Nintendo 3DS Review

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By Andres Hernandez

Introduction

Nintendo has been the brand-name in the video game industry for over 20 years, and at one time the word "Nintendo" was synonymous with the action of playing video games.  Although Sony and Microsoft have both carved out chunks of the market for themselves, Nintendo continues to be the company consistently innovating in this field.

Even back in the 80's, the original NES came packaged with a light-gun and a battery-controlled robot, R.O.B., that could play the 2nd player on select games.  A few years later, Nintendo released the PowerPad, a mat you could step on to control certain titles (most notably Track & Field).  Dating back three decades, Nintendo was pushing the envelope with what it meant to play video games.

Nintendo 3DS Unboxing

Fast-forward to 2011, and Nintendo remains the trend-setter when it comes to innovation.  Their introduction of a touch screen on the Nintendo DS ushered in the era of "touch gaming" long before smart-phones capitalized on the craze.  Their widely popular Wii console has changed the face of gaming, and inspired Microsoft and Sony to implement their own motion-control peripherals (with varying success).  Now Nintendo has done it again by opening the doors of 3D gaming to a wide audience with their release of the Nintendo 3DS...but is it just a gimmick or is the 3DS truly the revolutionary device Nintendo claims it to be?  Today we find out!


Hardware


The Nintendo 3DS is very much an evolution of the DS brand.  If you already own a DS, or have played one, then you will know what to expect from a physical standpoint.  In terms of size, the 3DS is similar to the DS Lite, and sticks with the same tried-and-true form factor.  However, there are some important distinctions.

Nintendo 3DS

First there is the circle-pad, a small analog control stick.  This functions well and has a nice grip to it.  Still probably not as good as a home console controller, but very nice by portable standards.  The digital D-pad is now pushed down lower on the face of the console.  While it is usable in this position, it is not optimal, and it can be a struggle to work with at times.  Fortunately, most of the current 3DS games seem to use the analog-stick as the main directional control, so it may not be necessary to use the D-pad at all.

On the right side are the standard 4 buttons, no change here.  There are also the L(eft) and R(ight) triggers that feel improved over the original DS version.  In the center we have the touch screen which is similar to the older DS, but at a higher resolution.  Underneath that, there are three small buttons: "select", "start", and "home".  At first I thought they were capacitive touch buttons like on smart-phones, but they are just regular buttons with a soft plastic overlay on them.  They are slightly hard to press, which could be good or bad depending on how you look at it.

On the top half is a 3.5" auto-stereoscopic 3D screen which is based on a "parallax barrier".  This display has a total resolution of 800x240 pixels, but the parallax barrier splits this between eyes so you end up with a resolution of 400x240 per eye (WQVGA).  The parallax barrier works by using a monochrome LCD panel on top of the standard color LCD.  This barrier panel then displays a series of vertical lines that act to block portions of the display from one eye or the other.  With a specially crafted image on the color screen, the display can then direct one view of a virtual world to your left eye, and a separate view to your right eye.  This image separation process is what creates the 3D effect.  This is a similar idea to how 3D glasses work as they also have to filter a unique image to each eye.

Nintendo has included all the basic stuff you would expect like a microphone, power button, and volume slider.  New additions include the 3D depth slider, an SD card slot, a wireless switch, an IR port, 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, and of course...the cameras.

The 3DS includes no less than THREE cameras.  One front-facing camera, and an additional two cameras on the back for stereoscopic 3D capture.  Finally, there is the new telescoping stylus.  The new stylus feels very high quality, being made of metal, and works just as well as previous DS models.




Cameras

While the Nintendo 3DS includes three cameras (one front, two back), their quantity outweighed their quality.  The VGA cameras look like something you would expect on a cell phone from five years ago.  While this is acceptable for the front facing camera, the stereoscopic cameras would have benefitted from higher quality lenses.  If you were expecting to take the Nintendo 3DS on your next family vacation to capture the moments, be aware that the 3DS does not deliver the same quality image as a dedicated 3D camera.  That said, the 3D effect works well with Nintendo 3DS photos, and it will be a lot of fun for kids.

One thing that does excite me is the possibility of using the 3D camera for augmented reality (AR) applications.  Nintendo has provided great demos of this technology with the system, and I am hopeful that game developers will explore this further.  Below are some photos taken with the 3DS camera.

Nintendo 3DS Sample 3D Camera Pic

Nintendo 3DS Sample Camera Pic

Nintendo 3DS Sample Camera Pic

EDITOR'S NOTE: These images have a very high level of separation even though they are intended for a very small screen.  We are investigating to see if these images are accurate, or if there was some kind of technical glitch when creating them.



Sound

It seems Nintendo did not make much progress with their audio quality.  While the 3DS sounds decent, I can't really say it's better than previous DS models.  The built-in speakers can have a "tinny" quality, and I found myself trying to push the volume past 100% on a regular basis.

Using headphones will help the situation, but it still seemed like a bare minimum effort on Nintendo's part where audio is concerned.  Keeping in mind that this is a portable gaming solution, it wasn't a deal breaker for me.


Graphics


In terms of visual quality, the 3DS delivers a noticeable upgrade from the older DS hardware.

While the graphics themselves might not reach Xbox360 or PS3 levels, the addition of stereo 3D does a lot to increase the perceived image quality.  Full stereoscopic 3D rendering can require double-duty just to render each frame, so more power is needed to maintain playable frame rates.  For this reason, I think the 3DS' graphics power can be compared to the PSP, and is clearly a powerful mobile gaming system.

Street Fighter 4 is a perfect example of the 3DS's graphics power.  While I recognize that Capcom had to make some sacrifices with the backgrounds, the overall look and feel of the game is arcade-faithful.  Upcoming titles like Resident Evil Revelations and Metal Gear Snake Eater look to push the 3DS far beyond what was possible with the original DS system.  In fact, all the games I've tested so far are running at smooth frame rates between 30 and 60 frames per second.  In some cases, you can turn 3D off in the game's menu options to boost the frame rate even further - but that has been unnecessary for me.



Stereoscopic 3D Performance

The main selling point for the Nintendo 3DS is its glasses-free 3D display.  But as innovative as this may be, this is not Nintendo's first foray into 3D gaming!


Virtual Boy Commercial

In the 80's, Nintendo actually released a pair of shutter glasses for the Famicom (NES in Japan), although it was only compatible with a handful of games.  In 1995, they brought out the Virtual Boy, a pseudo head-mounted-display gaming console.  While the stereoscopic effect was novel, the system only supported one color...red...and the complicated setup made using it unwieldy.  The Virtual Boy also wasn't capable of rendering the detailed 3D polygons of today, so most games used "cardboard cut-out" style 2D sprites.  After less than a year, Nintendo discontinued the system, and The Virtual Boy was widely considered one of the biggest commercial disasters in video game history, and certainly not one of Nintendo's greatest moments.

Fortunately, the 3DS is nothing like the Virtual Boy.  In fact, the 3DS has more launch titles than the Virtual Boy had in its entire lifetime!

The 3D display on the 3DS is really something you have to see to believe.  The 3D effect looks solid, and you don't get much ghosting all.  As far as I can tell, the brightness doesn't diminish in 3D mode very much, but it still might be slightly darker than some other portable devices.  Even so, what you get is a crisp, clear, and bright 3D image that looks absolutely fantastic!  All without any glasses involved.

Unlike what some advertisements may lead you to believe, there are not many cases where objects come out of the Nintendo 3DS' screen.  Instead, what you see is more of a window into a virtual world.  This results in characters and environments looking more real - more tangible.  Again, this is the kind of thing you must experience for yourself.  2D screenshots and reading a review can never really explain what the experience is truly like.  It's the same as how screenshots of a touch or motion-controlled game never really conveys the actual experience of being there.  But take my word for it: this is the future of gaming, and it's here today!

Below are a couple of 3D videos of the 3DS in action.  Keep in mind that the quality of these videos does not reflect what you would experience in real-life...it's just a taste.


Ridge Racer 3D
CLICK HERE FOR 3D VIEWING


Street Fighter IV
CLICK HERE FOR 3D VIEWING

Nintendo was smart to include a 3D depth slider on the face of the system because it allows users to adjust the 3D to their personal taste (or to even turn it off completely).  The slider works great because it's smooth and allows a wide range of visual flexibility to choose from.  At the lowest setting the game runs in 2D, and the highest setting can border on extreme for some.  For me, 50-60% was the optimum 3D experience.

Each game has implemented the 3D slightly differently, so you may have to adjust the slider on a game-by-game basis.  Some titles like Pilotwings Resort look fine even on 15-20% depth.  Other titles like Ridge Racer can be enjoyed at settings as high as 100% on the 3D slider.  It's all up to you, really.  If it's your first 3D setup, I recommend beginning at around 30% on the slider, and gradually working your way up as needed.  

What I would like to see is game developers adding additional 3D parameters in an advanced options screen.  For example, a "convergence" control would allow gamers to determine how much 3D is inside and outside the screen.

In terms of ghosting, the parallax barrier display on the 3DS comes up as favourable.  There is still a small amount of crosstalk in high contrast scenes, but it really isn't an issue because most games use diverse color palettes.  Even for the trained eye, ghosting will only present itself if you look for it.  You can see a ghosting test image below that should give you some idea of how the 3DS display compares to other 3D solutions in the market:

Nintendo 3DS Ghosting Test (DDD Image)

The only gripe I have with the 3D screen is its narrow viewing angle.  You have to hold the unit directly in front of you at the recommended distance, and not move much at all.


Nintendo 3DS Viewing Angle Demonstration

While Nintendo recommends holding the device 10" to 14" from your face, it's more important that the angle is spot on with your eyes.  There is some room to breathe... but not much.  Once you go outside the "sweet-spot", you end up with a darkened or doubled image, so you have to make an effort to keep the system still in your hands while you play.  While this is easy for most games, it's problematic for motion based games that require you to move the 3DS around (e.g. augmented reality games).



Available Games

The launch line-up for the Nintendo 3DS isn't particularly strong, but there is a nice variety of genres.  So while there might not be that one "killer app" must-have title, there is something for everyone in the close to twenty titles available today.  They've got sports, fighting, racing, puzzle, strategy, platforming, shooting, flying, simulation...really just a nice mix of games.

The big blockbuster titles like Zelda and Metal Gear aren't coming until later this year, but what's out now is a good indication of this platform's potential.  In addition to the boxed titles, the 3DS also includes some interesting mini-games built into the system: Face Raiders and AR (Augmented Reality) Games that are both fun for awhile at least.  While I got to demo probably six or seven different titles on the 3DS, the games my evaluation is based on are Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition and Ridge Racer 3D.

If you have played Street Fighter 4 or any Ridge Racer previously, you will know exactly what to expect (so I won't bore you with the gameplay aspect).  What I will tell you is that the addition of 3D does add a major element to the games and really takes them to the next level.

In Ridge Racer, the tracks have a real depth to them, and overtaking an opponent feels much more satisfying in 3D.  It is also very gratifying to see games that were built for 3D from the start, and don't suffer from the types of problems and anomalies that are regularly found on PC 3D games.  For these titles at least, the 3D is both natural and comfortable.  The best part is with the 3D slider, you can adjust the image to what is most comfortable for your eyes.

One great thing about the 3DS is that it's backwards compatible with standard DS games.  This means you will still be able to play your collection of DS games on this new device (or purchase new games for cheap).  

However, the 3DS does not convert these old titles into 3D.  They will look almost the same as they would on a standard DS.  I say almost because the 3DS screens are slightly higher resolution, so the games have to be up-scaled to compensate.  In some cases, this up-scaling may reduce the image quality and result in a soft look or introduce some aliasing artifacts.  While this isn't a big deal, if you have a huge DS library, you may want to think twice about trading-in your old DS to get this new model, and instead treat them as separate purchases.


Battery Life


The battery life on the 3DS is much lower than the Nintendo DS Lite.  Nintendo claims three to five hours, but my own tests resulted in just 2.5 hours of playtime.  This was split between retail games (Street Fighter 4 and Ridge Racer), the built-in games (Face Raiders, AR Games), and the camera mode (where I took about 30 pictures).  During this test, I adjusted the 3D effect between 50% and 100% at various points.  The screen was also on maximum brightness, maximum volume, and wifi was enabled.

This amount of battery life should cover a typical commute, but it doesn't leave a lot of extra juice - especially on longer trips.  A souped-up third party battery pack would be a helpful accessory.  You might be able to double the battery life by disabling a bunch of features, but this would also undermine the 3DS' appeal.

To be fair, the battery life is not significantly worse than other mobile devices with comparable graphics and these consumption numbers shouldn't be that big a surprise.  It's just that Nintendo's earlier devices performed much better in this regard, and may have set the expectations too high.



Conclusion

By all accounts, the Nintendo 3DS is a big step forward for handheld gaming.  The addition of an auto-stereoscopic 3D screen has propelled this console to the next level.  Combined with a front-facing camera and a 3D camera, 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope, and the analog circle pad, you end up with something that eclipses the original DS feature-set.  With additional horsepower under the hood, the games look a lot nicer too!

Nintendo 3DS

The system is not without its faults: the small viewing angle and meagre battery life in particular.  However, I think the 3DS' benefits far outweigh its short-comings.  If you are a fan of the Nintendo DS, then a purchase of this latest iteration is a no-brainer.  If you are a fan of stereo 3d, then this is the handheld you have been waiting for.  Although the 3D effect is not as impressive as you get with big-screen 3D HDTVs, it still looks great for what it is and will surely impress all your friends.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

Got a review of your own?  Please share your thoughts below!