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Review: Nintendo 3DS is impressive but comes at a price

Modern 3-D gaming has been around for a while, but it's far from mainstream. That changes with the launch of Nintendo 3DS, a portable game platform that promises stereoscopic effects without the need for those bulky, ugly glasses.

The system's naked eye 3-D effect really works. Images have a realistic sense of depth similar to what you might see in a 3-D Hollywood film. Objects appear to float above the screen or sink into it, depending on the scene and game (see our roundup of select 3DS launch titles here).

How is this possible? Without getting into too much technical detail, the top display employs two screens and what's known as a "parallax barrier" to direct a different image toward each of the player's eyes, mimicking the way we naturally perceive our world from two separate angles. The catch is that people with pre-existing eyesight conditions that lead to depth-perception deficiency may not be able to see the effect.

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Interestingly, Nintendo recommends that players younger than seven years old not play games in 3-D, though no long-term medical research exists to confirm that stereoscopic images can harm children's developing vision. Indeed, some optometrists are even welcoming the device in hopes that it will help them detect correctible vision problems in younger players.

Assuming you can see the depth effect, you'll need to remain in the sweet spot -- around 30-centimetres from the screen and dead centre -- to maintain it. Move your head or tilt the device a little left or a little right and you'll be treated to a nasty ghosting effect. Nintendo is banking on this kind of 3-D working well in a handheld system because gamers generally don't stray too far from this position while playing. However, if you're on a bumpy bus or -- like me -- have a tendency to use a bit of body English and tilt the display while playing, you might have difficulty maintaining the 3-D effect.

Thankfully, the stereoscopic function can be reduced or even switched off completely by moving a slider on the right side of the top display. The change is instant; there's no need to quit the game or even pause it. And playing 3DS games in two-dimensions is still a big step up over Nintendo DS games thanks to the device's higher resolution (800-by-240 pixels) widescreen display and improved processing power, which churns out graphics nearly on par with what you might see on Nintendo's home console, the Wii.

The 3DS' stereoscopic functionality extends beyond games and into photography, thanks to a pair of 0.3 megapixel cameras spaced a few centimetres apart on the outside of the device's lid. Pictures are predictably grainy and can only be viewed on the 3DS, but they're fun to tinker with and show off to friends. Nintendo has alluded to 3-D video as well, which is likely to be implemented via a firmware update later this year. A third, inward facing camera lets users snap monoscopic pictures of themselves.

3-D effects and improved horsepower aren't the only ways in which the 3DS is distinguished from its predecessor, the Nintendo DS. Another major upgrade comes in the form of an analogue circle pad in the top left corner of the control console. The pad feels great and provides much more precise control than the d-pad directly below.

My only criticism of the circle pad is that there's just the one. Why Nintendo didn't include a second on the right side of the console, which plays host to a quartet of action buttons on top and, except for a tiny power button, is empty below, escapes me. Two pads would have made controlling first- and third-person games on the 3DS akin to controlling them with a standard console controller. Nintendo should have learned a lesson from rival Sony, which has taken heat from gamers for years for designing its PSP with just one analogue nub before wisely engineered its upcoming Next Generation Portable to feature two.

Below the loading screen is a trio of buttons, including Nintendo's standard "select" and "start" as well as a new button called "home" that suspends whatever game or application the user happens to be in and brings up the home screen. From here, players can adjust brightness and power-saving options, find online friends, and -- one of my favourite new features -- use the stylus to scrawl out little notes, maps, and reminders pertaining to their current game. Users can also switch to other programs, though at the cost of closing the current one.

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Overall build quality feels good. Metal accents -- including a retractable aluminum stylus -- plus a thick, heavy-duty screen hinge offer the impression that this game machine has been made to weather the sort of abuse certain to be dished out by younger players. The shoulder buttons have nice resistance, and the small volume and wireless sliders on the sides of the bottom panel are grippy enough to be easily adjustable but located in positions that make them unlikely to be accidentally moved. There's no onboard storage, but SD memory is supported via a side slot that comes with a 2GB card pre-inserted.

Its width is a smidgeon smaller than that of the Nintendo DSi, but the top panel is a couple of millimetres deeper, making its overall size feel roughly comparable. Tipping the scales at about 230 grams, it's a wee bit heavier than its precursor, likely due to the 3-D screen, which feels weighty when flipped open.

Another consequence of that high-tech top display is noticeably reduced battery life. Nintendo rates the battery for just three to five hours, and my anecdotal experience -- with WiFi on and brightness jacked up most of the time -- has seen it clocking in closer to the lower end of that scale. Nintendo has packaged the system with a dock to encourage users to recharge as often as possible, but that won't be of much help to players on overseas flights or kids who run out of juice on a bench in the mall during long Sunday shopping trips.

While the 3-D hardware will be the device's initial draw, players might end up surprised by all of the things they can do with the system without even having a game card inserted. The home screen -- a series of application tiles the configuration of which is customizable -- is packed full of pre-installed programs that require no further purchase. Some features are more or less carryovers from the DSi, including little picture-morphing and sound recording apps, but most are brand new.

Like the MiiMaker. This avatar generator is similar to the one found on the Wii, though there are a couple of enhancements, such as the ability to snap photos of yourself and have the system automatically create a Mii for you as well as the capability to make quick response (QR) matrix barcodes that contain your Mii and allow you to share it with other camera-equipped devices.

Complementing MiiMaker is StreetPass, a program that allows players to swap Miis with other 3DS owners via wireless connection. With StreetPass switched on, 3DS devices in near proximity will seek out and communicate with each other, regardless of whether you're actively playing a game or in sleep mode. StreetPass isn't just limited to Mii swapping; it's also the focal point of a couple of simple pre-installed games. One sees players trading puzzle pieces with other 3DS owners that can be used to complete a picture while another involves swapping little heroes who help players battle through a basic fantasy adventure in tiny increments.

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Other games take advantage of the 3DS' peer-to-peer communication, too. If two people who have played Super Street Fighter IV walk past each other, for example, their collectible virtual Street Fighter figurines will automatically spar. Results will be tallied and sent to both players. Sadly, with no other 3DS owners yet wandering about I wasn't able to get much of a feel for this feature

Another pre-installed game, Face Raiders, employs the system's cameras and motion sensors. Players begin by snapping a picture of someone's face, which gets slotted into floating helmets that become targets to be shot with little balls. Players aim with the camera, physically moving the 3DS left and right, up and down, and sometimes turning in complete circles. It's basically just a tech demo -- a way of showing off the system's capabilities -- but it's fun in brief bursts, assuming you don't mind people wondering why you're spinning around like an awkward ballerina.

A second pre-installed tech demo is AR Games, a collection of mini-games and activities that uses the cameras in tandem with a group of six carboard cards that come in the box. Place the cards on a table, aim the cameras at them, and characters and scenery will pop up above them. You can move the camera around the card to view these virtual objects at different angles. The visual effect is similar to that of other camera based games, such as Invizimals for PSP and EyePet for PlayStation 3.

Then there's the built-in pedometer, monitored via the system's Activity Log program. Depending on your level of skepticism, you'll believe Nintendo included this feature either to encourage people to get a bit of exercise or as an incentive to have them take their 3DS with them everywhere they go. I suggest the latter because the 3DS doesn't just count steps, but also rewards players for walking by conferring coins that can be used to unlock items and features in certain games. The Activity Log also tracks the games you play and how much time you spend with each one -- handy for parents monitoring their kids' game intake.

Another function accessible through the Home screen is Notifications, a means by which players are alerted to new information about their 3DS hardware and software. So far most of the notifications I've received have come from Nintendo and have been about the 3DS -- when I popped in an old DS card (that's right, your old DS games are compatible) a message appeared here explaining how certain 3DS features wouldn't work with them. Any action on the StreetPass front will pop up here, too, as well as notes pertaining to some games.

Nintendo plans to release plenty of additional features through system updates, including a shop through which players will be able to download games -- originals and re-releases of classic handheld titles -- a system-transfer feature to access downloadable games you've already purchased for the Nintendo DSi, and an Internet browser. It's both a surprise and a shame that these features aren't ready at launch, but at least they provide early adopters something to look forward to.

The 3DS is a powerful and innovative device, no question, but it comes at a cost. At $250 -- more than a Wii or an entry-level Xbox 360 -- it's far and away the most expensive handheld game system Nintendo has ever released. And keep in mind that it's targeted primarily at kids. Many adults enjoy playing games on the go, too, but this is a steep price even for them -- especially in the face of increasing mobile game competition from the smartphone market

There's no denying the impressive range of features built into the Nintendo 3DS, but mass adoption on the sort of scale seen with the Nintendo DS -- which currently reigns as the world's all-time best selling dedicated video game platform -- seems unlikely until the price comes down.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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