Nintendo 3DS First Impressions: Great Potential, Partially Realized

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The Start, Select and Home buttons have moved and been redesigned so that they’re harder to find and push (at least at first). Speaking of the Home button, there’s some light multitasking in the new 3DS interface. While playing a game, you can press the home button and return to the main hub to launch other built-in games or functions. This suspends the previous task, which you’ll need to quit out of to move onto something else–such as taking pictures with the inward-facing camera, or its outward, dual-lens 3D counterpart.

(By the way, picture-taking is not a great experience with the 3DS. The resolutions on the camera are terrible and, even in good light, the images are filled with specks of noise. The 3D image capture works well as the novelty it’s meant to be, but again, it’s at the mercy of the finicky screen.)

The disappointing cameras aside, the biggest knock against the 3DS is its abysmal battery life. At full charge, the battery held out for a maximum of four hours for me. Understanding that there’s a lot of power used by that 3.5-inch 3D top screen and all the shiny graphics and processing functions, it’s still an embarrassing duration for a modern-day consumer electronics product. Put in real-world terms, a full charge won’t last you (or your fidgety child) for anything longer than a medium-length car trip. And forget about flying coast-to-coast with the 3DS–it’ll conk out on you somewhere over Oklahoma.

Games:

You’ll find nearly two dozen games available for the 3DS at launch. I’ve already talked about how AR Games is the best game on the device. The built-in title brings together everything the device is capable of in an engaging, addictive mix. There’s not a lot there yet, but what is works great. Meanwhile, Face Raiders–the other pre-installed game–lets you take a picture of faces and spawns them into helicoptering, beanie-wearing enemies trying madly to kiss you. Uh, yeah. Goofy but nothing special.

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In nintendogs + cats, an update to the DS’s super-popular virtual pet simulator, you won’t find much changed from a gameplay perspective, but the cute puppies and new kittens appear to benefit from a visual upgrade. Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition is easily the best of the third-party launch games I played, and with smart layering and 3D effects that really enliven an already familiar experience.

Wrap-up:

Since Nintendo’s yet to release anything from its key franchises (Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong), let’s be kind and assume that in terms of game content, the best is probably yet to come for the 3DS. But the device is launching with some worrisome problems. If you’re looking at the 3DS as a two-in-one option to play new 3D content and old DS games, be warned that the older stuff won’t look as good as it does on the older DS units. The learning curve for the 3D screen plus the problematic battery life don’t exactly make it ideal for on-the-go gaming, either.

And yet when the 3D works, it’s amazing. Games seem to vibrate with layers of energy and characters, and environments feel more alive and engaging because of it. The 3DS’s main appeal is that it’s offering something–3D gaming–that you can’t get anywhere else. Factor the predictably higher rate of polish that future first-party 3DS titles will probably have when compared to the wildcard nature of games on iOS or Android mobiles and the draw is obvious. The 3DS should eventually land games from some of the best design studios in the world.

There’s no question that the 3DS is an imperfect device at this point, but it delivers on its most basic promise. Expensive as it is, you can’t currently buy a 3D-capable handheld at this price. The Nintendo faithful will likely snatch it up as soon as possible, but everyone else should exercise caution. We’ll have to wait and see how the device and its services evolve over the coming months.

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