Wednesday 21 February 2018

New Nintendo 3DS review: Last stand against the smartphone invaders

Nintendo refreshes its handheld with better 3D and a second controller

Ronan Price

Ronan Price

SMARTPHONES killed the handheld game console – but no one seems to have told Nintendo. As the PlayStation Vita teeters on the edge of irrelevance and the Nintendo 3DS sells one-third the quantity of its predecessor, who in their right mind would choose to buy a handheld over a new mobile for gaming?

But Nintendo has no truck with such pessimism. The Kyoto company likes to zig when everyone else is zagging. Since the 3DS launched in 2011, the console has been redesigned and reformatted twice – now Nintendo goes for the hat-trick with its most significant update when it launches the New Nintendo 3DS on Friday. In fact, the relaunch consists of two models – upgrades to the 3DS and the bigger 3DS XL, with subtle differences between the new siblings.

Yet quite how it’s taken four years is beyond imagination in an era when smartphones can be radically reshaped every year. But Nintendo is finally tackling some – alas, not all - of the console’s glaring weaknesses in the hope of staying the course against its mobile rivals.

 

The New Nintendo 3DS features NFC, which enables the use of Amiibo characters in games, though none are yet enabled
The New Nintendo 3DS features NFC, which enables the use of Amiibo characters in games, though none are yet enabled

THE BIG CHANGES

“New” is a relative term, of course, because the latest 3DS models share a lot in common with earlier versions – they have to, obviously, for compatibility’s sake. Fundamentally, the changes boil down to three key enhancements – eye-tracking to dramatically improve the 3D effect; an extra nub called the C-stick to assist with camera control; and a speedier processor to liven up the interface and potentially enable better games.

The first two are immediate wins, though the jury is out on the third – sure, the menu system feels snappier but no games yet take advantage of the extra grunt and few may be developed initially because the potentially small userbase.

 

The smaller New Nintendo 3DS has changeable faceplates, some of which are just gorgeous
The smaller New Nintendo 3DS has changeable faceplates, some of which are just gorgeous

THE LITTLE CHANGES

Cosmetically, the two consoles got a makeover and a handful of other less critical hardware changes, such as NFC support, two extra triggers and a shift to Micro-SD cards instead of full-sized SD.

While the smaller New 3DS actually gets slightly bigger screens, the difference is negligible – and the New 3DS XL hasn’t changed in display size at all.

In a move presumably denoting the target demographic, the little brother permits removable faceplates (they look great but they’re about €20 each!) while the XL does not – the kids love to customise their portables while adults don’t, according to Nintendo’s dubious assumption. If you choose the XL, you’re stuck with one of two understated metallic designs.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D will be the first 3DS game to take advantage of the new console's horsepower
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D will be the first 3DS game to take advantage of the new console's horsepower

 

THE BAD

One glaring legacy that goes unaddressed is the continued low resolution of the screens, whose pixellation stand in stark contrast to the razor-sharp imagery of even modest smartphones.

There’s little doubt Nintendo was conscious of cost and probably compatibility in sticking with 400x240 pixels, a frankly archaic figure for a main screen in 2015. By the same token, the 0.3MP cameras are just a joke for photos, producing predictably awful results even in decent light.

Annoyingly, Nintendo has also decided to switch from SD to micro-SD cards for storage. If you’ve built up any sort of digital collection on an old 3DS, prepare for some pain as you transfer the files to new cards. Don’t count, for instance, on consolidating a handful of SD cards on one big new Micro-SD. Nintendo makes it almost impossible.

Equally stupid in that context is the decision to hide the Micro-SD slot behind the screwed-in faceplate. Did Nintendo learn nothing from the Nokia N-Gage fiasco? Now each time you want to change a card, you’ll need to find your especially tiny screwdriver and try to avoid losing the miniature screws as you fumble the swap.

Finally, battery life – the great bugbear of the old 3DS – shows only marginally better longevity in the new models.

 

THE GOOD

What may seem like a laundry list of reservations is just an acknowledgement that technology has shifted enormously since 2011 thanks to the iPhone, the convenience of the App Store, the sociability and power of smartphones in general.

But try as developers might, smartphone games do not yet have the depth married to precision of control that is possible with New 3DS (or PS Vita for that matter). The big question is whether a big enough audience will care.

Nintendo’s uneasy relationship with 3D becomes a full-blown affair again in the new models. Having played down 3D so much that it launched a 2D-only version of the 3DS last year, the hardware finally gets it right this time.

Camera enhancements track your eyes so that the screen instantly adjusts the 3D to maintain the illusion. Instead of relying a very narrow sweet spot, you can move your head or the 3DS without breaking the effect. For the first time in four years, I’ve not been inclined to switch off the effect at the earliest opportunity.

The addition of the C-stick second controller in the form of a Thinkpad-like nub makes great sense. Unlike the clumsy Circle Pro add-on, the nub is unobtrusive and responsive, sitting perfectly below the right thumb. It’s backwards-compatible for titles such as Kid Icarus and greatly assists in camera control for upcoming games such as Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (reviews coming shortly).

Bumping up the processor speed could be a controversial move for Nintendo. It will lead to certain titles being developed only for the New 3DS family, such as the forthcoming Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. But it’s difficult to see developers abandoning the 44 million old 3DS models already out there to publish only for a small platform. Thus, the likelihood of more than a handful of blockbuster New 3DS exclusives seems remote.

It’s more likely that some titles will run better in the new generation but not such that gamers will feel compelled to upgrade.

 

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GAMES

Unquestionably, the New 3DS family stand up as the best portables the company has ever made (except for battery life). This latest refresh will keep interest bubbling over until the next generation is ushered in – Nintendo is rumoured to working on a “4DS” due maybe next year.

But a more realistic driver of sales of 3DS is not really a new model but a steady supply of must-have exclusives. Last year produced some spectacular goodies and the immediate future holds Majora’s Mask and Monster Hunter 4 (both out Friday) while Xenoblade is scheduled for April, Beyond that, titles such as Fire Emblem and Story of Seasons will provide experiences you just can’t get on a smartphone.

* The new family goes on sale on Friday priced at €200 (New 3DS) and €240 (New 3DS XL)

 

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