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Nintendo 3DS review: Nintendo 3DS

Nintendo 3DS

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
17 min read

Editors' note: On August 28, 2013, Nintendo announced the 2DS, a 2D-only portable gaming console that plays 3DS games. It will retail for $129 when it's released in October.

The Good

The <b>Nintendo 3DS</b> provides an impressive 3D gaming experience without the need for special glasses. There's a 3D effect slider, it shoots and displays 3D photographs with its dual back-facing cameras, and it has a single front-facing camera. The 3DS comes preinstalled with a bevy of software and StreetPass and SpotPass services, and it comes with a drop-and-charge dock. Internet connectivity includes the eShop, Virtual Console, video marketplace, Internet browsing functionality, DSiWare transferring, and Netflix support. Two years after its launch, the 3DS has matured into a great portable gaming system with a steadily increasingly library of worthy titles.

The Bad

The disappointing low-resolution lenses on the 3DS provide grainy photos. The 3D effect can cause headaches for some, and it can "snap out" because of sensitive viewing angles and games that encourage movement. The 3DS also has a very short battery life.

The Bottom Line

The Nintendo 3DS successfully offers a glasses-free 3D experience that needs to be seen to be believed. A weak start out of the gate has been all but forgotten thanks to a bevy of compelling releases on online downloadables since launch.

Editors' note: As of August 12, 2011, Nintendo is lowering the price of the 3DS from $249.99 to $169.99. Meanwhile, those who have already purchased the 3DS at the higher price will be eligible to receive 20 free downloadable eShop games. We've updated our review to reflect this price change, other deals in the Nintendo Ambassador Program, and new functionalities.

The Nintendo DS and the many iterations that followed have combined to sell approximately 145 million units worldwide since the original debuted in 2004. There's no debating that the DS is the most successful portable console ever made and is neck and neck alongside the PlayStation 2 as the best-selling console overall.

With such an accomplishment achieved with the DS, Nintendo really had its work cut out when it came time for a successor. At E3 2010, the world found out just what Nintendo had up its sleeve with the introduction of the Nintendo 3DS. The company hailed the device as the first portable console to ever display a 3D image without the need for special glasses.

We've been getting a healthy amount of hands-on time with the 3DS since the start of 2011 and have put the system through its paces. It's certainly an impressive piece of hardware, and at times the 3D effect is simply dazzling. There are a few problems we'll discuss that may ultimately dictate or prevent a purchase, in addition to what can only be described as a disappointing and lackluster launch lineup. But ultimately it seems that Nintendo and its developers will decide whether the 3DS will be a worthy successor to the original DS franchise.

It goes without saying that the portable gaming landscape has drastically shifted since the original DSes were released, with some serious competition coming from the iPhone, iPad, Android, and other mobile platforms--though we can't recall any Nintendo employee or PR representative ever muttering the word "Apple." While touch-screen gaming is certainly a different experience from conventional button-based applications, the public has embraced the former with open arms thanks to its practical and economical advantages.

Any comparisons to the last DS generation in our review will be aimed at the DS Lite, primarily because the two are so similar in design. We'd be shocked if the 3DS didn't see its fair share of upgrades and redesigns, so we'll compare those models with their DS brethren when the time comes. Of course it's safe to say that someone coming from a DSi XL will certainly feel like the 3DS' screens are tiny, when in fact they're almost identical to the DS Lite's.

Price drop and Ambassador Program
At the 3DS' launch in March 27, 2011, Nintendo offered a $250 gaming-focused device with limited functionality beyond just games, which may not be as easy a sale as it would have been, say, five years ago. It's becoming increasingly important to offer some sort of all-in-one solution, and while there are plenty of extras inside (and coming down the road), the 3DS won't be making phone calls anytime soon. That said, we still think there is a market for the unique, intimate, and noncasual experience that big-budget portable video games can offer players of all ages.

After just a little over four months, Nintendo has changed its philosophy with the 3DS by announcing a price drop set to take place on August 12. The new $169.99 price tag is a whopping 32 percent dip that aims to increase the platform's install base and ready the market for the holiday season, a span of time that promises a highly anticipated--albeit predictable--crop of titles including new entries in franchises like Super Mario, Mario Kart, Star Fox, and Luigi's Mansion.

So what about those who purchased the 3DS prior to August 12? Those Nintendo loyalists are getting an interesting bonus. Any 3DS unit that connects to the Nintendo eShop before 11:59 p.m. ET on August 11 is automatically registered to receive 20 free titles from the online store. Ten free NES titles, including Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong Jr., Balloon Fight, Ice Climber, and The Legend of Zelda, will be released September 1, and 10 Game Boy Advance games, including Yoshi's Island: Super Mario Advance 3, Mario Kart: Super Circuit, Metroid Fusion, WarioWare, Inc.: Mega Microgames, and Mario vs. Donkey Kong, will be released before the end of the year.

A 3DS that is purchased after August 12 is not eligible for the free games, but people may purchase select titles from the Ambassador Program at a later date.

The Nintendo 3DS packs in a hefty number of features in addition to its ability to play 3D games. It's Wi-Fi-capable and compatible with 802.11 b/g interfaces, it's backward-compatible with Nintendo DS games, and it has dual back-facing and single front-facing cameras in addition to a microphone. It can take and view 3D photos as well as play 3D video. We should note, though, that older DS games don't play in 3D when used with the 3DS.

It's also the first Nintendo portable to sport an analog stick and feature both a gyroscope and a motion sensor.

The Nintendo 3DS resembles the DS Lite in almost every way, save for a few details. It measures 0.83 inch high by 5.3 inches wide by 2.9 inches deep, and weighs about 8.28 ounces, which is nearly identical to the DS Lite's specs. Even the lower screens appear the same size, with both coming in at about 3 inches. The 3DS' top screen is wider than the DS Lite's and sports a 3.53-inch diagonal display with a resolution of 800x240 pixels (where 400 pixels are allocated to each eye for the 3D effect).

A closer look at the 3DS when open.

It's first available at launch in Cosmo Black or Aqua Blue, but we'd be surprised if more colors didn't pop up by year's end (See: Flame Red 3DS coming in September). The 3DS' encasing seems to shimmer a bit in direct light, and the plastic coating is quite shiny. On the front lid sit two 0.3-megapixel cameras that allow for 3D photography. We'd be lying if we said the cameras are acceptable in size. At this price point, we really think anything less than 2 megapixels is a letdown--especially considering that these cameras are the same size as what the DSi and DSi XL offer.

When closed, on the right side is a Wi-Fi switch. On the left are a volume slider and an SD card slot (which already houses an included 2GB SD card).

Along the right hinge is an LED notification light that acts as a messaging center. It'll blink when there's a new message or if any StreetPass or SpotPass activity has occurred. More on both of these features a bit later.

Around back are the left and right shoulder buttons, an IR infrared port, the game card slot, housing for the collapsible stylus, and the AC charging and docking port.

A rear view of the 3DS.

When opened up, the 3DS still resembles the DS Lite in many ways, so we'll just cover what's new. To the left of the lower touch screen is an analog nub that Nintendo dubs the circle pad. Below it is the conventional D-pad (directional pad). Underneath the touch screen is the new location for the Select, Home, and Start buttons. To their right is the power button, which, when pushed, allows you to put the 3DS to sleep or shut it down completely. The headphone jack, power, and charging LED indicators all lie along the bottom of the unit.

Side by side, the 3DS and DS Lite look almost identical.

Up top is the wide 5:3 3D screen and to its right is the 3D slider. Here, you have the option of adjusting the overall 3D effect or removing it altogether. Above the 3D top screen is the third 0.3-megapixel camera that faces the user; it cannot shoot in 3D.

We couldn't help but notice that when opened, the 3DS' top screen does wiggle a little bit, unlike the rock-solid design of the previous DS line. It doesn't really compromise gameplay or 3D at all, but we felt it was worth mentioning.

The 3DS has internal storage, but it appears that space is reserved for system applications. We were able to save photos internally, but games were always saved on the SD card. We're not too sure exactly how much storage is in there, either, but Nintendo says that information will be made available soon.

A stacked view of both consoles.

The 3D technology
The 3DS uses autostereoscopic 3D technology, which means two separate images are being displayed on the top screen when the device is in 3D mode. There is a certain "handshaking" that our eyes need to do to lock in the 3D effect, and when it does the result is truly eye-popping.

Instead of popping out, the 3D image feels like it goes deeper into the screen. The best way we've been able to convey the effect is by referring to those old Magic Eye images that required some eye-crossing to get 3D objects to appear. Not to worry, there's no eye-crossing going on here, though some titles we played definitely took a few seconds of getting used to, especially with the 3D slider maxed out. On rare occasions the effect was actually overwhelming, which had us jumping for the slider.

Judging from the six games Nintendo included with our review unit, our hands-on time at various events, and the AR Games preloaded on the 3DS, we think each title will have varying "sweet spots" for 3D intensity and playing distance. Of course the choice is ultimately up to the user, but don't be surprised if each game requires its own 3D adjustment. Furthermore, we wouldn't be surprised to find gamers turning 3D off altogether when playing titles that don't seem to benefit from the effect. Out of the games we played, Madden Football seemed to have no business being in 3D, so we switched it off. The 3D won't give the player any real advantage in-game, it just enhances the experience.

The biggest question on everyone's mind has got to be whether the 3D mode makes the user dizzy or sick. In our experience we never felt nauseated, but that's not to say we didn't suffer an occasional headache from maxing out the 3D. Of course each player will have his or her own reaction to the system--so while an 8-year-old might have absolutely no negative side effects from playing, a 75-year-old might suffer a different fate (or vice versa). Regardless, any undesirable consequences can be eliminated by turning the 3D mode off.

Another drawback to using the 3D mode is that people can't watch you play (for instance over your shoulder). Sure, this isn't a deal breaker by any stretch, but it is too bad that more than one person can't experience the illusion simultaneously.

That aside, it's also a bit too easy for the 3D effect to snap out of sync when playing. Because there is such a sensitive viewing angle for the 3D to work, we occasionally found ourselves falling out of range. This was demonstrated far too often with games that require a lot of button mashing--specifically Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition in our experience--and titles that require the movement of the actual unit itself. We definitely think the motion and gyro sensors are welcome additions, but occasionally bittersweet in practice.

While it's seemingly safe to use, Nintendo does not recommend having 3D turned on for users under the age of 7. There are also plenty of safety warnings littering the box, and instruction manuals about prolonged usage of the 3DS, with Nintendo recommending a 10-minute break for every 30 minutes played in 3D.

System software
The 3DS' system software resembles that of the last generation's, but we feel it's laid out much better this time around. Everything seems to be placed logically, and there's a nice amount of customization offered.

We really like that you can suspend a game or application by hitting the Home button. This will transport the player back to the Home screen at any time, where most settings are still accessible, including the ability to make game notes. If a player wants to switch games or apps, the suspended program must be closed.

The Home screen offers immediate access to a handful of features. The top of the screen provides one-click jumping to brightness settings, tile/channel layout, game notes, friends list, notifications, and the Web browser. An instruction manual is also available for select software, which will pop up in the lower left-hand corner when applicable.

In terms of actual software, the 3DS comes preinstalled with the following:

  •    •  AR Games: Six cards come packed inside the 3DS box for use with AR Games, the 3DS' augmented reality app. Using the outward-facing cameras, the 3DS can recognize these cards lying on a flat surface and then superimpose a minigame on screen. This is definitely one of the first games to show off to friends, as the wow factor here is really high. There's a decent amount of processing going on, so the frame rates aren't stellar, but nevertheless it's truly an impressive use of the hardware.

  •    •  Nintendo 3DS Sound: Similar to the DS-branded sound app, this allows the user to create and record audio. It'll also play music (MP3, M4A, 3GP) that can be loaded onto an SD card.

  •    •  Camera: Photos can be taken via the front- or back-facing cameras, though 3D photography can only be done with the dual back-facing cameras. Gone are the camera effects from the DSi, but new 3D ones are available. The 3D photo taking is a lot of fun and works well, though the low-resolution lenses have trouble in low-light situations (even with the low-light filter on). Photos are almost always too grainy and really feel behind the times.

  •    •  Mii Maker: Similar to the Wii's Mii interface, Mii Maker allows you to create avatars for use with various software and games. Miis can be made from scratch or with the help of a photograph. In our testing, the photo-to-Mii creation was surprisingly accurate. A Mii can also be given a QR icon so other 3DS consoles can snap a photo and import the Mii directly onto the system.

  •    •  Mii Plaza: Using the StreetPass feature, users have the option to "invite" other Miis residing on 3DS consoles that are in close physical range. Miis will automatically transfer over and live in the Mii Plaza.

  •    •  Download Play: Featured in the last generation of the DS, Download Play allows for game sharing with other local consoles. This feature is also backward-compatible with older Nintendo DS consoles. Each game has its own varying level of Download Play compatibility.

  •    •  Face Raiders: Another preinstalled game, Face Raiders is a minigame that superimposes a photograph taken at the start of a session and has the user shoot enemies that sport his or her own face. This also has augmented-reality elements and requires the player to physically turn 360 degrees to look for flying enemies and objects.

  •    •  Activity Log: Essentially the 3DS' diary, the Activity Log records various statistics such as how many games have been played, how long they've been played, and even the number of steps a user has taken in a given day using a pedometer feature. Play Coins are rewarded for every 100 steps taken, which can then be cashed in for in-game items, Mii Plaza perks, AR Games, and other rewards.

It took a couple of months after launch, but now most of the 3DS' online functionality has been activated. Instead of Nintendo Points, players can pay directly for items in the eShop with a credit card. Apps other than games and demos are also available, including the recently launched Netflix application and video marketplace.

Setting up an Internet connection is much less painful on the 3DS than on past DS units. The 3DS is compatible with 802.11 b and g interfaces on the 2.4GHz band. We easily searched for access points, entered our password, and connected in under a minute. Multiple SSIDs can be saved on the 3DS, and the console will switch connections when they are in range.

Making their unwanted return are 12-digit friend codes, but fortunately gamers will only need to input another player's code once. The player is then stored in the friends list and can be accessed via the Home screen or in-game where applicable.

New for the 3DS are the local and Wi-Fi services, dubbed StreetPass and SpotPass, respectively. StreetPass notifications turn the notification LED green, whereas SpotPass ones glow blue. These features require the 3DS to be powered on at a minimum of Sleep mode, which the 3DS will automatically enter when closed. It's clear Nintendo is encouraging owners to keep the 3DS on all the time, which probably explains the inclusion of the drop-and-charge dock.

StreetPass doesn't require Wi-Fi and automatically connects (once enabled) to other 3DS consoles to exchange Miis, set up local multiplayer, and exchange other information.

SpotPass can sniff out Wi-Fi while in Sleep mode to download gaming content and other information. When awake, it can be used for multiplayer gaming and access to the eShop.

At launch, owners of DSiWare content were not able to transfer their items to the 3DS. However, this functionality was included in the June update that added the eShop accessibility as well.

Most of the time, the 3DS is a zippy machine, easily suspending games and apps and allowing multitasking. Some games take a few seconds to load, but we've yet to experience any gratuitous lagging. That said, original DS games happen to load more slowly on the 3DS than they do on their native systems. We're not totally sure why, but CNET sister site GameSpot thinks it's because of software emulation hiccups.

Battery life is something the 3DS has already taken a hit for simply because its predecessors have such impressive performance. In our testing, we found Nintendo's claims of 3 to 5 hours (depending on screen brightness) to be spot-on. It'll take the 3DS roughly 3.5 hours to fully charge.

The included charging dock reinforces Nintendo's push to have the 3DS on at all times. We really like the dock and its ease of use, especially since we'll need to charge the 3DS more often than any of its predecessors.

The charging dock provides a quick drop-and-charge solution.

With the introduction of augmented reality and various motion-sensing technologies, some games require the user to physically move around with the 3DS. Historically, mobile gaming consoles never offered such range, so it'll be interesting to see how gamers respond when being asked to circle 360 degrees the next time they're playing a game on, say, a subway train.

The Nintendo 3DS launched on March 27 with a launch lineup of 16 games (not including those preloaded on the system) priced at $40 each. Support from major third-party developers has been announced, and we're really looking forward to titles like Super Mario 3DS, Mario Kart, and Resident Evil Revelations.

Interestingly enough, the 3DS won't launch with any major Nintendo first-party players like Mario or Zelda, though a 3D remake of Ocarina of Time arrived in June. Overall, the launch titles left a bit to be desired, but here they are for your viewing pleasure:

  •    •  Pilotwings Resort (Nintendo)

  •    •  Steel Diver (Nintendo)

  •    •  Nintendogs + Cats (Nintendo)

  •    •  Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition (Capcom)

  •    •  The Sims 3 (EA)

  •    •  Madden NFL Football (EA)

  •    •  Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 3D (Konami)

  •    •  Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (LucasArts)

  •    •  Ridge Racer 3D (Namco Bandai)

  •    •  Super Monkey Ball 3D (Sega)

  •    •  Bust-A-Move Universe (Square Enix)

  •    •  Samurai Warriors: Chronicles (Tecmo Koei)

  •    •  Asphalt 3D (Ubisoft)

  •    •  Combat Of Giants: Dinosaurs 3D (Ubisoft)

  •    •  Rayman 3D (Ubisoft)

  •    •  Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Shadow Wars (Ubisoft)

Nintendo was nice enough to include some of these titles with our review unit, so we've written a few words on the games we've spent some time with.

For a hands-on demo of AR Games and Super Street Fighter IV, check out this video from preGame:

Steel Diver: What began as a tech demo is now a fully featured game, but though the 3D effect here is nice, Steel Diver doesn't do much to captivate an audience. Gameplay is lethargic and the action is almost always anticlimactic. The periscope mode is fun, requiring full 360-degree movement, and is actually best played sitting in a swiveling office chair.

Pilotwings Resort: We really enjoyed the use of 3D here, though when maxed out it can be a little jarring. Flying in a plane, jetpack, or hang glider around this tropical island never gets old, and the various missions make for plenty of replay value. We can't stress enough how satisfyingly the sensation of flying is conveyed here, making Pilotwings Resort one of the 3DS' killer launch apps.

Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition: Here's the game that made us realize how delicate the 3D viewing angle is. Smashing buttons during our gameplay really made the 3DS shake, which in turn caused the 3D effect to dip. We don't think this is a deal breaker, however, as we're sure it'll take some time to get used to playing while ensuring the game doesn't fall out of 3D.

AR Games: As we mentioned earlier in the review, this is the first game you'll want to show your friends. It's easily one of the most impressive bits of technology the 3DS is capable of, and considering all the processing and calculating that's going on, it actually does a really good job of superimposing a game onscreen using a static backdrop.

As mentioned earlier, the 3DS can play original DS games, slower loading times and all. The 3DS cartridges are gray with a tab in the upper right corner, most likely to prevent anyone from sticking them in older models. These flash cards can hold up to 2GB of information.

Comparing the 3DS and original DS game cards.

When it was priced at $250, the 3DS was the most expensive portable system Nintendo had ever debuted. That said, it's also the most technically capable. Though a weaker-than-usual launch lineup and inactivated online functionality dampened the 3DS' start, the future certainly looks bright. Now with the company slashing 32 percent off the original price and a holiday season that should see a solid crop of 3DS games, the overall package is definitely more attractive.

Who should buy the 3DS? Anyone who wants to have the absolute latest and greatest the world of portable gaming has to offer. The 3D effect is absolutely eye-popping the instant it hits; it opens the door for developers to innovate and impress. While the list of launch titles could use some help, there's plenty of fun to be had with the preinstalled software and the eShop library, which grows regularly.

Who shouldn't buy it? Gamers who are on the fence about the 3DS need to decide if the novelty of 3D gaming is worth the plunge. For those who are content gaming on the DS with its infinite list of great games, it may be worth holding off on a 3DS purchase. This aside, we can't promise that those who wait will see another price drop anytime soon. Those who are easily disturbed by 3D should also try a 3DS in the store before purchasing.

Overall, we think the 3DS will slowly but surely become a worthy successor to the original DS family. Though 3D portable gaming certainly takes a bit of getting used to, Nintendo has once again set a precedent and paved the way for innovation. With a totally different and constantly evolving mobile gaming landscape in place, it'll be interesting to see if this will be enough to keep Nintendo on top.

If competition from Apple and Android weren't enough, Nintendo will need to face Sony. While the competing portable system was just announced and won't make this year's holiday season, the 3DS will need to weather the storm early next year when Sony is set to release its next portable powerhouse, the PlayStation Vita.


Nintendo 3DS

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8