Nintendo’s new 3DS is certainly an upgrade. But we won’t really know for a while how much of an upgrade it is.
Like the Game Boy Color or the Nintendo DSi, the New Nintendo 3DS (yeah, that is its actual name) is one of Nintendo’s half-step measures, not a brand new platform or a purely cosmetic redesign but something in between. It’s got a second analog stick, a nicer 3-D screen and a whole bunch of other tiny improvements. Eventually you’ll use it to play exclusive software, but for now it’s just upgrading the experience of your existing library of 3DS games.
Nintendo seems to be in no big hurry to get the New Nintendo 3DS out of Japan, where it launched earlier this month. It is launching New 3DS in Australia in November, but hasn’t announced any plans to bring it to the U.S. or Europe, meaning we almost surely won’t see it until 2015.
There are two sizes, standard and XL (called LL in Japan). As I indicated in a previous piece, I bought an XL, because even though the smaller version has rad swappable faceplates, I currently use a 3DS XL and wasn’t about to downsize my screens. As it happened, Japanese consumers agreed with me: The XL outsold the smaller size by more than two to one in its launch week.
Holding the New 3DS XL and the original 3DS XL is like playing spot-the-difference: At first glance, the pair look identical. Same rounded-corners clamshell design, same dimensions, nearly identical weight. You have to peer in close to start picking out the changes—some good, some neutral, and some unfortunate.
The most significant change is the addition of the C-stick, a second analog joystick of sorts, above the buttons on the right-hand side. This is the first Nintendo handheld that has actually had twin sticks as a standard feature, better late than never but still pretty darn late. Let’s not pretend this is here for any reason other than the fact that Capcom’s inexplicably popular Monster Hunter series, one of a handful of games that’s keeping 3DS relevant in Japan, is set in a free-roaming 3-D world that cries out for independent camera control.
American players by and large have resisted attempts by Capcom and Nintendo to start a Monster Hunter craze here as well. But the C-stick can also be used for Super Smash Bros., which is what I tested it on. The stick itself is very similar to the pointer nub that I imagine is still used on some laptop computers. If you put your thumb on it and move it around, you can’t actually feel the stick moving underneath you. But you only need to twitch your thumb a little bit to get it to activate, and I found it to be quite comfortable and accurate.
The next best update is the 3-D screen. Anecdotally, I’ve found that most people just turn the 3-D screen off on their 3DS hardware. The novelty is gone by now, and more than that if you shift the 3DS or your head around while playing, the illusion tends to break and the image gets distorted. The New 3DS has actually done a remarkable job of solving this. If you move your head or the system around, it takes a lot more movement—significantly more than you would probably have in a gameplay scenario unless you were launching into orbit—to break the illusion. Nintendo says it solved this by tracking your head position with the device’s front-facing selfie camera, which is a significantly better use of it than taking selfies.
There’s another very cool use of that camera: New 3DS can automatically adjust the brightness of your screen based on the brightness of the room. Turn off the lights and the screen will darken, saving that precious, precious gaming juice.
Look closer and you’ll keep finding tweaks. The A, B, X, Y action buttons on the unit’s face are spread a little further apart now, making gameplay more comfortable. There are two extra shoulder buttons, again primarily for Monster Hunter but generally bringing the 3DS into rough parity with a standard game console’s controller. This may prove important if Nintendo or its partners plan to port more of their existing console content to 3DS.
The Start and Select buttons have been moved from their terribly inconvenient positions below the screen and over to the right side. Meanwhile, the power button has been moved to a terribly inconvenient location on the underside of the unit. It’s less likely that you’ll hit it accidentally, but for a while you’ll probably have trouble hitting it at all.
Similarly, the stylus used for the system’s touch screen has been shifted from a convenient slot on the unit’s right side to a nearly unreachable position on its underside. The stylus is also significantly shorter than the one on the standard 3DS XL. Oh well, it wouldn’t be a new Nintendo handheld without a puzzling downgrade.
Fortunately, the puzzling downgrade on the 3DS XL has been rectified here. That unit’s speakers were pretty weaksauce compared to the first 3DS unit’s. The decibels have been cranked back up for the New 3DS.
There’s a significant design change that will result in an upcharge for current 3DS diehards: While every Nintendo handheld back to the DSi in 2009 has used SD card storage, the New 3DS is shifting to Micro SD. That means you can’t just transfer your account information and pop in your SD card full of games; you have to transfer the data.
Nintendo gives you three options here: Transfer every bit of data via a local wireless connection (takes literally hours); only transfer your account, licenses and save data (requires that you individually re-download all your games from the eShop, a painstaking process); or move everything over with your PC (requires an SD card reader and, well, a PC).
Oh, and if you want to get to that SD card, you’ll have to use a tiny screwdriver (not included) to take the battery cover off of the New 3DS. This is not that big an imposition, and frankly considering how small a Micro SD card is I’m glad that it’s locked up in there, but if you’re in the habit of removing your SD card to get photos off of it, you might be annoyed. But Nintendo has a solution for this as well. You can now make your 3DS appear as a device on your Windows 7 or 8 network, and access its files through Explorer.
So as of now, New Nintendo 3DS appears to be a laundry list of improvements large and small that make your experience of playing 3DS games a little more comfortable. If you’re not playing 40 hours of Monster Hunter a week, is this going to convince you to upgrade? Probably not at the moment. But the thing with the New 3DS is that it’s a time bomb.
See, in addition to all of the upgrades that you can see, New 3DS also has more processing power under the hood. Right now, you won’t notice this, besides a mild boost to the speed of downloads and Internet browsing. But soon, Nintendo will begin to release games that use the extra power and can only be played on New 3DS, a port of the Wii role-playing game Xenoblade Chronicles being the first.
I think we’ll see many more of these in the coming years, especially since the combination of the console-style button layout and extra power will make it easier to give old content a new life on 3DS. The ability to play something on the go can bring in a new audience: Even RPG players who couldn’t be bothered to pull their Wii out of the closet to play Xenoblade might give it a whirl on 3DS. It’s a way of having “new” content without having to pay for the bottom-up development of a new game. And with the extra stick and buttons on New 3DS, the experience doesn’t have to be compromised.
Will New 3DS protect Nintendo from the steadily encroaching threats that keep taking big bites out of its portable gaming business? Not by itself. But it continues to produce the very best gaming-only portable device, and that’s got to count for something… right?