We went with the more colorful of the two 3DS units that Nintendo released in Japan, a hue the company calls Aqua Blue in the US. That's false advertising if you ask us, because whatever palette entry was selected here definitely falls closer to the G than the B in the visible color spectrum. It's a distinctive shade and the metallic sparkles definitely lend a high-class look, but the three-tone effect is a bit unfortunate.
On the bottom it's a light green, a sea foam. The middle is the straight, darker metallic green, and up top the lid has been given what looks to be an extra layer of clear plastic. It's a nice effect and creates a little lip, flipping the console open is made even easier, but the coating creates an even darker hue than the other two layers. That's three shades of green plus a random splotch of silver paint 'round the back, a combination that makes the two-tone '80s design of the original, chubby DS look positively minimalistic.
Inside that door you'll find a 2GB card by default, plenty for game saves and enough to get you started with downloadable titles down the road. 3DS game cartridges slot in around the back, where they have since the original DS, and of course there's nowhere to fit your old Game Boy Advance carts here -- just like on the DSi.
To one side of the cartridge slot is the AC input, the same port used on the DSi and sadly still not microUSB, so make sure you don't lose that proprietary charger. On the other side is the new telescoping stylus, tucked away in a notch that's a little hard to find -- we usually just resorted to just tapping away with a fingernail.
Flip 'er open and it's the analog stick that jumps out at you, what Nintendo calls a circle or slide pad. It stays flat and shifts about, much like the one on the PSP. This one, however, has a comfortable indent and rubberized coating that feels good to use. The D-pad has been shifted down to make way, not so far that it's a reach but if you prefer you can now use the analog stick in classic DS games -- without the use of its analogue sensitivity, naturally.
Buttons spring well and feel responsive, all except for the new Select, Home, and Start buttons beneath the screen. They look like capacitive-touch inputs of the sort you'd find on an Android or WP7 handset, but that's an illusion. They're actual, physical buttons that depress when stabbed and are a little hard to find quickly, something that, admittedly, you won't be often have to do.
The only other physical controls are the volume slider on the left (headphone jack is located front-and-center on the bottom half of the unit), a wireless radio toggle on the right, and a little silver shuttle to the right of the main screen. It doesn't have a label, other than "OFF," but is still worth discussing on its own.
The main screen
That little slider to the right of the main screen controls the 3D effect of the top-mounted, (presumably) Sharp-sourced, 3.5-inch, 800 x 240, glasses-free 3D screen. It uses lenticular lenses to send two separate images rather than one, each intended for only one of your ocular holes. So, an effective resolution of 400 x 240. Each half of the screen is populated by pixels rendered as if there were two in-game cameras, and raising the slider actually moves those two virtual perspectives further apart.
The greater the angular difference the more immediate the illusion of depth and the harder your eyes will need to work to piece things back together again. We found that in order to comfortably use the console at maximum 3D impact it needs to be held in reasonably close proximity to your face, something like 12 inches or so.
When lying prostrate on the couch and holding the console above you that's totally fine, but other times, like sitting in coach -- or even in business class -- a comfortable gaming position has the console much further away. In these situations we needed to drop that 3D slider down, lessening the overall effect but giving our eyes a much easier time of it all.
Drop the slider all the way to its minimum and the 3D effect is completely disabled. At this point the screen is purely 2D, the lenticular trickery is overridden, and your eyes are free to focus and align as normal. We're happy to report that, in this mode, the screen shows no signs of its previous 3D prowess -- it looks just like any other LCD. Better, in fact, thanks to the higher-resolution and wider aspect ratio.
That's important to note, because a lot of people are going to buy a 3DS and find they don't really care for the 3D effect at all, or that it causes too much eyestrain when using it, or maybe due to a freak stylus accident they no longer have stereoscopic vision in the first place. In 2D mode the system still looks very good.
To be clear: the screen is always in 2D mode for older DS games, and given its greater size and higher resolution, those titles are played letterboxed. Thanks to the giant black bezel you actually hardly notice it. The bottom does without the letterbox action, despite the extra resolution three-inch touchscreen (320 x 240 vs. 256 x 192 in the DSi).
We don't have firm performance figures for the 3DS but it's clearly capable of better graphics processing than its predecessors. Obviously the original DS had no shortage of 3D titles and, while the few 3DS we've seen thus far don't exactly make them look stone age by comparison, there's a definite step forward. Sadly, though, those 3D titles for the DS cannot make use of the display's trickery -- they'll be flat.
The 3DS also features both an accelerometer and a gyroscope. This enables augmented reality games like Face Raiders, which we'll discuss in a moment, but it's hard to not question the practicality of such games on this platform. When you're using the screen's 3D feature you have a specific sweet spot that you need to stay within. Move an inch in any direction and you lose the effect. Since most motion-sensitive games require motion of at least one inch you can surely see the problem.
Stereo speakers still flank both sides of the top screen, and they seem to handle slightly more volume and do it slightly more capably than the speakers in the previous DS models. We're still not talking high-fidelity here, though.
Charging and battery life
The biggest 3DS disappointment is absolutely the battery life. The 1,300mAh battery is 30 percent larger than the one in the DS Lite but simply cannot deliver the same sort of longevity we've come to expect from previous Nintendo consoles, topping out for us at three hours and fifteen minutes with WiFi enabled. Compare that to the 15 hours the DS Lite could manage and you can see why we're disappointed. Disabling WiFi added about another half hour, enough for your average commuter flight, but we're going to be in a bit of a pickle when we cross the Pacific and head to TGS this September. And, since the thing can't charge over USB, there's no hope in scavenging a little power from a laptop so that our mid-flight drift-a-thon can continue.
Realizing that the battery life and charging situation is less than ideal here Nintendo thoughtfully included a charging base. Simply throw the 3DS into it and it starts the electrons flowing, the idea being you'll plop your console in here whenever you're not using it -- or when it's playing a video or the like. When we first saw photos of it we got excited about Nintendo jumping onto the inductive charging bandwagon, but the reality is much more simple: the weight of the console pushes down a lever that causes two conductive prongs to swing out. They touch the back of the console and the juice will flow.
Camera and multimedia
Dual cameras are embedded on the back of the 3DS lid, plus another on the front, each offering one full VGA's worth of pixels -- that's 640 x 480 and laughably low-res these days even for a handheld gaming console. Of course the draw here is that photos can be captured in 3D and naturally viewed again on the screen in the same number of dimensions. however, the results look so bad that the novelty of it all will wear off in record time.
Low-res would be fine if the quality was good, but it isn't. Light sensitivity is poor, so turn on those lamps, and color reproduction disappoints. As of now there's no way to capture moving footage from those VGA monsters, but Nintendo has promised that's coming soonish. 2D photos are stored as JPEGs onto the SD card, while the 3D images get written as .MPO. There's also a simple paint application built into the 3DS and the results of your artistic handiwork likewise get written as JPEG -- at a mere 320 x 216. Finally, the onboard microphone is paired with a simple voice recorder app for sending yourself reminders or for leaving little audible surprises for your nephew.
We'll leave the detailed games coverage to our compatriots over at Joystiq but here are some brief impressions of the few imported titles we were able to take for a spin.
- Face Raiders - For a game that's built into the 3DS, Face Raiders is surprisingly fun. You take a 3D picture of a friend's mug and it's layered over what can only be described as a disembodied head held aloft by a beanie. In an augmented-reality twist these heads are superimposed over whatever the cameras see, and as they hover about, winking and smiling at you, you're asked to shoot them. To aim you simply move the 3DS around, ensuring this is a game you won't be playing much of in public. It also ensures you won't be playing this game with the 3D effect turned on, but it is still good dumb fun.
- Ridge Racer 3D - Ridge Racer 3D, or Riiiidge Raaacer 3D! as it's also known, is yet another entry in the storied sideways racing series. Little is new here, including recycled tracks, but polished graphics and visual effects make it a bit of a looker. It's not necessarily the best at exhibiting the system's 3D effects, however, something about the speed of the visuals forcing us to keep the 3D slider a little lower than usual.
- Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition - Lots of fighters are collected, some of which you'll have long-since forgotten about since the endless SF releases of yore, and all rendered in 3D and presented in 3D too. The extra depth does serve to make the highly polished graphics look even better, and the way the status bars and round timer hover over the action is a neat effect.
- Samurai Warriors: Chronicles - Somehow the feudal lords at Koei keep finding more brainless goons to fill their armies, so yet another Warriors game is needed to manage their population. It's hack and slashery galore here, as ever, and the 3D effect doesn't do much to make the gameplay more compelling than it has in the past eleventy iterations.
- Winning Eleven 3D Soccer - Depending on your proclivity for European sporting distractions the latest installment in the long-running Winning Eleven series may not have even hit your radar. But, if you're looking for a good exhibition of the console's 3D effect, this is it. Something about the flat green grass and the players rendered atop it results in the cleanest, most eye-friendly visual pop of any of the titles we sampled. It's also, quite simply, a great game of footie.
Before closing we should mention that, according to Nintendo, this is just the beginning. The company has yet to exactly clarify exactly how its new 3D downloadable offerings will be consolidated in with the existing DSiWare stuff, but we're expecting a healthy amount of downloadable content, including 3Dified versions of retro classics from the TurboGrafx 16 and Game Gear.
Intriguingly Nintendo is promising Netflix support for the 3DS as well, which could be quite compelling -- particularly should Netflix start offering 3D content. That's mere speculation, but Nintendo itself is pledging to offer 3D video downloads of some sort. We're hoping for best-of collections featuring a variety of madcap Japanese game shows.
Oh, and sadly we're told to expect region locking on all 3DS titles, though naturally we don't have any American carts yet to verify. American DS titles play just fine on this Japanese system, though.
The 3DS is simply something that needs to be seen -- not because it's so fantastic or because its design is such a departure from those handhelds that have come before it. You have to see it because the screen inspires different reactions from different people. Some start recoiling in horror long before their eyes have adjusted, others can start to get into it but then find themselves crippled by headaches, while others still never want to put the thing down.
Even ignoring that screen altogether, the 3DS is a solid evolution of handheld console design that Nintendo started ages ago. The addition of analog controls makes gaming feel more modern, the increased graphics horsepower makes games look more modern, and the reduced battery life will make gamers feel the all-too modern pangs of battery anxiety. It's not a perfect console, but it's safe to say it's no Virtual Boy.