The world of gaming hardware is a crowded sea lately. New platforms are everywhere, but there isn't a dominant go-to console anymore. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One aren't fully realized yet; the Wii U is an also-ran; the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are aging. On the mobile side, smartphones are hugely popular, but still lack most of the great games seen on Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft's hardware. And then there's the two dedicated portable gaming systems: the Sony PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS.
The Nintendo 3DS isn't your ticket to the future of gaming. As a gaming platform, it's 3 years old. It's a dedicated handheld game system in a landscape of ever-more-impressive phones and tablets. It's even a bit clunky. But, it also might be the best game system I've played over the last year.
Part of that is due to a windfall of excellent, deep Nintendo-made games, ones that are great for long trips, or even worth playing in your living room while ignoring a larger console. It's kid-friendly, more so than any other piece of hardware besides an iPhone or iPad. But, when I say the 3DS is a great system, I mean it has at least 10 truly excellent games that justify the purchase of the $129 to $199 hardware. It's also compatible with hundreds of old Nintendo DS/DSi games, a handful of good media apps (Netflix, Hulu Plus), and has a lot of downloadable software and bonus games and features pre-installed on the hardware itself, like a camera and some activity-tracking minigames.
The Nintendo 3DS is a portal to exclusive Nintendo franchise sequels and spin-offs, a dispenser for unique content. Imagine a streaming box that accessed a curated collection of Disney entertainment, or a Kindle that only tapped into a collection of unique, great children's books. The 3DS is a ticket to games you can't get anywhere else.
What does it do?
In case you've never played one, the Nintendo 3DS has two screens just like its Nintendo DS predecessor: the top one can show glasses-free 3D, while the bottom one is a touch screen that uses an included stylus or your finger.
The 3DS comes with built-in accelerometer and gyro motion controls, a microphone, and front and rear cameras -- the rear ones can take 3D photos. The system can also be used as a pedometer, tracking motion and collecting activity coins that can be spent in mini-games or for bonuses in various other games.
Streetpass, a clever local networking technology that scans around while the 3DS is in sleep mode, can find avatars of nearby players and collect special unlockable challenges and bonuses in games: you might open your 3DS later to find someone's ghost run in Mario Kart for you to race against, or extra coins in Super Mario 3D Land.
A circle analog pad and d-pad on the left side and four buttons on the right control gameplay, along with two shoulder buttons on the top.
Like any good portable device, the 3DS has a built-in rechargeable battery. But Nintendo has stuck with its proprietary charging port, so you'll need to carry around the included charger (or an adapter) to juice it up on the road. That's doubly annoying, given that even Sony has switched to the industry-standard Micro-USB charger on its latest incarnation of the competing PlayStation Vita.
Which one do you get?
The Nintendo 3DS launched in early 2011, but every year since its launch Nintendo has unveiled another hardware variant: the larger Nintendo 3DS XL in 2012, and the flat, plastic, no-3D Nintendo 2DS in 2013. They range in price: the 2DS is $129, the 3DS is $169, and the 3DS XL is $199. Each also comes in many colors, and frequently in limited-edition bundles with games. And, they're on sale in many places: I've seen the 3DS XL for $175 and even less.
I prefer the XL for several reasons: its screen is 90 percent larger, and even though it has the same number of pixels as the smaller 3DS, it looks great playing all games. It also feels sturdier, and has a slightly better battery life.
The original 3DS is more pocketable, but has a smaller screen and feels more cramped while playing for long periods of time. The 2DS actually feels good to hold, has screens the same size as the smaller 3DS, and is priced for the most value -- it also has the same hardware features, minus 3D, of the other 3DS systems. It might be the better pick for little kids.
3D: neat, but a little pointless
The 3DS XL still feels like it has extremely large screens, even compared to a PlayStation Vita or big-screened phone. Measuring 4.88 inches, the top screen is so large that it rivals the Sony PlayStation Vita's, which is an even 5 inches. Then there's the bottom screen, too, which is a little smaller but adds collectively to a lot of screen space.
The glasses-free 3D effect, which requires a certain level of patience and stillness to work properly, is best on the 3DS XL, but 3D isn't a required feature on any 3DS game. Nintendo finally acknowledged this with last year's 2DS, which dropped all 3D support but still plays every game perfectly well.
Why get a 3D-equipped 3DS, then? I still like using 3D -- I tend to keep it on because it enhances game atmospherics and makes the screen real estate feel a little more expansive. Many people prefer to slide the 3D effect completely off. Keeping it off improves battery life and even frame rate on a few games. But, the 3DS XL is still better than other 2DS/3DS systems because of its giant display area. I'd still recommend it.
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.