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

Three years in, Nintendo's little handheld has become a seriously good game device, and the XL is the best version.

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Scott Stein
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Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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9 min read

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.

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8.0

Nintendo 3DS XL

The Good

The <b>Nintendo 3DS XL</b> has a two big screens, tons of great games, feels sturdy, and is the most kid-friendly gaming platform currently available.

The Bad

Battery life is fair but still not great; the graphics are starting to look dated compared to other game platforms, and the 3D is largely an afterthought; only one analog pad; downloaded game management still a huge headache.

The Bottom Line

Three years in, the Nintendo 3DS handheld has become a seriously good game device -- especially for fans of Nintendo's classic gaming franchises -- and the XL is the one you should buy.

Top reasons to get a Nintendo 3DS (pictures)

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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.

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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.

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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.

3DS XL and 3DS: big brother, little brother. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Nintendo 2DS and 3DS: smaller screens, lower prices. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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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8.0

Nintendo 3DS XL

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 8Features 7Performance 8Value 8