The rumors were true: Even though Nintendo never attends Tokyo Game Show and never shows off hardware or software early, a limited supply of New 3DS hardware units were available for public use. The rub? They only appeared in the single most crowded booth on the show floor.
Capcom was showing off the upcoming Monster Hunter 4G (the revamped Monster Hunter 4 on which the U.S. release, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, is based) on New 3DS and New 3DS LL (XL in the U.S.) units. But every year, the line to play Monster Hunter is always the longest at the show, sometimes running as many as four hours. This year, Capcom expected such massive crowds (even with dozens of units available for the 15-minute demo sessions) that they started handing out tickets to prospective players stamped with a time. Rather than wait for hours on end, fans could simply grab a ticket and come back at the appropriate time... at least until the tickets ran out, anyway.
In other words, playing a New 3DS early required me to structure my entire second morning of TGS around the need to beat the crowds to Capcom's booth. But it worked out, and I spent a short while with Nintendo's new handheld. I wasn't allowed to take pictures, unfortunately, and the booth attendants politely chastised me every time I examined the hardware itself rather than playing the game, but the experience proved to be solid nevertheless.
First, let there be no question that the New 3DS XL is outwardly almost identical to the standard XL. The dimensions feel exactly the same in the hands, though the New XL may be slightly thinner; then again, that could simply be an impression given by the tapered edges on the hardware. Like Apple, Nintendo has figured out that rounded edges on hardware can fool the hands into telling your brain the device you're holding is slimmer than it actually is.
While the two systems share similar dimensions, though, the New XL gives a very different tactile sensation than the existing unit. Whereas standard XLs tend to have a matte, slightly textured finish, the XL's plastics have a smooth, glossy consistency that reminds me of the DS Lite more than anything else. The plastics are thinner - the DS Lite had a sort of sandwiched layered plastic form - but the feel is very similar.
More importantly, though, the New 3DS has much greater physical functionality. Much ado has been made of the system's second analog slider, but the New 3DS also incorporates secondary shoulder buttons. These come in a slightly strange arrangement; rather than being stacked one over the other as on a console controller, they instead appear in line with one another along the edge of the system. The standard L and R buttons remain the same as ever, but the ZL and ZR buttons are small squarish objects directly between the old shoulder buttons.
The placement of these new buttons has necessitated some more dramatic configuration changes to the console. Both the cartridge slot and the stylus slot have been relocated to the bottom edge of the system, interestingly enough. Given the tendency of styluses to become loose in their slots after extensive use, this seems a bit like playing with fire - those styli are just begging to become lost - but maybe Nintendo has worked an engineering miracle. The exterior of the system is otherwise smooth; my surreptitious examinations between booth attendant scoldings didn't manage to reveal the location of the memory card slot... but since the system now works off Micro SD cards, maybe it was simply so small it escaped my notice.
The layout of the system's face has also changed subtly. The Home button is now a single oval button beneath the bottom screen, and the Start and Select buttons have shifted over to the right side of the unit, exactly like on the later DS family members. Of course, the big addition is the aforementioned right stick, which is only about three or four years too late. It's actually less a stick than one of those "mouse nubs" that appeared on Lenovo or ThinkPad laptop systems, a small rubberized knob that doesn't move. Unlike the 3DS Slide Pad, it has almost zero give - and yet it's extremely sensitive and precise. Monster Hunter 4 uses it for controlling the game camera, and it fulfills that task perfectly. I don't know that I'd want to use it for more intense purposes, though, like directing fire in a twin-stick shooter.
The camera nub reminds me, spiritually, of the right stick on the GameCube controller. It suggests that Nintendo remains reluctant to adopt other people's standard features. This is ridiculous, of course, given that the Wii U Game Pad finally showed Nintendo giving in to necessity and incorporating a full right analog stick, but then again they also stuck a full LCD screen in the Game Pad. Nintendo just doesn't seem to be comfortable unless it's doing things its own weird way.
Finally, the last improvement for the New 3DS comes from its massively improved screens. While the resolution of the system doesn't appear to have changed, the quality of the main screen takes a huge step up from the existing XL. Everything is brighter, with crisper edges and sharper contrast. Blacks are deeper, colors more saturated. The 3D visual effect is greatly improved, too, creating an impressive shadowbox effect that makes Monster Hunter look more like an interactive diorama than it does on a standard XL. And finally, the angle of viewing works much better, with less ghosting and stereo visual "garbage" when the 3D slider is maxed out.
These across-the-board improvements, along with the system's under-the-hood tweaks (such as increased RAM), make the New 3DS an undeniable improvement over the original. And yet, it also poses a major risk for Nintendo: Its existence promises to fragment the 3DS market. The 2DS was a gamble enough, with its confusing nomenclature, but ultimately its changes never went beyond strictly cosmetic. The New 3DS, on the other hand, brings with it actual issues of compatibility; it will be powerful enough to handle Wii ports like Xenoblade Chronicles that simply can't happen on the standard 3DS. To play New 3DS is to want to own New 3DS, but not everyone will be able to afford an upgrade, especially an incremental upgrade that still trails well behind mobile platforms in terms of horsepower. Either publishers will go all-in and leave standard 3DS owners feeling as though they've been left behind, or else publishers will be afraid to limit themselves to the smaller New 3DS market and the system will prove to be pointless.
Of course, this isn't the first time Nintendo has updated a platform in this fashion. The New 3DS shares the same relationship with 3DS that Game Boy Color did with Game Boy. And while Game Boy Color proved a success, that likely had everything to do with the lack of alternatives on the market - not exactly an edge Nintendo can count on these days. And GBC ultimately served as a stopgap between Game Boy and Game Boy Advance, a time-killer while the company waited for the right time to launch GBA. It's hard not to see New 3DS as something similar - perhaps a placeholder while the company runs out the clock on Wii U and launches that hybrid portable/console system everyone assumes will be the company's next major hardware initiative. But who knows?
In any case, U.S. consumers won't have to worry about whether or not to upgrade to New 3DS any time soon; the system reportedly won't launch outside Japan until next year. By then, we should have a better sense of uptake for the platform based on its performance in Japan, as well as a clearer picture of what kind of developer support we should see for the console.
As for me, well, I've had my first taste of the system, and now I'm going to be jonesing for my next fix. I wonder how that Monster Hunter line is looking right about now?
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