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Nintendo New 3DS review: ​New Nintendo 3DS: Not entirely new, but certainly improved

Nintendo's improved the 3D on its handheld. While not much else has changed -- and it's only on sale in Japan right now -- there are enough tweaks here for serious gamers to take a look.

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Tim Stevens
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Tim Stevens

Editor at Large / Cars

Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to videogame development. Currently he pursues interesting stories and interesting conversations in the technology and automotive spaces.

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The Nintendo 3DS was unveiled in 2010, riding the wave of 3D hysteria that was supposed to see us all scrambling to buy new 3D TVs, fancy 3D smartphones and even 3D cameras. Of course, that trend never quite took off like the display manufacturers of the world had hoped. Indeed, the 3D smartphone thing fell flat on its face right out of the gate. With the release of the 2DS , and by not supporting 3D output on the Wii U , it seemed as though even Nintendo was shying away from the notion.

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Nintendo New 3DS

The Good

The New 3DS' facial tracking makes for a hugely improved 3D gaming experience. Its new analog stick is appreciated and the clip-on covers add a lot of style.

The Bad

The new C Stick has poor feel though, and I can't help wishing for a more significant boost to battery life.

The Bottom Line

Nintendo's New 3DS isn't much improved overall, but that new display alone almost makes the purchase worthwhile -- or will do, once it's available outside of Japan.

Not so. Meet the New 3DS. Yes, that's it's formal name. The unimaginative moniker and equally familiar styling is a good indication that little has changed here. But, crucially, enough has changed for this release to capture the eye of serious Nintendo gamers -- those of you who are left.

(Editor's note: This review used a New 3DS bought in Japan. It's not yet available in the US, UK or Australia -- see below for details.)

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Sarah Tew/CNET

New 3D effect

Plenty of people said "neat" when they first got a chance to try the 3DS, but prolonged use caused a number of concerns. Most notable was disappointing performance from that glasses-free 3D screen any time that you couldn't hold the system perfectly still, like on a bus or a turbulent flight. While it only takes a moment for most peoples' eyes to adjust to the 3DS screen, any movement at all ruins the effect. Your eyes need to re-adjust every time, which can lead to strain and ultimately headaches.

This was always my biggest problem with the 3DS, and the reason why I typically left the depth slider all the way at the bottom, disabled. This all changes with the New 3DS. Thanks to some fancy face-tracking technology, the system is able to calibrate the screen for you. Where before your eyes had to adjust to make the display work, with the New 3DS the system does the heavy lifting.

Nintendo New 3DS adds subtle but appreciated upgrades (pictures)

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It's a massive difference. The device takes a moment to find you and, once locked in, visuals seem to pop right out of the display. Move your face or tilt the system and the effect remains solid -- at least, until you've tilted the display well past 45 degrees, at which point it tends to lose its lock and everything falls apart. Not really a problem for most gaming situations.

The face tracking isn't perfect, and indeed it occasionally got confused when I was sitting in front of a busy background. But, those situations were very rare, and the experience overall is a night-and-day improvement over before. It makes the 3D effect here not only usable, but comfortable and enjoyable for longer.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

What else is new? Not much, honestly, with the next-biggest addition being a secondary analog stick on the right. No, this isn't another slider like on the clumsy 3DS Circle Pad Pro accessory. Instead it's a firm, unyielding stick, much like a TrackPoint on a Lenovo laptop. Instead of moving, it simply reads how much pressure your finger is applying and in what direction.

In other words, it has terrible feel and feedback. It's just fine for moving the camera around in a 3D adventure game, as in Monster Hunter 4G, but don't expect for it to provide a pleasant twin-stick experience in a first-person shooter. That's a shame, as I'm still hoping for a killer Metroid 3DS entry.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The system also gets a second set of shoulder buttons, ZL and ZR, placed not below but beside the existing L and R buttons. They're small, but finding them with your index fingers is easy enough.

Other changes include some slight revisions to the button placement (Start and Select moving under the four main buttons, away from their position beneath the display), a switch from SD to microSD storage and the removal of a dedicated Wi-Fi button.

Customized skins

There's also the introduction of some interesting clip-on skins. Nintendo has decided to embrace the personalization market, releasing nearly 40 custom clip-ons that take what is otherwise a very boring looking white or black console and giving it a strong dose of aesthetic appeal.

Choices range from simple patterns to silhouettes of Mario characters, and I can't wait to see what the third-party market does with these. I opted for a brown set of covers with a subtle wood-grain effect, grafting a classy look upon the awfully plain white 3DS. The new covers provide minimal protection, however, as the edges of the system are still exposed. Still, the tactile addition of the wood grain is certainly appreciated.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Inside, the battery has been slightly improved and there's a new, faster CPU, something that will lead to exclusives requiring this New 3DS. Some day. Only one game so far has been announced that will require the new system, Xenoblade Chronicles, and if I had to guess, the vast majority of games going forward will not choose extra performance over backwards compatibility. Thankfully, games that utilize the new C Stick can still work on the older 3DS, as does Monster Hunter 4G.

Conclusion

So, the upgrades are few and mostly inconsequential. It's only that new display that truly moves the needle, and it does make for a significantly better gameplay experience. Good enough to make the upgrade? If you don't leave home without your 3DS, or still spend hours with it while at home, it's certainly worth considering. But, right now, there's one big caveat I must make clear: the New 3DS is currently only available in Japan, and it is most certainly region-locked.

That means the system will only play Japanese 3DS games (though older DS games from any region will work). It's irritating that Nintendo didn't disable the region-lock check, but such is life, and unless you speak Japanese or only plan on playing games that don't require much in the way of menu interaction (like, say, Super Smash Bros.), I simply can't recommend importing. Best wait until the official release in your country, which for Australia is sometime before the end of 2014, and early 2015 for the rest of the world.

If you insist, pricing in Japan is ¥16,000. That equates to roughly $150, £90 or AU$170, which is reasonable value for a great little gaming system. That said, make sure that you leave room in your budget for a charger if you don't already have one, as Nintendo doesn't include one in the box.

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Nintendo New 3DS

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8