Nintendo 3DS (aka – Helpless in the face of new Technology)

Where were you today?  Anybody who is anybody was at their favorite place to pickup video games to snag the brand new Nintendo handheld, the 3DS.  See what they did there?  It has two screens, like the DS (Dual Screen) but now it’s in 3D!

I’m actually not sure what kind of hype has been generated by this device.  There was a line at Gamestop this morning when I arrived to pickup my reserved piece of hardware, but not a huge one.  The associate claimed the store had sold out roughly 80% of their allotted stock through pre-sales and anticipated a day one sell out.  It’s in their best interest though to drum up interest in a product so I don’t know how much of that was embellishment.

The Nintendo DS has been a really popular system, the best selling handheld of all time, and the country seems to be nuts over this 3D thing.  The launch lineup stinks though, and I haven’t seen any commercials running on television.  Also, the price is pretty steep ($250, which is more than a Wii) and the economy is still lagging.  March has always seemed like a funny time of year to launch new hardware, but it seems fairly standard for the handheld market for some reason.  Maybe with spring beginning companies think people will want to get outside and bring their games with them.  At any rate, smarter people than me are making these decisions.

Not only does it play games, it also functions as a very expensive paper weight!

At first, I was going to bypass the 3DS as I’m really not the target demographic.  I don’t play a lot of portable games and I could not care less about 3D.  Actually, I kind of hate 3D when applied to films.  I consider it a useless gimmick.  There’s nothing gained from it and the films cost even more to see.  However, the 3DS does present a significant upgrade in terms of power over the existing Nintendo DS.  I’m not going to list out the specs, but if the DS was some where around the graphical power of a Nintendo 64, the 3DS is closer to a Playstation 3 or Xbox 360.  It’s actually the most powerful console released by Nintendo when one considers that the Wii is actually rather under-powered.  It isn’t quite up to par with the big home consoles (more on that later) but the upgrade over the DS is quite obvious.  I ended up getting bit by the technology bug, and all of a sudden found myself wanting this thing so I threw my DSi onto eBay (FYI – you’ll do a lot better with eBay than you would trading in your old handheld to Gamestop) and put the proceeds towards a 3DS.

An open view of the 3DS with a fully extended (giggidy) stylus.

The 3DS is a bit thicker than the DSi, comparable to the Gameboy Advance SP.

I took a lot of photos (which probably is obvious by now) of what is essentially a shinier DS.  The 3DS is a bit thicker but actually slightly smaller than the DSi (and quite a bit smaller than the DS XL).  It comes in two colors, black and aqua, and I opted for the more masculine black.  The glossy finish makes it appear like more of a toy when compared to the matte finish of the DSi.  I prefer the matte but I’m not really complaining.  The base is actually a graphite color, which I never noticed in the press release images and it’s kind of cool.  The traditional clamshell design is back and it’s appropriately snappy.  The top piece is just slightly larger than the base, which makes it easier to open.  The button layout should be pretty familiar.  It’s the typical Super Nintendo button layout of A, B, X, Y, L, R, start, select.  A ‘Home’ button has been added which brings the system from a game right to the dashboard and there’s a Wi-Fi slider switch on the right hand side.  The biggest addition is obviously the slider on the top piece for the 3D effect.  Here you can slide it all the way down to shut the function off or adjust the intensity.  The other big addition is the new analog slider which will presumably be the preferred method of game control.  The slider has a smooth concave design and nice resistance.  It’s bigger than the Sony PSP analog nub and the concave design is much better than Sony’s textured convex one.  The stylus returns for touch screen control and is telescoping this time around.  This allows it to be housed vertically within the system like the original DS, but can extend to the size of the DSi’s stylus.

The 3DS comes with a lot of manuals.

The two screens are where most of the 3DS tech resides.  The smaller, bottom screen is touch sensitive like the DS, but it’s received a boost in resolution.  The larger top screen is where the 3D effect is used.  The picture is nice and bright and though the resolution is better than the DS, it’s not anything mind blowing.  The system comes with a 2 GB SD card pre-loaded which looks like it will be used as a memory card would be.  Game data is stored to it as well as Mii data.  The 3DS dashboard is very similar to the one on the DSi and Wii.  It’s simple and easy to navigate.

The charging dock.

The 3D effect works and actually works pretty well.  It’s glasses-free which means it is a bit rigid in terms of what angle the system is held at and distance from the face.  The system can no longer be held vertically as the 3D effect only works when it is held horizontally.  I don’t really anticipate this adding much, if anything, to gameplay but if 3D is something you like the 3DS does deliver.  And if it’s something you don’t care for it can be shut off, which will also extend battery life (the effect is created by running two screens, one on top of the other, which naturally puts more of a strain on the battery).  I did not find the 3D to be too uncomfortable, though after playing the AR Games my eyes did feel a bit strained and I was happy to put the system down.

Get used to this sight, it's a 3DS charging.

I already mentioned the stylus and SD card, the other things included in the box are a charging station, AC adapter, numerous manuals, and some cards for the pre-loaded AR game.  The boost in power of the 3DS comes with a price in terms of battery life (and the previously mentioned $250 sticker).  I haven’t fully tested it out, but with the screen at the default level of brightness and both 3D and Wi-Fi enabled, the battery life supposedly tops out at less than 4 hours.  This is a far cry from the 8-10 of the DS and makes the system far less portable than its predecessor.  It’s kind of interesting considering Nintendo for years refused to add a backlight to the Gameboy’s screen because they felt battery life is the most important part of a handheld.  Apparently there has been a change in philosophy within the company.  I actually prefer this approach, though I must confess less than 4 hours per charge is pretty disappointing.

The charging station is supposedly the make-up for the crappy battery.  Once plugged in the 3DS can be simply placed on it for charging.  A full charge takes roughly 3 hours (according to the manual) and the station will automatically shut-off once the 3DS is fully charged to prevent over-charging.  The system can also be charged the traditional way of just plugging it into an outlet via the AC adapter.  Presumably there will be a market for third party add-ons such as car chargers and extra battery packs.

The 3DS comes with a colossal manual that I admittedly did not read much of.  There’s also a couple handy quick start guides (I say a couple because there’s a french one and a spanish one too) that tells you pretty much all you need to know.  There’s no extra stylus or pack-in game, but there is some software pre-loaded onto the 3DS that is arguably better than any of the games you’ll find at retail for the time being.

Face Raiders. I know it's blurry but at least this gives you an idea of what the flying face helmets look like, only when they come at you they're coming out whatever background is in your camera's sights. So if your 3DS is aimed at a toilet, they'll come busting out of there.

3DS games are basically the same size as DS ones, only they have a little nub to prevent people from jamming them into the old hardware.

The first game I tried out is called Face Raiders.  The 3DS contains 3 cameras, two rear facing and one front facing, and uses them all for this game.  First, you use the front facing camera to take a picture of yourself (or if you prefer to photograph someone else, you can use the rear facing cameras) and watch as the game puts it onto some weird flying helmet.  The system was able to tell me after I snapped a picture of myself that I was a young adult male.  Pretty smart, but when I took a picture of my cat it came up with all question marks.  The game itself uses the rear facing cameras and the 3D effect to make it look like you’re being attacks by these weird flying faces.  They’ll cause your environment to “break” and try to kiss you for some reason.  Apparently you do not want to be kissed by your evil doppelganger or weird cat monster, so you shoot them as they approach.  Sometimes bombs will pop up that you can acquire and use to clear the screen.  After awhile, a boss head appears that continues to summon the smaller ones until you blast it straight to Hell.  The whole time the 3DS is forcing you to spin around in 360 degrees to find the enemies as they attack you.  It’s pretty neat, though I couldn’t help but wonder how someone confined to a bed or wheelchair would be able to enjoy it.

The included cards for AR Games. They come housed in a sleeve similar to what most gift cards come in.

The other pre-loaded game is called AR Games and uses the cards I mentioned.  The 3DS comes with six cards, a question mark block, Mario, Link, Kirby, Samus, and some Pikmin.  The system uses the rear facing cameras once again and focuses on the question mark card and creates the environment it lies on into a game.  There’s an archery game where the terrain fluctuates forcing you to hit stationary and moving targets.  A pool type of game where you strike a ball and try to get it into a goal in one shot, a fishing game, and some gimmick stuff.  The character cards are one of those gimmicks where placing the card beside the question mark card makes them “come to life” as three dimensional characters you can pose and take pictures of.  It’s stupid, but the other games are kind of cool.  They are a bit glitchy though and numerous times as I was trying to move around to get a better angle at a target (or the boss dragon monster that rises out of the card after so many targets have been cleared) the system yelled at me that it lost the card in its camera (the question mark card has to be visible at all times).

3DS cases are a bit slimmer than the DS ones.

The interior of a 3DS game case, pretty exciting.

The only actual game I purchased today was (duh!) Super Street Fighter 4.  I say “duh!” because all of the other games are either mediocre or terrible.  It’s really not saying much when a two year old game is far and away the best available for a brand new system but that’s how it is likely to be until at least the fall when the Ocarina of Time remake hits stores.  Nintendo does have three first-party games at launch; Pilot Wings, Nintendogs + Cats, and Steel Diver.  Pilot Wings is basically a glorified tech demo and probably just as dull as the ones released for the SNES and N64, respectively.  Nintendogs is basically the same as the previous ones, only with better graphics and in 3D.  Steel Diver is kind of a throwback game.  It’s a left to right shooter where you take control of a sub.  Supposedly it’s not bad, but kind of ho-hum and would have probably been better received as a cheaper downloadable game.  Apparently the third party publishers were not interested in capitalizing on the lackluster offerings from Nintendo as their titles are spectacularly bad.  Aside from Street Fighter, there isn’t really anything of interest that I’m aware of.  EA has a version of Madden available that’s supposedly rushed and terrible.  They also ported The Sims 3 over so if you have yet to experience that maybe it’s a worthwhile investment.  There’s a couple of racing games and some generic platformers as well.  The best may be Super Monkey Ball 3D, it’s probably just like the previous ones so if you want to experience that franchise again go for it.

My Mii.

I actually own Street Fighter 4 for the PS3.  I never picked up the “Super” version that came out last year that featured additional characters because I was never interested (I’d just end up using Akuma anyways).  It’s a good game with a nice visual style that lives up to the Street Fighter name.  It’s just that it’s been available for home consoles for two years now, so there isn’t much new to be experienced.  The 3D effect does little for the game because of its perspective.  There is a 3D mode that I haven’t tried because it places the camera over your character’s shoulder, which sounds awkward.  It’s this lack of newness that almost lead me to pick up a 3DS without even bothering with any games.  The 3DS is fully backwards compatible with the DS library, so I’d be able to play the DS games I still have until a worthwhile piece of software came out but I caved at the last minute.

I tried to take some pictures of SF4, but they came out blurry. If you really want to see the game there's about a million high quality images online somewhere.

So now that I have Super Street Fighter 4 3D what do I think?  Well, it’s pretty much the same experience as the console version, which is to say it’s a very good fighting game.  I tried initially using the analog slider but found it to be too imprecise for a fighter and switched over to the D-pad.  The D-pad is of the same quality as the DS one, just placed lower on the console.  I found it a little uncomfortable after one trip through arcade mode so it’s probably not the best game for long stretches of play.  Since the system is limited because of the button layout, some commands have been moved to the touch screen.  On “Lite” mode, moves can be stored here.  I played as Ken and the default settings were to have his super combo and ultra combo mapped to the left side, and his heavy hadoken and heavy hurricane kick (I’m not going to try to spell out its Japanese name) were mapped to the right.  The face buttons default to the same layout as the home console version, which is they have the light and medium attacks and the heavy ones are mapped to the shoulder buttons.  I found trying to perform a heavy hadoken the manual way near impossible as it’s just too awkward to make a quarter circle motion with my left thumb and hit the left shoulder button at the end so the touch screen move was welcomed.  The ultra combos require all three punch or kick buttons to be pressed, which is nearly impossible on the 3DS, so I was happy to use the touch screen here as well.  The “Pro” control mode allows you only to map attack buttons to the touch screen, including L+M+H commands, if you find having actual moves too easy.  I can see that working fine, but since smudges on my touch screen drive me nuts I’ll probably stick with Lite.  I also re-mapped the buttons so that the medium attacks were on the shoulders and the heavy on the console’s face.  This made it possible for me to execute EX moves and also kept the light attacks on the face to execute quick throws.

Akuma vs Some Red Guy

I’d say overall the control scheme works well enough.  The D-pad can be a bit cumbersome.  While I found it easy enough to perform quarter-circle motions, the more complex ones, such as the dragon uppercut, were far less responsive which again makes the “Lite” control mode a bit more desirable.  The graphics are very nice looking, the fighters anyways.  They’re obviously not as detailed as the ones featured on the home consoles, but the reduced screen size makes it hard to notice.  The backgrounds suffer though as basically all of the background animations have been removed.  I can live with this, but it would have been nice if Capcom had adjusted the appearance of the backgrounds to better conform with this approach as it just looks weird to see onlookers frozen in place.  There is a pretty robust online mode and if someone is nearby with a 3DS and a copy of the game they can challenge you.  Also, if you have a buddy who doesn’t have a game they can download a demo of it from your 3DS, which is pretty cool and a feature I hope a lot of games make use of.

Super Street Fighter 4 is a solid game, but I do long for something better for the 3DS.  For now, the system receives a grade of incomplete.  The tech is certainly nice, and the look and feel of the system is in line with previous models, it just lack quality software.  In time, that will most definitely change since Nintendo is bound to unleash various Mario, Metroid, and Zelda titles.  There’s also a system update on the horizon that will grant access to an online store and internet browser.  I’m not sure why both weren’t ready for launch, but just like with everything else, it’s on the way.  The store promises to have both original titles as well as 3D remakes of classic Nintendo titles.  Of the announced ones, I’m most looking forward to the 3D version of the Gameboy classic Link’s Awakening, as I’ve never played it and always wanted to.  The Ocarina of Time remake will undoubtedly kick ass, and the Super Mario Bros. title is apparently some kind of Super Mario Bros. 3 tie-in which has me all kinds of excited.  In conclusion, the 3DS is pretty cool even if the whole 3D thing isn’t really your bag, but it’s safe to hold off for now until the good software starts coming out.

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