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Nintendo 3DS: Not a Gaming Revolution, Still Makes Hands Happy

Nintendo 3DS
The best way for me to start off my hands-on with the Nintendo 3DS is to be completely honest about my relationship with the Nintendo DS; I love the little split-screened device. I have a white Lite from 2007, and have never found the need to upgrade. That was until the E3 Expo last year, when Nintendo trotted out these little guys to a crowd practically electrified with excitement. But the 3-D hype, unless we are missing something, has failed to move past "hype" to "trend." Even the 3DS's initial promise as being the little device that could (without glasses) has been slapped with health warnings, and is not as cost-friendly as its Lite little bro. So, to be frank, I had high expectations, and the 3DS had quite a task ahead of itself.

Start Up

3ds charger
In an unnecessary but appreciated touch, Nintendo has included a little cradle in which the DS can rest while charging. Not very sturdy and made of plastic, the holder is not the most aesthetically pleasing accessory ever, but it is tidier than a loose cord trailing off the end of your device. (You can still do it that way, should you not want to tote the holder.)

One of the editors at Switched grabbed the device and tried to turn it on, immediately wanting to see it in all of its 3-D glory. He was immediately stone-walled by the 3DS's lack of plug-and-play. Of course, this is not the role of the DS family -- each of these gadgets are characterized by their Nintendo-like personality and user-friendliness, not their zippy, seat-of-the-pants gamer action. After we filled out the requisite name, birthday, color choices, time and date and Internet info, the device was finally ready to be taken for a spin.

Hardware

3DS joystiq
Aside from, you know, the extra dimension, the other thing that is notable about the 3DS is the small, flattened joystick on the left side of the bottom screen. So far, in the games we tested, this enabled camera angles, Y-axis tilting and more subtle adjustments that the touch screen and stylus couldn't provide. It took a minute to grow accustomed, but, once we did, we were washing our dogs from every angle. (Don't judge. 'Nintendogs' was a tester!) Aside from that, the only other hardware control we noticed was a Wi-Fi on/off switch, which was confusing at first and requires the user to push it down hard -- not a big deal, just an adjustment.

For someone who has never had a DSi, the front- and back-facing cameras will be a new addition. (More recent DS fans will be familiar with them.) Here, they are used in a typically Nintendo fashion -- adorably, but possibly extraneously. I got to play with my Nintendog on a QR card (which just means the little guy existed in the reality of the camera), got to put my face on a shooting game, and got to take 3-D photos. It was fun, but there was no real deep integration (more on that later).

The 3DS is not a slender package. The dual screens, joystick, camera and PICA200 graphics chip makes the whole console seem a little hefty, but sturdy. Yes, the clamshell could freak you out if you had a less-than-delicate touch, but for anyone versed in portable video game systems, this little guy won't feel flimsy. I played with a cerulean "Aqua Blue" color, which was metallic and a little tacky -- but, then again, I was one of the few people I know that opted for a white Lite. The top is shiny, which is a letdown to us matte fans, but I consoled myself by noticing that, due to the two cameras on its lid, the closed 3DS looks like a mischievous face.

Game Play

Yes, the 3-D works. It works in the same way a hologram does -- by merging two images together to add depth. For text and simple images it looks great, but once the camera starts panning around a bit, I found myself having to angle the screen to maintain the 3-D. Not that the DS is a social device, but anyone looking over your shoulder would just see a blurry mess.

3D SliderBut, for the simple, heartwarming games that Nintendo likes to put on its portables, the 3-D is surprisingly adorable. I loved seeing my pet "lick" the screen, and, in "Madden," the depth of field was quite fun. And, when it started to get too hard to stay in 3-D mode (because my arms were tired of holding it, or the scenery didn't look right), I just slid down that helpful slider to make things less 3-D. Yes -- for those who are unaware, the 3DS has different gradients of "pop-outness," meaning you could subtly give something an extra layer without getting that weird, 3-D tunnel vision. (Also note: I don't wear glasses, so I didn't feel any strain on my eyes. But others have claimed differently.) The 3-D works beautifully on Nintendo's simple games with cute tricks like flying footballs or dog tongues. If you are looking for an 'Avatar'-like experience, you'll be gravely disappointed.

Aside from 3-D, the graphics got a nice boost in general. Even though the PICA200 came out in 2006, it still is a huge step up from its polygonal predecessors. The cheaper, less robust choice means that Nintendo can give players a lower price and more playing power. Granted, the 3DS still loses out to the PSP, but no one plays the device for cutting-edge, mind-exploding graphics.

The DS has never really lagged, but the newest iteration leaps between programs with ease. Opening up the clamshell after it has been asleep brings the DS immediately to life, and, despite my coworker's misgivings, once the console learned all my info, it only took seconds until I started playing. I also enjoyed being able to swap between applications. Although it cannot multitask, I can pull out of game to the main menu without quitting.

Lastly, even with the 3-D cranked up, the 3DS has a formidable battery life. The exact hours aren't clear (since I closed and opened the device, and left it on standby), but it was certainly over four hours, about twelve hours of standby included. Unfortunately, the brightness control is only accessible via the settings menu and would be far more intuitive as a slide button on the device. When the battery was running out, the little Aqua Blue handheld began to blink like crazy, which probably only sucked down battery more.

Extras

Like the Wii, the 3DS asks you to create a Mii, your own personal avatar. With the camera, I was pleasantly surprised at how "Leila-like" my Mii turned out -- much better than the Wii version. But, since my test unit was still in the developmental stages, I didn't get to see it at work.

The 3DS relies very much on Internet connectivity, and on your friends' having access to a 3DS. Since the Web portion of the DS has still not launched, I didn't get to really experience the Wi-Fi possibilities. (All it says is that a "system update will be required to access this feature.") Yet, as is, there are two major issues with 3DS online. The first is that the Web browser is notoriously slow and not particularly useful. Certainly Nintendo had concerns about protecting children, but the DS has proven to be a system that adults enjoy, as well. There are no apps, no e-mail systems, and no way to browse the Web other than a rudimentary browser.

Secondly, every other video game system now has some sort of social networking component. My PS3 tweets. For many titles, you can compare scores on Facebook or on dedicated game websites. However, I can't share my Mii or any picture I've edited with the nifty 3DS photo-editing tool (which can be used to make images hilariously 3-D via landscaping) unless my intended recipient has a DS, too. No posting to Facebook. No e-mailing. Not even a shared Nintendo board that I could port to other services. That's perhaps because, without using the 3DS 3-D, most images just look like regular old Wii graphics.

However, the effort that the 3DS has made to head offline is rather charming. 'Nintendogs' asked me to turn my 3DS on, close it, and take it with me as I went about my day, and it counted my steps with a pedometer and then translated my movement into gameplay. The "Street Pass" feature does a similar thing, connecting to any passerby with a 3DS and absorbing their info by adding their Mii to your "Mii Plaza" -- an experience I didn't have, as I don't have any friends in my Plaza.

Lastly, it appears that the 3DS has some sort of Internet-accessible gaming, but that feature required a system update. I'd like to see Nintendo embrace Web-enabled and downloadable games a la 'Angry Birds' to further round out the 3DS experience.

So, Would I Buy a 3DS?

After playing with Nintendo's newest device, I would say simply, yes, I would. But I prefaced this by saying I'm a huge DS fan. I love the games the system offers, its saccharine graphics and precious interface. If I was looking for the next wave (err, first wave) of 3-D gaming, however, I'd be kind of disappointed.

Once again, I'd like to see Nintendo branch out of its "Nintendo" closed system -- very much like Apple -- but that is rather unlikely. Nintendo has a large enough base to have a self-contained ecosystem, and it's certainly banking on the 3DS being big enough to sustain its lack of openness. And this may not be a risky gamble; the DS is one of the most popular systems of all time. Still, it would be nice to see some sort of app store, where you could rent, try out and download games.

As a Nintendo product, the 3DS is a win. If you are looking for a Web-enabled, social networking graphics machine, you are out of luck. But, for those of you who are soothed by the glowing light of your Satoru Iwata-spawned device, then enjoy life in the 2.5 dimension.

Tags: 3ds, aqua blue, AquaBlue, cosmo black, CosmoBlack, features, gaming, hands-on, handson, mii, nintendo, nintendo 3ds, Nintendo3ds, Nintendogs, reviews, video gaming, videogames, VideoGaming

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