As you probably know, Nintendo’s new handheld has been suffering from relatively poor sales for the last 6 months. To remedy that, the big N decided to dramatically drop the price by over $80, from $250 to $170 (the same price as the most recent DS iteration the XL). But even with news of the drop, there were a lot of reservations and concerns from potential buyers out there about whether or not this new handheld was even worth buying in the first place. I had a lot of the same concerns and for the most part nobody was addressing them (with the exception of a few helpful articles on IGN).
This week I took the plunge, and I’m looking to address a lot of those issues that are keeping some people on the fence.
While it’s true that the house that Mario built will always hold a special place in our hearts, it would be the highest of follies to overlook their past missteps. Going with over expensive Cartridges for the N64 and loosing many of their 3rd party publishers. Going with smaller irregular media for the Gamecube along with further diminished 3rd party support. The Wii, a current gen system with last gen graphics and the most shovelware this side of a pit in the California desert holding thousands of Atari cartridges that just wanna “Phone Home”. Of course we can’t forget about the Virtual Boy, Nintendo’s last attempt at a cutting edge 3D experience.
It’s not all bad, of course all those systems had memorable gaming experiences on them (except the Virtual Boy of course), but aside from 4 major Zelda releases since the N64, there hasn’t been too much on a Nintendo system to draw in the mature or hardcore gaming crowds. Between the Fanboyism of the Nintendo Zealots and the fickle nature of many industry news sources, it was really hard to ascertain whether or not the 3DS was for me.
Since the 3DS was first unveiled, every gaming news media outlet was all about how amazing the new DS was, with its updated graphics and no glasses 3D screen. But it seemed like as soon as it actually came out, they all did a 180 and couldn’t stop reporting on all of its faults. Poor battery life, narrow viewing angle for the 3D screen (Which had been reported before as viewable from almost any angle, if that’s not being caught up in hype I don’t know what is), the lack of killer apps, and poor sales. Almost every article for the last few months before the price cut announcement seemed to be predicting the systems uncontrolled demise.
From a consumer’s perspective that can be really confusing. “How can something you guys liked so much, actually be so terrible?”. But alas that just seems like the way things are going in general for the gaming news media. Previews build games up, Reviews tear them down.
I had, what I considered to be, some real important questions about the system, from a consumer’s perspective, that I just wasn’t getting down to earth answers for. Should I be looking into a 3DS, or should I just pick up an XL for the same price? Is there going to be a 3DS Lite, or i, or XL, or Super Mega coming out that I should just wait for? Is the battery life really all that bad? How does the 3DS compare to something like the PSP, or more importantly, how will it stack up to the Vita? Are there any non-Nintendo franchise games in the pipeline that I should be excited about?
With the exception of the second question, I was hard pressed to find an answer to any of those. I do have to thank IGN for running a series of articles about the 3DS that helped me to make an informed decision , I’ll include links to those at the bottom of the article. I’ll also try my best to address the rest of those questions, along with any other practical concerns as we go along.
What’s in the Box
The packaging is a pretty straight forward affair with a super fat full color instruction booklet, your standard warranty, and Nintendo Power information. Hardware-wise you get the 3DS itself, along with a power cord and a convenient charging dock, which gives the 3DS that added big boy feel. You also get a 2gb SD card from Toshiba to save all your account data and system preferences. It’s always a nice touch when you don’t have to go buy that one more thing.
Lastly there is a set of AR (Augmented Reality) cards for you to play around with using the 3DS’ built-in Stereoscopic camera. The cards feature classic Nintendo characters, along with a special mystery card. The “?” card allows you to play a selection of AR games right out of the box, that transform your tabletop into a virtual game world. It’s cool, it’s fun, and its free. You can’t argue with that.
The 3DS itself is actually a solid piece of hardware. Say what you will about the styling, but when compared to the light, overly plastic feel of the DS, this handheld easily holds its own alongside some of my finer products from Apple. I’ve had a PSP since it launched and this 3DS feels about the same as far as weight and build quality, while the buttons feel a bit stiffer and the analog stick is a lot more useful. While the DS was right at home in the grubby little mitts of 6-12 year olds, the 3DS is definitely something aimed at an older audience. The sophistication of the device and its components would really make me think twice about letting my Wife’s young cousins hold this, particularly the smaller ones, even though they all own DS’s.
That brings me to a good point. The primary feature of the 3DS (the 3D screen) isn’t something that’s recommended for use by small children. So if you’re thinking about picking this up for your kid, then maybe you want to think again.
The 3DS features a menu system similar to the Wii’s channel interface with various applications all displayed as fun 3D icons. You get a camera function that allows you to utilized the back facing 3D camera. Unfortunately you can only view images on the 3DS itself, and the picture quality is rather poor for this day and age. There a sound recorder that lets you play around with recorded sound bites, a Mii creator, and an AR game called Face Raiders that uses the forward camera to put your face on flying helmets that attack you from your real world surroundings.
Nintendo has also added their Nintendo eShop which features a number of downloadable games and various apps. A nice touch is that they have moved away from a point system and now use actual currency for the transaction. But after all of this year’s hacking incidents, I would recommend just buying a giftcard from Target to do your buying.
Of course, the major draw of the 3DS is the glasses-free 3D right? The good news is it works surprisingly well, the bad news is it only works surprisingly well when you look at it just right. When you’re spot on, you get a pretty nice since of depth that can be controlled with a small dial on the side which raises and lowers the intensity of the effect, as well as turning it off completely. Games like Zelda and Pilotwings make good use of the feature, Zelda in particular benefits from the added depth, making it almost feel like a new game, it’s actually what sold me.
Experience-wise I would (as most have) equate looking at the screen to looking at a magic picture book where you had to cross your eyes to see the 3D image. Of course it doesn’t take that sort of effort at all, but the feeling is the same. I’m not really a fan of 3D movies, but I actually kind of like it in the video game application. You really feel like there’s a depth to the digital world you’re looking at, and every now and then something may just fool you into thinking an object is breaking the 4th wall.
Unfortunately it’s not all good news though. The optimal viewing angle for the 3D effect is incredibly small, if you fall out of it your treated to an abrupt change in picture. The term “viewing angle” is a bit misleading though because in addition to keeping the 3DS dead-on in front of you, it also has to be at the optimum distance, any closer or farther will again result in a double image, and at the very least minor ghosting. This can become a real pain because many of the games require (or forcefully suggest) that you take advantage of the system’s gyroscope and accelerometer to aim at various things in-game. Unfortunately doing that often causes the 3D effect to immediately fall out of whack unless your twisting your neck to stay within the viewing angle at all times.
Ironically though, getting back into that sweet spot is a lot more jarring to the senses than falling out. Almost like having your goggles slowly fog up as your swimming; you don’t notice it until it becomes annoying then you have to stop, take them off, and splash some water in them before you swim again.
The 3DS Lite Dilemma
Like Apple, Nintendo has made a habit of released a large number of newer iterations of their flagship products, each with just enough upgrades to justify the purchase. Why buy an iPhone 3G when you can wait and get the 3GS, but why get the 3GS when you can get the 4, and why get the 4 when they are talking about the new specs for the 5. From a business standpoint this is a great practice, it ensures that you always have a new product to attract more customers. However, it can put consumers in an uncomfortable situation where you’re never sure when to buy. Nobody likes to drop a generous amount of money on a new piece of hardware, only to see it rendered obsolete the next month.
While Nintendo hasn’t been releasing a new DS every year or so like Apple has iPhones, there have been 4 versions of the DS released since it launched, not to mention the multitude of colors for each iteration. Naturally a person is going to wonder if they should just wait for the next one, particularly since people have so many bad things to say about the current one.
Now, IGN wrote a really informative article that sold me on the idea of not waiting (I have the link at the bottom of the page), but it pretty much boils down to the fact that the 3DS hasn’t been selling nearly as well as its predecessor, so it’s going to be a while before they even start to think about spending the kind of money it takes to make a new one. At the very least, the previous DS Lite came out 18 months after the original DS, and if you went by that logic, you’d still have to wait for over a year from now to get one.
My own logic went a bit like this: I know they are ramping up for the Wii-U so even if they were planning a new 3DS it would have to wait until that launch window was over. So at best that leaves over a year before they announce anything, and what if I did wait for a year and there’s no news about a 3DS Lite? Well then I wasted a year that I could have been enjoying this system, waiting for a slightly better version. Now when I finally decide to go buy one, the chances of me getting surprised by a new version coming out in a few months is even greater.
At the end of the day, there’s always going to be something newer, bigger, and greater that what we originally bought, and you just have to draw the line somewhere. And honestly, when a 3DS Lite does eventually come out, the press and everyone else will just start to speculate about a 3DSi anyway.
As for the battery, which has been one of the largest factors in wanting a newer version; I really haven’t found it to be all that bad. Now I will say that the original DS had amazing battery life, but it also isn’t anywhere near as powerful as the 3DS, and more power means more battery usage, you just can’t get around that.
3DS and Vita
While it of course depends on the types of games you like to play in general, I believe that the Vita will be a stronger offering, hands down. It has far superior graphical capabilities, more robust online offerings, a larger screen, and what should be a greater compatibility with the current PS3 as far as cross platform gaming. I think the Vita pricing also had a lot to do with the 3DS price cut as well; $250 is a lot of money for any handheld, but even more when its placed against a stronger offering.
But the 3DS does have some things going for it though. First, as far as I know, the Vita isn’t backwards compatible, at least not with physical media since it doesn’t have a UMD drive. On the other hand the 3DS has access to the thousands of DS games that are already on the shelves. While the 3DS didn’t have a very strong launch library, there are still a good deal of games out there, and if you’re like me (and never owned a DS) then these games are as good as new anyways. The Vita has more than a few notables coming out in its launch window, but like all new systems there’s probably going to be some lag between those games, and the next wave. It’s always fun to get that new console on day one, but honestly at the end of the day you’re paying through the nose to basically play 1-2 games for the next 3-6 months.
For my part, I’m really enjoying my 3DS, and I’ll really enjoy my Vita, when I eventually buy one. With the new price cut, I really looked at the 3DS as just buying a regular DS, with some new functions and the potential for new and great games down the road. On the other hand the Vita will be an all new console (with little connection to the current PSP) that attempts to blur the line between console and handheld.
If you’re on the fence about the 3DS, then my advice is this:
If you already own a DS of some type, then you may as well wait until there are more games out there to warrant the expense of the new console. But on the other hand, if you don’t already own a DS then I think the 3DS is a good deal, there is already a large library of games, and the development cycle is finally starting to ramp up. The question about whether you should get this or the Vita is really one that should be saved for a year from now, when both have been on the market for a while and have had time to build up stronger libraries. Until that time, I would have to say that the 3DS is money better spent.