Nintendo 3DS First Impressions: Great Potential, Partially Realized

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Avatar‘s record-setting success aside, few entertainment trends have attracted more skepticism than 3D. When it comes to movies, even the best instances of stereoscopic filmmaking earn only begrudging respect. And the worst examples stand out for what they are: trend-driven examples of movie studios and cineplex companies trying to cash in on a fascination. People view the nascent 3DTV categories and 3D programming by network and cable TV in much the same way–as simply a method to extract premium package dollars from consumers.

Thus it’s a whopper of a gamble for Nintendo–currently the leader in both the handheld and home console video game categories–to pin its hopes of future dominance on stereoscopic 3D. Part of Nintendo’s strategy is the glasses-free angle. Unlike just about every other type of 3D experience, this new 3DS handheld doesn’t require users to wear glasses. (Or in some cases, glasses over glasses.)

So, will the 3DS be the magic bullet for convincing the masses of the awesomeness of 3D? Or is Nintendo risking its handheld gaming hegemony on what could be a passing fad? Here’s what I walked away with after my last few days with Nintendo’s latest handheld.

Price of entry:

Retailing for $250, the 3DS comes in at $50 more than the Wii and at $50 less than the more full-bodied 250 GB Xbox 360 currently on shelves. It’s a lot of money for a handheld that’s almost singularly focused on gaming. Games for the 3DS will run about $40 a pop, with pricing on downloadable games and entertainment content still to be determined.

Compared to other similarly-priced multi-purpose gadgets, the 3DS feels like a big risk. It’s certainly not an impulse buy and probably not a purchase you want to make if you’re happy with an older, 3D-free DS system.

Graphics and 3D:

Visuals are one area the 3DS shows marked improvement. All of the things you look for in game graphics are demonstrably better on it: colors are brighter, more details show through, and greater variety of lighting effects are possible. With new games, the top screen compares favorably to the iPhone 4 in sharpness and brightness. But, while the 3DS is backwards compatible with the formidable DS legacy library, the older games look, well, off–the colors are washed out and the graphics look fuzzy.

It’s also worth noting that some games take a speed hit in 3D. Super Street Fighter IV 3D, for example, seemed to move just a tiny bit faster when the depth slider was off.

The 3D, of course, is what most people are showing up for, and while it works, it’s not consistent. The stereoscopic effect is achieved by splitting a single image into two, but when you don’t look at it straight-on, you see both split images simultaneously. I had to hold my 3DS in a variety of different ways–holding it away from my eyes about arms length and tilted slightly to the left–to get the 3D image to “lock” in my field of vision. Fiddling with the depth slider fixed a bit of this, but even that “hack” varies from game to game. For example, I had problems keeping the image locked while playing Madden NFL Football, and receivers on the left and right would flicker in and out of view (I had far less trouble with Pilotwings Resort). In short, the sweet spot–that magical instance where the 3D just works–can be both difficult to find and difficult to maintain. Handhelds are inherently unstable objects–they move in your hands, and even slight movements can throw the 3DS’s 3D effect off.

Hardware and Interface:

Nintendo’s new clamshell weighs in at 8 ounces, much heavier than previous DS models.

Slight cosmetic changes are noticeable all over. There’s a slight bevel to the lid, making it easier to open. The slot for the stylus is on the back instead of the side. The new analog circle pad feels great, letting you glide from motion to motion with precision–important for games like Pilotwings Resort where you’ll need to nail landings perfectly to score full points.

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I talked a bit about the 3DS’ innovative wi-fi features when the release date was announced. Setting up the Street Pass is easy enough, but without other 3DSes to swap data it’s impossible to know how well it works. For online play, you’ll need to share your device’s Friend Code with others. The download stores for the 3DS aren’t yet live so there’s no way to tell whether you’ll be able to install games or other trailers to the included SD card.

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