Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Nintendo 3DS Review

Tech & Games 12 min read

My lovely wife Lauren gave me a Nintendo 3DS for Christmas, and I’ve been playing it extensively (mostly The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D) since then.

My last handheld game system was a Nintendo DS Lite (I also have a Wii and a PS3), and I suspect that there are many DS users out there who are wondering whether to upgrade to the 3DS. I decided to write up a few thoughts from my first week of owning the device.

In the box

The following items are included in the retail box. Mine was the ‘Cosmos Black’ model, without an included game.

  • 3DS console
  • Mains charger cable
  • Charging cradle (optional; the charger cable plugs into either the 3DS itself, or into the cradle)
  • Stylus (extendable; already inserted into top edge of the 3DS)
  • SD card (2GB; already inserted into bottom of left edge of the 3DS)
  • 6 Augmented Reality (AR) cards
  • Assorted booklets, warranties, warnings and so forth

The packaging seems designed to also allow including a full boxed game if appropriate, and indeed there are Zelda and Mario limited edition bundles of the console already available, amongst others.

General impressions

Once you switch the 3DS on, you’ll want to connect to a wi-fi network and perform a system update, to get the latest version of the OS (including the web browser, which isn’t included in the pre-installed version at time of writing).

I’ll talk more about specific aspects of the device and its software below, but here are the primary things I learned within the first half hour, all of which were some degree of a surprise to me:

  1. The 3D effect really does add to the gaming experience. The “how far away is that wall” phenomenon of simulated-3D games is one that irritates me occasionally, and the 3DS really does help with spatial perception in 3-dimensional game environments. Naturally, it also enhances a delightful sense of terror and vertigo in precarious situations.

  2. Everyone has heard a personal anecdote to the contrary, but I can truthfully say that I can use the 3DS with full-intensity 3D effect enabled for hours without any headaches, nausea, eye-strain or suchlike. I haven’t experienced any negative symptoms at all. (And I wear corrective lenses, I’m quite long-sighted, and I have different corrections for each eye.)

  3. The system is designed to always be on, and online. Nintendo wants the 3DS to always have an internet connection, even while asleep with the lid closed. There’s even an “are you sure” screen when you try to power the 3DS off, reminding you of the benefits of leaving it on but asleep.

  4. It feels pretty much exactly the same size and weight as the DS Lite.

  5. The Circle Pad is excellent. I find it precise, kind to the thumb, and with an ideal spring-back tension and surface friction.

Hardware

Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo 3DS

I said above that the 3DS feels like it’s the same size and weight as a DS Lite, and that’s very nearly true: it’s within 1mm (in all dimensions) of the DS Lite, and weighs only 0.5oz (15g) more, which to my hands isn’t a meaningful difference.

The device supports regular DS game cards as well as its own (3DS cards have a plastic tab jutting out, physically preventing them being inserted into an older DS). Unlike previous DS models whose games were region-free, 3DS games are region-locked in one of the usual three regions (US, Europe, and Japan). Happily, there’s an SD card slot on the side of the unit, which already has a 2GB card inserted. SDHC is supported.

Whilst I believe that Nintendo may be moving away from the stylus as a primary interaction method, one is still included with the 3DS. It’s inserted into the top edge rather than the right as on the DS Lite, and is thus shorter by default, but can be expanded telescopically to a maximum size that’s actually longer than that on previous models.

Notable new hardware besides the 3D effect (whose intensity/enabling slider is on the right edge of the upper screen) includes an accelerometer and gyroscope, for more modern motion-sensitive game control without additional peripherals. In my testing with Ocarina, the motion-sensing hardware works very well indeed.

Unlike on the initial DS model, the screen brightness on the 3DS is more than sufficient - unsurprising, since enabling the 3D effect actually boosts the brightness beyond the non-3D maximum, to maintain the same apparent brightness to the user (one reason why the 3D effect will inevitably cause increased battery drain). There’s a power-save mode which continuously adjusts the screen brightness based on the actual pixel content of the screens, and can provide up to 20% additional usage time before recharging.

The physical controls are the same as on any previous DS model (d-pad, X, Y, B, A, L, R, Select and Start), with two additions: the Home button, and the Circle Pad (analog ‘stick’). The Home button returns you to the Home screen (primary menu system for the device) from any other screen, suspending a game or app if necessary, and will also return you to that suspended software if its tile is currently selected.

The Circle Pad, as mentioned previously, is an impressive piece of design. It moves purely in two dimensions, its centre being movable through a circle described by the entirety of the pad when in its neutral position. It provides just enough return-to-neutral tension without putting any pressure on the thumb, and its recessed surface is subtly textured for grip. I haven’t any problems with slipperiness or inaccuracy at all. I’m very, very impressed with the control.

Here’s a brief video of me using it, while running around the Temple of Time in Ocarina:

The remaining hardware controls are straightforward. The power button is a small push-button, not the sprung slider of the DS Lite. The volume slider is on the left edge of the main (lower) body, and there’s a wi-fi toggle slider on the right edge. The 3D effect slider is, of course, on the right edge of the upper section (lid).

The headphone socket is on the lower edge, centred, and is completely standard - no nasty device-specific connector. The power charger port is one of the mini-USB variants, and is on the rear edge of the lower section, towards the right.

The casing (black, on mine) is very glossy, and shows fingerprints easily. Interestingly, the bottom half of the lower section of the casing is a different colour than the rest of the device (mine is grey).

Now, the one notable downside: battery life. The 3DS includes a 1,300mAh battery, which is rather modest. With the 3D effect active, wi-fi enabled, and active gaming going on, you can expect to get perhaps three hours of battery life. With wi-fi off, that’ll go up to four or four and a half hours.

There are third-party battery packs available very cheaply (less than £10 for a 2,000mAh battery which fits into the existing 3DS casing, or £15 for a 5,000mAh battery with its own thicker bottom case cover to accommodate it) which can be installed with only a screwdriver, and there are of course a variety of external battery pack solutions and cases too.

You can, of course, use the device while it’s plugged in. The power adapter connects either to the device itself or to the included cradle, which offers no-resistance cradling and removal of the device. There’s also a fold-down door at the rear of the cradle to let you access the game card slot without lifting the device up (if you’re really lazy).

Nintendo 3DS Cradle

The cradle included with the Nintendo 3DS.

The main menu system of the 3DS, called the Home Screen like its counterpart on the Wii, is tile-based and mixes built-in functionality and apps with downloaded games, sharing features, and the currently inserted game card. Here’s a quick video of how it looks:

The tiles are resizable from a horizontal carousel to a dense grid. System settings is an app in itself, as are the camera (both 2D and 3D, including video), music playback, eShop, Mii Creator, Mii Plaza and Activity Log functions, amongst others. There’s also a menubar along the top of the screen, offering the following functions:

  • Brightness (including power saving mode)
  • Tile display mode
  • Game Notes (where you can draw or write notes below a screenshot of whichever software is currently suspended)
  • Friend List
  • Notifications (brief textual status messages about anything, from any app or game)
  • Web browser

The much-publicised Face Raiders and AR games are pre-installed, and also have their own tiles.

Only one game or app can be running, and can be suspended by pressing the Home button while you use some of the other functionality of the system. You can use Game Notes and the web browser while a game is suspended, for example (which is highly useful), but certain features count as first-class apps and require terminating any other suspended software, with a warning first. Presumably, that’s due to a system memory constraint.

Here’s a video clip of suspending and resuming a game. In each case, I simply pressed the Home button, which is centred immediately below the bottom (touch) screen.

Web Browser

The 3DS web browser is basic, but capable. It uses NetFront, which is WebKit-based like practically every other browser of note, and is usable enough on the 3DS’ unusual screen layout.

Pages are zoomable, scrollable with the stylus and navigable with both the stylus and d-pad. Web search options are either Google or Yahoo (no love for Bing here, though you’re free to go to the site, of course), and the browser renders only a limited portion of each page at a time: just whatever is currently visible. Scrolling produces a momentary but noticeable checkerboarding effect.

It offers bookmarks, text-selection and page information, and the only major omission I noticed was the lack of a find-on-page feature - perhaps rather irritating for game FAQs and similar usage scenarios. Twitter also works fine, via the mobile web interface (the asynchronous stuff on the regular web interface never quite seemed to finish loading properly). Here’s a clip:

Other built-in software

Very briefly, the other built-in software is capable if unremarkable - with the exception of AR Games, which is indeed remarkable. The 3DS package includes six physical, printed AR (augmented reality) cards made of thick paper, showing a Mario question-mark block and five well-known Nintendo characters.

The AR Games app uses the 3DS’ twin cameras to superimpose virtual characters and games onto these physical cards, as viewed through the 3DS. It’s captivating to see dragons and flying targets rise up out of your own desk or dining-room table, and I’ll be very interested to see what other AR games and apps are released in future. Take a look at how AR Games works in this video (not by me).

The camera app itself can take 2D or 3D photos or videos, and allow you to view them in either mode. The 3D effect is noticeable and functional, though the quality of the cameras is predictably modest. It won’t replace your iPhone or dedicated camera for quick shots.

3D effect

The 3DS uses a parallax barrier 3D effect, to provide 3D without the need for special glasses, but requiring the user to be at a well-defined focal position in front of the screen. In practice, a standard holding position and angle for the console works just fine - as designed.

I’ve mentioned previously that the 3D effect genuinely does add to the gaming experience, and I’d recommend that you try it on an actual device in a shop to see for yourself. There is of course a warning that the effect is unsuitable for children under six years old, for nebulous reasons of potential vision damage that I can find little supporting documentation on, so err on the side of caution. The system does of course include parental controls allowing you to disable the 3D effect permanently, protected by a PIN code.

Finding the 3D ‘sweet spot’ is easy, and within half an hour I found that I always found it immediately upon opening the lid of the device. I did not experience any headaches, eye strain, visual disturbances, neck or back tension, or any other negative effect. There’s a lot of hearsay about the 3D effect, and I advise you to just try it for yourself.

The 3D intensity (scaled maximum apparent ‘depth’) is adjustable via a slider, going from a barely perceptible, subtle sense of depth to a pronounced sense that objects exist “inside” or “behind” the (upper) screen. For an average 3D game environment perspective, including Ocarina of Time, in practice this means that the 3D world occupies a cubic space behind the screen extending to a depth of perhaps 3 to 4 inches, depending on the virtual environment.

In summary, the 3D really does work, it doesn’t injure me in any way, and it does enhance the experience. I have it active almost all the time.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

The reviews of this game speak for themselves. Whether or not you played the wonderful original on the N64, Gamecube or Wii, you’ll almost certainly love it. I assume you can make that judgement on your own, and I’ll merely make a few points for those who have played the game before. Here’s a tiny preview clip in the Temple of Time:

You’ll immediately notice the obvious visual improvements: not only are textures higher resolution, but more importantly the entire colour palette is brighter and more cheerful. There are also a few new 3D models in certain key locations, and a number of visual effects that weren’t present in the original. I’ll leave you to discover those yourself.

Item-switching is much easier with the touch-screen interface, and notably it’s much quicker and less annoying to switch boots when required. Relatedly, the Water Temple is substantially improved by using a clearer colour-scheme to indicate the places where you can alter the level of the water.

A few changes are facilitated or necessitated by the hardware, including looking around (and aiming arrows, the hookshot, etc) using the gyroscope, and the Stone of Agony now plays a chime rather than rumbling (as the 3DS has no vibration hardware like the N64 Rumble Pak). There’s also a new hints system for inexperienced players, using the same “visions” concept as that in Skyward Sword on the Wii:

Navi the fairy is present and correct, and subjectively she seems to bug you less often (though she has added a new type of nagging to her repertoire: advising you to take a break from playing every so often).

The game is every bit as controllable and playable as it was before, and indeed the Circle Pad is a big improvement on the N64’s blister-inducing analog stick. This is the often-lauded greatest game of all time, in your pocket, with a fresh coat of paint. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Summary

So, let’s sum up. These are the things I like about the 3DS.

Pros

  • It’s a pretty powerful games machine that fits in my pocket.
  • As well as new games, we’re sure to see more remastered N64/Gamecube-era titles.
  • It’s every bit as portable as a DS Lite.
  • The 3D effect works, and really does add to the experience.
  • It has a capable web browser, and an online games store.
  • There’s expandable storage, up to respectable capacities with SDHC.

And the things I don’t like so much.

Cons

  • Battery life is relatively poor.
  • The physical design is functional rather than attractive.

That’s pretty much it. There wasn’t anything else I was annoyed with or disappointed about, at least that I can recall at the moment. All in all, I can readily live with those things.

Conclusion

You’ve presumably already made your mind up either way, so I won’t include some unnecessary advice. I like mine, and I’m glad I have one. I will say this: don’t create a false dichotomy between the 3DS and some other games system (the PS Vita, perhaps). Decide whether each device is something you want, and then buy whichever you like - and maybe both.

If you’re interested in buying a 3DS and you’re in the UK (or nearby), feel free to do so via this Amazon UK link, and I’ll get a small kickback.

If you already have one, my Friend Code is: 2964-9119-4507. As always with Nintendo’s social systems, we’ll only see each other if we’ve both added each other - so you should probably tweet your own Friend Code if you add me.

As always, comments are off, but feedback is nonetheless invited. For the safety and sanity of everyone, the following need not apply:

  • Vendor/platform-philes. That’s for teenagers whose mum buys them just one machine.
  • Price-related criticism. It costs what it costs. We can’t change it.
  • Tech-specs criticism. Nobody cares. That’s for the forum trolls.
  • Claims that the battery life makes it unusable or not worth buying. Neither is true.

Others can get in touch via email, on Twitter, or preferably via an article on your own blog.

Footnote: Game list

At time of writing, I have:

  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
  • Super Mario 3D Land
  • Sonic Generations
  • Star Fox 64 3D

I’d recommend all of them to you, if you enjoy the respective genres.