Nintendo 3DS XL review: A great little place to play games

Online: 3DS eShop, Miis, and...a limited experience
The 3DS has built-in Wi-Fi, but its online capabilities are, by design, in a type of Nintendo lockdown. That’s both good and bad. For those with kids, rest assured that the 3DS is probably one of the most kid-safe online-connected devices around. The system limits you to browsing the Nintendo 3DS eShop, using apps like YouTube and Netflix, and having very limited and largely one-way connectivity with StreetPass, which really just leaves little tags and friendly extras from nearby players, with no way to ever contact them back or communicate.

Online games use random matchmaking or friend codes to reach out to others and play, and there’s no chat to speak of.

The eShop has a lot of games including full digital downloads of card-based 3DS games, download-only lower-priced games, a retro Virtual Console collection featuring old Game Boy, NES and Sega Game Gear games, and some ports of popular mobile games. Prices range from a dollar or $2 up to $40. Once a game is downloaded, it can be downloaded again from the eShop in case it's erased.

Nintendo has finally added a common Nintendo ID linking Wii U and 3DS store accounts, but transferring game content isn't as easy as on devices like iOS, Android, a Kindle, PlayStation, or any other modern device. Your cloud-stored content can’t be downloaded to another 3DS unless you do a lengthy system transfer from unit to unit, which takes a while. Hopefully, this will change to a friendlier system in the future, because it’s one of the 3DS' biggest hardware drawbacks.

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It’s great for kids...but is it great for adults?
Yes. If you’re an adult like me, who grew up playing Nintendo games, has an appreciation for retro, and likes cute-but-challenging games, hop aboard immediately. Animal Crossing, Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Luigi's Mansion are must-haves, but they all lean to a cute style, even if the games are challenging. A few outliers like Fire Emblem and an excellent Resident Evil games are the exceptions. You won’t find any serious sports or shooter games here, or any deep online game experiences. And, keep in mind that the 3DS has only one analog pad, not two like every game console, the PlayStation Vita, and even some Android and iOS game controllers. That doesn’t impact most 3DS games, but it means true first-person games are hard to do...which is probably why there really aren’t any on the system.

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The 3DS is really good; here’s how it could be better
Let's start with battery life. The old Nintendo DS handhelds and Game Boy systems had amazing, long battery life that seemed to get me through a summer on a few charges (maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not far from it). The 3DS XL, fully charged, will last a cross-country plane flight, but I keep brightness settings on low and Wi-Fi off just to be sure. It's not as robust as an iPad, but isn’t far off from the battery life of an iPhone.

A second analog pad seems necessary in the future to tap into more console-like first-person games and sports titles. (In fact, Nintendo even released an awkward snap-on Circle Pad Pro for the smaller 3DS in 2012, but it never caught on.) It wouldn’t hurt to add extra trigger buttons on the back, too.

And, to be honest, the graphics of the 3DS are noticeably weaker than on the PlayStation Vita, or any other current gaming platform. Some games look fantastic, but the 3DS is a step behind...and three years into its life cycle.

Then, there’s the big disconnect between the 3DS and the Wii U. These systems don’t co-exist at all. You can’t play with the Wii U using a 3DS, and neither system lets you play games from the other, unlike what the PlayStation Vita can do with a PlayStation 4.

There are already rumors about a next-generation Nintendo handheld/console fusion platform. Should you wait for that? If you like the games that are already on the 3DS, there’s no reason to. If you want a more future-proofed piece of hardware, well, maybe it’s a good idea...or maybe you should be looking at another type of product.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nintendo 3DS, or PlayStation Vita?
Sony and Nintendo are the only two companies making dedicated handheld video game systems. Deciding between a Nintendo 3DS XL and a PlayStation Vita, both of which cost the same, is more a question of aesthetics than superiority. Both handhelds have been rendered somewhat irrelevant by mobile phones and tablets, yet both have grown their own assortment of excellent and highly unique games: you could own both and get two distinct, barely-overlapping game libraries. The Vita has the superior hardware, has a more modern phone-like multi-touch screen, and acts as a remote play accessory for PlayStation 4.

The Vita also has a number of cross-play games that work on PS3/PS4 and the Vita, offering two ways to play for the price of one. The Vita's games lean toward indie mobile and PC-influenced games, adult shooters, sports games and action titles, while the 3DS has a more kid-friendly vibe in general. Both have similar ballpark-territory battery life: the new Vita Slim has a bit more juice, but so does the 3DS XL. And, both the 3DS XL and Vita cost $199. The Vita isn't backwards-compatible with UMD-disc PSP games, while the 3DS plays all old DS games.

Do you have a PlayStation? Get a Vita, unless you value the idea of catching up on Nintendo games on a handheld and having the best of both worlds. Have a kid? Are you a Nintendo type of person? Do you want the best library of games? Get a 3DS. A lot of people who aren't deeply into games might just skip both devices and be perfectly satisfied with a phone or tablet...but you'd be missing out on some fun.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion: Nintendo's secretly great little console is already here
Nintendo’s most recent console might be the Wii U, but its best gaming platform at the moment is small, double-screened, and has a stylus.

Yes, the company's period of dominance over the casual game market is long, long gone. The days of the Wii and Nintendo DS being seen in the hands of moms and grandparents are history. But that doesn’t mean the 3DS isn’t a great little game console.

If you ever owned a GameCube -- a Nintendo console that had great games but was an also-ran in the gaming universe at large -- consider the 3DS a similar type of experience. If you're into Nintendo games, you'll likely cherish it. Those looking for a do-everything game handheld...look elsewhere, because those days aren't here anymore.

The 3DS is a game-lover's handheld. It's full of magical content, and it's finally well worth its price to play the games that Nintendo (and a few third party companies, too) have to offer.

Yes, the battery life's still not ideal, and yes, I wish there were another analog pad. But I take the 3DS around with me more than nearly any another gadget, and I've been doing it more than ever in the past year. This is a golden period for 3DS games, and if you love handheld games with more depth than your average mobile title, this is as good a time to join the party as any. Just don’t expect much more than that, and you'll be fine.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Jul. 28, 2012
  • Color red
  • Media Type cartridge
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