Ben Kuchera

The power of toys: PAR plays with the 3DS XL

The power of toys: PAR plays with the 3DS XL

Portable gaming hardware is different than the consoles you hook up to your television. Design flaws in the PS3 or 360 can be mitigated by after-market controllers and accessories, and your choice of display and sound system can change how games are experienced. There is no such room for error when a company releases a new piece of portable gaming technology; it’s like a frame that can never be removed from a painting. Those buttons, that screen, and that frame is the same for everyone. The medium becomes part of the message. You must please everyone, or at least most people, if you hope to make a profit on your hardware.

Nintendo had a rough beginning with the 3DS, a system that combined a high price, a lack of immediately impressive software, and a gimmick no one seemed to want into a product that hit the market with a sound reminiscent of a wet fart. Despite launching in March of 2011, the price of the system went from $250 to $170 in August of that year. A 32% price cut in under half a year is a drastic course correction in any business, and it’s close to shocking when it comes to video game hardware.

The move worked and sales improved, and now here we are with the first major hardware redesign since launch. The 3DS XL will be released on August 19 for $200, and that price gets you a much larger screen, improved fit and finish, and the platform has a software library that’s been expanded since launch. This is a strong move in terms of performance, design, and pricing, and it’s likely to pay off for Nintendo.

Moving over

Nintendo can count on a large percentage of customers upgrading their existing 3DS hardware to the XL, which means moving your content is an important feature. You need to have both systems and a broadband Internet connection to accomplish this, and you’ll only be moving over your saved games, balance in the eShop, and your download history with games. That means you’ll have to go back in and download each game again on the XL manually, but this is something you’ll only have to do once. Also, the XL comes with a 4GB SD card, up from the 2GB card included with the original 3DS. Storage may be a commodity, but it’s still a nice touch, especially when Sony’s add-on memory for the Vita is both proprietary and expensive.

So moving your software is a pain in the butt, but it could be worse. Let’s move along.

The story is that the screen on the XL isn’t just larger, although that’s the primary draw of the system, but the fact that it’s much larger. I’ve included a comparison that shows you the size of the screen relative to both the original 3DS and the PlayStation Vita. You’ll see a 90% increase in size, and that’s an impressive size change to see in person; I have yet to show the system to anyone without seeing a positive reaction to the size of the screen and its brightness. I never found the system’s original screen “small,” but the newer, larger screen is easier to see, and the increased size of the system itself makes it easier to hold and play.

I was lucky enough to receive my review unit right before a trip, and I found myself even more impressed with the system after road-testing the hardware on two plane rides and a stay in a hotel. The first 3DS had an estimated battery life of 3 to 5 hours, and this model offers a battery life of 3.5 to 6 hours. In practice, I was able to wring about 5 hours of battery life by dimming the screen to a comfortable level and turning off WiFi. Suddenly the 3DS goes from having a horrible battery to one that is tolerable, even while traveling. It may not read like a large change in text, but in practice it feels like a marked improvement.

Here’s the catch: while the screen is much larger, the resolution of 800 by 240 (which translates to an effective resolution of 400 by 240 per eye) has stayed the same. That means both text and fine detail can often look jagged if you hold the device too close to your eyes. The 3D effect is more impressive and easier to see on the larger screen, with a wider “sweet spot” that allows you to see the 3D graphics correctly. The screen now also cuts down on glare, which is a nice touch. The resolution could be better but the screen’s size, increased 3D quality, and relatively low price of the hardware makes it a worthy trade-off. Playing something like Super Mario 3D Land on the larger screen with the improved 3D effects shows you just how much you gain with the new screen specifications.

Fit and finish

The other upgrades and changes to the hardware can be rattled off in a bullet list, but you’ll have to indulge my love of the paragraph form. The hardware is now matte plastic, which looks and feels better than the shiny shell of the original system. The stylus has been moved to the middle of the right-hand side of the hardware, which is much easier to find, remove, and transition from standard play. The 3D slider no longer features a light to say that 3D is turned on, but it also requires an extra “click” to turn 3D on and off. I’m going to call it even.

The “select,” “home,” and “start” buttons under the bottom screen are now real, physical, plastic buttons, and that’s a welcome change. The hinge feels much more solid, and features an additional setting that keeps the top screen at a nearly 90 degree angle from the rest of the unit, much like a laptop.

I’m sure I’m leaving some things out, as the hardware features a series of most insubstantial changes and updates from the original. All these changes and updates are not importantly singly, but together with the new shell and larger screen the experience of playing on a 3DS XL is pleasant, comfortable, and intuitive. This is what happens when you can look at people playing your first draft extensively and fix things to make the system more fun in practice.

The overall hardware is larger, sure, but it can still fit in your pocket. Skeptical? This is how I carried the system around QuakeCon. Check it out.

Wrapping it up

If portable hardware is the picture frame that gives context to the games we play, the 3DS XL looks and feels like a toy. That’s not a bad thing, and in fact it’s a major positive in the current market: This is a system that asks to be picked up, played with, and enjoyed. It’s colorful, comfortable, and even whimsical. The hardware sends a strong statement that it’s here to entertain you and play games, and gamers are the market Nintendo needs to be aggressively courting.

Contrast the 3DS XL with the PlayStation Vita, an open-faced system that looks like an expensive, complicated piece of consumer electronics. The 3DS XL is fighting things like your phone and tablet for your gaming dollar, and it’s doing so by staking a strong claim as a toy, something that allows you get away from workaday bullshit like your e-mail or text messages, while the Vita looks like it awkwardly straddles the line between fun and multipurpose devices. Sony’s lack of Vita sales prove the danger of that strategy.

Nintendo has been forced to eat a bit of crow and correct its strategy in the portable market, but the 3DS XL is what the hardware always should have been, and it’s still $50 less expensive than the entry-level Vita. As long as the games continue to flow, there is no reason the hardware won’t continue to be successful and this latest redesign offers gamers a compelling reason to upgrade while also welcoming new customers to the 3DS ecosystem. Updated hardware should always make the previous model intolerable for those who upgrade, and it’s hard to go back to the “classic” 3DS after playing the XL. The larger screen, comfortable ergonomics, improved 3D implementation, and longer battery life make this the definitive way to play 3DS games.