"Try before you buy", "your mileage will vary", "wait and see”: all phrases that no serious reviewer likes to use. Sadly, they're all quite appropriate when the product we're talking about is Nintendo's latest little wonder, the Nintendo 3DS. It's a fascinating piece of hardware with some truly amazing features and a handful of worrying flaws, but there's no getting around two things. Firstly, what you get out of it will depend on your eyes and how well they cope with the handheld's variant of stereoscopic 3D. Secondly, that while this is a console with bags of potential, its value really depends on what Nintendo and the third-party developers can wring out of it in the next year.
The unit itself is clearly an evolution of the existing DSi. While the 3DS is magically smaller, heavier and thicker, there really isn't much in it, and the clamshell design and the basic look and feel are roughly the same. You probably already know about the major physical differences: two VGA-resolution cameras on the outside of the lid instead of one, soft-touch Select, Start and Home buttons beneath the touch-sensitive bottom screen, the wider 3D screen at the top and the introduction of an analogue pad above the D-pad, which has been shifted down to accommodate it. Despite all these things, the 3DS will instantly feel familiar to anyone who has used a DSi, or a DS Lite before that. It's a solid, well-built, friendly unit, but not the sort of thing that you instantly want to take home.
That familiarity only lasts, however, until you switch the 3DS on and check out the 3.35-inch, 800 x 240 resolution screen for the first time. According to some pretty trustworthy sources, the screen uses a variant of parallax barrier technology, where a second LCD screen operates as a sort of grating, directing light from alternate columns of pixels to each eye provided those eyes are positioned in a sweet spot looking directly at the screen. The clever thing about this technology is that it's adjustable, in the 3DS's case using a 3D depth slider to the right of the screen. The more depth, the smaller the sweet spot and the harder it is to maintain the illusion of one 3D image rather than two overlapping 2D pictures. The less depth, the bigger the sweet spot and the more forgiving the 3D effect is, but it also makes the effect less impressive.
The fact is, no two people will have exactly the same experience of this screen, and the results vary greatly depending on the content you're working with. Play PilotWings Resort, for example, and you get a superb effect of depth with the 3D slider turned up to the max, as if you're looking at the game world through a window, with objects in the foreground, middle and distance clearly visible at different planes. However, it's also very difficult to keep the two views from separating and - from personal experience - a bit tiring on the eyes and brain over longer stretches. Streetfighter IV 3D Edition and Nintendogs + Cats are more subtle in their 3D effects (though still impressive), but much, much easier on the eyes.
On this count your mileage really will vary. Having persuaded several people to try the 3DS, we can say that some get the 3D straight away, some struggle for a few minutes and then moan, and some adjust the slider until they find a halfway house that works. It's also worth mentioning that if you wear glasses on occasion, then you should try the 3DS with specs attached. It can make all the difference.
Otherwise, both screens continue the positive trend we've seen from the original DS through to the DSi; brightness and contrast are excellent, though the reflective surface will make things tricky in bright daylight. The sound, too, is a marginal improvement. You can't expect much power or weight from two tiny speakers, but there is clarity, something you can describe as a stereo soundfield, and no distortion when you push the volume slider to the top.
What's more important, however, is the quality of the visuals that you'll be looking at on the 3D screen. There's a certain amount of disappointment in the air over Nintendo's decision to use DMP's PICA200 graphics chipset over something more cutting edge from Imagination, AMD or Nvidia, but the more time you spend with the early software, the more you appreciate that the 3DS is a significant step forward from the DSi. Pilotwings Resort does an excellent job of replicating the kind of graphics you'd expect from the Wii, while Nintendogs + Cats and Streetfighter IV 3D Edition surpass that, with convincing, detailed textures and luxurious fur on the first, and a fine impression of an HD console game on the last. Sure, it's not long before you notice that the background architecture is quite primitive in Nintendogs, while Streetfighter IV has lost its animated backgrounds, but Nintendo has done enough to keep the 3DS in the game. Our biggest fear was that the 3DS would seem dated at launch. It doesn't, and from what we've seen of what the like of Capcom have in store, we suspect there's potential to do more in future.
The other thing that you can only appreciate from extended play is how great an addition the new analogue pad actually is. It's nice, large and a bit rubbery under the thumb, and sensitive without feeling twitchy. As fans of the old N64 version will remember, PilotWings is a game that demands subtlety of movement in order to steer planes and gliders through its clear-blue virtual skies. Having put a good few hours in, we can state that the analogue pad makes playing Pilotwings Resort a real pleasure.
In terms of pre-installed software, the 3DS is the most generous DS yet. The camera app turns the console into a simple 3D camera, and while image quality is predictably shocking - particularly in poor light - simply mucking around with quick 3D snaps is fun. The 3DS Sound app is also good for a giggle, enabling you to pull off old tricks like making your voice sound like a budgie or a trumpet with ease. Having seen the Mii Maker app back in January we were scornful of its capabilities, but provided you give it help with face shapes, beards and haircuts, it is capable of producing some uncanny looking Miis - which work as in-game Avatars and online/offline IDs much as they do on Wii. With the new Mii Plaza mostly unpopulated, however, the real stars are the bundled Face Raiders game and the built in AR Games: Augmented Reality app.
The first is basically a showcase for what happens when you combine the 3DS's cameras with its built-in motion sensors. First, the game takes a shot of your unfortunate visage, then, when fiendish looking flying machines bearing your face appear, floating around in the real space in front of your 3DS. Your task? To blast them into bits. It's simple fun, but also an indication of what Nintendo might want to do with the 3DS's features in the future. The same goes for the AR Games. Basically, the 3DS comes with a selection of six playing cards packed in. Put one on a surface in front of the camera, and it transforms before your eyes into a 3D object, which can animate, warps the real surface and change into other shapes before your eyes. A question-mark card becomes an island packed with targets or a writhing, snarling dragon, while pictures of favourite Nintendo heroes become 3D statues while you watch. The cards even get an outing within the Nintendogs + Cats game, so we can expect more variants on this kind of thing in time to come.
It's all quite fascinating, and when you see all this, and the stuff Nintendo is doing with the 3DS's built in 802.11g Wi-Fi networking - sharing Miis and swapping game data even while the system is asleep - you can see what Nintendo's intentions with the 3DS really were. While the headline feature is the 3D, this handheld is really a whole toolbox of interesting and innovative features for Nintendo and its partners to spin new ideas around like they did with the touchscreen on the original DS. The problem at the moment is that the launch titles don't seem so inspired. Pilotwings Resort, Nintendogs + Cats and Streetfighter IV 3D edition are all fine games, with good 3D effects and a strong appeal to specific types of gamer, but none of them has a serious wow factor beyond the 3D, and the 3D itself doesn't keep you going "wow" for all that long. The 3DS is a platform in need of a must-have title - a Brain Training, Wii Sports or Mario 64 - that will make it seem essential. From what we've seen of the launch line-up, this has yet to arrive.
And the hardware does leave us with some real concerns. Battery life is borderline awful. The 3DS takes just over 3 hours to charge, and will easily run to flat in less, particularly if you're messing around with the augmented reality apps or playing PilotWings or Streetfighter IV 3D Edition. The supplied, slot-in charging cradle makes it quicker and easier to recharge the console's cells, but that low life will still hit you when you're out and about for the day. Load times are, for the first time, an issue, with long delays when you move between applications or start a game for the first time. Nintendo's software and ease-of-use remains exceptional, but these things will affect how people use the 3DS from day to day.
Finally, we have to mention the two ginormous elephants in the room. In one corner, we have Sony's forthcoming NGP. At a time when the 3DS is trying to establish hardcore gamer credentials with 3DS versions of Streetfighter IV, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and Ridge Racer, the lure of a Sony console with clearly superior graphics, twin analogue sticks and convincing versions of Uncharted, Resistance and Call of Duty is arguably more compelling. In the other corner, the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and various Android smartphone and tablet platforms might have an effect at the low-end. Do we really want to pay £30 and upwards for fun, casual-friendly titles like Pilotwings and Nintendog + Cats, when other platforms make them available for the price of a couple of pints? Plus, the more time goes on, the more any graphical lead the 3DS has - if any - will be eroded.
All of the above is true, and that's part of what makes recommending or not recommending the 3DS such a tough proposition. If the 3D effect doesn't work for you, then much of the initial appeal is gone, leaving you with an interesting, feature-packed console that looks set to be superseded by more powerful devices within the next 2 years. Given the price tag of the hardware and the software, that might not be enough, and there are times when the 3DS leaves us wishing that Nintendo had left the 3D gimmick on the table, and splashed out on more obvious things, like increased graphics horsepower or a higher-resolution screen.
What we can say, however, is this: with Nintendo, it's never about the hardware, but about the mad, magical software they might drag out of it later on. This was the case with the DS and the Wii, and it may be the case with the 3DS as well. As weird as Nintendo's choices seem now, in 6 months time it could all make perfect sense.
Product photos by Rik Henderson.