Thursday, March 31, 2011

My 3DS' identity crisis

So I managed to get a 3DS, at long last. It is awesome... but it is not without its flaws and a crippling identity crisis. Many video game blogs and news sites are drooling so much over this thing, I'm afraid they might dry out... so instead of doing that, I'm going to give you the real deal on Nintendo's newest handheld. Please make a quick mental note of the underlined sections, and just read ahead, as I will be explaining their meaning later in the post.

First I'm going to start by giving my full impressions on the hardware and the software itself. Put your reading glasses on, folks: It's a long one... but if it's legit, solid, and detailed information along with an honest and thought-provoking conclusion you want, then you're in the right place.

The hardware itself: The pros and cons
After all is said and done, and for what it's worth, this thing really is pretty freakin' awesome. The 3D effect is just as impressive as people say... it will really blow you away when you first lay eyes on it. Does it "get old"? I think it's too early to tell for sure, but I'm already feeling like this is the way games are supposed to be seen, and now that I've put a few hours into playing 3D games on it, I'm not so much "wowed" by the 3D effect as I am "happy that 3D graphics are actually in 3D finally". It does cause some eye strain for me, and adjusting back to real life is weird and... well, it's kinda hard to describe, but I get this same feeling after watching a 3D movie in the theaters. When playing a game on it in 3D, a 30-minute play session is about all I can take, and that is what is recommended by Nintendo. Inclusion of the ability to adjust and even disable the 3D effect was a wise decision, and I find myself playing with the intensity of the 3D effect situationally very often. It's also important to note that anything more than "very slight" movement will cause you to "snap out" of the 3D effect, and I even find this happening whilst sitting still and playing Street Fighter, just from the excited movement of my hands.

The size of the 3D screen on top is pretty nice. I feel like it could've been bigger, and the choice to forgo the normal 16:9 widescreen ratio in favor of 15:9 is puzzling. I wonder what limited its size, though? Was it production constraints? Maybe they wanted it to be uniform height with the bottom screen. For that matter, why are the two screens different sizes at all? That really doesn't make much sense as you're looking at it and playing with it, I must say. Speaking of the bottom screen, it is actually slightly smaller than the DSi's touchscreen, which is also a strange decision and a little disappointing. Overall, the screens are bright and brilliant, and do their respective jobs, but the decisions Nintendo made with this aspect of the hardware are bizarre, to say the least.

The analog slider feels great. This isn't your grandpa's PSP nub, this thing feels really nice under your thumb. Unfortunately, I've yet to use it for any FPS gameplay, but the elasticity of it feels spot-on. I also discovered that the analog slider acts as an optional replacement for the d-pad when playing "normal DS" games, and this made me very happy. Playing some of the slow-and-grindy RPGs that I hold so dear is way more comfortable, and for that I am very grateful. One thing I feel I should mention-- when the analog slider is fully extended in any direction, the "hole" in which it sits becomes exposed. This worries me, because as I carry this thing around, I fear that dirt and other crap will get inside that hole and fuck it up. I guess I'll need to be extra careful with it.

The d-pad included is brilliantly clicky and bouncy, and is one of the best nintendo has ever produced in those categories, but its size and positioning on the front of the console is an absolute joke. Woe was me when I finally got down on some Street Fighter 4 and found that the d-pad was very difficult to work with. When sitting down at my desk at work and playing (heh heh) with my arms rested on my desk, I found the positioning and size to be much less of an issue for me... but whilst standing, crouching, or sitting with my hands in my lap, using the d-pad isn't very comfortable, makes me feel like I'm going to drop my 3DS, and on top of all that, it is difficult to be effective with it while playing an action-packed game such as Street Fighter 4 or Tetris DS. To be clear, the positioning and size of the d-pad is a bummer unless you're chilling in a La-Z-Boy or sitting at a desk.

The card slot for 3DS game insertion is the best one yet. It's not too springy, and I've yet to have my game accidentally pop out on me when walking around, as has happened with my DSi more times than I can count.

The select/home/start buttons are irritating, to say the least. They're smooth and flat, and positioned as part of the screen, but they're not backlit-touchscreen buttons, like the ones on my Droid Incredible, they're... well, they're just... the worst kind of buttons imaginable. They're like little tiny nubs beneath one long piece of thin plastic, so in the dark, you can hardly tell what you're pushing at all. I would've preferred standard stick-out normal analog buttons to these any day of the week. They also moved the stylus to the back of the machine again, and it too has been inconvenient for me to access in the dark, although I appreciate the inclusion of the metal telescopic stylus, as opposed to the old tiny plastic ones.

Whose idea was it to again go with the 0.3 megapixel cameras? Can it possibly be that much cheaper in production than just going with 1 or 2 megapixel cameras at the very least? The cameras are just as bad as the DSi (which is to say that they're horrible), but for the price of the 3DS and the fact that it released in a year where my cell phone includes a stunning 8 megapixel camera... it is unacceptable. Taking 3D pictures is worthless anyway, so hopefully they'll add video support for it later, so that the cameras aren't completely useless.

For some reason, Nintendo saw fit to remove the DS' headphone jack, with the slot for advanced control through the headset, and replace it with a normal headphone jack. I have no idea why, but it bums me out that the official Nintendo DS headset I own is not compatible with the 3DS.

I'm pretty neutral on the "volume slider versus volume buttons" argument, but overall I prefer the buttons of the DSi. The slider provided on the 3DS is tight though, and offers precision control, so I really can't complain... and the same goes for the 3D-effect slider, too.

Wow... it's the same power jack as my DSi! This isn't actually a Nintendo first, but it kinda feels like it is, as they rarely use the same power jack for two pieces of hardware. Either way, I'm pretty happy about not having to buy extra power adapters and a new car adapter. I always like to have extra adapters around. Since I'm accustomed to always having my portable gaming handheld available for play, I never want to have to worry about the battery life... err... battery... battery life...

The battery is absolutely just as terrible as everyone has been saying, and from my personal experience, I find that I'm lucky to get more than 3.5 hours out of the battery before it craps out on me. How about that one? Good thing I keep a bunch of chargers around everywhere... but still... I can already see this issue potentially irritating me severely as time goes on. I assumed the pre-launch battery complaints were exaggerated; they weren't. I was almost worried I got a faulty battery until I started reading more about it online... wow.

Anyway, that's plenty enough about hardware.

The bundled software: WTFLOL
Aside from some of the features of the OS itself, the bundled software is all bad. AR games are worthless after playing one of them for about 10 minutes (and what am I going to do, carry around these cards with me everywhere I go? Nintendo eReader says hi!), Face Raiders is un-fun after about 10 minutes too, and even more crappy because of the 0.3mp camera's blurriness, and the Street Pass feature is useless in America. Even living in Silicon Valley, I rarely see anybody in public with any DS at all, let alone the 3DS. The music app... I mean really, this is another one of those things that is entertaining for all of 10 minutes, too. All in all, I am wishing I could just boot straight to a game without even seeing the crappy OS at all unless I deliberately back out of the game to get to it. Unfortunately, I can tell that this is not going to happen, because when I updated my OS this morning, an OK Go music video appeared on my desktop screen. WTF is that? I do not want that. I do not care about that and do not want it and am irritated by it. Clearly Nintendo sees OS updates as an opportunity to push content on me that I do not want, and I do not agree.

You can make Miis... and I've always loved Miis. I'm happy they included them with the 3DS. Miis are always entertaining, but one especially entertaining thing about the Mii software was the hearty gut-laugh I got when I chose to "create a Mii based on a picture of myself", and my Mii showed up looking absolutely nothing like me, and without any facial hair, either (I have a full beard and moustache).

On a very positive note, however, you can return to the OS screen when you're in the middle of a game, and there is a "notepad" type application which allows you to take notes on the game you're playing and save them. This is way overdue and is a very very cool feature. Supposedly, you'll be able to browse the web on your 3DS in the middle of playing a game (in the future), too, which brings me to my next segment...

The NOT bundled software: WTFLOLAGAIN
Cruising around the 3DS' OS, I have discovered that there is a button for DSiWare, and also a web browser! Awesome! Well, that would be awesome, but neither of those actually useful and desirable applications are included! Yes, that's right... Even though the menu options exist in the OS, clicking on them shockingly results in a system message which shamelessly states, "This feature will be available through a future software update"! Excuse me? Hilariously, it doesn't indicate when these features will become available, either.

Let's get to the point
Overall, I am impressed with the 3DS hardware. It is cool. All of the glaring flaws I mentioned however, make me upset because I thought I was buying Nintendo's new portable handheld, when in fact...

Did I say portable?
This is not a Nintendo portable. Sure, by label it is, but by definition, it is not. Quickly take a moment to remind yourself of the underlined phrases and text above, if you will, and then continue from here:

First, let's take a quick look at the 3 simple things I (and most people) expect from a "portable handheld console", and Nintendo's answers to them with the 3DS' design:

Demand #1
  • I want to be able to comfortably see the screen, see it clearly, and also have comfortable/intuitive access to the input mechanisms regardless of my environment or my body's orientation.

Nintendo's answers:
  • If you have a headache from the visuals or cannot see clearly, turn off the 3D (the biggest new feature). 
  • If you want to play with 3D, please be sure to hold the 3DS straight and 12 to 14 inches directly away from your face only.
  • If you want to play with 3D, make sure you are stationary, as the vibration of a car, bus, or trolley will make any consistence in viewing the 3D difficult.
  • Sorry, but refocusing your eyes from the 3D display to the 2D touchscreen display, and back and forth and vice versa is going to be disorienting, not just because of the 3D effect, but because of the difference in screen sizes.
  • We believe the analog slider is so much more important than a d-pad, that we will design and position the d-pad in a fashion that makes it ineffective unless you're reclined with armrests or sitting at a desk.
  • We don't consider "playing in the dark" to be important, so making the select/home/start buttons difficult to navigate with nothing but your fingertips is our choice.
  • We also have decided to put the stylus back where everyone hated it (which caused us to put it in a proper location for the DSi) and make it even more difficult to find with your fingertip while the screens are facing you.

Demand #2
  • I want to keep myself entertained for both short and long periods of time while out and about.

Nintendo's answers:
  • You can only view 3D for 30 minutes at a time, and then we recommend a 10 minute break. 
  • The battery we've included only allows for 3-4 hours of play time, possibly 5 if you turn all auxiliary features off, the screen brightness down, and play without sound.
  • We will not include any additional power options in the box, such as a spare/swappable battery pack, nor will we even include these as first-party options. We will also not even include a car charger or a USB charger in the box either.

Demand #3
  • I need to feel confident that my hardware was designed to be durable and resistant to nature.

Nintendo's answers:
  • We will make the casing of the device shiny and glossy again, despite using the more durable matte finish on the DSi.
  • We will include a big hole beneath the highly-sensitive analog slider, so you can risk ruining it permanently with every gust of wind you encounter.
  • We will not make any obvious improvements to our hinge design, despite all the problems our customers have had with them in the past.

I don't believe this machine should be considered a "portable handheld console", nor do I believe it should wear the "DS" name. The fact that it has two screens that are so completely different both in size and in functionality is ridiculous the more I think about it, and hardware/functionality-wise, this thing is "3 steps back" from where they left off with the DSi, in terms of providing a proper "portable handheld console" experience.

What's my mothafuckin' name?
There are just so many obvious and subtle/small reasons why the 3DS' identity crisis has crippled its design. I won't repeat everything, but think back to all of the underlined stuff I mentioned earlier.

In the end, I would've much preferred they make their 3D machine a single-screen handheld, named, designed, and marketed around delivering 3D content to you primarily while you are in the comfort of your own home. Here is what could've been, if it weren't for the shoehorned-in DS branding:

This is obviously my quick-n-dirty mockup, but the fact is; without branding as a "portable" device, and without hijacking the DS name for marketing purposes, we could've ended up with a far superior product that didn't suffer from a severe identity crisis:
  • One large, brilliant 3D display that spans the whole height of its casing
  • No off-sized non-3D second screen to confuse your eyes and mind, and inflate the price
  • A thicker case altogether, to make it easier to hold
  • "Playing-while-plugged-in" design fundamental in mind from inception through production
  • A proper d-pad and buttons
  • A delicate look and feel for an expensive and not-very-portable machine
Overall, ditching the DS branding and marketing this device as something to be enjoyed more like a laptop than a gameboy would've provided a much better end-product for the consumers it's targeting. 

In conclusion
I love my 3DS, and I just can't wait for more awesome new software to come out for it... and fortunately for me, I don't ride in the back seats of cars or ride the bus often, I don't get out much because I'm always working or at home... and many of the other "non-portable-nature" issues about the 3DS don't have a major impact on me. The battery life annoys me, but it's very rare that I'm without a charger for any of my devices for more than a few hours. All the flaws that make it non-portable are actually mostly non-issues for me personally. I also have a DSi for long trips, and an awesome Android to keep me entertained otherwise... and because I have 2 portable handheld devices that do their jobs properlyI wish my 3DS was designed with only 1 idea in mind... To deliver 3D content, and not to try and be something it isn't: a DS.


  1. "I wish my 3DS was designed with only 1 idea in mind... To deliver 3D content, and not to try and be something it isn't: a DS."

    I wish my current generation home console would deliver a fun, rewarding, exciting gaming experience and not get caught up in gimmicky motion controls, meaningless trophy/points systems, and a severe case of "anything you can do, I can do better".

    Oh well... There's always Minecraft.

    Great review, BTW.

  2. ace post, i agree with many of your points. srsly about the camera, that's balls--especially since Nintendo tends to like to have a lot of little games with photos.

  3. "happy that 3D graphics are actually in 3D finally"

    Except they're not any more 3D than any old Playstation games that use polygons. All you're seeing is a gimmicky pop-out effect that's caused a trope of movies inserting 'object flies at camera scenes' and unnecessary eye strain when playing games. Worse, the blue effect around other objects makes it that much harder to focus on whatever you like, instead always having your vision forced to be focusing on a specific object.

    It's a bad fad that ultimately does nothing to add to the gameplay mechanics.