Raise your glasses?
Review “You have to see it for yourself.” As the 3DS' unofficial marketing catchphrase, that's as good as it gets: an enticement at the most personal level. As the opening gambit to a product review, it's far less auspicious. But that's the reality of Nintendo's new wunderkind. Seeing is the only way of believing.
Nintendo's 3DS: a handheld console like no other
The phrase "auto-stereoscopic parallax barrier" might describe the glasses-free 3D wizardry, and "added precision and immersion" prove a handy panacea for articulating the gadget's benefits, but nothing prepares you for the magic of your first experience with the 3DS.
My crazy Nan - it's OK, she really was reality-challenged - believed there were people running around inside your TV set. How ironic, then, that in a bizarre Twelve Monkeys-style epiphany, the 3DS posthumously proves she wasn't crazy, just way ahead of her time. The depth effect tricks your mind so well that objects appear corporeal, as if you could reach in and pluck them out. But the effect isn't as shallow as depth alone.
Early uses of the tech suggest a panoply of future effects. Perhaps the most intriguing are the 3DS' pre-loaded games. Face Raiders combines the built-in cameras and gyroscopic sensors into a novel kinetic game. After posing for a snapshot, your face is overlaid on 3D helmets, which are superimposed onto the real world through the viewfinder. You then need to physcially move around to find and shoot the helmets out of the sky.
AR Games: Augmented Reality plays in a similar way, but reads information from playing cards included in the box to make a variety of 3D objects appear from nowhere. Another simple shooter, this time boxes, targets and monsters pop out of thin air, while, most impressively, the game distorts the background, making real-world surfaces appear magically to bulge or contract.
You know, for kids
Limited as these in-built games are, they offer tantalising glimpses into the future of AR, and provide the most compelling evidence to date that 3D can enhance gameplay, not just beautify it.
From the side
The 3D effect fails spectacularly when shoulder surfing. The sweet spot is - on paper at least - rigidly constrained. 3D is visible only with the device held directly in front, appearing at around 20cm and, optimally, between 30cm and 50cm.
AR pulls 3D objects out of real ones
Too close and your eyes lose focus, too far and depth becomes increasingly indiscernible. Move your head 5cm to either side, or rotate the device through a mere five degrees, and dark smudging streaks across the screen – instantly familiar to anyone who spent their childhood delving into cereal boxes for lenticular cards or stickers.
Fortunately, the sweet spot is exactly where you need it, well within the bounds of comfortable handheld use. The 3D slider setting works well in fine tuning the effect to suit individual eyesight, viewing distance and specific applications – I found the maximum setting perfect for SSF IV, but nudged it down slightly to prevent over-focusing on foreground objects in Pilotwings Resort.
The slider also turns off 3D entirely. This rested my eyes after long bouts of play, and proved vital when in direct sunlight, which completely scattered the 3D image.
While the 3D effect proved comfortable through several hours' continuous use - I experienced none of the nausea or dizziness reported by some reviewers - a few design flaws proved much less so. The analogue Circle Pad is extremely comfortable and responsive - a vast improvement over the PSP's nub. But in accommodating it, the + pad is positioned too low. When using it, the device felt less snug in-hand and quickly led to thumb cramping.
Card sharp: bundled collectable cards trigger Augmented Reality graphics
The return to smaller form-factor and gloss body finish are also unwelcome. The screen size, albeit larger than the original DS and slightly wider than the DSi, disappoints after the luxury of the DSi XL - although the higher screen resolution softens the blow. And the face buttons, although well usable in isolation, became RSI-inducing when combined with the shoulder buttons in SSF IV. The telescopic stylus is inconveniently placed near the centre at the back of the unit. Worst of all, the Select, Home and Start buttons are housed in a membrane bar with all the tactility of a ZX81 keyboard.
The build up
The overall build quality and internal components are typical Nintendo, a company that long since eschewed bleeding-edge tech in favour of low build costs. The 3DS continues the DS family tradition of sturdy toy rather than robust device. The graphics improve on the DS, but are resolutely old-gen, sitting somewhere between the Gamecube and the Wii.
In profile, the 3DS is like three gadgets glued together
And animation in background planes is conspicuous by its absence, although this may result from rushed launch development times, rather than an overburdening of processing power by the 3D effect. Still, no one plays Nintendo games for visual fidelity, and the 3D effect certainly compensates for retrograde graphics.
My only real tech complaints are the battery duration - just 3hrs 12mins when looping SSF IV - full 3D, max brightness and Wi-Fi - using the game's handy CPU vs CPU mode - Ryu beat Ken, BTW - and the desultory resolution of the cameras: one inner for portrait snaps and two outer for 3D photos. At 0.3Mp, the cameras were already outmoded in the DSi two years ago, so it's disappointing to see the same ones here, especially when the 3DS will provide most with their first experience of 3D photography: visible, yes; impressive, just; beautiful, no.
A few remaining features weren't available for testing, but are worth mentioning. SpotPass is a persistent updating feature, which uses friendly routers and Wi-Fi hotspots - BT Openzone - to automatically update games and apps. And StreetPass automatically collects player information when in proximity to other 3DS devices. Lastly, the 3DS online store is expected sometime in May in the form of an app, replacing the much-maligned browser-based DSi shop.
Never make passes at 3D fans with glasses
Game & Watch, third-party licensing, Mode-7, Super Mario 64, Game Boy, DS, Wii. The 3DS rightly deserves a place among the pantheon of iconic Nintendo innovations. Who better than the Grandmaster of Gaming to take us through our first tentative steps in the autostereoscopic realm. The 3DS is far from perfect, and this reviewer's hands might be holding out for a 3DS XL, but when it comes to videogame magic, the 3DS proves that nobody casts a spell quite like Nintendo. ®
More Games Console Reviews