It’s been more than five years since Nintendo released its Nintendo DS mobile gaming platform — or less than two if you count those slightly tweaked upgrades with smaller (or bigger) form factors or video cameras. True to form, the clam shell-type device with two screens and a stylus didn’t offer cutting edge graphics, but it was backed by a truckload of fun software with recognizable brands like Mario that helped the whole DS family of devices sell 47 million-plus units in the U.S. alone.
But a lot has changed since 2004 (or even 2008), something I was reminded of while waiting at a restaurant for dinner last week. A funny thing happened: a family of five parked next to me in line, and all three kids, definitely under the age of 16, whipped out iPod Touches and played games on them. It was an eye-opener: five years ago, they all would have been playing Nintendo devices, but in an age where content is increasingly downloadable and general consumer devices like smartphones are popular and mainstream, that’s no longer necessarily the case.
So it was with mixed feelings that I unboxed the Nintendo 3DS. Based on what I’d heard, and after a brief hands-on with the device back in January, the company’s bold experiment with 3-D had paid off. Just as it had innovated with motion-based controllers in the Wii console, Nintendo has created another gaming device with a standout feature that its competitors will probably copy. But it’s not perfect.
What we liked:
It’s 3-D! Depending on you who ask, the 3-D effect works surprisingly well, giving games some serious visual pop. Playing a game like Street Fighter IV 3D Edition, probably the best showcase of what the 3DS can do, is an addicting process, not just because the solid controls and game mechanics from the original version remain intact on this pocketable device, but because it makes the experience of laying smackdown upon opponents that much more visceral and satisfying. With a game like this, it’s a welcome visual garnish, but a garnish nonetheless. Imagine when developers have more time to tinker with the hardware and create games for it that really integrate depth of field-type stuff into the core game experience.
It’s also pretty nice that the Nintendo 3DS features a slider on the right side, like a volume slider, that let’s players adjust the 3-D effect to various degrees. So if you want the full effect, crank the slider up. Or if you want to keep it old school, you can dial it all the way down to 2-D. The 3DS also offers the ability to take 3-D photos, but the photos we took ended up being pretty grainy and low quality. Also, they’re only viewable on 3DS devices.
Semi-sweet eye candy. Whether you play in 2-D or 3-D, players will find the graphics here are better than previous Nintendo mobile devices. Indeed, they’ve reached a point where even hardcore gamers that grew up on Halo, like me, probably won’t protest. Of the four games we spent time with, Street Fighter IV looked the best, almost as good as the versions for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and PS3, and upcoming games like the horror shooter Resident Evil 3D (see below) offer a glimpse at what Nintendo’s mini-console is really capable of.
Augmented reality. As for the augmented reality (AR) games, we’ve seen them done before, but the 3DS is the first game device to (mostly) get it right. The system comes with a few games right out of the box. Face Raiders, which is already installed, lets players take a photo of someone’s mug and slap it on enemy drones that fly around the real-world environment for you to shoot down. The pack of AR cards, which also includes a shooting game, is somewhat less cool because you need to keep the device within a certain range of the card — usually 14 inches — or you run into error messages.
WiFi connectivity. The 3DS can hook up to WiFi points, and it works really well. In StreetPass mode, it can download new game content — stages, ghost data, rankings — and communicate with other 3DSes within proximity while turned off. So hypothetically, a player with a 3DS in his bag could automatically swap Pokémon with another player’s 3DS while walking down the street. This could arguably bring interactivity to a new level.
What we didn’t like:
Pricing. While the 3DS has a lot going for it in the graphics department, there are a few drawbacks. At $249, the 3DS is more expensive than a Nintendo Wii ($199) and a general device like the 8 gigabyte iPod Touch ($229). Sure, neither offers 3-D, but the price point, along with the fact that Apple and Android devices are becoming increasingly competitive with hardware and software, will probably give some people pause. Should they spend $250 on a device that really only plays games priced at $40, or should they pick up a device that includes gaming along with many other features like email and web browsing? Given Nintendo’s target audience — casual gamers, people who don’t even like to call themselves gamers — that could become an issue.
Weak battery life. Nintendo says that players will manage about 5 hours between charges. With 3-D on and the volume and brightness up, we got a little more than three hours, which really isn’t great considering it took us about another three hours to charge it from empty to full. But you can get about five to six hours if you turn off 3-D.
The design. Though some people already love the look, the 3DS struck me as decidedly retro, and not in a good way. Save for a few things like the joystick, the cameras, and the pearly teal color, it resembles a bulkier version of the Nintendo DS, which in turn vaguely reminded me of this Donkey Kong Game and Watch device from 1982. Nintendo definitely has the design chops to pull off a slick design (think: Wii), but it played it safe here, and that’s disappointing. No one will ever take a look at the 3DS and call it a sexy piece of hardware. I’d have loved for Nintendo to break away from that tired clamshell look and be as daring with the overall design as it was with the 3-D technology.
The system has a few other shortcomings, probably due to Nintendo’s legacy as a traditional hardware and software company. In an era chock full touchscreens, it’s strange that the device includes and sometimes mandates a stylus for menus where you have to type in names and such. (I tried doing that without the stylus and failed miserably.) And the system still requires you to buy game cartridges — though you can download and trade additional content via WiFi — which seems odd given the overall rapid shift in tech towards digital distribution.
Don’t get us wrong. The 3DS is a solid product with great graphics that pop, and the inevitable onslaught of software from game developers, including marquee brands like Mario and Metroid from Nintendo itself, means this will go on to sell millions like its predecessors. It just has some indisputable shortcomings, which Nintendo will no doubt iron out with newer, better upgrades (Nintendo 3DSi, anyone?) soon enough.