Nintendo 3DS XL Review: Bigger, Refined, but Still-Flawed 3D

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If the original 3DS seemed a little puny for a games handheld touting “glasses-free 3D,” Nintendo’s new, almost paperback-sized $200 3DS XL expands your range of options to two: pint-sized or big gulp.

If you already own a 3DS, on the other hand, that choice may feel like a pain point: Live with the perfectly decent, pocket-sized handheld you might have paid as much as $250 for (before Nintendo dropped the price last August), or cough up another $200 for extra eyeball room.

Though we’re not talking just eyeball room — like the DSi XL, the 3DS XL is a king-sized 3DS that folds in subtle but gratifying refinements.

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The 3DS’s clamshell exterior was a glossy fingerprint lure, whereas the 3DS XL employs a smudge-resistant matte finish that feels sleek and clean (and less like a grease trap after extended play). The “Select,” “Home” and “Start” buttons along the bottom edge of the 3DS’s lower screen are now discrete rectangles with the labels chiseled into the plastic instead of the 3DS’s flat, barely depressible mono-membrane. It’s now much easier to hit these buttons without looking at them.

The diamond five-point stereo speakers are now nine-point circles, though whether that improves acoustics is difficult to say (if anything, the 3DS XL at max volume sounds a little softer than the 3DS). The 3DS XL’s bottom corners now sport fuller curves, nestling more comfortably in the center of your palms.

Where the 3DS had three lid positions: closed, 160 degrees and 180 degrees, the 3DS XL has four: the 3DS’s three, plus a new 110-degree angle, laptop-style, which seems geared for use while resting on a flat surface. And the stylus now slides easily from the right-hand side, instead of its awkward position along the top/back next to the game slot on the 3DS.

There’s nothing subtle about the 3DS XL’s screen upgrades, of course. The top one — the wide-angle, autostereoscopic 3D centerpiece — now stretches an impressive 4.88 inches, a 38% improvement over the 3DS’s comparably anemic 3.53 inches. It’s tantamount to switching from Apple’s 3.5-inch iPhone to Samsung’s 4.8-inch Galaxy S III. The bottom 4:3 aspect touchscreen, which on the original 3DS was actually smaller at 3.02 inches diagonally than the DSi’s 3.25 inches, is also a third bigger here, expanded to a more-than-comfortable 4.18 inches. Pull up Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D on the new system and, proportionally speaking, it’s a lot more like gaming in front of a big screen TV.

Which isn’t to say playing with the 3D slider cranked to max feels any less gimmicky. It’s still more a special effect that strikes me as running counter to Nintendo’s “no frills” design philosophy. And the 3DS XL doesn’t solve the 3DS’s most serious flaw: Move your head even a fraction to the left or right (from centered and perpendicular) and the screen image darkens or doubles as you expose the “seams” in the autostereoscopic field.

For games that don’t require you tilt the handheld, you can make do for shorter sessions (though you’ll eventually tire of having to hold the system perfectly steady). But for motion-sensing games that require you move the handheld rapidly, keeping your eyes aligned is a challenge unto itself — to the point that you might as well turn 3D off entirely. The good news: That’s even easier than before. Unlike the 3DS, the 3DS XL includes a switch to lock 3D off, so you can pull the 3D “depth” down to minimum, then over a fixed threshold into the “off” position. And with 3D disabled, you’ll get much better battery life.

Speaking of, you’d think that given the 3DS XL’s size, we’d get a better battery in the bargain, but even Nintendo’s official 3DS XL rating is glum: 3.5 to 6.5 hours versus the 3DS’s three to six hours — a meager 30 minute uptick. In my tests, running Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D nonstop with 3D fully engaged, I managed to squeeze a paltry three hours and 45 minutes of battery life from the handheld. That’s a shame, because the larger screens really do make you want to play this thing longer since you’re worrying about eyestrain less.

Why didn’t Nintendo include a second thumb nub? It’s hard to say. There’s certainly space for one here, just below the face buttons (or above, if you moved those face buttons down an inch). I’d venture it’s because almost nothing supports it at this point. I count eight games that work with the Circle Pad Pro — the bulky undercarriage that adds a righthand analog nub to the standard 3DS.

Those who don’t find the second nub’s absence troubling seem to be missing this point: If, as Nintendo president Satoru Iwata claims, the purview of dedicated gaming handhelds is a “richer” experience — especially where the games literally pivot on 3D graphics — the twin-analog-stick control approach’s ability to navigate 3D-space is unsurpassed. Take a game like Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, where the camera auto-swivels to track your movement, Mario 64-style: I’ve always wanted independent camera controls in these games, say I accidentally slash past an enemy who then disappears from view, or the camera’s bopping around erratically because I’m in a cramped spot, say a house or dungeon. And that’s to say nothing of the limitations it imposes on modern first- or third-person games.

Maybe you’ve heard Nintendo plans to offer an XL-sized Circle Pad Pro later this year, but it’s hard to see the sense — you really don’t want to make something that already weighs 336 grams any bigger. (By comparison, the regular 3DS weighs 235 grams, the PS Vita with Wi-Fi weighs 260 grams and an iPhone 4S weighs just 140 grams.) It’ll also be supremely annoying if we have to buy the 3DS all over again in a year or two, say Nintendo decides to reboot the system DS Lite-style and make that its — pun intended — doubling-down point.

Still, if you have $200 to burn, don’t already own a 3DS or have yet to play the platform’s better-than-average fare like Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land, Kid Icarus: Uprising or Resident Evil: Revelations, then spring for the 3DS XL. It’s officially the 3DS to beat.

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