I know a lot of you enjoyed the CNN "review" of the Nintendo 3DS that I posted last week, but now it's time to offer up my own. Now that I've had some time with the unit that Nintendo sent me, I've got plenty of opinions about their latest handheld! I will say up front that as a 3D nerd, going into it I'm a little biased, because playing games in 3D without glasses is pretty awesome... but it's not perfect!
To start with, the 3DS feels solid in your hands. The finish not only makes the unit look sleek and sexy, but it makes it feel more like a piece of electronic equipment instead of a toy. It's about the same size as a regular DS, but feels heavier in your hands. I didn't notice this until someone pointed it out to me, but when you open it up, the hinge is a little loose, so if you wiggle it around sharply, the top screen does wobble a bit. However, since I don't wiggle my 3DS around as I'm playing, I never noticed it. So I can't say it's that big of a problem. As long as the hinge doesn't get progressively weaker over time, it shouldn't matter, really. The telescoping stylus is a nice touch although it's still not as comfortable to use as the full-size pen stylus (for me). It's still better than the tiny one, though! The analog nub is terrific, and feels exactly right. It's comfortable to use and very responsive. The only thing is that there's a volume slider on the left side of the unit, and a wireless switch on the right, both positioned right up near the shoulder buttons. Personally, I'm not a big fan of sliders for volume, as I feel like you can't finesse the sound as much, but it's the positioning that I worry about. They're very easy to nudge while playing a game that uses the shoulder buttons a lot. But I will say that I love the wireless switch, because it means no more backing out of the game into the main menu and going into settings to turn it on or off. Oh, and while I like the concept of the Home button, it's mostly recessed and slightly awkward to press, and having the Select and Start buttons the same way isn't great, either.
The screens are bright and clear, with the top 3D screen a little wider than the square touch screen below. The 3D slider along the side lets you adjust the level of 3D that you see, from full all the way to flat 2D. I've found that I actually adjust the slider a little bit depending on the game I'm playing. Something like Star Wars or Street Fighter, which has a shallower depth of field, I can turn it all the way up, no problem. But with something like Pilotwings, the depth is so dramatic that I have to nudge it down just a bit or else I will occasionally go cross-eyed. You do have to stay in the "sweet spot," directly in front of the screen in order to have the 3D effects work. A little to the left or right, and the images split up and go kerflooey. Although a little further left and right, they come back together again, so you can actually watch somebody play from the side and sort of see the 3D effect, though it's obviously not going to be as good. I'd worried that playing games you would get so into it that you'd move the 3DS around so much you'd leave the sweet spot constantly. But in my experience, that hasn't been a problem. Because it's a handheld, you move with it, so you can stay in the sweet spot the whole time. Naturally, some people will be unable to see the 3D effect, so it's nice of Nintendo to have that slider so they can play the games in 2D. Not as awesome, but still fun, depending on the game!
The only major problem that I have with the 3DS so far is its battery life. Nintendo claimed that you could get about 5 hours of gaming out of it, but I'm guessing that's with the brightness turned down, wireless switched off and 3D turned completely off. Because at regular brightness and full 3D, with or without wireless, I only got a few hours before I had to recharge. I do appreciate the charging cradle, though. It makes it much easier to simply drop my 3DS into it at the end of the day and then pick it up again in the morning before my commute to work. No plugging and unplugging necessary. And this time around, the battery is actually replaceable, so if somebody does come out with a higher-capacity one, you can make the swap yourself. And as awful as the battery life is, the way I figure it is it lasts about as long as the average smart phone. I have to charge my phone pretty much every night to it doesn't go dead on me in the middle of the day, so what's the difference if I have to do it to my 3DS, too?
The main menu is somewhat customizable, which is nice. You can keep the long row of single, large icons that you can scroll left and right, or you can adjust it to be a grid of smaller icons, so you can fit more on the screen at once. The tiniest option is a bit much for me, but the medium size I thought looked good. Each time you select an app, its logo appears on the top screen in 3D, and spins around. I discovered that vibration or blowing into the microphone causes it to spin faster, which is neat, but ultimately useless. The top screen also shows you the date, time, battery power left, whether or not you're connected to the internet or Street Pass, and also the steps you've taken today and coins earned. Because the 3DS acts as a pedometer when you close it up and stick it in your pocket. And the steps you take can be used in various games for bonuses and such. The touch screen holds the app icons, and along the top are small icons in a row so you can access some of the other features. These are the ones you can access while playing a game when you press the Home button, and then go back into without losing your place.
First is the Game Notes, where you can pause a game you're playing so you can write down a code or draw a little map or whatever so you can access it later. It's a nice little feature that I haven't actually had call to use yet, but it'll certainly come in handy when you don't want to dig around for a pen and a piece of paper... or if you don't have a photographic memory! Next is the Friends List, where you can find your 3DS Friend Code and enter in your friends' Friend Codes. Yes, I know the numerical code isn't as convenient as a screen name, but at the same time, at least you only have to do it the once, as the Friend Code is now per 3DS, not per game. Opening this will also show you which of your friends are currently online and what they're playing (if they've activated that feature). Then there's the Notifications, where a small green dot will appear whenever the 3DS has something to tell you. Sometimes it's just a simple quick hint, other times it's Nintendo warning you of a system update. Or a game telling you that you've made a Street Pass connection. The final icon is for the Internet Browser, but that doesn't work yet. It won't work until sometime in May when they do the big system update.
The Sound app lets you record and manipulate sounds or listen to mp3 music files that you transfer to the included 2GB SD card. When listening to music, there are a series of 3D visualizers on the top screen you can swap through, including an Excitebike one where the hills seem to be in time with the music, and even a playable Game & Watch one where you move around bouncing a ball off your head as many times as possible (but forwards and back instead of just left and right, since we're playing in three dimensions, now!). You can also adjust the pitch and speed as well as add various effects like "radio," "echo," "8-bit" and "Karaoke." Actually, the karaoke worked really well on the Adele song I tried it with, practically erasing the lead vocals so you could sing in their place.
The Camera app takes fully 3D photographs with the two external cameras on the front of the 3DS. It's really cool, but the resolution is .3 megapixels, so they look pretty awful. They're very fuzzy and grainy, especially if you're in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. However, it's still cool to take 3D pictures, and when I first got it, I liked to have people point at me so I could take their picture and then turn around and show it to them. It blew their mind, because their finger would be pointing right up out of the screen. Currently, there's not a lot you can do with the pictures you take. I mean, you can draw on them with the stylus, but as far as sharing, nothing yet. Although it does save the photos as MPO files on the SD card (with the left camera as a JPG for sharing in 2D), so it only took a little bit of Googling to find a simple program that could take the MPO file and separate it into the two separate images so I could Photoshop them together with red and blue tints to create a 3D image you could see with red/blue 3D glasses. (It also puts them side by side so you can see a full-color 3D image just by crossing your eyes.) Nintendo is promising video support as well with an upcoming update, possibly the big May one, but we'll see. It'll be cool, but probably look just as grungy.
There was a system update made available just before the 3DS went on sale March 27, and it featured a small update to the communication abilities, as well as a music video from OK Go for "White Knuckles." The video appears as its own separate icon on the desktop. It's a cute video with trained dogs (Nintendo went for a Nintendogs connection), even if the song isn't great. But it is a good demonstration of what it'll be like watching a 3D video/movie on the system, and it works really well. Although a warning at the end of the video does warn that it will be deleted with the next update, maybe it'll be made available for permanent download later on in the eStore. Which also isn't up yet. No, that's also coming with the May update. So no Virtual Console games yet. Or the ability to transfer the DSi games you downloaded onto your 3DS. Not until May.
The Mii Maker features a few extra facial and hair features than the Wii, although honestly, I barely noticed. It felt just as limited as before. I couldn't find a hairstyle that looked like mine. It was really kind of annoying. My Xbox 360 Avatar looks just like a cartoony version of me, so why doesn't my Mii? Then there's the Mii Plaza, where you can pick up people's Mii's that they've authorized for sharing using Street Pass. Just walk past someone with a 3DS with both of them activated for wireless communication, and you'll automatically pick up their Mii. Your Mii greets them at the gate and lets them in. You can then use the Miis that you meet in a couple of small mini-games. One is a puzzle game where each new Mii grants you a piece of a puzzle until you finish the whole image. The other is a very, very basic RPG where your Mii is trapped in a castle and each new Mii that you encounter fights as far as they can into the castle to try and save you. The problem is that each time you meet a group of Miis, you need to remember to go into the mini games to use them, because it's not cumulative. I met a bunch, and then it said there were more at the gate, but after greeting the other two at the gate, I went into the RPG, but was only able to send those last two into the castle. The six I'd met before were useless. So that's annoying. If you want to play those games, make sure you do it immediately after meeting people. The Miis at the gate can wait. In fact, they will. They'll still be there later when you go check.
The AR Games were probably my favorite way to show off the 3DS to friends aside from the camera. By placing the AR card with the Mario question mark block down on a flat surface, the 3DS uses the external cameras to show you that surface, but with crazy stuff going on with the card. Whether it's archery targets or a dragon popping up out of the surface, or fishing below the surface, its a really cool effect and a lot of fun. You can use the other AR cards to make Nintendo characters like Samus and Link pop up and then pose them to take 3D pictures. And while it initially seems like a little taste, you will unlock new levels of the archery, fishing and marble games as well as a few other neat but somewhat useless tools. The graffiti was a good one, though, letting you draw on the touch screen to make a 3D version of it appear in "the real world" atop the AR card.
Face Raiders is another AR game that's included in the system software, where you take a photo of somebody's face, and then the game morphs that face onto helmeted heads that float around you and attack. You have to spin around to shoot balls at their faces in order to defeat them, and then do the same to the boss. The external cameras show you the area around you, which is destroyed bit by bit as you play. It's a really neat effect, and another good way to show off the capabilities of the system to a friend.
There's also an Activity Log which keeps track of how many steps you've taken each day, as well as which games you've used. It tallies them both by how long you've been playing in hours, and also how many separate times you've played that game or app. Let's just say that Health & Safety Information is way down at the bottom!
Okay, I think that covers the entirety of the 3DS unit and system software! The games are their own separate thing. Although I will say that you can play regular DS or DSi games on the 3DS, if at a slightly lower resolution. I tried a couple, and I didn't see what the issue was. Some people had been complaining, but I didn't think it looked that bad. Sort of like watching an upscaled DVD on an HDTV versus an actually high-def Blu-ray. Not as good, sure, but certainly not unplayable. Also, the instructions say that regular DS games will be stretched to fit the wider 3DS screen, and you're supposed to be able to hold down Start or Select in order to maintain the original aspect ratio. But when I tested some DS carts, they all opened square as could be without my having to do anything.
On the whole, I think the 3DS is a pretty amazing piece of hardware. As awesome as 3D gaming is, 3D gaming without the glasses is even better. It's impressive that it works, and I can't wait to see the developers really take advantage of the system's capabilities. Aside from the 3D offering you a more realistic experience, the 3DS has a gyroscope and accelerometer, plus the cameras could be used in unique ways. I do wonder why Nintendo felt the need to put it out in March when some of the 3DS's capabilities weren't available yet. Having to wait until May for the web browser and eStore is kind of annoying. It's like they released a slightly gimped system. But if they'd waited until May, there might even have been some more games out. Because you should never buy a gaming system unless there are a bunch of games for it that you really want to play. I mean, I can tell you how much fun the 3DS is, but if you'd rather play a Mario or Zelda game, you're going to wait until they come out to spend your $250. The 3DS isn't perfect the battery life is extremely disappointing and I'd prefer a higher resolution camera, but it's still really, really awesome and as a 3D nerd, I love it!