streetpass, AR & Face Raiders!
The 3DS is absolutely packed with features. In fact, there are enough games, tech demos and applications to keep you going for an entire day without bothering to put in a cartridge!
To this end we're going to publish a full roundup of the 3DS' onboard software later today, but it's worth discussing Streetpass in greater detail. If left on standby mode, the 3DS will automatically wirelessly communicate with other 3DS units within a limited range. Data such as Miis, game save states or other goodies is then traded between the two handhelds. It's a great idea that provides developers with another innovative new draw, but it's clearly designed for the crowded Eastern streets rather than our antisocial suburbs. City-dwellers will get the most out of it... if they have any battery power left.
It's also backwards-compatible with DS and DSi titles, that exhibit little or no distinguishable performance problems or improvements.
- Glasses-free, gimmick-free 3D
- Fantastic build quality
- Excellent firmware, software and features
- Woeful battery life
- Low resolution pictures
- Weak, expensive launch lineup (reviews coming soon)
The Short Version: The 3DS is the best games console that Nintendo have ever produced - and one of the most genuinely exciting pieces of gaming hardware to have released in years. Nintendo have crafted a phenomenal bit of kit, but now the onus is on their studios to take advantage of its capabilities. It's all just potential at the moment, and only time will tell whether the software support can do the 3DS justice.
At launch, however, its backwards-compatibility and onboard software provide the major draw rather than any of its lacklustre launch titles. We're looking forward to the explosion of first and third party games later this year.