Nintendo’s handheld arrives in the UK today, but how well does the effect that wowed at tradeshows hold up at home?
Forget that 3.53-inch, autostereoscopic screen for a moment, and consider the fact that, without it, Nintendo’s 3DS is quite familiar. Three iterations of the old DS hardware have refined the blueprint of how Nintendo’s dual-screen consoles should look and feel, and 3DS is simply another step in that process. Its edges have been tapered (to ease opening the lid) and, viewed from the side, the unit appears as three ‘layers’ stacked upon one another. But these are minor, almost cosmetic, upgrades – the kind of refinements you see from a company perfecting a design, not reinventing it.
Open the case and the most obvious addition is the new circle pad, which has bumped the dependable D-pad farther down the unit’s left side. Springy enough to snap back when you release it, but with enough resistance to allow for precise movement, its concave surface suits the thumb better than the PSP equivalent. Less obvious are the three buttons below the touchscreen: Start, Select and the new Home button are almost flush with the surface, which makes for tidy design but means, on occasion, pausing games in a hurry can be awkward. At first, you’ll keep glancing down to be sure your thumb has found its target.
Pushing the Home button at any time brings up 3DS’s clean, uncluttered OS – which is as integrated with the console as 360’s dashboard or Sony’s XMB. It has to be, too, as the platform’s increased online functionality means that being able to quickly enter friends lists and read notifications – even in-game – is an essential feature. Functions such as these, which don’t end whatever software is currently running, appear as a series of touch-activated icons at the top of the home screen, alongside a well-meaning but rather superfluous option to jot down digital Post-it notes relating to whatever game you’re currently playing.
Software such as the camera app, the Mii plaza and the download store appear as a scrollable row of chunky icons which recall the Wii menu’s channels. It’s a simple-to-use interface, and one that’s complemented by menu screens including some of the more subtle, undeniably eye-pleasing uses of 3D we’ve seen. Still, trying to load one application straight from another does mean a few seconds’ pause.
But of course it’s all about that screen. We were worried that the extended time spent peering into the console’s 3D display would reveal limitations which our earlier tests missed, and while there have been no massive disappointments, one thing’s for certain: few people experience the screen in the same way.The 3D depth slider is an absolute necessity, and everyone who uses the console seems to settle on a unique comfort level. A handful can view the image at full whack without a problem, but many turn the slider to around the halfway mark. While those who can’t resolve the fully turned-up image might be troubled by the niggling feeling they’re getting less three-dimensional bang for their buck, we’ve yet to find someone unimpressed by the image they settle upon – and we’ve noticed our own tolerance increasing with time.
Importantly, even the merest hint of depth can enhance the visuals of a game by distinctly separating the component parts of the image. And it’s this clarity – rather than the gimmicky, popping-out-of-the-screen moments – which is what keeps you from turning the 3D off.
Some games will test your eyes more than others. Pilotwings Resort asks players to divide their focus between a vehicle in the foreground and distant landing pads and targets, and was the game which led to most players bumping the slider down a notch. When the 3D ‘breaks’, the effect is hardly disastrous – usually manifesting as a sudden awareness that you’re looking at two images rather than one, or a strange inability to focus on the screen – and is easily fixed by adjusting your viewing angle or nudging down the slider.
But even without the 3D effect, this is powerful hardware. The top screen’s resolution may not rival an iPhone 4’s astonishing display, but this is a clear step beyond DS quality. Of all the launch titles, it’s Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition which proves the console’s technical muscle, arriving on the handheld as a remarkably faithful reworking of the brilliant PS3/360/arcade original.
Novel, capable and unique, 3DS breaks from Nintendo’s recent tradition of prizing innovative interaction over arresting visuals. Having conquered the home console and handheld markets with technically modest products sporting ambitiously quirky interfaces, the new handheld marks a shift in priority back to presentation. And if the industry-wide preoccupation with motion control instigated by Wii offers any indication, get ready for more autostereoscopic imitators than you can shake a stylus at.