Nintendo 3DS Hands-On: Does It Live Up to the Hype?

We've covered Nintendo's 3DS plenty these last few months, and with good reason. Nintendo's DS platform currently qualifies as the second-bestselling game console in the world, just a few million units behind Sony's PlayStation 2. That, and we're as curious as you about the glasses-free 3D experience. Will it be enough to fend off Sony's Next Generation Portable (NGP) and Apple's rapidly expanding iOS gaming platform?

We recently had a chance to put a few of the Nintendo 3DS launch titles through their paces, including Pilotwings, Steel Diver, Nintendogs + Cats, Super Street Fighter IV 3D. We also allowed Nintendo to guide us through some of the 3DS's built-in features like Street Pass, the gyroscopic motion controls, and the augmented reality angle.

Read on for our impressions, and have a look at our video hands-on, too.

Patrick Miller, Staff Editor: I wasn't hyped for the 3DS in the slightest until I got a chance to play with it. Frankly, if I hadn't been a devoted Nintendo DS owner, I would probably have been a bit confused by the various mishmash of features: Augmented reality games, motion controls, Street Pass, and so on. However, having seen game developers take the original Nintendo DS's unorthodox feature set and turn it into some of the most innovative games I've ever seen, I'm officially stoked.

I can see myself carrying one everywhere thanks to the Street Pass features, which allows various games to interact with other 3DS-toting people (Super Street Fighter IV 3D, for example, allows your character to "battle" other passers-by while your 3DS is in standby mode), and the Games Coin function, which allows me to earn in-game currency simply by walking around with 3DS in tow (think pedometer with perks). Likewise, the camera-based augmented reality game features (demoed in a game called FaceRaider) are just the tip of the iceberg. Give me a Phoenix Wright title for the 3DS and I'm sold.

When it comes to the 3D technology itself, I was less than impressed. The 3D effect basically makes the 3DS screen appears as though you're looking into a diorama, and it wasn't fantastic. It's neat, but not a game-changer as far as I'm concerned.

Alex Wawro, Editorial Assistant: After an hour goofing around with the hardware, I can tell you it works, and it works well. Oddly enough, the 3D effect is the least interesting aspect of the 3DS. It's entrancing for about half an hour, but the image depth is rather limited. Most of the games and movies we saw topped out at what appeared to be an inch or so of simulated depth. Part of the appeal of 3D movies like Avatar or Tron: Legacy is being able to peer past the first "layer" of 3D to explore the world at leisure, but I didn't get that when playing Pilotwings or Steel Diver, and I think it may be because the screen is just physically smaller and more limited when simulating depth. The augmented reality stuff that comes bundled with the system is arguably more exciting, though the AR game we saw was just a simple snipe hunt designed to show off the tech.

Nate Ralph, Staff Editor: The best part of finally seeing the 3DS in action? That child-like wonder on a colleague's face while we checked out the augmented reality apps Nintendo had on display. I'll be honest--I don't see myself ever firing up Face Raiders or its ilk once the initial new-gadget honeymoon period has passed. But there's a latent sense of immersion rolled into the experience, and I can't help but daydream about the possibilities. Think N64's Pokemon Snap, with your backyard as the Safari Zone. Or Paper Mario, with your cluttered desk as the stage. The actual "3D" part of the experience was quaint, but it's going to take a fair bit of creative game development to get me to toggle the depth slider away from the "off" position.

Jason Cross, Senior Editor: I'm a little surprised at how little I was wowed by the 3D screen, but even more surprised to hear this thought echoed by my coworkers. Yes, the glasses-free 3D screen works, and it works well, provided you don't move your head or tilt the 3D unit too much. But it doesn't really add that much to the gaming experience. It's at its best when playing the simple augmented-reality 3D games, which convincingly warped and distorted the table on which the special card was resting.

No, the real trick of the 3DS isn't 3D, it's all the other features: The hardware is considerably more powerful, making for better-looking and faster-running games. The quick "suspend mode" multitasking that lets you pop over to the web browser or notepad mid-game is a great convenience. The unified friend code system and StreetPass feature for swapping game data automatically when you just pass by someone else carrying their 3DS along with them. These are the nifty new features that make me really want the system.

Accelerometer and gyroscope controls work well, though I'm not terribly surprised at how useful they seem, given their widespread use in cell phone gaming. The big question marks are the browser and the eStore, neither of which we were able to get a look at. The Web browser on the previous Nintendo DS models was just unusably awful. I find myself downloading simpler, less expensive games these days, so a robust online store is a growing necessity.

If anything, the favorable impression I get from the 3DS only makes me more excited about Sony's upcoming NGP portable. It doesn't have a 3D screen, but it does have most of the 3D's other features, plus a few unique ideas all its own (front and back touchpads, anyone?). Confirming for myself that 3D isn't the make-or-break feature I thought it might be, but that all the other new abilities of the system are better than I expected, reaffirms that Sony's on the right path with the NGP and its substantial feature set.

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