Nintendo addresses perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of its stereoscopic handheld this week with the release of the Nintendo 3DS Circle Pad Pro. The $20 peripheral provides 3DS gamers a second analogue circle pad – a crucial component in traditional first- and third-person action games. But it's not an ideal solution.
While the circle pad itself is only a little larger than a dime, it's connected to a base that, once snapped onto the 3DS, makes for a decidedly ungainly hybrid gadget that's wider, heavier, and just about as thick as a traditional controller. Stuff an Xbox 360 gamepad in your pocket and you'll have some idea what it's like to try to slip Nintendo's mobile system into your trousers with the Circle Pad Pro attached.
I might have understood the girth had the device housed a supplementary slab of lithium-ion, which would have helped solve the 3DS's other big problem: Dismal battery life. Alas, no such luck. While the Circle Pad Pro does indeed carry a battery, it's of the triple-A variety and simply provides power to the peripheral itself -- a necessity, given that it doesn't actually plug into the 3DS but instead snaps on and connects via infrared sensor.
So, why so big? The first reason is that in addition to the second circle pad the device provides a pair of extra shoulder buttons. Note that I use the term "buttons," not "triggers," and that buttons are a bummer. The former are rounded and can lead to finger slippage at key moments while the latter are concave and help keep fingers in place. The second is simple ergonomics. The underside of the add-on is gently curved to resemble the belly of a console controller. It does make the 3DS more comfortable to hold, but, as intimated above, at the cost of making it a whole lot less pocketable.
All of this said, once you try the Circle Pad Pro you'll understand why, in some games, it's absolutely essential.
I used it in conjunction with Resident Evil: Revelations. I had already played through Capcom's horror game once before laying hands on the Circle Pad Pro. I enjoyed it, but criticized the controls as inadequate for the game's fast action sequences. That beef diminishes significantly with the addition of the Circle Pad Pro.
Without the second pad it's all but impossible to effectively pan the camera to scan your environment while walking, and you're glued in place once you begin aiming at enemies. Attach the Circle Pad Pro and it feels as if blinders have been removed from the screen's edges. You gain the ability to fully examine your environment while on the move and you can even maneuver while firing. Granted, movement is slow, but that's a design decision on Capcom's behalf. If it were a standard first- or third-person shooter you could expect full movement speed while aiming and firing.
When I reviewed the 3DS last spring I harped on the device's lack of a second joystick-like analogue control input. There's even a spot on the bottom right side of the device's clamshell case where it seems an additional circle pad was meant to be placed. Why it remained empty through design and testing seems beyond comprehension.
It's not like Nintendo didn't know people would want two analogue controls. Both gamers and game makers have been screaming for a twin-stick handheld for years. Sony's spent the better part of the last decade taking flack for not offering the original PlayStation Portable in dual-stick configuration and watched as skilled consumers modded their PSPs to fix the design error. And while it took a while, they finally listened. The PSP's successor – the soon-to-launch PlayStation Vita – sports matching analogue sticks.
Alas, Nintendo seems to have been looking the other direction.
The Circle Pad Pro may be ugly and bulky and necessitate an additional investment that 3DS gamers ought never have been forced to make, but if you have any interest in traditional action games like Resident Evil: Revelations or the upcoming Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D and Kid Icarus: Uprising, it's pretty much essential.