I spent a few frantic moments with the New 3DS XL back to Tokyo Game Show, and generally I came away liking what I saw. I have some doubts about Nintendo's decision to divide the 3DS market (as if 2DS didn't already make it confusing enough), but the hardware itself is nice.
Now that the system has launched in Japan, I've had the (considerably more relaxed) opportunity to explore the standard New 3DS model. And after using it for a few hours, I'm convinced that the smaller version is the one to get. The New XL has bigger screens, and those are nice, but the basic 3DS feels much more distinct — better differentiated from the old model. While I've yet to get a feel for what impact the boosted processing power and extra RAM (early reports suggest it has an extra 64MB of RAM, which may not sound like much until you realize the base model only has 128MB) make for software, the physical build quality and operating system tweaks it offers make for a decidedly superior portable machine.
The first thing you'll notice about the New 3DS is its colorful package, which ties in with Nintendo's insane Mario fashion/Kyary Pamyu Pamyu advertising campaign. You can be 100% certain the American packaging won't look like this, which is a shame — the combination of a bold, highly patterned layout and muted pastel colors would make this thing pop against the staid, overly literal packaging other game consoles come wrapped in.
The feminine vibe of the white Japanese New 3DS and XL boxes sends a deliberate marketing and demographic message: This is the system for ladies. The black New 3DS and XL models, whose box uses stronger, darker colors, replacing stars with a checkerboard and Toad with Mario and Bullet Bills, is for boys.
It's a pretty obvious tactic for Nintendo to adopt; the DS exploded into popularity on the strength of its all-ages, all-gender reach and appeal, and despite a handful of similarly broad successes on 3DS, Nintendo hasn't really done much lately to go after customers outside the standard "males ages 8-30" market. New 3DS sits on the shelves making a bold proclamation: Girls welcome.
The back of the box gives some essential information, like what's in the box (and what's not — as per usual, Nintendo has declined to include an AC adapter in the box, meaning you'll need to provide your own). The word bubbles highlight the system's new features: Built-in NFC support for Amiibos, optional faceplates, and the C-stick. That's the right analog nub, and it's no coincidence that it uses the same terminology as the GameCube's right stick (which in turn derived from Nintendo 64's C-buttons). Nintendo's just got to do things its own way, even when those things are widely accepted industry standards.
The lack of an AC adapter makes for a very compact box, though the package could actually be even tinier if Nintendo had printed the manuals at a smaller folio size.
Out of the box
The New 3DS actually ships with its upper faceplate detached, which adds a tiny amount of extra girth to the package. But it's a smart move: By forcing owners to snap the plate on themselves, it creates an awareness that, yes, the exterior of the system can be swapped out for alternate plates.
It's also worth noting that the system doesn't ship with both faceplates detached, only the upper one. The plate for the lower half of the machine is a bit more permanent, as it requires you to unscrew it with a tiny screwdriver. The Micro SD card slot is also located on the lower portion of the system behind the plate, which is slightly inconvenient. The easiest way to get photos and screenshots from a 3DS is to pop out the SD card, and now that's going to be considerably more difficult to do — a weird decision given that the system software now offers the ability to snap game shots by bringing up the home screen. Presumably Nintendo wants you to use the built-in uploading options or Miiverse, but these are far less efficient than just dumping everything to your computer.
This is sort of a typical "two steps forward, one step back" advance for Nintendo. Even as they've made the SD card slot more inaccessible, they've introduced more reasons to want to remove the card. The system transfer process for bringing an existing account from an old 3DS to the New now offers the option two plug the two systems' cards into a PC and transfer content directly, which could potentially save hours of transfer time. So of course doing so now requires you to own a mini screwdriver. At this point, it's pretty much a given that a new Nintendo system will do something bafflingly backward. This is the New 3DS's "charm point."
Correction: I'm told you can now transfer files wirelessly to PCs, a feature I admittedly haven't yet stumbled across, meaning this is a moot complaint.
One nice touch: All the ugly electrical information and machine serial number info is neatly hidden away under the upper faceplate now. Previous 3DS models slap the serial info beneath player's hands, where friction and sweat eventually cause the laminate to peel away.
Unlike the fussy lower plate, the upper faceplate simply snaps on. It holds securely, but is easy to pry away when you want to swap appearances. Neither plate covers the entire face of its portion of the system; two bands of the underlying system color remain visible above and below the plate, allowing the hinges and external camera strips to provide an accent to whatever design you settle on.
The system exterior
Assembled and closed, the New 3DS is a compact, solid machine. We've moved far beyond the weird old days of the original 3DS, where the upper half was a different size than the lower half. And the inner bumpers hold the upper screen a little further away from the housing for the lower screen, reducing the likelihood that the system will suffer from screen scratches and marks when closed.
The addition of extra buttons to the upper bezel means that a number of elements have been moved to the bottom edge of the system, including the cartridge slot and the stylus. From left: Cartridge slot, headphone jack, stylus, power button.
The repositioned power button makes for a nice alignment between the button and the power indicator. The indicator LEDs have also been rearranged to sit together, which means the wi-fi LED no longer sits next to the wi-fi switch. But it's much easier to take in the system's status at a glance.
The backside of the closed system shows the streamlined rear bezel. The L and R triggers are now accompanied by smaller ZL and ZR buttons set in-line with the existing buttons, toward the center of the system. From left: R button, ZR button, strap holes, power jack, infrared port, ZL button, L button.
The only LED that hasn't been relocated is the Street Pass/memory access light, which remains in its highly visible location on the upper-right hinge.
A clearer view of the ZL button. Both Z buttons are placed fairly awkwardly; hopefully developers will have the good sense to assign them to secondary functions rather than core actions. But hey, inconvenient or not, this still technically gives New 3DS the edge over Vita in terms of button functionality.
New 3DS to original 3DS XL comparison
I didn't have an original 3DS handy to compare to the New 3DS, but it feels very slightly larger. However, it's unquestionably smaller than the 3DS XL, as you might expect. (The New XL shares the same dimensions as the original XL within a matter of millimeters.)
Both systems are roughly the same thickness.
Part of the compactness of the New 3DS comes from its squared-off appearance. Where as the original 3DS had more of a beveled edge (especially on the upper screen) and the XL is very rounded, the New 3DS is basically a rectangle with soft edges. That gives it more internal volume for Nintendo to cram components inside — including, it seems, a better battery than the original model. The New 3DS has battery life more comparable to the XL's five hours than the old 3DS's three hours.
Opening the two systems reveals one of the big revisions for the New 3DS: The screens, while certainly nowhere near as large as the XL's, nevertheless are comfortably bigger than those on the 2011 model. They're also brighter and have better contrast.
Fundamentally, the two systems look like members of the same family. Given the long history of Nintendo borrowing design nods from Apple, perhaps it's no surprise that the New 3DS fits into the platforms lineup similar to the iPhone 6: It's moderately larger than the previous model, but still considerably more pocket-friendly than its hulking sibling.
Inside, the New 3DS continues the system's trend of reshuffling details and elements. The key features — circle pad, face buttons, D-pad — stay firmly affixed to their standard locations. However, many other elements have moved around.
As I noted with the New 3DS XL, the Home button is finally, for the first time ever, not a complete piece of garbage. It's a small, standalone oval located directly beneath the lower screen rather than the original model's awkward membrane button or center element of the XL's mushy home row buttons.
Another small but sensible change: The audio volume slider is now located opposite the 3D slider on the upper half of the system. These analog switches flank the top screen, which adds a pleasing touch of symmetry to the system's design and feels more consistent all around.
You can see one other new element here as well: A small black circle to the immediate right of the interior camera at the top of the system. This is actually a small lens (one with an interior element that glows a dim red in low light, not unlike HAL 9000) that tracks the position of the player's head so that the system can adjust the viewing angle of the 3D effect to face the player's eye's at all times. It's a subtle but impressive effect; even if the system shifts as you play, the 3D never shimmers or creates a double-vision effect. Previous 3DS models, especially the XL, tended to suffer image degradation if you let the plane of the upper screen shift even the slightest amount during play (which was always). That is no longer an issue here, arguably meaning this is the first 3DS on which 3D is actually a worthwhile endeavor.
The other two elements of the 3DS home row of buttons, Start and Select, have shifted right to sit beneath the face buttons, similar to the layout of the DSi family. The DSi comparison is actually quite apt, not only because of the functionality the New 3DS adds to the platform (better processor, new software features), but also because of the build quality. Where the New 3DS XL reminds me of the DS Lite, with its slick, glossy shell laminated to a more matte type of plastic, the standard New 3DS has the same rugged, textured plastic as the baseline DSi. The exception is the faceplate, which is a harder, smoother material.
The stylus has an odd asymmetrical design: The cap of the the stylus has a rounded, curved end that helps it blend in with the rounded edge of the system's bottom shell. It's a little harder to place the stylus in its holder correctly — it lacks the ridge that runs lengthwise along about a third of the the stylus in other DS and 3DS systems, which worked as a sort of guide for aligning the stylus correctly without having to look at it. With this stylus design, you don't know if you've misaligned the cap until you've actually inserted it to the point where the cap does or does not sit flush with the bezel. This is admittedly the nitpickiest complaint imaginable, but it does serve as an example of something Nintendo has gotten right for a decade but inexplicably changed for the worse now.
In addition to all the changes to the system's physical form, the New 3DS brings perhaps even more tweaks to the software. The operating system feels much faster and more elegant, moving between functions with less of a pause and animating more smoothly. It also offers far more granular control. You can alternate between 2D and 3D visualization modes. You can set the screen brightness to auto-adjust its intensity based on ambient light read by the external cameras (though it's way too sensitive in its current form and flickers wildly in a room with inconsistent lighting). You can apply parental passwords to practically every system function, including swapping between 2D and 3D visualization.
Dedicated game history buffs will observe that the face buttons appear in the same color pattern as the controller for the European Super NES and the Japanese equivalent, the Super Famicom. With the added horsepower the New model offers, this seems almost certainly a tipoff that Nintendo plans to incorporate Super NES Virtual Console into the system (and, one assumes, proper Game Boy Advance support as well). Of course, this raises the question of whether or not the colors will be changed to lavender and purple for the U.S., and whether or not the X and Y buttons will be concave....
Of course, the biggest and most welcome addition in many people's book is the addition of the C-stick. It feels exactly the same on the New 3DS as on the New XL, more like a ThinkPad mouse stick, covered with a soft rubberized coating. And it works! Plug in any game that has support for the Circle Pad Pro and the stick works right out of the box.
In my case, I gave a test run to Capcom's Japan-only Lost Planet spin-off E.X. Troopers, a Mega Man Legends-like run-and-gun multiplayer third-person shooter. The addition of the integral stick makes it quick and easy to jump in and grab a mission, with a far less cumbersome setup than using the Circle Pad Pro. And the slightly larger screens offer a pleasant pixel density without feeling too minute.
In summary: New 3DS feels like the system the 3DS should have been all along. I'd say better late than never — but that remains to be seen. Nearly 50 million 3DS systems have been sold to date, and the New 3DS fragments that market. Rolling, incremental transitions work for smart phones, sure, but will the iPhone annual updates translate to a more frivolous form of electronics? Looking back at Nintendo's own history, very few games used the DSi for anything besides region lock-outs. Will that be the case here as well? I do think the New 3DS is better positioned to succeed than the DSi, with appreciably greater internal power, customizable face plates, greater interface functionality, and a nicer build quality all around. It's definitely the system to own once it arrives in the U.S. next year — though Nintendo is going to have to work hard to convince those tens of millions of existing 3DS owners that they should pony up for something that doesn't quite qualify as a new platform.
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