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Nintendo 3DS Review: Does 3D Gaming Keep Nintendo Competitive Against the iPhone?

While the 3DS may offer plenty of features over the DS, whether or not an upgrade is warranted isn't a slam dunk, especially considering how much the mobile gaming space has changed since the DS was first introduced. This article outlines the features and drawbacks of the 3DS and discusses where the gaming experience fits in with current handhelds as well as the iPhone/Android gaming space.

In November of 2004, Nintendo released the Nintendo DS, the latest iteration of handheld hardware that stretches back to 1989’s release of the GameBoy. The DS stood for “dual screen,” the console’s most distinctive feature, a pair of screens, one positioned above the other, with the bottom screen acting as a touch screen. Reviews were initially mixed with gamers not quite sure how to accept not only the two screens, but the notion of playing games with a touch screen. Those misgivings quickly evaporated and the console went on to sell over 144 million units across three hardware refreshes, becoming the most successful handheld gaming console ever and the second most successful gaming console ever.

Fast forward six years and Nintendo is looking to repeat the successes of the DS with the newly released 3DS. It sports the same dual screen design, but now the top screen offers glasses free 3D, a first for the handheld gaming space. With this device Nintendo hopes to extend the life of their handheld hardware and introduce a whole new generation of gamers to handheld gaming. This, however, isn't 2004 anymore and technology has changed greatly, namely with 2007’s introduction of the iPhone.

In 2004 there were no iPhones, no iPads and no Angry Birds. Mobile gaming was confined mostly to handheld consoles, and in the handheld console space, Nintendo was king. Is the 3DS the machine to keep mobile gamers glued to Nintendo’s dual screens or is the appeal of quicker, cheaper games on devices built for far more than just gaming greater for today’s mobile gamer? For existing DS gamers, gamers with hundreds of games at their disposal, including some of the best handheld games ever released, does the 3DS represent enough of a step up to warrant an upgrade? As you decide on which mobile gaming platform is right for you, these questions, and more must be considered.

3D and Other New Hardware Features

There’s no doubt about it, the 3DS is an impressive piece of technology. Sporting the same clam-shell design as all of the DS hardware models, the unit is smaller in length than the DSi, but also thicker. The overall changes make up for a physical profile that DS Lite and DSi owners have become familiar with over the years, while at the same time brings some serious hardware upgrades to the table.

The biggest selling feature of the 3DS is the ability to offer glasses free 3D via a process called autostereoscopy. In the case of the 3DS, a barrier consisting of multiple slits is placed in front of the LCD screen displaying the image. These slits allow each eye to see a slightly different image resulting in a sense of depth similar to that achieved through lenticular printing. Through the use of a slider on the top screen, players can increase of decrease the amount of depth in the image, or turn it off altogether.

The 3D effects are impressive, albeit limited to a sweet spot roughly ten to fourteen inches directly in front of the screen. Moving out of this sweet spot causes the image to split into its two component images. For most games this isn’t a problem, but for those looking to play their 3DS during their daily commute it's a consideration.

The 3D effects are not limited to playing games as the 3DS also sports a pair of lenses on the outer case, effectively turning the 3DS into a 3D camera. As with the DSi, the 3DS has a second 2D camera on the inside of the unit, allowing users to take pictures of themselves for use in various applications, including local video chat. Although it's just 0.3 megapixels (MP), much lower than cameras present in most cell phones and smart phones, the 3D camera does an excellent job of taking 3D pictures, provided your subject is one that lends itself to 3D images. If your subject is relatively flat, you’re better off using a different camera. On a related note, the 3D effect in the images can only be seen using the 3DS, further lessening its utility.

Luckily, 3D isn't the only graphical upgrade present. Both of the 3DS’s screens sport a higher resolution and color depth than the screens in the various DS hardware models. In addition to better screens, the 3DS also has a more powerful graphics chip and more system RAM, allowing for better visuals than seen on any of the DS models. The difference between the 3DS and the DS in terms of graphics is pretty striking and finally puts Nintendo's platform on par with the graphic quality you'll find on Sony's PSP or an iOS device.

One of the most interesting features of the 3DS are the Augmented Reality Games (ARG) that come preinstalled with the hardware. Through the use of physical ARG cards, the system’s external cameras, and the 3D screen, you effectively play a video game that looks like it is taking place in the real world. Place an ARG card down on the table, view it through the 3DS screen and a target practice game sprouts out of your coffee table, complete with a final battle against a flame spewing dragon. Switch out the card for a Mario themed card and the iconic plumber stands before you in a multitude of poses that you can then capture with the 3D camera.

The cards can be used in games as well, such as Nintendogs, where one card summons your puppy to scamper about in the real world while the character cards lets your dog dress up as Mario, Link or Samus.

Also included in the 3DS is Face Raiders, a game that takes a picture of your face that it then puts on flying objects you have to shoot out of the air by spinning around in real space, using the camera and the screen to shoot the face raiders out of the air. The ARG games won’t hold your attention for the long term, but as a tech demo, it’s pretty impressive stuff.

Along with the 3D capabilities and enhanced graphics, the 3DS has some form factor hardware improvements that make for a better gaming experience. The 3DS has the familiar directional pad as well as four face buttons and two bumpers for playing games, but Nintendo has also added a sliding thumb-stick. The thumb-stick is a welcome addition that is extremely responsive and feels very sturdy. Pulling off combos in Super Street Fighter IV: 3D is much easier with the thumb-stick as is navigating games such as Lego Star Wars III.

Also added is a Home button that allows users to suspend games and open other applications such as the Game Notes notepad or the upcoming Internet browser. It has some practical use in the case of suspending a game to view notes you’ve taken, or look up hints on the Internet, but while some applications allow your game to stay suspended, others, such as the camera or notifications, require your game to be shut down. It’s not quite the multitasking some Android and iPhone users are used to, but it’s far better than having to shut down your game entirely to access other parts of the system.

One area where the 3DS’s hardware is sorely lacking is the battery life. As the 3D effect requires two images to be displayed at all times, 3D takes a serious toll on the battery as does the constant wireless connection. Fully charged the battery life of the 3DS maxes out at around five hours. Granted, this can be extended somewhat by lowering the brightness and turning off the 3D effect and the wireless connectivity, but even then, five hours appears to be a hard limit. When compared to the battery life of the iPad, iPhone or DS, the battery life on the 3DS is positively anemic. Nintendo knows this and ships a battery charging cradle with every 3DS, but that doesn't much help users planning on taking their 3DS with them on long trips. For this people, either a spare battery or a careful mapping out of airport outlets is a must.

Making the 3DS Social

With so many smartphone games utilizing the inherent communication capabilities in smartphones, as well as the rise of social and networked gaming on more traditional hardware, Nintendo has included a host of connectivity and social gaming features to encourage 3DS owners to interact with each other. The popular Mii system from the Nintendo Wii is present on the 3DS, complete with an amusing Mii Maker application that uses the console’s inner camera to take a picture of the player and construct a Mii out of it. Players can then generate a QR code from their Mii that another 3DS user can use to scan and import the Mii into their own device.

Mii interaction isn’t limited to generating QR codes for your avatar. With the StreetPass system, Nintendo is hoping you’ll take your 3DS out with you and interact with other 3DS owners in the process. Using the StreetPass system is as simple as placing the 3DS in sleep mode, closing it up, putting it in your pocket or purse and going out and about your day.

As your 3DS interacts with other 3DS’s, the consoles exchange greetings as well as Mii’s, allowing you to fill your console with a stable of avatars, simply by walking around. The StreetPass functionality is leveraged in both Nintendogs, and Super Street Fighter IV: 3D, both launch games for the console. The former uses the StreetPass system to have your virtual puppy interact with the dogs of other system owners, unlocking gifts and new dogs breeds in the process. The latter uses a team of preset fighter figurines to engage in wireless rock-paper-scissor battles for in-game currency.

In addition to using StreetPass to interact with other console owners, the 3DS’s built in pedometer tracks your steps, rewarding you with Game Coins, virtual currency used to purchase items in games.

The concept of the StreetPass system is interesting, particularly with the translation of real world actions to in-game items, however the simple fact is that you could put your 3DS in your pocket every day and never come into contact with another 3DS user. The StreetPass system works best in areas that are not only densely populated, but densely populated with other 3DS owners.

This feature may work well in Japan where the combination of dense urban areas, handheld gaming popularity and mass transit acceptance means you’re never too far away from another console owner, but in the United States, the utility of the StreetPass feature is much more limited. The fact that so many interesting items are tied to rewards gained through StreetPass interaction means that many users may never see much of what StreetPass has to offer.

That said, your interactions with other 3DS owners aren’t limited to Mii swapping via StreetPass. All of the local online and Internet play present in the DSi and DS are present in the 3DS as well. Nintendo still uses the Friend Code system to limit anonymous users from seeing your connection information, but they did remove the inconvenient requirement that every game have its own Friend Code, opting instead to have a Friend Code for the system that is used across games. The system for adding Friend Codes is still needlessly laborious and once you have the code entered, outside of specific game interactions, there’s not much you can do with the codes other than see what your friends are doing, provided they’re online at the same time you are.

Multiplayer gaming has always been at the bottom of Nintendo’s To-Do list and it shows, even in the 3DS. Parents will be thankful for one less online interaction to have to worry about when it comes to their children’s gaming habits, but adult players who are used to being able to accomplish basic social online tasks, such as messaging friends to set up that next Street Fighter match, will find the system lacking.

Finally, although Nintendo is planning on bringing both internet browsing and an improved digital storefront to the 3DS, neither of these features are available at launch. If you already own digital content purchased for your DSi, Nintendo has stated that your purchased content will be transferable to your 3DS, but the details surrounding this transfer, or any restrictions on it, have not been released.

Should You Buy?

Now that we’ve talked about what the 3DS brings to the mobile gaming landscape, the question becomes is it worth a purchase? The answer to that question depends mostly on your present mobile gaming habits and the types of features you’re used to on your handheld gaming system.

For longtime fans of the DS that have exhausted that device's extensive software library, the upgrade to the 3DS is a safe choice. The improved graphics are a welcome step up from the DS's dated visuals and, while the initial launch games are mostly lackluster ports of existing games (exactly what you’d expect for a console launch), there are some truly fantastic standouts.

Super Street Fighter IV: 3D is not only an extremely impressive graphical showing, reproducing character models that appear indistinguishable from their home console iterations, but the ability to map combos to the touch screen as a way of bringing in new players, makes for a title that can appeal to long time fighting fans as well as newcomers. Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, too, offers a strategic experience, with smart use of 3D, that you're really not going to find anywhere else.

These features, as well as StreetPass integration and local and online multiplayer show what the system is capable of when developers take the time to integrate the various hardware features into their software. If you still have some DS games in your collection, the 3DS can play them with some caveats we’ll address in the next point.

Although the 3DS is backwards compatible with DS and DSi games, due to the uptick in resolution, DS games are stretched when displayed on the 3DS. For some games, the stretching isn’t an issue, but for other games, such as the recently released Pokemon White and Pokemon Black, in-game text is slightly blurry and colors are a bit washed out. You can mitigate this somewhat by pressing both the Start and Select buttons while the DS game is loading, which displays the games in their native resolution. Doing so, however, results in an extremely reduced playing and viewing area. The games aren’t unplayable in either stretched or native mode, and some games fare better than others when stretched, but if you have a large library of DS games, the switch may turn you off.

Similarly, if the primary DS gamer in the house is a young child, the added features of the 3DS may be more than younger gamers need, especially considering the possibility of increased eye strain for younger players. The 3DS does have parental controls that limit the use of 3D for younger players, but if you’re buying a handheld for a younger player and planning on turning the 3D effect off, buying a DS or DSi is a cheaper alternative.

For iOS and Android gamers, the choice is murkier still. Smartphone games have traditionally been more casual fare, perfect for a ten minute wait at the doctor’s office, but the iPad has allowed developers to change what users can and should expect from mobile games. Games such as Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, Infinity Blade, and Sword & Sworcery EP give iPad and iPhone owners gaming experiences similar to what you can find on a console, handheld or otherwise; and they do so for a fraction of the price. This, combined with the increased utility of a smarphone or an iPad, makes buying a dedicated gaming device a tougher sell even if an iPad costs several times more than a 3DS. Also, if a $5 copy of Angry Birds fits all of your gaming needs, chances are a $39.99 copy of Nitendogs, while cute, is unnecessary.

The simple fact is that the mobile gaming landscape is a far, far different one than when the DS first launched. Gaming on the go has spread to a much larger audience and smartphones have become as commonplace as landlines of old, replacing them outright in many households. As iPhones, iPads, and Android phones increase in power, developers will find more ways to bring complex gaming experiences to them, usually at a fraction of the development cost and time when compared to a handheld console game. Nintendo knows this and, with the 3DS, brought to market features not available on any other mobile gaming platform. That, combined with the inclusion of physical buttons and controllers (like the thumb-stick), does give the 3DS an edge for now when it comes to offering a full range of gameplay experiences.

The good thing about the mobile gaming landscape is that there have never been more choices for consumers or more ways to get your fix for gaming on the go. Whether it’s a deep, 100 hour RPG on your 3DS, or a ten minute pirate romp through the ocean on your iPad, there’s a mobile gaming experience out there for all types. Picking the right one can be confusing, but with a little time spent and research conducted, the benefits are well worth it.

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