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All Hype Aside: Early Impressions of the Nintendo 3DS

Two weeks after its release, what are the first impressions of the most pre-ordered gaming system in history?

A month ago, I wrote an article to set up the seismic event that was to be the release of the Nintendo 3DS. Two weeks ago, after Amazon UK declared it the most pre-ordered gaming system in history, it was finally released to the masses. After receiving my own pre-ordered unit, I've now spent a number of hours over the past two weeks on the device, and it's time to review the early impressions of gaming's hottest item.

The 3DS appears to be a bit thicker than its predecessor when closed, but with the device open during use, the weight feels evenly distributed for comfortable long-term play. Any DS aficionados will feel right at home with the control layout: a directional pad on the left, the familiar ABXY face buttons on the right, and L and R shoulder buttons behind the screen. The start, select, and new Home buttons are now positioned under the touch screen. But really, the only obvious differences on the surface here are the introductions of an analog circle pad above the directional pad on the left and the 3D slider to the right of the upper screen.

The feel of the analog pad seems just right. There may not be a significant range of movement, but there is just enough resistance offered to allow for easy fine-tuning without feeling loose. It's enough to help it be the preferred controller for most games, and it works with legacy DS games as well. The new stylus is retractable so that it can fit into the 3DS unit vertically, but it is stored in the unit in the rear of the device next to the game cartridge. This unfortunately makes it much less convenient to find and grab quickly mid-game than it was in the DS, where it was easily grabbed with your right hand already resting over it. Time will tell if gameplay for any particular titles will suffer as a result. The obvious solution to such a problem is to remove the stylus and sit it beside you as you play, but that also greatly increases chances of misplacing it.

Powering up the device illuminates a cool blue light at the bottom of the unit and the 3DS wastes no time in arriving to full functionality, completing the boot process in seconds. The touch screen displays the Home screen, which shows an inventory of the software on the device. A bar across the top of the touch screen lists shortcuts to brightness settings, screen layout options, Game Notes, Friend List, Notifications, and the Internet Browser (which is not yet enabled in this software version). The upper 3D screen graphically details the current selection on the touch screen, and displays battery power, date and time, strength of wireless internet connection, and a small icon depicting how many "steps" you have taken in a day and how many "play coins" you have earned. 

The Home screen feature also acts as a persistent overlay to any 3DS applications and games you may be running. If anyone on your Friend List signs on while you are playing a game (as evidenced by an orange notification light), you can press the Home button and it will automatically pause the game and bring up the Home screen. From here, the applications across the top bar can be run while the game remains suspended in the background. When finished, hitting the Home button again resumes the game. In this way, the Home screen can be thought of as the 3DS equivalent of the Xbox 360 dashboard, or the Playstation Menu on the PS3.

The aforementioned "steps" and "play coins" pertain to an interesting detail about the 3DS: the StreetPass feature. It actually rewards you for closing the system, going somewhere, and socializing in good old face-to-face non-gaming fashion. When you close the 3DS without powering it completely off, it goes into sleep mode, but retains a certain level of awareness. With StreetPass enabled, one of the things that the 3DS  remains aware of is the nearby presence of other StreetPass-enabled 3DS units. If you walk by someone with such a 3DS, the units then identify themselves to each other and remember the pass. Later on, when you go home and check your 3DS, you may notice a blinking green light, notifying you that you passed someone since you last checked.

These passes have a tangible effect on supported applications, like the included StreetPass Mii Plaza application. When you run the application, your personal Mii avatar will be greeted by all of the Mii avatars of the 3DS owners you have passed. The Miis will each tell you the game that their creator has been playing most recently and how many times you've passed each other. These Miis will also give you puzzle pieces for use in the Puzzle Swap game, as well as assist in rescuing your captured Mii in the RPG-esque Find Mii game.

Other games like Ridge Racer 3D and Nintendogs + Cats also offer StreetPass support. With Ridge Racer 3D's StreetPass Duel feature, you can allow your 3DS to automatically send and receive "ghost" replays of completed races. When you receive one, you can race against that person's ghost racer. Nintendogs + Cats can be set up to send in-game gifts to other players using StreetPass as well.

Another thing that your 3DS is aware of is how many steps you've taken. Walk about with your 3DS in your pocket and in sleep mode and it will log your steps with its built-in pedometer. The Activity Log application will show you in graph form how many steps you have taken per day, and will challenge you to try to beat your previous records. Every 100 steps earns one "play coin" which can be spent in the StreetPass Mii Plaza application.

Both the StreetPass and pedometer features are meant to function while your 3DS is in sleep mode. This handheld console actually encourages you to stop playing, close it, and go take walks and meet people. What a concept! It will be interesting to see in what other ways game developers could make use of these features in the future.

And then of course there is the flagship feature that everyone is talking about: glasses-less 3D.

The upper screen of the 3DS displays in 3D at all times, with the one exception being when playing legacy DS games. The 3D effect itself does work as advertised, though there is somewhat of a learning curve to getting the most out of it. It may take a few tries before you become completely accustomed to the optimal angle and distance that you should hold the screen for the greatest viewing comfort. And for the first couple of days using the device, you're bound to get a lot of use out of the 3D slider next to the upper screen, which adjusts the depth of the 3D effect or turns it off altogether. Personally, with the 3D slider all of the way up, I had the feeling that my eyes were crossing, which of course was not the most comfortable way to play. I found that my sweet spot is just over halfway up. 

Once you identify your perfect personal 3D setup, you'll be viewing great 3D landscapes very comfortably without any crossed eyes or post-3D fatigue. But if the effect does in fact bother you, every game is perfectly playable with the 3D effect turned off completely, as it is ultimately a superficial feature and does not impact actual gameplay. However, in many cases where you are feeling disoriented or bothered by the 3D effect, it may be just because you haven't found that 3D sweet spot yet. Keep experimenting.

The 3DS also includes two outward-facing cameras in order to take 3D photos. While this feature is a novel idea, the execution is not all that impressive. The photos taken in this manner do have a three dimensional depth to them, but the quality is relatively poor when not in perfect lighting, and they can only be viewed in 3D on the 3DS themselves. As a result, even if you do come up with the perfect 3D picture, you're going to have to pass around your device to show it off.

Along with all of these new features, Nintendo is cognisant of just how many people already own a library of DS games, and they have taken the time to make the 3DS backwards compatible. Every game originally released for the Nintendo DS is 100% playable on the 3DS, along with any saved games you may have had in-progress. Play time information is logged in the Activity Log just as all 3DS applications. The major differences are that DS games will not display in 3D, and the Home screen will not function while the game is running; the game must first be closed completely. 

The 3D display definitely puts a strain on the battery, as it will only last about 4-6 hours on a full charge. But truly, the biggest drawback of the system thus far is that it is brand new. While it does provide full support of an existing and extensive library of DS games, there simply aren't many new games to play on it yet. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Mario Kart 3DS, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D, and Star Fox 64 3D have all been announced, but are months away. The online Virtual Console store that will also greatly increase the library size isn't expected to go live until May. With its extensive list of 3rd-party developer support, the 3DS is poised to have a library that will surpass its predecessor's. But as with any launch lineup, for the time being, it is paltry at best.

It is easy to conclude that the Nintendo 3DS is an impressive piece of hardware. The glasses-less 3D really works. The Home screen provides convenient access to other areas of the device without quitting most applications. The StreetPass feature offers novel encouragement to find other people with the device while actually keeping it closed and out of use. Provided you can deal with the shortened battery life, the only real problem facing the 3DS right now is its lack of titles. There's definitely fun to be had in its current state if you're the type who always needs to have the latest and greatest gadgets on hand. But if you're unsure of the device as of yet, or if you're purchasing it to play a title that isn't released, it may be worth giving it some time to allow for its library grow. Rest assured that it will be around for the long haul, so you won't miss anything in the wait.

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