Review: The New Nintendo 3DS XL has 3D you'll actually use

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Gizmag spends a bit of time with the New Nintendo 3DS XL (Photo: Simon Crisp/Gizmag.com)

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When we saw the glasses-free 3D of the original Nintendo 3DS back in 2011, we were suitably impressed, and then promptly disappointed when the effect kept breaking and left us suffering headaches. Now, Nintendo is back with the New Nintendo 3DS consoles which promise to fix that with super-steady 3D, while also offering a power upgrade and better controls. Gizmag recently spent a week with the XL version of the new portable console, to see if it's worthy of your gaming thumbs.

In recent years Nintendo has developed a worrying knack for choosing atrocious names for its consoles. After the quirkily-monikered Wii, was the Wii U, which many buyers thought was a tablet add-on. Now it has chosen to title its upgraded 3DSs the New Nintendo 3DS and New Nintendo 3DS XL, where *New* is actually part of their potentially baffling name.

This means stores could have shelves where the Nintendo 3DS, 3DS XL, 2DS, New 3DS, and New 3DS XL all sit next to each other, leaving potential buyers confused and with a headache before they've even picked one up. To make matters worse original 3DSs and 3DS XLs won't be able to run new New 3DS-specific titles, but the New 3DS will be backwards compatible with 3DS and DS games. Try explaining that to parents shopping for little Johnny's birthday present.

Luckily for Nintendo, this isn't a review of the naming process and we'll be focusing on the improvements made to the system. It's also worth pointing out that while we've been getting our mitts around the New Nintendo 3DS XL, there's also a smaller model (the New Nintendo 3DS) which offers the same improvements. That version, not available in the US, also boasts snazzy SNES-colored ABXY buttons and changeable cover plates

Before we look at the New Nintendo 3DS XL, we should also consider something Nintendo isn't including in the box, a power adapter. While Nintendo fans in many countries have already experienced sans-charger 3DS purchases, users in the US are now also going to need to remember to pick one up if they want to play their New 3DS for more than a couple of hours, and don't have a compatible spare from a DSi, 2DS or 3DS.

The US$200 New Nintendo 3DS XL looks and feels like a more premium product than previous models. While we managed to get our hands on the elusive gold Majora's Mask edition, this is also true of the standard offerings. Compared to the original 3DS XLs, which always felt like they had a touch of the Fisher Price about them, the new models are more grown-up, though their glossy outer shell is an undeniable fingerprint magnet.

More observant gamers will also notice a number of other changes, before even opening the clamshell console. There are additional ZL and ZR buttons on the rear, no physical Wi-Fi switch, and the volume slider has moved to the top screen. The game card slot, power button and stylus have all been moved to the front of the console, and there's no visible SD card slot. While some users have complained the position of the power button and game card slot mean you could accidentally eject a game card or power down mid-game, it's not something we experienced in our extensive playing.

Flip the lid and you'll instantly notice yet more changes. The big one comes in the form of an additional analog controller above the SNES-themed ABXY buttons with their colored lettering. However, rather than give us a second circle pad, Nintendo has given us a C-stick nub which is said to have been inspired by the Gamecube C-stick, but in truth reminded us far more of the eraser tip cursor controller from an IBM Thinkpad, circa 1992. The Select and Start buttons have been moved under the ABXY buttons, like on the 2DS.

If you're still wondering about that missing SD card slot, it's now a micro SD slot and will require a screwdriver and nerves-of-steel to find it under the back plate of the console. Removing the back plate off our console to gain access caused a heart-stopping crack sound, though luckily no lasting damage. This feels like a bad design and because the New 3DS ships with only a 4 GB micro SD card, users who prefer digital downloads are going to need to do this when swapping it for a bigger capacity card.

That brings us to the transfer process for current 3DS users, which is another low-point for the New 3DS. Because 3DS purchases are linked to a device, and not just a user account, it's not as simple as logging in on your new device. As such, there are three transfer options, moving all data wirelessly between old and new systems, transferring core data wirelessly and then re-downloading software, or using a computer to move files from an SD to micro SD. All need both systems and internet access.

None of these are ideal and all come with their own problems. With only 3 GB of stored data, we decided to opt for the Wi-Fi all option, thinking it couldn't be too bad. However, it turned out to be tediously slow and took more than two hours to complete. This snails-pace process was only made slightly more bearable by the sight of adorable little Pikmin carrying representations of our data from one device to the other.

While Nintendo has now removed the limit of the number of times you can transfer a system, you can only do it once a week, and you can't go back to a 3DS from a New 3DS. Luckily, you won't want to, and you might even forgive your New 3DS for what it's just subjected you to. That's because the New Nintendo 3DS lives up to its hype. For us the biggest upgrade is undoubtedly the super-stable 3D which transforms the 3D experience by using face tracking via the inner camera.

I personally had an original 3DS and loved the 3D effect, but after about 10 minutes I turned it off because every time the console moved from its narrow sweet spot the effect was broken, ruining it for me. From then on I'd occasionally turn the 3D on to admire the effect on a new game, and then promptly turn it off again and resume gaming. As a result, when my 3DS passed away, I opted instead for the much derided 2DS.

The super-stable 3D now kicks in and works as advertised, delivering the immersive experience we were promised in 2011. Games like Super Mario 3D Land and Luigi's Mansion 2 are even more enjoyable in constant 3D. The only time we noticed the 3D begin to falter was when putting the console through its paces with a strong backlight. Even in dark situations an infrared LED helps keep the 3D alive and well, while a new auto brightness setting is also available. Battery life felt comparable to the previous 3DS XL.

Another new feature which proved popular (particularly with younger users of our New 3DS XL) was the built-in NFC ability to use Nintendo's Amiibo characters by tapping them on the lower screen. While this is only currently available to use in Super Smash Bros, upcoming Amiibo-compatible 3DS or New 3DS titles include Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. and Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. However, whether it's valid on a portable console is arguable: do you really want to carry a collection of Amiibo around along with your New 3DS?

The other improvements have made less of a change so far to how we use the New 3DS XL. While we have long felt the need for a second analog controller on the 3DS, the C-stick isn't what we envisioned, or hoped for. Because of its size, and the fact the nub doesn't move when touched, it feels less responsive than we'd like, and certainly isn't the same as having a second circle pad.

While the C-stick can be used in games which made use of the Circle Pad Pro, that's still not too many. In our tests it worked well for camera controls in new titles like The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and Monster Hunter 4, and it was interesting to revisit games like Resident Evil: Revelations, but we'll be interested to see how developers use it in upcoming games.

Indeed, many of the new features of the New 3DS consoles are yet to be made the most of. So far the additional buttons on the back tend to just mirror the use of the L and R buttons. Similarly, the power bump is yet to show what it can deliver. It currently means you can check your StreetPasses a bit quicker and have a smoother internet browsing experience, but it will be with New 3DS specific games like Xenoblade Chronicles 3D that we will really see what it's capable of.

It's important to note that this is not a generation jump from the original 3DS; it's more of an incremental upgrade. It's to the 3DS what the DSi was to the DS. We are yet to see what support the New 3DS will get ... will developers shun the millions of current 3DS owners so they can make use of that bit extra horsepower with a New 3DS specific game?

One feature of the New 3DS XL many would have liked to see upgraded, but hasn't been, is the resolution of its 4.88-inch top and 4.18-inch bottom screens. These remain at a pitiful 800 x 240 on the top screen (400 x 240 pixels per eye when using 3D) and 320 x 240 on the bottom, which seems bizarre for a device on sale in 2015. That said, we were less fussed by this than we expected to be. For starters, resolution always seems less important for "typically Nintendo" style games, and once the 3D effect was running we barely noticed it as the experience is so different.

Summing up

The New 3DS consoles are the best versions of the console we've seen, as you would probably expect for an upgrade at this point in its life-cycle. Had the system launched with this as its initial hardware it would probably have enjoyed a less turbulent first couple of years (not that it's done too badly for itself on the whole).

However, the portable gaming market in 2015 is very different to that of 2011, and many will question whether a dedicated handheld console is still relevant in the age of smartphones and tablets. We'd argue it was, but only because we're yet to play a tablet game which can match The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or Super Mario 3D Land. The existing and huge 3DS (and DS) game library is also a massive advantage for the system over its more powerful rivals, whether tablets, or the likes of the PS Vita.

If you're yet to join the 3DS party, the new generation is certainly the way to go. The New 3DS XL will set you back $200, and the smaller New 3DS is about $40 cheaper (where available). However, with four-years worth of games out there, we hope you've got plenty of spare time. Users of the original 3DS who want a bigger screen, or 2DS gamers who want the 3D effect, would also probably be best served by going for the new models.

If you're already the owner of a 3DS XL, the decision is less clear. Yes, for cost of upgrading you could instantly benefit from the super-stable 3D and C-stick, but we're yet to see how much use will be made of the other enhancements. Will many developers really release games that need or make use of the extra processing power, buttons, or Amiibo support? Unless you can't wait to get your fix of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D when it is released, we'd suggest waiting for a while to see what happens.

Product page: Nintendo

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