Hands-On Review Of The Nintendo 3DS

The movie industry has made billions off of 3D movies of the blockbuster variety, leading many observers to insist that 3D is the future of the art form. Unfortunately, the format has decidedly not made the leap to serious films and there are already signs that the glut of 3d movies is coming to a slow end. But does that mean 3D itself is doomed? Normally, the ultimate test of a media format’s viability is how successfully it is adopted by pornography. Sadly for us there’s not a lot of 3D porn, but in the 21st century might the law of format success also be true for video games? If so, could 3D succeed in gaming where it failed elsewhere?

Nintendo 3DS (3DS [Reviewed])
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: March 27, 2011
MSRP: $169.99

With the 3DS, Nintendo has decisively answered ‘yes’. So are they right? Having managed to get our mitts on one our own, we’ve spent the last 2 days with the new hugely hyped handheld finding out for ourselves. Now back from our headache inducing sojourn, we can report that 3DS is an awesome little device that, on a technical level, generally lives up to the hype. But it’s ultimately an incomplete package that could have been delayed a few more months, and the question of whether or not it represents the future of gaming, or is simply an interesting but gimmicky detour remains frustratingly unsettled.

The 3DS, Bit by Bit

3DS is a lot more than a gussied up DS. In addition to the 3D capabilities, it also comes with some pretty cool upgrades, features and software that defiantly close the book on the previous handheld without entirely abandoning it either. In addition to the features we’ll discuss below, it includes a new analog pad, essentially a flat analog stick that functions identically to its console-controller counterpart, a long overdue addition to Nintendo products. You can stick to the D-pad if you want, but you’ll probably use the analog more often since, you know, it’s already the standard everywhere else.

The graphics look in-cre-di-ble. The screen resolution is 800×240 pixels – compare to 256 x 192 pixels for the DS and you get an idea of how vast an improvement we’re talking about. Unless you actually have a 3DS you can’t see for yourself but trust us when we say that the 3D is ridiculous. Not having to wear stupid glasses is a gift; so too the fact that the 3D actually looks full instead of crummy post-production pop up book. The effect is a lot clumsier on DS games, but for games developed for 3DS the results are spectacular. Which is why it’s too bad there isn’t very much worth the spectacle. (More on that in a moment.)

The 3D Camera

The 3DS actually has 2 cameras – the 3D camera facing outward, and the inward-facing 2D camera. Each camera is put to thorough use but the 3D camera is the one we really care about and it is remarkable; with a few caveats. Yes, it actually takes realistic, true looking three dimensional photos. Yes, they look really cool. Yes, you can save your photos to the memory card and transfer them to a compatible device, presumably to share them, save them, etc. Yes, it’s kind of amazing to look at.

The problem is that it takes a measly 0.3 megapixel photo. And you need a device capable of viewing 3D. And you currently can’t send your photos to other 3DS units wirelessly. And it has no flash or zoom, so you’re not going to be using it to snap pictures of The Deers any time soon. Really, aside from the games and applications which use the photos you take, the incentive to do anything other than check-this-out is low. (We also can’t show you our photos, for ‘what would be the point?’ reasons)

Even taking those limitations into account however, go nuts because Nintendo did actually manage to put this thing to good use, as we’ll see.


It’s well know that 3DS comes loaded with several software apps/mini games designed to show off what it can do. If what you’re expecting with these features is dense, nutritious content, you might be disappointed; there isn’t anything as varied as Wii Sports and there are no puzzles. But as light snacks go these features are addictive and a ton of fun. Face Raiders, for example, uses the 3D camera to texture-map photos of you and your friends’ faces onto in-game elements. Then, whatever your camera is looking at (like your living room) is turned into a live action first person shooter as you defend yourself against floating heads of doom, by shooting them with golf-ish balls.

The texture mapping is not quite successful and the effect ends up looking more like Goldeneye for the N64, but it’s hilarious nevertheless.

Yeah, pretty much like this.

Miis are apparently a standard Nintendo feature from now on, because they’re back, and improved on for 3DS. You have the option of creating one from scratch, or importing your Miis from your Wii. However 3DS offers more customization options than Wii, so you can’t import your 3DS-created Miis back to the Wii. There’s a pretty neat feature that allows you to make a Mii from your photo. Take a photo of yourself using the backward-facing 2D camera, and that photo is used as the basis on which a new Mii is approximated. Once generated, you can freely edit your new Mii, which is a plus if it doesn’t come out precisely right. It’s pretty accurate though – one co-conspirator in this review tried it out and ended up with a suspiciously familiar looking mii; we sadly weren’t able to duplicate their success, but we remained impressed.

3DS also comes with a deck of 6 cards featuring classic Nintendo characters for use in a game called Ar Games. When activated, you focus the camera on the question mark card, at which point you have access to a series of unlockable games and and activities, for instance the ability to take snapshots of 3DS generated images, including your Mii.

3DS also includes a voice and sound recorder (Nintendo 3DS Sound) and StreetPass, which uses your 3DS’ wifi capability to connect to other owners who have the same feature enabled. Once connected you can share your Miis, play co/op or vs games and send messages. It’s probably not going to replace Facebook but it’s a fun way to socialize without losing that hard-fought lack of social skills necessary to be truly great at video games. There’s much more of course but the point is that it’s packed with little goodies. And as we’ve spent so much time (mostly) praising it, you’d think we’re sold, but the truth is that for all its successes, the 3DS comes with some annoying flaws that detract from the experience of using it considerably.

First, know this: you are going to get a headache. I got a headache, Phil Owen got a headache, everyone I personally know who picked one up got a headache. When you turn it on you’re treated to a message warning you not to spend too much time playing without taking a break. Heed this advice. 3D isn’t the same thing as actual depth and your eyes aren’t used to the fake real thing. It feels a lot like a hangover, and you’ll find you might have trouble focusing for a few minutes after staring too long. It’s possible this is like getting used to a new pair of glasses1, in which case a few days deep and you’ll adjust, but until that’s verified, proceed with caution.

There’s also the lack of features, like an internet browser, official Nintendo download (ala the Wii Channel), and wireless downloading that would drastically improve the 3DS’ utility. There’s supposed to be an update in May adding some or all of these features to your device but there’s no guarantee. And that’s only going to draw attention to the single biggest complaint we (and likely everyone else will) have: the utter dearth of top tier, a-list classic Nintendo franchise titles to play. Long, long ago in the mystical past, Nintendo coupled the launch of their new hardware with the simultaneous release of at least one A list franchise title. (Typically a new Super Mario game). Yeah, Gamecube launched with the odious Lugi’s Mansion; Wii launched with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, a game originally designed for the Gamecube, but at least they were ‘real Nintendo games. The 3DS launch list is embarrassing. Why are we getting three (3!!!) Nintendogs but we have to wait until summer for Kid Icarus? Kid Icarus!

We’re not denying that the 3DS is impressive. There’s enough good stuff in it to make us think that maybe we’re wrong about 3D’s inherent gimick. Unfortunately, we just can’t get around the fact that it is a content desert. We don’t know why Nintendo barely bothered to provide original IP for their new Future Of Gaming product, but it’s galling. This feels less like a proper product launch and more like expensive viral marketing for their E3 lineup and reminds one of the Wii launch. And that’s appropriate, considering that 3DS is basically a portable Wii, for all the good and bad that entails. It’s a promising but under-supported frankenconsole that takes what works about DS and adds a lot of great extras, but lacks enough to really evaluate as a gaming device. Of course, one must never forget that Nintendo was famously proved right about the Wii, and they’re betting that they can recreate their fantastic success now. It would be foolish to dismiss them, but it should be noted the Wii’s low cost compared to competitors helped a lot.

Tellingly, at $249.00, 3DS does not have that advantage. If Nintendo expects it to have legs, they need original IP that demonstrates its full potential as soon as possible. Until then, 3DS is strictly for the hardest of the hardcore Nintendophiles. Everyone else should probably wait until summer.



* Great graphics.
* Addictive pack-ins.
* Excellent features, promising applications, improvements over DS.
* Capturing what works about Wii and reducing it to a handheld.


* Headaches. Headaches. Oy, Headaches.
* “Coming-soon” features need to arrive much sooner; While solid technically, it feels rushed out.
* Strictly for brand loyal consumers and casual gamers, at least for now.
* Zero absolutely essential games available at release/dearth of a-list Nintendo IP.

1) H/T my home girl Erika Behnke.

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1 Comment on Hands-On Review Of The Nintendo 3DS


On March 30, 2011 at 12:25 am

Love the review, but you forgot to mention the crappy battery life ;) . 3-4 hours doesn’t really cut it