Portable gaming is Nintendo's wheelhouse: it pioneered the category with the Game Boy, reinvented it with the Nintendo DS, and uses its current generation, the Nintendo 3DS, to help pay the bills in the wake of underwhelming Wii U sales. Starting today, you can buy the company's latest gaming handheld: The New Nintendo 3DS. It's better than it sounds.
What's so "New" about it?
Everything and nothing. This is the same exact 3DS you already know and love, but Nintendo's made a bunch of tweaks that will make you wonder why you wasted any time with the original. It has a faster processor! More buttons! A better screen! A new analogue nub! Magic technology that tracks your eyes and makes 3D actually good! It also just so happens to have a terrible name that conveys none of these improvements.
That name really is terrible.
Yeah, it's a marketing nightmare. Nintendo products used to have simple names that clearly related their superiority to their predecessors: Super NES. Game Boy Colour and Game Boy Advance. Even the original Nintendo 3DS differentiated itself by putting its gimmicky feature front and centre. But the word "new?" That's what I call anything I just bought from anywhere. I purchased a "new" camera on eBay last month. It's from 1975. You done screwed up, Nintendo.
I don't know why I'm surprised. Nintendo apparently lost the knack for naming things when it called its latest console the "Wii U," leaving thousands of consumers to assume it was just a Wii accessory. Now the New 3DS faces the same problem. How are you supposed to know it actually is new? Well, you're reading it. I'm telling you. The New 3DS, with a capital N, is a significant upgrade over any other lower-case new 3DS you might buy in the store. Tell your friends. Save them from accidentally buying the the wrong new, old 3DS. Oh, except the "New" in the official "New 3DS" logo isn't actually uppercase.
If that didn't make sense to you, then you understand the problem perfectly.
OK, it's new. It's different. Is it better?
The New Nintendo 3DS looks a lot like the old 3DS, but just a little smoother; a little flatter. A little less like a bright, bubbly Fisher-Price toy. I feel like I could slip it in and out of my jacket pocket without casual onlookers realising it was a game console. Then, of course, I'd open it and the illusion would be ruined. Yup, I'm the guy who can't let go of his childhood.
Despite having slightly less rounded corners, the New 3DS doesn't look all that different than the old 3DS at a glance. There's a hinge, two screens, a bunch of buttons, a joystick-thing and some sliders. Physically, there are changes, but you probably won't care. The WiFi switch is gone; the volume slider has been moved to the top screen; the cartridge slot, stylus and power button now live on the handheld's front edge; the start and select buttons have been moved around; those little indentations that you could tie a lanyard to (did anybody anywhere ever use these?) are gone. Yawn, shrug and move on.
But wait, is that a second analogue nub? What are these extra buttons on the back? The New Nintendo 3DS is the physical manifestation of almost every "missing feature" critics damned the original for not having. I love it.
More Control Options
I was among a not-so-vocal minority that felt the original 3DS wasn't actually missing a second analogue stick. I just didn't want it. Now I have it anyway and -- OK -- I have to admit it's pretty nice. The eraser-like nub lives just above the console's face buttons. It's easy to reach and kind of reminds me of the little red nub on a ThinkPad laptop.
Games that supported Nintendo's Circle Pad Pro accessory automatically recognise it, too: Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance and Resident Evil: Revelations suddenly have a dedicated camera control-stick, and Super Smash Bros now has C-Stick shortcuts for powerful smash attacks, just like on GameCube.
It really improves some games, but I found myself ignoring it in others -- when I played The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D, I just forgot it was there.
There are new shoulder buttons, too -- but I hardly touched them. In Super Smash Bros, for instance, the new ZR button just becomes an extra grab button, ZL a secondary shield toggle. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate lets you choose what the buttons do, making them a bit more versatile, but most of the games on the market compatible with the 3DS' new controls seem to underutilise them at the moment. Hopefully, that will change as companies start making more games with the new system in mind. At least the triggers are pretty easy to reach.
No-glasses 3D that doesn't suck
I loved the original 3DS' glasses-free 3D effect, but I spent years living in denial. I learned to hold my console at the perfect distance away from my head, which I would hold absolutely still, like a marble statue carved specifically to highlight uncomfortable posture. I told myself it was fine; worth it for the depth perception the illusion provides. I was wrong. The original 3DS' parallax barrier effect is dead to me. All hail Nintendo's new technique: Super-Stable 3D.
With a revised front-facing camera, new software and a bit of infrared light, the New 3DS' stereoscopic display can actually adjust itself to your head. It's called Super-Stable 3D. It sounds fancy, but what it means is wonderful: no more strobing effect and no more double vision. Before, the 3D effect was easily broken -- now it works so well I sometimes forget it's even on.
Believe it or not, this actually fixes some games. StarFox 64 3D, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask 3D all have special control modes that require you to tilt or move the game console -- but on the original 3DS that ruined the 3D effect and gave me double vision. Now it just works: I can now steer my spaceship or aim an arrow with motion controls and still see glorious 3D. You don't have to think about it, you don't have to turn it off, and you don't have to get nauseous. It's pretty fantastic.
It's like Skylanders, but not as good
The New 3DS also supports Amiibo -- a series of toy figures Nintendo sells that change how you play a game. If you've heard of Skylanders or Disney Infinity, it's basically the same thing: a small NFC chip in the toy is read by another chip in the game console, which makes stuff happen in certain games. Unfortunately for us, the stuff isn't all that interesting.
Tap a toy against the 3DS while you're playing Super Smash Bros, for instance, and it will create a computer-controlled opponent that's slightly smarter than the computer controlled components you can create without the toy. Use the same toy in Mario Kart 8, and it might unlock a costume for one of your racers. Even if the figures did more, it would still be an odd fit for the 3DS -- it's a portable console. Why would I want to carry around a bulky accessory just to be able to access special features in a portable game? I wouldn't -- but if you already use Amiibo with your Wii U at home, well, now you can use them on the New 3DS too.
A faster processor
Specs are boring, but performance isn't -- the New Nintendo 3DS' secret weapon is its new, upgraded processor. Buttons, better 3D and NFC support are great, but this is easily my favourite thing about the revised handheld. Why do I love this unseen change so much? Because it saves me time. The New 3DS has shrugged off the long load times, lagging menus and slow downloads of the original handheld. It's faster. It's better. It doesn't feel like an outdated piece of technology anymore.
It's more than just faster menus, though: the faster processor allows the handheld to play more complicated games -- there are games in development that will be exclusive to Nintendo's new hardware. That's a little annoying if you already have a 3DS and want to play the upcoming Xenoblade Chronicles 3D port, but in the long run it could extend the lifetime of the handheld and give us better games to boot. Unfortunately, none of those games are available right now.
Is anything worse?
Besides the name? Yeah, a few things. First and foremost is the power adaptor: there isn't one. In what I can only assume was a measure to keep the price under $US200 ($219 in Australia), Nintendo decided that charging the New 3DS was optional. Or at least that New 3DS buyers will still have the charger from the old one. Even if you don't, it's not a dealbreaker -- AC adapters only cost about $US10 ($15 in Australia) -- but it's an annoying, weird and completely ridiculous omission.
The battery life is also measurably worse -- but not by a terrible amount. I didn't notice a difference when I switched to the New 3DS back in January, but side-by-side with its predecessor in a controlled battery run-down, it fell about 50 minutes short. Check it out:
That test was optimised for maximum battery life: minimum brightness, no audio, no 3D, with WiFi and NFC disabled and Power-Saving Modes activated on both systems. Eight hours of (sadly soundless) gameplay isn't anything to scoff at, but last year's model lasted almost nine. That's not something I like to see in an upgrade.
The New Nintendo 3DS also changed external storage formats, upgrading from the standard SD card to microSD. This would be a minor annoyance, at best, if not for the fact that it makes transferring your data to a New 3DS stupidly difficult.
System transfers used to be relatively easy: select the option in the menu, and swap the two systems' SD cards. Done. The switch to microSD makes that impossible. Now you have three options, but they're all terrible: a complicated setup that requires swapping out SD cards and copying files to your PC, a half-measure transfer that forces you to re-download all of your games one-by-one from the eShop, or a deceptively simple wireless transfer.
I went with "wireless transfer" because it seemed like the option that would give me the least grief. I was wrong. It took over two hours to transfer everything. Oh, and it kicked off the entire process by asking me to plug both systems in so I didn't lose power during the transfer -- that's a pretty tall order when the New 3DS doesn't come with one.
The speakers are put out a richer, louder sound -- I can actually hear the 3DS if the TV is on!
The new home, start and select buttons feel so much better. They're not mushy anymore, and are easier to reach from the 3DS' face buttons.
Everything loads way, way faster.
My eyes don't get tired when I use 3D for extended periods of time.
There's a microSD management menu that lets you turn the 3DS into a network drive -- it's possible to unload files from the SD card without taking it out.
The new auto-brightness feature is a nice touch.
Super-Stable 3D works in the dark! Infrared head-tracking is neat.
Why is the power button on the front edge? I'm always worried it's going to turn off in my pocket. It hasn't yet, but just you wait!
Why is the stylus on the front? In the old model, it used to lay on the right-side, making it easier to pull out when your hands were on the controls.
Why is the cartridge slot on the front? That's just weird and ugly. There's too much crap on the front of this thing.
Swappable faceplates: only available on the smaller 3DS model that's not coming to the US. I mourn the absence of this customisability.
Nintendo says this thing has better 3D cameras, but I can't tell. The New 3DS still takes noisy, low-resolution and mostly worthless snapshots. Who cares if they're in 3D? They look awful.
Nintendo says it improved the web browser app too, but it's awful. The one on my smartphone is still way better.
Sometimes I notice when the auto-brightness adjusts. I'm glad it's working, but watching it work is kind of annoying.
I wish there were more games that used the second analogue nub or the upgraded processor. Owning this thing is a waiting game.
Should I Buy It?
Yes. If you don't already have a 3DS and you want one, this is the one you want. If you have an older 3DS, you should still buy one -- just not right away. This New 3DS is better in almost every way, but your current handheld plays all the same games, has almost all the same features and you already have it. If you can't wait, you'll still be happy with an upgrade -- but if you hold off until there are more games that use the new processor, analogue sticks and buttons, you'll be happier. I just want you to be happy, ok?