The 3DS XL: Nintendo’s Imperfect Update

Nintendo has an odd relationship when it comes to portable gaming devices.  The company has experienced immense success and great failure at the same time.  And even though the company rarely is ahead of the technological curve when it comes to its hardware, it still manages to dominate in sales.  The portable section of Nintendo’s portfolio is one the company can rely on to almost always turn a profit.  The only true failure was the Virtual Boy, a complete and total misfire.  The 3DS had a failed launch, but since a dramatic price cut and better software releases, the handheld has surged.  It may not have been profitable in 2011, but it almost certainly will be in 2012.

Nintendo’s approach to its main handheld units has been fairly consistent.  The original Game Boy was launched in 1989 and was Nintendo’s first true portable console.  The company had already made a name for itself in portable stand-alone games under the Game & Watch label, but the Game Boy operated like a home console and could switch out the software whenever the user wished.  The unit was fairly powerful for the time, though not on par with home console devices.  It had the same button layout as Nintendo’s home console, which made adapting games easy once accounting for the reduced tech.  Many companies tried to usurp the Game Boy as the market leader in portable gaming devices and all took the approach of releasing more powerful, color based systems.  Nintendo’s strategy of sacrificing power for better battery consumption proved correct as the Game Boy lasted for the entire duration of the 90’s while more powerful handhelds like the Game Gear and Lynx faded away (though the Game Gear was moderately successful in its own right, but sales for it amounted to about 1/10 of Game Boy’s).

In 1996 Nintendo introduced a new Game Boy to market, the Game Boy Pocket.  It was the same hardware, just shrunk down to a more portable style that required fewer batteries to operate.  This was the first major revision for the Game Boy, and the second would come in 1998 with the introduction of the long-awaited Game Boy Color.  The Game Boy Color did have the distinction of being slightly more powerful than the old hardware, but not by leaps and bounds.  Some games designed for it would not work on older Game Boys, making it arguably its own distinct handheld and not an actual revision.

The first revision to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Pocket, made the device more portable and more economical.

The Game Boy’s first true successor was the Game Boy Advance which was released in 2001.  While all previous Game Boys had a vertical format, the GBA had a horizontal one similar to the Game Gear.  It had a 32-bit processor but a lack of any 3D capabilities made it more comparable to a Super Nintendo than say a Playstation.  Aside from the enhanced tech capabilities, the only other major addition was the inclusion of two shoulder buttons.  Many fans were disappointed that Nintendo didn’t add two additional face buttons which would have made SNES to GBA ports near perfect.  Like the original Game Boy, the GBA would receive multiple revisions.  The first was the GBA SP, which made the GBA resemble an old Game Boy Pocket but with a hinge in the middle so it could be folded and stored away to protect the screen (and make it more portable).  The major addition to the SP though was the inclusion of a front-light, something gamers had been demanding for over a decade.  No additional buttons were added though, and the new design was less comfortable than the original but the inclusion of the light, rechargeable battery, and screen protection made it superior.  A third revision would follow in 2005, the GBA Micro.  The Micro removed the backwards compatibility of the SP with original Game Boy cartridges, but shrunk the whole thing into a tiny size that resembled a Famicom/NES controller.  The unit was also back-lit and provided a slightly better picture, though at a reduced size.   At the same time, a new GBA SP was released that had a back-lit screen instead of a front-lit, which was much more effective.  This was more of a running change than a true revision, but worth noting.

The Nintendo DS followed the GBA in 2005 and has been no stranger to revisions.  The original was bulky and unattractive, and a new model was released in 2006.  Dubbed the DS Lite, it was a more streamlined take on the console.  The DSi would follow the Lite and add better networking capabilities, an SD card slot, camera, and slightly larger screen.  The final revision to the DS came in the form of the DSi XL, just an over-sized DSi.

Which brings me to the 3DS.  When the 3DS was launched last year most gamers assumed a revision was inevitable.  I was a day one purchaser of the unit, and while I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit, there’s no denying there are some obvious short-comings that could be addressed with a future update.  The system is designed just like a DS, but Nintendo made some odd choices with the unit that do cause minor problems.  For one, the bottom screen is smaller than the top.  This isn’t necessarily an issue in and of itself, but there’s a raised border around the bottom screen that causes lines to form on the top screen when the unit is closed.  Mine hasn’t caused any permanent damage, but it is annoying to have to clean the top screen every time I use it.  The circle pad causes a similar issue on the top piece, but not on the screen thankfully.  And ever since the unit’s reveal, gamers have yearned for a second circle pad, which was addressed by Nintendo with the Circle Pad Pro attachment.  The attachment not only adds the desired second circle pad, but also adds two additional shoulder buttons to the unit putting it on par with home console controllers.  The attachment works, but is bulky as Hell and using the face buttons with it is some-what cumbersome.  The overall power of the unit, particularly the screen resolution, is not very impressive either.  Especially when compared with the more recently released Playstation Vita.

Most expected Nintendo to unveil a new 3DS at E3 this year.  Early reports out of China before the show seemed to confirm this, but come show-time nothing was seen.  In a questionable move, Nintendo chose to reveal the 3DS XL after E3 in an online developer conference.  The 3DS XL is the expected update to the 3DS, but is it the update gamers had been looking forward to?  In short:  No.

The 3DS XL is exactly what the name implies.  It’s an over-sized 3DS.  This isn’t a bad thing on its own.  While a larger 3DS is less portable, the original is pretty cramped and a larger one would work better for those who tend to play their 3DS in longer play sessions as opposed to quick bursts.  And even though it presumably requires more power to function when compared with the current model, the XL will reportedly have slightly better battery life (5-8 hours for 3DS games).

Congrats Nintendo! It only took you a few short months to render this attachment useless!

If the biggest issue gamers had with the 3DS were its size and battery life (a legitimate complaint), the XL would be well received.  And when it hits stores it very well may be.  For me, this update is fairly pointless.  The screen size has been enhanced, but the resolution remains the same.  The resolution on the current 3DS is underwhelming at best.  Games that look good on the unit do so in spite of the unit’s resolution.  A game like Resident Evil: Revelations is fairly impressive from a visual standpoint, but the low-res picture washes out the image and adds a blurry texture to everything.  Especially in the darker environments, I felt like I needed to wipe off the screen constantly even though there was nothing on it.  I played the game with the Circle Pad Pro, which as I mentioned, is a cumbersome add-on.  It does improve the gameplay though, but for some reason Nintendo did not incorporate it into the design of the XL.  The unit is bigger, one would think this would allow Nintendo to add the additional shoulder buttons, or at the very least, a second circle pad!  Nintendo chose not to, which not only seems foolish, but renders the Circle Pad Pro unusable with the XL.  A game like RE: Revelations will most likely play worse on the XL because of the controller configuration, and look worse because the low-res image is being blown-up beyond its intended size.  And perhaps just to add one last bit of insult to injury, the bottom screen is still smaller than the top and the raised border still exists so it’s likely the same screen line problem of the current 3DS will be prevalent here.

Obviously, I can’t pass judgement on a piece of hardware that isn’t even available yet.  It’s entirely possible that the 3DS XL is superior to the current 3DS based on the increased size and superior battery life enough to justify a purchase, or even an upgrade.  I’ll be surprised if that’s my opinion come August when the unit hits stores alongside New Super Mario Bros. 2 as it fails to address the real problems I personally have with the 3DS.  Plus if I were to upgrade it would render my Circle Pad Pro useless which is not something I am eager to do (but would have been willing to do if the new 3DS made it obsolete by incorporating its features into the design).  This just seems like a completely unnecessary update to the current hardware.

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